DC Comics has been killing it in the animation department for decades now. From the early days of the Fleischer “Superman” cartoons to “Super Friends” and “Justice League Unlimited,” the publisher’s lore has been brought to animation time and time again to much success, with adaptations that not only elevate the source material, but bring a whole new fandom.
And the shows aren’t stopping — “Teen Titans GO!” is currently on the air, and we’re set to see a new animated take on the publisher’s flagship super-team in “Justice League Action” which is set to launch this fall. There have been a lot of series, but each one seems to offer its own thing and evolve its characters with the ever-changing audience.
As an ode to series of the past that helped pave the way for the current slate, CBR has come up with a definitive ranking of 10 best DC Comics animated series of all-time. Have a look at the list below — and if your favorite DC Comics cartoon didn’t make the cut, let us know in the comments!
10. 10. Green Lantern: The Animated Series
Many great creators have worked on Green Lantern over the years (Alan Moore, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Ron Marz, and so on), but the franchise owes its biggest thanks to the work of writer Geoff Johns. Thanks to Johns, Green Lantern became one of DC’s flagship series, and began to convince Warner Bros. that the property could work well in other media.
While 2011’s Ryan Reynolds-led “Green Lantern” film failed to properly bring the source material to life, “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” successfully did so — albeit, briefly — on the small screen. Incorporating elements from Johns’ run, like the Red Lanterns, the animated take on the Green Lantern Corps offered a worthy adaptation of everybody’s favorite space cops. Even in terms of art direction, “Green Lantern: The Animated Series” managed to translate the rigid artistic sensibilities of the DC Animated Universe into modern age CG animation.
9. 9. Teen Titans
“Teen Titans” doesn’t get enough credit for the way it changed comic book-based animation. The anime-influenced sensibility and humor of the series went on to inspire much of Marvel’s current slate of animation, like “Ultimate Spider-Man,” and continues to live on (in a shorter, more kid-friendly format) as the comical and immensely successful “Teen Titans GO!” animated series on Cartoon Network.
Apart from its influence, “Teen Titans” offered some great stories. Without relying on the Justice League, the series managed to broaden the interest of classic Teen Titans members like Cyborg, Starfire, Beast Boy and Raven, who were already popular in the comics but hadn’t quite permeated their way into mainstream culture. Now, a whole generation of adults know the core team inside and out, in addition to classic villains like Deathstroke and Etrigan who brought a whole other dimension of awesomeness to the series.
8. 8. Beware the Batman
When the initial concept art for “Beware the Batman” came out, a lot of fans were skeptical. Because of the lukewarm response to the previous Batman animated series, simply titled “The Batman,” television audiences weren’t too comfortable with a take on the Caped Crusader that didn’t resemble the classic Bruce Timm incarnation of the character. But, like a lot of things that are too quickly criticized on the internet, “Beware the Batman” turned out to be a uniquely impressive take on the Dark Knight’s mythos.
Boasting an art style even more stylistic than “Batman: The Animated Series,” the CG “Beware the Batman” translated the dark, almost frightful aesthetic of Batman into modern animation without fail. The series had a focus on incorporating villains from the Batman lore — like Anarchy and Professor Pyg — who don’t usually get a chance to shine outside the comics, allowing for a fresh take on Batman that could exist outside the shadow of “Batman: The Animated Series.” Plus, the series prominently featured a badass, butt-kicking Alfred, before “Gotham” and “Batman v Superman” did so years later.
7. 7. Challenge of the Super Friends
To a lot of people these days it’s simply a joke (thanks in part to “Robot Chicken”), but you can’t argue how influential “Challenge of the Super Friends” was for such a goofy cartoon. The ’70s animated series is notable for introducing generations of fans to the characters of DC Comics (and some new faces, like Apache Chief) to audiences who would probably never touch a comic in their lives, cementing the iconic slate of the publisher’s characters into the subconsciousness of thousands of kids for a lifetime.
Behind the campiness, “Challenge of the Super Friends” is a great cartoon. The series succinctly offered lightning-paced stories with an incredibly large cast, managing to give screen time to minor heroes, while showing off the powers of DC giants like Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and Superman. Apart from the heroes, the series also introduced the now-legendary Legion of Doom (which will be making its debut on “Legends of Tomorrow” this coming season) and their impressive — and Darth Vader-looking — base, the Hall of Doom. For everything awesome about the Legion of Doom, look no further than CBR’s exploration of the team’s significance here.
6. 6. Batman: Brave and the Bold
“Batman: Brave and the Bold” wasn’t for adults, that’s for sure — but boy, was it ever enjoyable. The series saw (as the name, based on the team-up comic series, suggests) Batman partner up with a different hero or team every week to take down a new threat. Packing a slew of DC Comics characters who don’t often make their way outside of comics — like the cast of Doom Patrol, Deadman, and many, many more — the series introduced kids to the fun of the DC Comics lore, embracing everything weird about the publisher’s history, and what makes it great.
From a structural standpoint, “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” was tight as hell. Incorporating a brief tag that often included a standalone team-up, the series then launched into a pop art title sequences — evoking the “POW! BAM!”excitement of the Adam West series and Dick Sprang-era Batman comics — before kicking-off the main story and team-up of each episode. The humor was consistently on point and executed in a genuine fashion, taking its characters seriously without undermining everything that makes them special.
