While the DCEU has established a reputation for somber, gritty, and even grimdark representation of DC Comics, it’s hardly the first time stories in the DC Universe got dark. While fans of comics like Batman: The Killing Joke, Identity Crisis, or Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters already know this to be true, there’s plenty of room for haunting realism in DC. Surprisingly, this truth extends to the DC Animated Universe and the excellent slate of DC cartoons ostensibly aimed at a younger audience since the early ’90s.
Part of the reason series like Batman: The Animated Series are so beloved, and frequently hailed as the greatest serialized cartoon of all time, is the fact that the narrative manages to balance an all ages tone. Nonetheless, there are moments on Batman: The Animated Series that truly cross over into the realm of nightmares, with dark designs that surpass anything in the DCEU. The same goes for the rest of the DC Animated lineup to follow, with everything from Superman: The Animated Series to Young Justice trying their hand at darker elements of storytelling. Below you’ll find the darkest moments of DC Cartoons, and proof that the DCEU isn’t the only corner of the DC Universe willing to climb into the shadows.
15. SUPERMAN LOSES HIS SON
Adapting the classic Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons story “For the Man Who Has Everything” is one of the earliest ways Justice League Unlimited proved it wasn’t messing around. Batman and Wonder Woman visit Superman in the Fortress of Solitude on his birthday, only to find the Man of Steel possessed by a seemingly irremovable alien parasite. Seeing Superman catatonic (at the hands of Mongul) is shocking enough for a younger audience, but it’s the hallucinated dreamworld of the imprisonment that truly disturbs.
In his ideal dream-state, Kal-El finds himself as an adult on a healthy and stable Krypton. His parents are alive, and he has a family of his own, including a young son. In order to break free of Mongul’s trap and return to reality, Superman has to will the destruction of Krypton and “death” of his own son. Brutal barely begins to describe the emotional devastation.
14. CLAYFACE EATS A LITTLE GIRL
In “Growing Pains,” Clayface absorbs a sentient little girl and it is absolutely as horrifying as that insanity sounds. The majority of the episode centers around Tim Drake’s growing obsession (and perhaps infatuation) with a young girl he saves from gang members one night. Tim can’t seem to track down “Annie,” until finally chasing her into the arms of her “father,” aka the shape-shifting Clayface.
Instead of rescuing the damsel in distress, like you’d expect to see in most tame superhero fiction, Annie simply realizes she’s a part of Clayface that he created to explore Gotham City and return back to him. In order to prevent Clayface from killing Robin, Annie willingly reabsorbs herself into the monstrous villain, effectively ending her own “life” however tenuous.
In the Young Justice episode “Secret,” Artemis and Zatanna spend their Halloween discovering Secret, a young female ghost with a terrible story. Turns out that this cherub-like ghost was murdered by her own brother, Harm, in his effort to remove the only thing he loved from his life and become pure. A classic brother and sister relationship if ever there was one.
While cartoon ghost stories don’t exactly sound like the most common recipe for dark DC Comics, “Secret” showed that even Young Justice wasn’t afraid dive into the gross, shocking depths of reality. The Young Justice roster would deal with threats from Vandal Savage to Deathstroke, but few were as truly haunting as a brother who would viciously kill his own family for power.
12. OVER THE EDGE
This possible future episode begins with Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, falling to her death out of a window and stays dark from there. Under the spell of Scarecrow’s Nightmare Gas, Barbara dreams all the horrible implications her own death could have on the Bat-Family, with father Jim Gordon discovering her secret identity and hunting down Bruce Wayne for his role in her crime fighting.
By the end of the disastrous event, the entire Bat-family is decimated. In a clever bit of heavy-handed irony, Bane kills both Batman and Commissioner Gordon with the GCPD’s own Bat-signal. It’s at this point, with everything she cares about gone, that Barbara finally snaps out of it. Admittedly, “dream-logic” is one of the oldest tricks in storytelling, but it doesn’t remove how hauntingly real all of the events seem.
