Image: Warner Bros.
Now that Wonder Woman has put DC back in the good graces of fans and critics alike, we can turn our attention to the rest of the DC movie universe while we await Justice League. (Please be good. Please be good.) This list contains the 28 DC Animated Original movies released so far, ranked from worst to best on the quality of their story, characters, and adaptation of the source material.
[Note: This list is specifically the 28 feature-length films (We counted The Dark Knight Returns as one entry) in the DC Animated Original Movies initiative, which began in 2007, prior to Batman & Harley Quinn, which was not yet released at time of writing. So, the DC Showcase films, Mask of the Phantasm, and any other movies related to Bruce Timm’s DC Animated Universe, are not here.]
28) Batman: The Killing Joke
How could this one go anywhere else but the bottom? This film took one of the most beloved Batman stories of all time (a harrowing tale of Barbara Gordon’s crippling by the Joker as well as a look at the latter’s possible origins, penned by comics veteran and pagan wizard Alan Moore) and tacked on a nearly thirty minute prologue full of offensive gay stereotypes and uncomfortable Batman-Batgirl sex. While the latter two thirds of the film do eventually get to the familiar story, the unforgivable beginning and some dodgy animation make this the worst DC Original.
27) Superman: Unbound
This Superman story isn’t bad so much as boring, but wow is it boring. This movie demonstrates exactly why people think there will never be another good Superman movie. In addition to the uninspired plot — Brainiac wants to shrink Metropolis… again, and it’s up to Man of Steel and his Kryptonian cousin, Supergirl, to stop him — the film tries to have its cake and eat it too by unshrinking the famously bottled city of Kandor and closing with Clark proposing to Lois. This too-neat wrap up and moral-heavy message is just what makes the Last Son of Krypton seem out of date.
26) Batman: Assault on Arkham
On the one hand, this is now only the second worst version of the Suicide Squad origin story. On the other hand, there’s everything else. Amanda Waller’s quixotic fever dream of using a coerced team of supervillains to break into Arkham Asylum is oversexualized for no reason. Add in a reductive, pure-evil version of Waller, instead of her usual morally grey characterization, and Assault on Arkham fails to impress, even with Kevin Conroy returning to play Batman.
25) Justice League: Doom
The first of many ill-fated sequels on this list, Justice League: Doom lands this low for having the worst comparison to its predecessor, Crisis on Two Earths. While some of this may be due to Doom trying to tackle one of the League’s greatest storylines, “Tower of Babel,” it also feels overstuffed, having to cram in every one of Batman’s failsafes, stolen by Vandal Savage, in order to neutralise a Justice League that we just haven’t spent all that much time with.
24) Superman/Batman: Apocalypse
A follow-up to the wonderful Public Enemies, this film misses the mark mainly for lack of focus. In addition to being a Supergirl origin story, Apocalypse also brings in the Amazons, Darkseid, and a debate between the World’s Finest about Supergirl’s trustworthiness as a hero, in addition to an extended shopping montage. This one had a lot of potential, if it could only decide what it wanted to be about.
23) Green Lantern: Emerald Knights
The lesser of the two anthology films, (the other being Batman: Gotham Knight) this film fails to serve up either the intrigue of its contemporary or the character work of its predecessor, First Flight. Instead of expanding on Hal Jordan’s origins with any of the myriad of interesting Lantern Corps stories (or even the other emotional spectrum Lanterns), it opts for a mostly forgettable series of vignettes about the far reaches of the Green Lantern universe. This one was always going to be a hard sell, even if casual fans knew more than a couple of these characters.
22) Batman: Bad Blood
The final chapter in a Bat-family trilogy that proves there is a thing as too much Batman. While this entry gets points for bringing in some lesser-utilised members of the House of Wayne (Luke Fox’s Batwing and Kate Kane’s Batwoman), this is still firmly a father-son adventure. Damian needs help saving a brainwashed Bruce from a splinter group within the League of Assassins, so he, Batwing, and Batwoman team up with Nightwing to mount a mostly forgettable rescue with a twist you can see coming from a mile away.
