It’s no secret that DC Comics’ film branch has had more than its fair share of setbacks while attempting to create its own live-action cinematic universe. The Zack Snyder-helmed DCEU has no shortage of vocal online champions, but for the most part, the entire enterprise has been nothing short of a fiasco for the film studio. Now that James Gunn has replaced Snyder as the studio’s head honcho, perhaps we’ll see a more favorable turn of events for DC’s live-action prospects.
Since the MCU’s inception in 2008, DC has struggled to keep up with its primary comic rival at the multiplexes. But there is one arena where DC has blown Marvel out of the water: animated films. In fact, many of DC’s animated films are so exceptional that a subsection of fans views the DCAMU (DC Animated Movie Universe) as the publisher’s prime and most essential continuity.
Generally, animated comic book adaptations are seen as childish afterthoughts – serving as inessential supplementary material for the live-action and print output of any given publisher. Through sheer force of will and a consistent record of excellence, DC has fought hard to challenge this often unfair assumption. DC’s animated works contain sprawling narratives, mature themes, and carefully planned interconnectivity.
Although the DCAMU contains stories about dozens of DC’s flagship characters, there is perhaps no series more ubiquitous or beloved than the Justice League films. Since the release of the first Justice League animated film in 2008, DC has kept its fans satisfied and content with a steady record of increasingly entertaining and well-crafted installments.
For our purposes in this piece, we will be excluding films like The Death and Return of Superman that only feature Justice League members as secondary characters, as well as the handful of Lego Justice League entries. We should also note that not every Justice League film we’re including in this list takes place within the DCAMU continuity. For example, Justice League: Warworld and Justice League: The New Frontier are technically DC Elseworlds narratives that have no bearing on the primary continuity. Regardless, they’re both Justice League animated films and deserve a ranking on this list. Without further preamble, let’s hop into the rankings.
13. Justice League vs. The Fatal Five (2019)
In many ways, this 2019 offering is an outlier from the rest of DC’s animated Justice League films. The first major difference you’ll notice is the animation style. Rather than keeping in line with the modern DCAMU house style, Justice League vs. The Fatal Five bears an uncanny aesthetic resemblance to DC’s 90s animation like Batman: The Animated Series. The voice acting from DC alums like the late Kevin Conroy is as pitch-perfect as ever, but it’s hard to ignore how minor and predictable the narrative reads. If you’re looking for a quick jolt of cartoon nostalgia, this film can certainly scratch the itch, but it pales in comparison to most other entries from DC’s animation stable.
12. Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)
If you haven’t had much experience with the Teen Titans since the early 2000s kids’ series, you might be shocked at how much more adult they seem in Justice League vs. Teen Titans. The narrative thrust of this installment primarily centers around the notorious emo ninja Damian Wayne and his unceasing quest to piss off everyone around him. The budding relationship between Damian and Raven has some merit, and it’s always fun to see the Justice League become possessed by supernatural entities, but in the grand scheme of the DCAMU, Justice League vs. Teen Titans is somewhat forgettable.
11. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
Justice League: Gods and Monsters takes its cues from one of the more prominent DC Elseworlds stories. Set in an alternate reality where the Justice League utilizes brutal, backhanded methods and exerts authoritarian control over the global populace, Justice League: Gods and Monsters flips the script on everything you think you know about these classic characters. Lex Luthor serves as the well-meaning protagonist seeking justice, while Superman is a ruthless, goateed megalomaniac with no compunctions about killing to get the job done. It’s a nice change of pace from what we’re used to, but you begin to sorely miss the traditional portrayals of each character as the runtime drags. Not to mention, vampire Batman is something we could’ve lived a lifetime without seeing on the small screen.
10. Justice League: Warworld (2023)
DC’s most recent Justice League film also happens to be its strangest. As you watch the first half of this installment, you could be forgiven for believing the film is little more than an anthology of unconnected vignettes. But as the plot thickens, the Martian Manhunter reveals the devious extraterrestrial master plan underpinning all the time jumps and tonal shifts. The classy animation style is slick and captivating, but the ever-changing nature of the needlessly convoluted plot could cause a serious case of narrative whiplash in some viewers.
9. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
Much like Gods and Monsters, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths prominently features nefarious doppelgangers of the Justice League – but the differentiating factor here is that the classic portrayals of the characters are also given some shine. Batman and his evil counterpart Owlman share some whip-sharp philosophical dialogue, virtuous Lex Luthor gets another platform to do some good in the world, and Ultraman serves as the ideal foil to the Man of Steel. It’s not the best animated offering you’ll see from DC, but it’s undoubtedly a fun and engaging watch.
8. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015)
Justice League: Throne of Atlantis serves as something of an origin story for one of the Justice League’s less revered members: Aquaman. The comics industry has churned out stories centered around the unwitting “boy who would be king” trope for decades, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to love about this iteration of the well-known tale. The DCAMU’s depiction of Aquaman stands in stark contrast to Jason Momoa’s frat bro portrayal from the Snyderverse as a decidedly layered animated alternative. While it may be true that this entry features much less of the Justice League than fans might expect from a titular animated film, there are enough exciting full-team action sequences to raise your pulse.
