5 Great DC Cartoons To Watch Instead Of 'Justice League'
I've spent more time in the last five years criticizing DC Comics films than I have talking to my own family. But by now, it's clear that yelling at these movies doesn't really make them better, so let's take a moment to focus on the positive. And by "positive," I mean DC's recent animated output, which has been killin' it. These movies might not have the budgets of the summer blockbusters, but they can tell stories that make the live-action films look even worse than they already do.
Pause Batman v Superman And Check Out The Dark Knight Returns
An adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns should've been huge. For comic fans, The Dark Knight Returns is the New Testament of Batman. It's both a philosophical look at aging and the dangers of power and an all-night party at Bruce Wayne's House of Punchin'. In it, Batman has retired and just wants to die. Sadly, his pesky psychological traumas keep acting up, so he dons the costume again in order to beat the hell out of Gotham. The animated adaptation was released in 2013, but was totally overshadowed by stuff like Man Of Steel. It didn't help that Zack Snyder himself seemed pretty excited about making a Dark Knight Returns movie, and when you give live-action hope to a comic, any animated adaptation, no matter how good, is gonna seem like macaroni art to the common fan.
Zack Snyder did get to make his Dark Knight Returns movie, only it was called Batman v Superman, and it skips all the stuff that makes The Dark Knight Returns so memorable. For instance, it includes an older, more jaded Bruce Wayne, but the feeling of a man dogged by relentless mental torment is gone. Instead, Bruce just appears bummed out when looking at a Robin costume, and spits constant Chicken Soup For The Caped Crusader's Soul quotes. On the other hand, in the Returns animated adaptation, Bruce is trapped by his dark desires which he actually kind of likes. He is ten kinds of bonkers in Returns, and his therapist is a bat that might only exist in his head.
Another thing that Batman v. Superman underwhelms on is the promise of an older Batman. Again, they tell us that he's older, but every shot of him is done like they're hyping him up to face Brock Lesnar. He doesn't fight like an old man; he fights like the guy trying to get extra credit in his stage combat class. On the other hand, the Dark Knight Returns Batman (voiced with warm, grandfatherly psychopathy by Robocop's Peter Weller) brawls like a geezer. He tries to fight like a young man at one point, but gets his ass kicked.
It's only when he fights Superman that he goes full anime, but he's assisted by a robot suit there. And as Isaac Asimov's Laws of Robotics tell us, any man who could only fight at 25 percent anime will be able to fight at 100 percent anime when you shove them inside a giant goddamn robot.
Don't Watch Justice League, Watch Justice League Action
The best part about the Justice League is that it gives opportunities for heroes to have adventures that they wouldn't normally get to. Batman would still be pummeling squat men in bird outfits if he didn't get hooked up with his alien pals. Green Lantern would never know the joys of trying to out-mind-game Lex Luther if he didn't become bros with Superman. And Wonder Woman would never know what it's like to babysit costumed body builders if she didn't link up with the league. See? Everybody benefits.
And somehow, the Justice League movie actually feels like it squanders the potential for a lot of these characters. "Really? They're hanging out with ... those guys?" The regular world doesn't explode into an endless fantasy realm. Instead, it's just a bunch of people dropping by for a sleepover before they go on to do much more interesting things. Justice League isn't the grand finale to a bunch of storylines like the Avengers films are. Instead, it's their PTA meeting, something they're forced to go to out of an obligation that even they don't quite understand.
Luckily, we have Justice League Action, which is a lazy title at first glance, until you realize that it's a show that's meant to pack as much joy and excitement as possible into episodes that are shorter than some bathroom breaks. It debuted in 2016 on Cartoon Network, and already has 46 regular episodes and 20 mini episodes for you to watch. And those mini episodes are all available on YouTube, just in case you want to quit your stupid job today.
Every story is a love letter to the DC Universe, and the possibilities that that universe holds if you're willing to wallow in its madness. Plastic Man posing as Superman to fight Lex Luthor? Batman and Big Barda teaming up to fight parademons? Lobo stealing Red Lantern rings? The Joker kidnapping Joker voice actor Mark Hamill? This is all in the first year of the show. If Justice League Action had a mission statement, I imagine it would be "Remember all that fan fiction you wrote in middle school, Daniel? Well, we found it. But no worries, as we made it good."
Forget About All Of This Modern Batman Nonsense, And Watch Beware The Batman
The DCEU has no solid plans for what it wants to do with Batman. "You're the sad Batman. You're also the buff Batman. And hey, you want to direct a Batman? Just kidding. Never mind. Also, you're a happy Batman now. Will you be Batman forever? Because we might be looking for a new Batman." It doesn't help that Ben Affleck seems to have one foot out of the cave at all times.
So if you're tired of a Batman who seems to be driven less by his parents' murder and more by fickle Warner Bros. executives, check out Beware The Batman. It came out in 2013, and you probably would've heard about it if Cartoon Network hadn't completely forgotten its existence a few months in. I know that a ton of people get turned off by CG animation, and I kind of get it. You're more adjusted to seeing Batman in a hand-drawn form, and CGI can make Batman look like an action figure that was held up to a space heater for too long. But if you don't watch it for that reason, you're missing out on the most consistent Batman cartoon in the last 20 years.
First off, this Batman doesn't work alone. Sure, it's been nice to have a gentlemanly British man in the role of Alfred, but what if the enemy comes to Wayne Manor? What is Michael Caine going to do, other than make Bane a fucking flawless cup of Earl Grey? In Beware The Batman, Alfred looks like a silent henchman from a James Bond film, and he's ready to bust skulls. In fact, the first time you see him on the show, he tries to beat Bruce Wayne into submission with a baseball bat.