11. THE BRUTAL DEATH OF BATMAN BEYOND
The two-part Justice League Unlimited episodes “The Once and Future Thing” begin innocently enough with a classic “loser” villain, Chronos, unable to impress even his wife with his time-traveling thieving escapades. General good times continue until Chronos and the Justice Leaguers on his trial are sent through time to the future of Batman Beyond‘s Terry McGinnis.
During their fight against a freshly minted “Lord Chronos” who has taken over the planet, the future resistance fighters meet grisly ends. An aged Static Shock is sucked into a time vortex, and Batman Beyond is viciously electrocuted to death by Jokerz gang member Dee-Dee and her clones. As tough as this is, it’s just as intense to view elderly Bruce Wayne’s reaction to the death of yet another protege.
10. VANISHING FLASH
In the winner-take-all stakes of Justice League’s “Divided We Fall,” it comes down to the Flash to prevent the Braniac and Lex Luthor hybrid from taking over Earth. While Flash plays comedic relief throughout most of Justice League, when it comes time to make the ultimate sacrifice, there’s no denying Flash’s heroic bonafides.
Even Flash fans are left impressed by his dedication in this Justice League Unlimited finale, though, with Flash running around the world to pick up speed for his punches on Lexiac. Wally West runs so fast he literally fades into the Speed Force, and for a brief period of time, seems well and truly gone. Sure, the core Justice League founders save him, but for a moment, it’s the ultimate heroic end.
9. MAD LOVE
The Batman: TAS episode “Mad Love” is the defining Joker and Harley Quinn story, and it only grows more complex and unsettling with time. In order to wrap Harley under his thumb, Joker weaves a tale of abuse at the hands of his own father, telling Harley his dad broke his nose when he was only a seven year old boy impersonating clowns of the circus.
Even worse, after Harley attempts to win Joker’s favor with an elaborate death trap for Batman, an enraged Joker kicks her out of a window and injures her. It’s a grotesque look into the face of an abusive relationship. While the Joker behaving abominably is far from shocking, it doesn’t make Harley’s commitment to him any easier to swallow.
8. THE DEATH OF THE TERRIBLE TURPIN
Superman: The Animated Series benefited greatly from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos, primarily in the form of central antagonist Darkseid. As tribute, the scrappy police officer Dan Turpin (himself a Kirby creation from New Gods), was designed to look an awful lot like the king of comics himself. Turpin also played crucial roles in helping Superman fight off the invasion of Darkseid’s parademons, sending them back to Apokolips where they belong.
The most twisted part about Turpin’s execution is Darkseid does it purely to mess with Superman. We’re given hope and reason to believe that now that Superman is free Darkseid will retreat back to Apokolips, but before he goes, he kills Turpin out of callous spite. It’s a dismal end for the Kirby-inspired hero.
7. ONLY A DREAM
Much like he does to innocent diners in the absolutely terrifying Sandman #5, Dr. Destiny traps the Justice League in a series of personalized nightmares in one of the series more overtly scary episodes. Alias John Dee escapes Stryker’s Island Penitentiary to discover the ability to inject nightmares into dreams. He quickly uses this newfound sinister power to trap his former girlfriend in a screaming wakeless sleep.
While nearly all are affected, the most haunting nightmares of the Justice League involve Superman and Hawkgirl. Superman loses control of his powers, killing Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White, while Hawkgirl is buried alive in a coffin, Buffy-style. Batman oddly fends of Dr. Destiny by humming nursery rhymes, but the darkness was real while it lasted.
6. SUPERMAN CONTROLLED BY STARRO
The introduction of the future Justice League is one of the more exciting moments on Batman Beyond. We’ve seen that Bruce Wayne no longer trusts the League, although it’s somewhat unclear why until Superman and the league invite Terry to join their hallowed ranks.
