Son of Batman is the 20th DVD film released in the “DC Animated Universe Original Movies” collection since October of 2007. Debuting on DVD and Blu-Ray this coming Tuesday from Warner Bros. Home Video (a division of Time Warner), it’s sadly one of the worst such films in the library. With flat acting, trite dialogue, and a simplistic plot that turns Talia into a damsel-in-distress, this is not one of the DCAU’s shining moments. But while I may review the film at length early next week, for now I wanted to focus on the positive. In short, spanning from Superman: Doomsday in 2007 to Son of Batman next week, here are the five very best DC Animated Universe Original DVD features, along with what we can commercial lessons we can take from their respective artistic successes.
5. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
I’ve complained any number of times about how the powers-that-be have become over-dependent on Batman and Superman stories, so this 2013 entry was a true breath of fresh air. Yes, it involves the Justice League and Batman plays a key supporting role, but this is a Flash adventure through-and-through. It’s a classic “I messed with time travel and screwed up the future” saga, with grand-scale action and emotion to spare. It cleverly uses the vocal talents from various prior DCAU projects, with Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan, Vanessa Marshall as Wonder Woman, Dana Delany as Lois Lane, and Kevin Conroy cameo-ing as “our-world” Batman. The film works and the action is grand, but the biggest kick last year was finally seeing a DCAU feature centered around someone other than the Dark Knight or the Man of Steel.
4. Superman Vs. The Elite
Loosely based on Joe Kelly’s acclaimed comic issue “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?”, this ripping and thoughtful Superman adventure takes a hard look at the absolutist morality of the big blue boy scout. The Man of Steel is shown up by a new band of superheroes who aren’t afraid to exterminate their opponents. The original comic, from early 2001, was a commentary on those who preferred their superheroes in the Spawn/Punisher variety. But the 2012 film used the material for a look at relative morality, of in a post-9/11 America, contrasting that of course with the heightened violence in a super-powered universe. The film doesn’t exactly offer any real answers, and the ending is a slight cop-out, but it was using superhero stories as a metaphor for drone warfare and extra-judicial executions way before it was cool.
3. Green Lantern: First Flight
Warner Bros. could have saved themselves much hassle and arguably lost a lot less money if they had just produced a live-action remake of this 2009 cop drama and called it the Green Lantern movie. The film is somewhat of an origin story, but it also doesn’t waste a moment of time with any “hero’s journey” shtick, sending Hal Jordan into space immediately and having him just as quickly accept his new role as an outer space cop. The rest of the film is basically Jordan and his mentor Sinestro solving interplanetary crime as the rookie learns the ropes from the veteran.
I talk a lot about how superhero movies need to adapt into different genres in order to survive, and this is a perfect example in animated form. This isn’t a superhero film so much as a hard-boiled detective film in superhero clothes. Chris Meloni makes a terrific Hal Jordan while Victor Garber is a dynamite Sinestro. The film operates as a police procedural, with Jordan learning the ropes through investigation rather than labored exposition. It plays like a high class film noir, and it’s the rare DCAU feature that is a straight-up original story.
2. Batman: Under the Red Hood
Yes, there is way too much Batman in the twenty DCAU features. But if you must watch a Batman DVD animated feature from this line-up, make it this one. Most of the DCAU films are adaptations from popular comic arcs. This one improves on the source material. Yes, it’s still the same absurd “Jason Todd is back from the dead” stuff which pits a newly resurrected Robin against Black Mask, the Joker, and Batman. But since this is just a one-off story, it’s not invalidating 15 years of comic continuity in the bargain.
The streamlining of the story causes the occasional hiccup (we’re supposed to buy that Ra’s Al Ghul feels bad about Joker killing Robin, but not Joker killing countless other innocents on his orders), but the film is a better work than the original drawn-out comic book arc. Jensen Ackles is terrific as “the Red Hood”, and the final third brings one of the more unabashedly emotional confrontations in the DCAU. Under the Red Hood makes the very best of a dumb story and is one of the most unabashedly entertaining entries thus far.
1. Wonder Woman
You want a Wonder Woman movie? Here’s your Wonder Woman movie. This 2009 release, the fourth in the line-up, is a dynamite action adventure that is easily the best film we’ve seen in this division. It is basically an origin story, completely with insanely violent battle scenes and an angry feminist streak that absolutely suits the property. The character work is terrific, with Keri Russell offering a terrific starring turn and Nathan Fillion offering wit and insight as her token love interest, and the action is good enough that I wish I could have seen it in an actual movie theater. Aside from the action and the wit, what makes Wonder Woman so good is that it doesn’t merely put Wonder Woman into action scenarios and call it a day. It tells a Wonder Woman story without forgetting to be about women.
The film doesn’t shy away from making salient points about how women undercut their own authority in society. It tells a feminist story and uses the world’s most famous female superhero to call out a culture that encourages women to be less than their potential. If people can claim that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman film yet made, then I can make the case for Wonder Woman as one of the great cinematic comic book origin stories. If and when they finally do make a live-action Wonder Woman movie, they would be well-advised to just take this script, add another half-hour or so of character and action, and then call it a day. Wonder Woman is easily the best DCAU animated feature thus far out of the first 20 tries.
The sad irony is that the film initially undersold compared to its Superman/Batman brethren, resulting in an unofficial edict that the DCAU DVD series not feature any more female-centric titles. So when we got an adaption of Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman: Supergirl in 2011, it was called Superman/Batman: Apocalypse with nary a hint of Supergirl in the marketing. It was not one of their better films (Andre Braugher was oddly miscast as Darkseid), but the effort was appreciated. Despite assurances to the contrary, this animated feature is probably the closest thing we’re going to get to a Wonder Woman movie for awhile.
The caving to industry expectation, not making female-centric superhero films and then claiming girls don’t like superheros and thus should be excluded (that’s for another day), is sadly symptomatic of the overall lack of courage when it comes to this particular series. This division of DC Comics and Warner Bros. should be exactly the place for exposing audiences young and old to characters beyond the most recognizable. If Justice League is a hit in a few years, it will partially be because the characters that are introduced in the film were already introduced to kids through Justice League: Unlimited and Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Yet just last year we saw the cancellation of (the superb) Young Justice in favor of (the perfectly fine) Beware the Batman, which itself didn’t last long. Just as an entire generation of kids were exposed to Spider-Man and the X-Men through their Fox Kids 1990?s animated incarnations, so too was an entire generation of kids exposed to the DC universe through the animated offshoots. These films are arguably the perfect low-risk environment in which to expose newer and/or older audiences to the expansive DC Universe beyond just the few that everyone already knows. I understand that Justice League and/or Batman sells better than Shazam. But the over-reliance on a few key characters, Batman especially, represents something of a missed opportunity. There is an entire world of superheroes waiting to be brought off the four-color pages and given their own moment in the sun.