While we tend to associate superhero movies with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s more to the genre than the big-budget live-action films we’ve come to know over the past decade. The cinematic world of DC Comics tends to fly under the radar (that is, when their live-action films aren’t being dragged for filth), their roster of animated movies is actually pretty amazing.
No disrespect to the MCU, of course, but DC Comics tends to make far better animated features, making the most of the medium to tell well-loved comic book storylines that we don’t often get with live action.
Sure, there have been some flops. But over the years, DC has released dozens of quietly excellent titles that feature standalone or connected stories of some of the most popular characters in pop culture history.
So if you’re a fan of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or the rest of the Justice League — or, really, if you just want to enjoy quality movies — here are a few animated films to add to your list ASAP.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 & 2 (2012 & 2013)
IMDb Rating: 8/10 and 8.4/10
Bruce Wayne is almost always portrayed as a young billionaire playboy. As Batman, he’s a rich, muscular genius who gets back up as many times as he falls down.
But in this direct-to-video adaptation of Frank Miller’s four-part comic, our caped superhero is an older gentleman who has since retired from the demands and dangers of vigilantism.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is divided into Part 1 and Part 2. The first introduces a new band of villains in the Mutants, who are terrorizing Gotham. This lures 55-year-old Wayne back into the dark streets and rooftops of the city, but Gotham — and the whole United States government with it — is not so accepting of his return. So, the government enlists none other than Superman to put an end to Batman’s vigilante activities, and the two face off in an exciting final battle.
The animated film also brings back familiar nemeses like Two Face and The Joker, both of whom have just been released from Arkham Asylum. Plus, Batman is not completely alone in his cave to face these intimidating villains (and superhero, if you count Superman). After the death of his sidekick Jason Todd, he then trains Carrie Kelley to carry the torch of Robin.
Comic book geeks and critics alike praised the 2013 adaptation of Miller’s issues, which were published in 1986. The animation is excellent — not as cinematically dark as many DC titles — and the plot remained true to the source material.
Apart from Weller, the voice cast was star-studded and each of them breathed life into the characters they played. Ariel Winter as Carrie, Wade Williams as Two Face, and Michael Emerson as The Joker were notable. Conan O’Brien even had a cameo as talk show host David Endocrine.
If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s live action trilogy interpretation of the DC superhero, The Dark Knight Returns will feel familiar and is a strong contender for some of the best Batman movies of all time. Nolan’s is arguably influenced by Miller’s version of the Batman, with similar themes, subplots, and even central and side characters.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
IMDb Rating: 8.2/10
Many are still waiting on a new episode of The CW’s The Flash, and if you’re one of those viewers, you’d have to sit tight a little longer. Unfortunately, the hit show doesn’t return until March with updates on the Arrowverse.
The good news is that in the meantime, you can definitely stream Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, which stars Barry Allen and his speedy alter ego.
Based on the 2011 crossover comic, Flashpoint, the animated film explores alternate realities. In particular, Barry Allen wakes up in a timeline where he doesn’t have the Speed Force — he’s just a normal, powerless guy. The paradox here is how he lost his superhero status in exchange for his deepest desire.
But he’s not the only one facing an alternate reality. Other Justice League superheroes seem to be living in unfamiliar and treacherous territories, too.
Though the movie was released in 2013, it remains as one of DC’s freshest takes on the superhero universe. Here, we see an underrated character take center stage, as I’m sure we’ve always wondered what would happen if the weight of the world didn’t only rest on the very broad shoulders of either Superman or Batman.
If you were to choose between reading the crossover comic or watching the animated film adaptation, choose the latter. Eighty-one minutes of runtime will fly by in exciting action sequences. Just beware of the gore: IGN didn’t call it a ‘hardcore cartoon’ for nothing!
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
IMDb Rating: 8.1/10
The Caped Crusader is arguably one of the most popular and recognizable characters in the DC Universe, if not all of pop culture. So, it’s not surprising to have another Batman-centric film on this list — there are a lot more out there, after all, and many are pretty good.
