Still reeling from BvS? Let the DCAU cure what ails you...
I know what you’re thinking. You have likely witnessed the cinematic abomination Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice within the last week or so, the start of a proposed DC shared movieverse that will roar sonic booms through the filmic landscape of the next five years, leaving us all branded with a Bat-symbol of dread and disappointment in its wake. It’s not justice that’s dawning in your breast, but rather terror. Terror that those holding the keys to the kingdom could get it so wrong, and now threaten to cast their dreary and colorless pall over each successive film; taking what was once a universe of smiling heroes and unbridled imagination and turning it into a sick fantasy of morbid violence that leads to nothing and moral quandaries no one even bothers to half-heartedly provide an answer for.
Things are definitely grim for those of us who grew up cherishing the DC universe and wanting nothing more than to see Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League share the screen in adaptations worthy of their iconic stature. Those dreams may yet still go unfulfilled in live-action, but the good news is that it doesn’t really matter. Because the DCU has already been brought to vivid life from the comic book page, in a way that used to be the fever-dreams of comic book fans but is now a template that movie studios are eager to apply to their properties, no matter how ill-conceived some of them may be. A whole shared universe of DC characters is already at our fingertips - a sprawling continuity that spans almost fifteen years across nearly three-hundred and fifty episodes in the medium that is possibly the best fit for any adaptation of something as colorful as superheroes: animation.
It all started in 1992 with the debut of the now-legendary Batman: The Animated Series, which was so deft in its handling of the main character and his world it might as well be considered the Rosetta Stone of the Bat-mythos. Literally everything you need to know about Batman is presented therein, from the grim avenger from the Dark Knight’s debut to the colorful antics of the ’66 TV show. The series was so powerful it spawned lasting changes to Batman’s legacy, whether it was through the introduction of the indelible Harley Quinn, or the transformation of Mr. Freeze from a D-list mad scientist loser to perhaps the most tragic and compelling of all Batman’s rogues. Not to mention the absolutely boss vocal performance of one Kevin Conroy as Batman, still the best (in live-action or animation) and probably the actor who will hold the longest tenure as the Bat when all is said and done.
It was Batman who got there first, but Superman: The Animated Series is where things start to get truly exciting, from a shared universe standpoint, at least. Much like Batman before it, the Superman animated series cut through the bullshit of decades of continuity, trimming and pruning different eras to finally result in what might as well be the definitive shape of the character; the perfect crystallization of everything that makes Superman, well… super. It wasn’t long before the show’s producers brought back Batman, and the two were paired together for the first time outside the comics, in the epic “World’s Finest,” a three-part episode arc that is so tightly constructed and thematically sound, it exposes that recent $200 million dollar slugfest for the childish, breaking-of-someone-else’s-toys debacle that it is. What’s most important to the show’s success is actually seeing the characters interact, and all of the fun and clever ways they can bounce off of each other. Watching Batman and Superman pound it out may scratch a skin-deep fanboy itch, but it is far more rewarding to see Bruce Wayne romance Lois Lane, or the Joker and Harley Quinn going on the most bizarre “double date” ever depicted with Lex Luthor and his bodyguard Mercy Graves. Instead of highlighting their differences strictly through power levels, the show tackled Superman and Batman’s differences in character, thus highlighting what made each hero special and enhancing their opposite natures when they worked together.
The results of Batman meeting Superman were a success, and the floodgates flew open for the newly christened DC Animated Universe. A bevy of guest stars eventually led to a full-blown Justice League show, which once again found its strength not through titanic tussles and “Who would win in a fight?” wagers, but rather the interactions of the seven main team members. The show even has a leg up on current times, crafting a diverse cast of characters long before diversity in media was the hot-button issue that it is today. Instead of going with the more popular Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner, the producers chose John Stewart to be their Green Lantern, a choice that resonated so strongly in the larger culture that the phrase, “I thought Green Lantern was supposed to be black,” was a common sentiment expressed back when the aborted Ryan Reynolds vehicle came out in 2011. The show also chose to add Hawkgirl for the seventh slot on the team traditionally filled by Aquaman, providing the team with some much needed extra girl power in a choice that paid off wonderfully, considering where they took that character over the course of the show’s run.
It would be easy for Bruce Timm and co.* to sit back and rest on the laurels of their success, but they instead decided to throw all caution to the wind and reboot the Justice League series into Justice League Unlimited, which for all intents and purposes is basically DC Universe: The Animated Series. Pretty much every hero in DC’s stable found themselves a member of the League, and instead of crowding the frame and making the show feel busy or over-stuffed, each hero was as well-depicted and true to their original character as if the show were their own, and not shared with dozens of others. We’re rapidly approaching a time where a literal army of superheroes showing up on the big screen is sure to become a reality, where the Guardians of the Galaxy will likely stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Avengers on IMAX screens across the world, but it seems unlikely that any of it will hope to top the sheer balance of equal character development that JLU succeeded at, while also tackling a season-long plot that rivaled the likes of Lost and The X-Files for its budding mystery and edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers.
And all of that doesn’t even take into account the Static Shock series, which saw the late, great Dwayne McDuffie bringing his and artist’s Denys Cowan comic book character to the small screen with a rather daring look at racial issues for a cartoon. Or Batman Beyond, which sounds like the most horrible, focus-grouped-to-death idea ever (“Let’s do Batman… as a teenager!”) but is actually a brilliant addition to the Bat-mythos, with a bold, cyberpunk-infused setting and slick action built around brain-bending sci-fi concepts.
So fear not, DC fans. Whether or not Warner Brothers rights the ship in time or continues to profoundly misunderstand their characters in the coming years, we will always have this treasure trove of shows, the best love letter to the DC superheroes and their wondrous, boundless universe a fan could possibly ask for.
* You’ll forgive me for using the shorthand “and co.” to describe the many talented collaborators of Timm’s (who was the key producer on nearly all of these shows); fine folks like Eric Radomski, Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, James Tucker and a whole host of others. Their work speaks for itself.