21) Son of Batman
I’ve never been a huge Damian Wayne fan. He’s always struck me as a character that wants to have it both ways; he’s both as initially murderous as Jason Todd, darkening Batman by forcing him to partner with someone he has to teach his “no killing” code again, and he’s Bruce’s biological son, allowing him to soften up Batman, which is usually reserved for the rest of the Bat Family. So maybe that’s why this introduction to the progeny of Bruce and Talia Al Ghul, dragged out across two more films, always struck me as tiresome. This plus a plot mainly about Deathstroke’s attempted overthrow of Ra’s Al Ghul is nothing to write home about.
20) Batman Vs. Robin
While the best of the Damien trilogy, this middle entry in the Son of Batman saga is still pretty mediocre. After a stellar cameo by Weird Al Yankovic as Dollman, Batman Vs. Robin proceeds to take one of the most interesting New 52 storylines — Bruce’s discovery of Gotham shadow rulers The Court of Owls and Dick’s family’s involvement with the organisation — and gives it to Damian, robbing it of any of its original context and meaning. While it retains some of the most iconic scenes of the comics run (like Batman wandering in the Court’s underground maze), the film plays out as a typical temptation story, and doesn’t resolve itself until Bad Blood.
19) Justice League: Throne of Atlantis
A sequel to the stellar Justice League: War, Throne of Atlantis is the story of Aquaman’s rise from humble fish conversant to king of the city under the sea. While the scene of the Justice League fighting the villainous Trench is exhilarating, the familiar plot of Arthur Curry’s half-brother Orm manipulating the forces of Atlantis was better told in the DCAU’s Justice League series. Additionally, the division between the title and subtitle exemplifies the split existing within the film. Half of the feature is a Justice League mission, while the remainder is an origin story for Aquaman. Unfortunately, in trying to serve both, Throne of Atlantis satisfies neither.
18) Superman: Doomsday
Few get it exactly right on their first try, and DC Animated was no exception. They brought some strong elements to the table on this premier attempt: a famous Superman story, a stellar voice cast, and a devotion to the source material rather than slavish obsession, but this unfortunately wouldn’t be enough. The titular Superman/Doomsday fight is well done, but much like the original Death of Superman storyline, the writers didn’t know where to go after Clark’s funeral. This film opts for a simplified Rise of the Supermen plot, starring a clone controlled by Lex Luthor as Kal-El’s replacement. This is a welcome improvement over the chaos of the comics run, (anyone else remember the Metropolis Kid?) but it’s this was never one of Superman’s best stories, and the adaptation doesn’t do much more than clean up the narrative a bit.
17) Batman: Gotham Knight
Unofficially tied to the Dark Knight trilogy and featuring experimental new animation styles and explorations of smaller moments in the Batman mythos, this anthology was almost destined to succeed. Any of these six stories (specifically the Gotham P.D. adventure, “Crossfire”) would be a wonderful primer to one aspect of Batman’s world, but they’re so short they leave you wanting more. Watching all six in a row is akin to a dinner with too many courses: they might be great, but before you’ve finished it, it’s been whisked away and replaced with another dish. This one is a must-see for diehard fans of the Christopher Nolan films, however.
16) Green Lantern: First Flight
Out two years in advance of the disastrous live-action film, First Flight nails a Green Lantern origin story in a way that Ryan Reynolds could have only dreamed of. Unlike its sequel, First Flight delves into Green Lantern mythology in an organic and entertaining way, showing the universe through the perspective of Hal Jordan instead of explanatory monologues. This Green Lantern story offers an interesting take on the fall of Sinestro, but suffers somewhat from trying to do too much in too little time. It’s unfortunate that this film didn’t get a direct sequel, as more installments could have delved deeper into Hal Jordan and comprehensibly expanded on one of the deepest mythoi in the DC universe.
15) Superman Vs. the Elite
It can never be asked enough, especially in the current political climate: “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” In the film based on a 2001 run of Action Comics, Superman finds himself obsolete after a group of more lethal heroes seems to find favour with the public. This film has one of the greatest Superman moments across any medium — when he finally shows the Elite just how much he’s been holding back during all their previous fights, and how easily he could kill them if he had no code or values. Aside from a truly strange choice in animation style that could turn some off viewers, this is definitely worth the watch.