7. Justice League: War (2014)
After the calamitous events of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox in 2013, DC made the savvy decision to reboot its Justice League continuity. In Justice League: War, fans are treated to brand new initial encounters between mainstays like Superman and Batman, along with a poignant origin story for Cyborg. But it’s not just the heroes who make an impression in this installment. The DCAMU’s primary antagonist, the cosmic warlord Darkseid, looms large over the film’s narrative – posing a tangible and dire threat to our core heroes. Justice League: War might lack some of the weightiness present in later DCAMU offerings, but this updated origin story is an essential piece of the greater universe’s puzzle.
6. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Perhaps the most visually striking and tonally unique entry on our list, Justice League: The New Frontier is a DC Elseworlds tale unlike any other. Set in the Cold War era, The New Frontier utilizes the Centre, a villainous cosmic hivemind entity, as a rallying point for all our disparate heroes to unite as a team unit. While the film’s usage of the collectivist-leaning Centre as its primary antagonist may smack of overdone McCarthy-era anti-communist tropes at a glance, The New Frontier also has its fair share of critiques of American imperialism to balance things out. But thematics notwithstanding, the mature and thoughtful screenwriting and arresting animation style are more than worth the 75-minute runtime.
5. Justice League: Doom (2012)
Despite the fact that it has the team name in the title, let’s be honest here: Justice League: Doom is a Batman movie through and through. The Caped Crusader finds himself in the stickiest of situations when it’s revealed that the immortal villain Vandal Savage has been using his top-secret Justice League contingency plans to take each team member out, one by one. But it’s only after the day is inevitably saved that this film gets truly interesting. The Justice League grills Batman for conceiving these plans in the first place, and Batman explains his valid reasoning: no entity should be allowed to hold as much power as the Justice League without checks and balances. If nothing else, Justice League: Doom proves once again that Batman is the most rational and consistently badass Justice League member.
4. Injustice (2021)
Loosely based on the 2013 video game of the same name, Injustice is one of the darkest animated installments on this list. If any of your friends staunchly believe animated comic book films are for children, show them this movie and bask in smug satisfaction as their jaws drop. In the film’s opening scene, Joker and Harley Quinn enact one of their most diabolical plans in history by murdering a pregnant Lois Lane and dropping a nuclear bomb on Superman’s city of Metropolis. A vengeful Superman brutally murders Joker in his grief and vows to bring peace to planet Earth by any means necessary. Superman’s actions cause a rift in the Justice League, as Batman and a handful of others denounce Superman’s increasingly unsavory methods. The ensuing civil war is gripping, thought-provoking, and devastating to both sides. This entry isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s a viewing experience you’re not likely to forget.
3. Justice League Dark (2017)
One of the more mystical installments in the DCAMU catalog, Justice League Dark follows the wise-cracking demon hunter John Constantine as he teams up with Batman and other supernatural heroes to take down a shadowy demonic entity. It should go without saying that none of these films are particularly grounded in nature, but Justice League Dark takes the heightened tone to a whole new level. Constantine and Batman’s reluctant partnership is simultaneously engaging and hilarious, and the peanut gallery of eccentric side characters offers spooky flavors generally underutilized in comic book film adaptations. This installment truly has everything a fan could want from a DCAMU project: excellent character interplay, plot intrigue, and a top-tier villain.
2. Justice League: Apokolips War (2020)
Justice League: Apokolips War serves as the barnstorming conclusion to this era of DCAMU filmmaking. Much like its MCU counterpart, Avengers: Endgame, Apokolips War begins with our trusty band of heroes beaten down and almost utterly devoid of hope. In the film’s opening scenes, Darkseid appears to murder multiple Justice League members and takes control of Earth. A depowered Superman and Raven team up with a world-weary John Constantine to try and turn things around. Darkseid implants a mind control device inside Batman, utilizing his superior intellect and cunning to help enact his dastardly plans. In the end, the heroes triumph, but not before suffering hard losses and casualties. Apokolips War might not have the buzz or budget of Endgame, but it certainly has the heart.
1. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
If you enjoyed some parts of the live-action DC film The Flash earlier this year but felt it left something to be desired, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox might be the perfect remedy for what ails you. Much like its live-action counterpart, The Flashpoint Paradox sees Barry Allen go back in time to prevent his mother’s death – changing the course of history in the process. But instead of using Allen’s penchant for quips as a crutch, The Flashpoint Paradox takes its fantastical subject matter seriously, delivering a tragically poignant narrative centered around themes of grief and acceptance.
There’s a fine line that comic book adaptations need to tread when attempting to tell serious stories: if the tone is too stuffy, all the capes and cowls begin to look ridiculous, but if every emotional beat is undercut with a joke, there’s no reason for the audience to care. Thankfully, The Flashpoint Paradox toes this line to perfection, creating the best standalone entry in the DCAMU’s catalog by far.