In Under the Red Hood, Gotham continues to be plagued by the drug trade and the shadowy forces controlling it. The Joker is in Arkham, but there are many villains hiding in the dark or, to be more precise, under a red hood. This mysterious new antagonist takes over Gotham’s criminal activities.
He doesn’t seem to have any out-of-this-world abilities, but Batman struggles to subdue or even catch up to Red Hood. The masked terrorist seems to have an intimate knowledge of our hero’s every move and is always one or two steps ahead. And so, along with Bruce, viewers watching must ask: But why? Who is the figure under the hood?
Getting to the shocking reveal is not the only exciting thing about this DC animated film. Under the Red Hood will make you question the line between good and evil, and specifically, what pushes and pulls us from one side to the other.
CBR also described it as the best animated Batman movie at the time of writing for plenty of reasons I agree with. For starters, the animation showcased some of the most outstanding costumes and action sequences.
In classic DC fashion, Under the Red Hood also reintroduced more than one villain, which makes us wary of ever stepping foot on Gotham City, and question why anyone still lives there. That is, if it were a real place.
More importantly, Batman faces a moral conundrum — the no-killing code he goes by is put to a difficult test.
Batman: The Long Halloween, Parts 1&2 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 7.3/10
Yes, next on this list is yet another Batman movie, and it’s the latest one on DC’s roster. Released in October of 2021, the film is dedicated to Naya Rivera, who lends her voice as Catwoman, or Selina Kyle, in her final film before her untimely death.
Batman: The Long Halloween is a two-part animated direct-to-video movie based on the critically acclaimed mid-1990s comic book limited series of the same name by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. It’s also worth noting that both parts of the film enjoy well-deserved 100% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
Part One of the film opens with Gotham City, controlled by the powerful Falcone crime family, seeing a brutal murder on — you guessed it — Halloween. But as Batman forms a pact with Police Commissioner James Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent to take down the murderer, the brutal deaths continue throughout the remaining holidays of the year, namely: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
Between these holidays are plenty of twists and turns as the city’s crime fighters, aided by Catwoman and with the additional chaos of The Joker, work to figure out the identity of the Holiday Killer.
In Part Two are even more gruesome murders, starting with ones committed on Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, and April Fools’ Day. We learn why Catwoman is so invested in this serial killer, and we see the birth of one of DC’s most iconic super villains in Two Face as Batman finally comes face-to-face with the Holiday Killer.
As a two-part film, Batman: The Long Halloween works because of its dedication to the well-loved character, its faithful adaptation of the source material, and its gorgeous visuals that embrace and celebrate the comic book tradition.
Wonder Woman (2009)
IMDb Rating: 7.3/10
Rounding out this list of the best DC animated movies stars one of the most beloved and symbolic superheroes in Wonder Woman.
Frankly, it’s a crime that there aren’t enough animated movies that feature the Amazonian warrior. If recent movie trends are to be believed, specifically with regard to her newfound return to fame because of the live action Wonder Woman films, we might just be seeing a lot more of her on screen.
For now, however, the 2009 animated movie is much deserving of the spotlight. Wonder Woman is an underrated interpretation of the superheroine’s story. Here, we see familiar characters like fighter pilot Steve Trevor and Ares, who were also central in Patty Jenkins’ movies. But that’s about where the similarities between them stop.
The animated version is a standalone origin story of the mythical and endlessly inspiring figure in the multiverse of superheroes. The movie is loosely based on Greek mythology and comic book writer George Perez’s version of Wonder Woman’s character and her story.
On top of the action-packed animation, the voice acting is amazing. Keri Russell plays the titular character, with Nathan Fillion as Steve and Alfred Molina as Ares. The writing is also a lot more humorous than most DC movies, which makes for an even more entertaining viewing experience.
The Year Ahead for DC Fans
Despite the excellent titles on this list, DC fans know that there are still so many compelling and well-loved stories that have yet to be explored on the big screen. The good news is that there’s plenty in store for the year ahead, namely:
- The Batman (March 4)
- DC League of Super Pets (May 22)
- Black Adam (July 29)
- The Flash (November 4)
- Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom (December 16)
Plus, if you enjoy TV shows, then The Sandman and Naomi are two much-anticipated titles to watch out for on Netflix and The CW, respectively.