14) Teen Titans: The Judas Contract
Though you may have seen a lot of the beats in this story play out in the Teen Titans cartoon series from the previous decade, this story of betrayal — based on arguably the greatest Teen Titans story ever written — should absolutely be experienced in movie form as well. After a new, young superhero named Terra joins the team (consisting of the Vs. Justice League roster of Damian Wayne, Blue Beetle, Beast Boy and Raven, led by Starfire and Nightwing) on a mission to stop Brother Blood — but it turns out she’s actually secretly working for Deathstroke to destroy the team from the inside. This more mature take on the Judas Contract storyline more mimics the comics than the cartoon and delves into Terra’s motivation. If they had more time or less Titans, this one could have been a classic.
13) Justice League: Gods and Monsters
This Elseworlds tale could have easily been so edgy it hurt. Instead, it tells an interesting alternate history of a vampiric Batman, a Wonder Woman from Apokalyps, and Superman, son of Zod. The trinity, at odds with the world’s governments, try to figure out who created an army of scientist-slaying robots. This story was Justice League cartoon creator Bruce Timm’s passion project, and it shows. This brutal take on his family-friendly version of the League (as well as its companion shorts) are definitely worth a watch.
12) Justice League Dark
Let’s get the film’s major problem out of the way; Batman should have never been in this movie. But otherwise, this adaptation of the first run of the eponymous comic is brilliant. It’s dark and creepy, and it employs some of the DC universe’s most underutilized and creative characters, weaved into the story with the kind of care only a superfan of the magical DCU could. do. Batman, understandably, plays a magic sceptic on this quest to stop the rise of an ancient evil, but clearly the only reason he’s there is so his face could be slapped on the DVD cover. His storyline is the only real distraction from an otherwise stellar adventure.
11) Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
It’s the World’s Finest vs. President Luthor. Need I say more? When, for some reason, Superman and Batman are the only people suspicious of Lex Luthor’s presidential agenda, he declares them enemies of the state and sends hero and villain alike to hunt them down. The fight scenes alone in this one make it worth the price of a rental, (or even a purchase) but the story and the more light-hearted tone create a cohesive DC universe that’s simply enjoyable. It’s a fun game to point out obscure characters as they show up on screen during any of these films, but the waves of DC characters — some well-known, some very obscure — fighting the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight in the second act takes it to a whole new level.
10) Teen Titans Vs. Justice League
This team story seems to share its continuity with the Son of Batman trilogy, as well as counting as a definite predecessor to Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, the common thread being Damian Wayne. These Teen Titans movies have managed to figure out just what to do with the young Robin, and that’s place him on a team; his abrasive personality is balanced out by the myriad of other worldviews on the Titans. In this instalment, the Justice League is possessed by the minions of Trigon, and it’s up to the Titans (plus alumni Nightwing and Cyborg) to snap them out of it. Well-acted, well-balanced, and showing off a lot of DC’s heavy hitters, there’s not much more you can ask for in a direct-to-home video film.
9) Justice League: War
Re-telling the first arc of the New 52’s Justice League comic, War was one that DC needed to get right in order to establish the new DC animated continuity, and thusly its Justice League. Luckily for DC, they hit it out of the park. Watching Batman and Green Lantern, Cyborg and Shazam, and Superman and Wonder Woman meet for the very first time and begin their relationships is just as great as — if not better than — their fight to defend Earth from an invasion by Darkseid.
8) Batman: Year One
The first of two Frank Miller adaptations, this movie is about Jim Gordon as much as it is about Batman, with Bryan Cranston cast as the perfect voice to play the commissioner. Both the Dark Knight and his police confidant both arrive in a crime-ridden Gotham (is there any other kind?) and over the course of a year, carve out a niche for themselves as crimefighters in a different mould than typical Gotham law enforcement. Though it has a few Miller-isms in it — Catwoman is a dominatrix, sigh — this is still a stellar addition to the Batman canon and worth watching by anyone with even a passing interest in the character.
7) The Dark Knight Returns Vols. 1 & 2
There’s no way to consider this massive undertaking other than as one singular work. This adaptation of Frank Miller’s magnum opus stories imagines a world where Batman retired, and Gotham went to hell without him. Now, aged 50, he dons the cowl once more, and with the help of a new female Robin, he takes on the leader of a street gang terrorizing the city, a geriatric (but no less insane) Joker, and even Superman himself, culminating in one of the greatest comic book fights ever put to film. It can never be said enough: This comic and animated movie is why we thought both The Dark Knight Rises and Batman Vs. Superman would be good, and its influence — even now — is palpable.