5. 5. Superman: The Animated Series
“Superman: The Animated Series” was the ultimate love letter to the character that, outside the comics and the Donner films, has not been replicated since. There’s a lot of discussion lately about the “true” take on Superman, and while there isn’t really one true version of the Man of Steel, “Superman: The Animated Series” certainly felt like an encapsulation of the character at its best.
Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and the rest of the Warner Bros. Animation team set their sights on “Superman: The Animated Series” after creating the groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series.” Choosing to set the series in the same universe as its predecessor, the animated take on Superman firmly established a shared universe of DC Comics-based cartoons that was unlike anything else out there. Introducing plenty of elements from the DC Comics lore that “Batman: The Animated Series” didn’t get to — like the Legion of Super Heroes, Green Lantern, the Flash and the New Gods, among other properties — “Superman: The Animated Series” blew the door open for a shared universe on the small screen, years before the Warner Bros. managed to co-ordinate its efforts in the live-action realm.
4. 4. Batman Beyond
While “Superman: The Animated Series” started to expand on the shared DC Animated Universe, “Batman Beyond” took it even further, putting the focus on the future world of the DC Comics lore. Though borrowing a lot of elements from the comics, “Batman Beyond” is probably the most inventive series on this list as it made its own mark on familiar concepts from Batman comics with a bold new interpretation of characters like the Joker, Mr. Freeze and Tim Drake.
The series saw the young Terry McGinnis (who many see as a Peter Parker-type character) take on the mantle of the Caped Crusader, with Bruce serving as a character that actually operated a lot like Oracle. Though depicting a darker future, “Batman Beyond” had an optimism to it, proving that the legacy of Batman could continue past the life of Bruce Wayne. The “Return of the Joker” spinoff film in particular showcased the series’ incredible ability to borrow from Batman’s past while creating something deeper and new.
3. 3. Young Justice
Though “Teen Titans” paved the way for a strong animated take on DC Comics’ youthful super-team, “Young Justice” took it to the next level in just about every way. Executed with a traditional 2D animation style, “Young Justice” was animation legend Greg Weisman’s vision of the DC universe, in which he told an overarching story of the meaning of legacy and living up to your idols — who very well could be broken.
“Young Justice” strikes a chord with a lot of non-comic book fans probably because of its focus on interpersonal relationships. Though there were some great action-oriented plots on the series, the best part aspect of “Young Justice” was its ability to get inside the head of a young hero, and the steps it takes them to find a place in the world. Through Superboy, Miss Martian, Artemis and the dozens of other characters that appeared on the series, viewers were given an insight into the complex relationships of superheroes, and the growth they achieve through their pursuits.
2. 2. Justice League/Justice League Unlimited
After “Superman: The Animated Series” and “Batman Beyond,” The DC Animated Universe really came together for the first time with “Justice League.” Many fans point to the series as the blueprint for how a “Justice League” movie should be done — and they’re right! The reason is that “Justice League” offered a cinematic scope on DC Comics adventures on a weekly basis — and for its first two seasons — in two-part installments. The series gave its characters and incredible amount of room to breath, often spotlighting a couple heroes’ inner struggles at a time. And as far as a team-up series goes, every member of the Justice League got a chance to shine and prove why they’re so integral to the team.
By the third season, the series was rebranded as “Justice League Unlimited,” and included a greater number of heroes as the Justice League expanded its ranks to lesser known characters like the Question, Star Girl and Booster Gold. Thanks to “Justice League Unlimited,” several characters enjoyed their debuts outside of comics — and, consistently, they were interpreted with care, and a consideration of what makes them tick in the source material. “Justice League Unlimited” deservedly got to share the last frame of the DC Animated Universe on the small screen, and it is sorely missed to this day.
1. 1. Batman: The Animated Series
This can’t be surprising, right? The first installment in the DC Animated Universe, “Batman: The Animated Series,” is still the greatest, not just from a historical standpoint, but because it’s simply — as “Seinfeld’s” Kenny Bania would say — the best.
Producers Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett and Eric Radomski extrapolated from Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film to bring a traditionally brooding version of the Caped Crusader to the small screen, unlike the take seen in “Super Friends” years earlier. Using a dark deco aesthetic, evoking elements of the ’40s Fleischer “Superman” cartoons, “Batman: The Animated Series” mixed the comic book fun and emotional gravitas that makes the character work so well in the source material.
Episodes like “Perchance To Dream,” for example, got inside the messed up head of Batman. It explored Bruce’s inability to be happy, and why that’s necessary for the character. The episode, and the animated movie “Mask of the Phantasm,” showed us that Batman could be happy if he wanted to, but it’s not the right thing. That’s not his job — his job is to be Batman. We learned he’s the hero Gotham needs, years before Christopher Nolan taught us that with “The Dark Knight.”
Voice actor Kevin Conroy brought the perfect balance of darkness, drive and sardonic wit to Batman that perfectly encapsulated the many dimensions of the Caped Crusader, and Mark Hamill’s legendary take on the Joker is still beloved by fans to this day — many of whom beg him to return to the Clown Prince time and time again. Among its incredible work with villains, the series reinvented Mr. Freeze as a tragic figure, only a couple years before “Batman & Robin” had to do… that to the character.
“Batman: The Animated Series” stands the test of time as the perfect comic book-based cartoon. It didn’t simply adapt the comics, it was its own beast that could proudly stand apart from Batman comics and movies of the time. The series is a testament to the power of creators who understand the source material well enough to please the fans, and take them in a direction they’ve never gone.
Well, time to take out the DVDs…
What’s your ranking of DC Comics-based animated series? Let us know!
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