In the end, Bruce is proven right about Superman (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice excluded, isn’t he always?), although not in the way he thinks. Terry discovers Superman has been under the influence of the conquering alien Starro, the Justice League’s first comic book nemesis, in all the invader’s terrifying alien parasite glory. The two part episode “The Call” ultimately results in a deflated Batman Beyond forced to confront his heroes, big formerly blue boy scout included, reduced to mere pawns of Starro.
5. BANE’S WINNING EDGE
Bane’s addiction to Venom, the potent drug that gives him his super strength, is a well-covered trope in Batman stories. Venom’s addictive qualities are, of course, right there at the introduction of the drug, with Batman himself swayed by its awful promise. Indeed, the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum draws on this idea, with a withered Bane lingering the dregs of Gotham’s prison for the mentally unstable.
It’s in Batman Beyond that Terry finds Bane finally and truly broken by his own addiction. A cartoon taking on the mass drug trade is one thing, but showing the harrowing real world effects of long term addiction is another altogether. The one time ultimate fighter able to break the bat is reduced to a helpless hospital patient, no longer able to even care for himself.
4. THE DEATH OF KRYPTON
Although Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel does make some effort to develop Superman’s parents and the world of Krypton, the extremely splashy special effects and casting of Russell Crowe as Jor-El can’t measure up to the tragedy presented in Superman: The Animated Series. The power of Krypton exploding isn’t about spectacle; it’s about what Kal-El lost in the explosion.
The tone of the animated episode isn’t particularly ugly, but given that the death of Krypton is one of the most inevitable results in comics, there’s a palpable sense of disaster throughout. In this sense, getting to know Superman’s family is that much harsher. These are loving parents the Last Son of Krypton would never get to know, and that’s a terrible irony that lingers throughout the story.
3. TWO FACE ORIGINS
Having seen a similar drama play out on screen in the pre-DCEU The Dark Knight by Christopher Nolan, it’s hard to imagine a more tragic rendition of the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two-Face. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what we get in Batman: The Animated Series. The mere appearance of Harvey Dent is perpetually a signal that Two Face is on his way, and having seen everything from Tommy Lee Jones to Greg Capullo’s artist’s rendition, we all know he isn’t exactly pretty.
That said, it’s the reactions to Harvey’s damaged face from Batman and company that are darker than anything the screen can show us. After all, Batman isn’t what we’d call easily squeamish. The true twisted power of the disfiguration comes from imagining how bad it truly can be.
It’s a common danger of comic book alternate realities, but it’s never easy to learn fully sentient heroes don’t actually exist in the real world. The two part “Legends” in Justice League Unlimited finds Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter entering a reality that appears to consist of John Stewart’s childhood heroes. The Justice League members fight alongside the Justice Guild of America (a clear stand-in for the Justice Society of America) for a time, until finding the dark secret of their world.
In a very Sixth Sense twist, Hawkgirl discovers that the members of the Justice Guild have actually been dead this entire team. Crazier, the Guild then has to deal with this knowledge, ultimate sacrificing themselves for the good of the world.
1. RETURN OF THE JOKER
Ever since Jim Starlin’s “A Death in the Family,” a Robin dying at the hands of The Joker is a tried and true formula for sending Batman into deep despair. Jason Todd is beaten and then blown up in the comics, and finds a similar end in the video game adaptation of the story in Batman: Arkham Knight. The comic and DC Animated movie Under the Red Hood adds to the trauma as well, with Jason Todd returning as DC’s Red Hood.
Still, the most horrifying version of Joker assaulting a Robin comes in the Batman Beyond movie “Return of the Joker.” We learn that Joker (and Harley Quinn) capture Tim Drake and effectively torture and brainwash the young Robin until he’s a near mindless Jokerized lackey.
Which of these moments was most traumatic? Let us know in the comments!
- Ad Free Browsing
- Over 10,000 Videos!
- All in 1 Access
- Join For Free!