6) Justice League: The New Frontier
Drenched in Americana and set on Earth-21, where the Cold War ended in the mid-’60s, Justice League: New Frontier suggests an alternate cause for the formation of the Justice League; they did it to fight dinosaurs. This wonderfully-animated, beautifully-written Elseworlds tale, based on the comic written and drawn by the late Darwyn Cooke, combines the classic members of the Justice League with some of DC’s older Golden Age characters in a story that understands, in a way no other film does, the true purpose of the Justice League: to protect humanity by working together. New Frontier may exist in a simpler world, but it serves as a wonderful ideal and a counterpoint to a lot of the darker parts of the DC multiverse.
5) All-Star Superman
This story could have just animated, panel-for-panel, Grant Morrison’s acclaimed, eponymous comic, and it still would have cracked the top 10 on this list. But the story, chronicling the last year of Superman’s life after a plot by Lex Luthor forces him to absorb a lethal amount of solar radiation, is handled expertly in this film. Though his solar cells are overloading with power, the Man of Steel still spends his remaining time protecting and helping the Earth in general and his loved ones in particular. All-Star also contains my favourite Lex Luthor moment, bar none, when he sees the world through Superman’s eyes. Unrelentingly optimistic in the face of realistic consequences, this DC Animated Original cannot be recommended enough.
4) Wonder Woman
We now have Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot’s wonderful new film, but before that, this was the best Wonder Woman standalone story by far. While it’s no secret that she’s the least represented member of DC’s Trinity, it truly is amazing that there are more than 10 Batman starring or co-starring films on this list, more than five Superman films, two Green Lantern films(!) and only one Wonder Woman offering. This story, which has a strikingly similar plot to the live-action film (at least for the first half) is great in its own right. Starring Keri Russel as Diana and Nathan Fillion as Steve Trevor, this Wonder Woman vs. Ares story will feel familiar, but it still has its surprises. This thing was so good that Bruce Timm even wanted to make a sequel, but was turned down due to its low sales, which is immensely depressing for one of DC’s greatest movies, period.
3) Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
What began as the bridge between the DCAU’s Justice League and Justice League Unlimited developed into so much more. Crisis on Two Earths explores the evil Justice League of Earth-3 and their attempts to take over the main DC Earth. While the Justice Lords from the animated series were an adaptation on this plot, that version did not have James Woods as a nihilist Owlman and a strip-search scene for Lex Luthor. This movie spends just enough time on Earth-3, allowing us a glimpse at a host of alternate reality versions of some of DC’s most memorable characters (including the entire Shazam family!), before its wonderfully tense finale. Do not skip this early entry in the DC Animated Originals lineup.
2) Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
When Barry Allen goes back in time to stop his mother from being murdered, he accidentally creates a dystopian alternate timeline and one of the best DC Animated Originals ever. If a gun-toting Thomas Wayne (father of Bruce) and a war between the Amazons and Atlanteans for the fate of the planet won’t get you on board for this one, I don’t know what will. It’s great to see the Flash headline a film for once, and though he’s nearly overshadowed by the immense detail put into this alternate reality, he anchors the story with a light personal touch. This adventure set the New 52 into motion in the comics, and while not absolutely required viewing to understand its sequel, Justice League: War, it’s the best DC Animated original that fits into the series’ broadest continuity.
1) Batman: Under the Red Hood
What can I say? This isn’t just the Best DC Animated Original, it could be argued it’s the best animated Batman film ever made. Chronicling the tragic death and rebirth of Jason Todd, the Red Hood explores the complex relationship Batman has with killing and with the Robins he takes on during his crime-fighting crusade. This standalone adventure was early in the DC Animated Originals run, but they have yet to top it, even with all of their many Batman one-off prestige pictures (Dark Knight Returns gives it a run for its money, though). Jensen Ackles (Dean from Supernatural) owns the role of Jason Todd now, maybe forever, and I defy anyone to challenge me on that. Under the Red Hood is an animated masterpiece that not only rivals the best of Batman: The Animated Series, but perhaps shines because of its differences. The lack of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, the long-time voices Batman and the Joker, respectively, forced this film to stand on its own as a Batman property, and the voices of Bruce Greenwood’s Dark Knight and John DiMaggio’s Clown Prince of Crime are arguably as good as their DCAU forebears. DC may never top this one.