And forget Robin. In Beware, Batman's number-one sidekick is Katana, a girl with a sword who gets a storyline more interesting than Batman's. Batman's had female sidekicks before, but for some reason, comic writers always liked to either have them be killed or crippled before they got to do any badass stuff. Katana is all cool stuff. She can't go to Wendy's without running into at least two dozen ninjas. This is a far leap from the Katana we saw in Suicide Squad, who had character traits like "owns sword" and "uses sword."
And speaking of ninjas, Beware The Batman never skimps on action. Usually, Batman only gets awesome fights against nameless goons, while his main villains just talk about facing off in a battle of wits (which Batman usually wins too, because he's really adept at solving riddles that were designed to stump third-graders). In this, all of Batman's major foes have apparently taken Muay Thai classes. For example, Batman clashes with Killer Croc in an underground prison fighting ring. In the classic Batman: The Animated Series, Killer Croc was one of Batman's most physical enemies, and yet their fights never went much farther than extended pool dunking contests. In Beware, Batman gets beaten up, discovers Croc's weakness, and has to be convinced by someone else to stop punching like he's in a WorldStarHipHop fight compilation.
Suicide Squad Isn't Good, But Assault On Arkham Is
One of the reasons that a lot of DC feels so stale right now is that even when they introduce new characters, most of their history has been focused on the "World's Finest": Superman and Batman. Give Green Arrow or Martian Manhunter or Black Canary a flick? NAH. Let's reboot Batman again, but this time, he'll be a little more frowny. So Suicide Squad initially seemed so fresh. A movie wherein Harley Quinn and Deadshot and Amanda Waller are the main characters? Inject it into my face, please. And then I saw it, and it let down all three of those characters. And multiple others!
But even then, the biggest problem was the subpar villain. Enchantress has a cool design, but she doesn't really get to do anything except stare at the heroes and talk about vague ending-the-world-type stuff. Meanwhile the Joker just kind of pops in and out, almost as if what we're seeing is a sloppily edited remnant of what they actually shot. This isn't the case with Assault On Arkham, which is about the Suicide Squad and gives the Joker an actual purpose. Sure, his purpose is to take a series of constant dumps in the middle of the heroes' plans, but it's preferable to Jared "Look at my tattoos! OK, bye!" Leto.
Assault On Arkham was released in 2014, and also features voice work by Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in Batman: The Animated Series. So you're not just getting a better Joker; you're getting a better Joker who's squaring off against what many of us consider to be THE definitive Batman.
In Suicide Squad, the team's goal is to stop Enchantress from using her big laser portal whatever. And that's literally it. Meanwhile, Assault On Arkham's Suicide Squad features a black ops team that never manages to get along, with a mission that seems to change every ten minutes. Where Suicide Squad has all of these forced "We're bad guys, but we're true ... to each other" bits, Assault On Arkham has infighting that only stops when people's heads start to blow up.
Suicide Squad also ends with that song "Heathens" -- something that radio stations had to play every six seconds in 2016 or else risk instant termination.
Assault On Arkham? Noticeably "Heathens"-less. Which brings the score to:
Assault on Arkham: Every point.
Suicide Squad: "Heathens."
The DCEU Failed To Be Both "Dark" AND Good. Justice League: Gods And Monsters Succeeded
I don't want to have another conversation about which superheroes should absolutely be dark, and which ones absolutely shouldn't anymore. I don't care if Superman drinks the blood of Zod while whistling "Six Feet Deep" by the Gravediggaz, or if Batman quits fighting crime to serve as the crossing guard in front of an OshKosh B'Gosh. I just want good movies.
The DCEU made "dark" superhero films, but it barely got around to putting out good ones. I don't blame any particular person for this, because it's an easy trap to fall into. I've been THAT person, that dude who thinks that he really gets superhero stuff, won't shut up about how much he gets superhero stuff, and is constantly, to the request of no one, saying things like "But what if Superman ... is a Christ figure? HMMMMMMM? And what if Superman ... killed? HMMMMMMM?" I, like the heads of Warner Bros., saw The Dark Knight and immediately thought, "That's it. That's what superheroes should be. All of them, even Superman."
Shut up, Past Me. No, the Riddler is not going to be in The Dark Knight Rises. Quit posting in forums about it and go to class.
So if you're sick of the simultaneously pandering AND alienating attempts at making superheroes grimmer, watch Justice League: Gods And Monsters. It was released in 2015, with no real marketing push. The DVD cover didn't do it any favors either, as it seems to say, "Hey y'all! Tired of the Justice League? Well they're a constellation now. Enjoy the adventures of Evil Trenchcoat Leonard Nimoy, Half-Dracula, and Someone With A Sword."
First of all, while the Justice League is indeed more violent than usual, it isn't because "This is the world now, and no one will accept nice superheroes anymore." It's because of reasons that are more fun and a thousand times more interesting. Batman is a superpowered vampire. Superman is the son of Zod, and when he was rocketed to Earth, he was adopted by undocumented immigrants. He saw how poorly they're treated, and it has left him pissed. Wonder Woman is a god, and comes from Apokolips. If you don't know what that planet is, imagine the worst day you ever had, turned into a theme park.
I don't know why the scale of "Is this superhero dark?" always has to rise and fall on how many people they've killed on purpose. Why can't they be made "dark" through intriguing and fantastical backstories like these? So rather than get into another conversation about whether or not Batman is allowed to smile, just watch Justice League: Gods And Monsters and know that the answer is "Yes, as long as it's fucking interesting."
Daniel has a Twitter. Go to it. Enjoy yourself. Kick your boots off and stay for a while.
Hey, if you don't like what DC is doing with Batman, why don't you don a cowl and see what you're capable of yourself?
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