With the recently released Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, an animated movie that pays off 7 years and 15 individual movies worth of storytelling and world-building, DC’s animated efforts have made a better cinematic universe than the live-action films ever did.
It’s a very thinly-veiled secret that DC has been wanting to catch up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a long time now. However, their efforts on the big screen have produced only a few genuinely good movies (Wonder Woman, Shazam); a bunch of middling but enjoyable fare (Aquaman, Harley Quinn); and a bobbling of their important team-up movies (Justice League and Batman Versus Superman).
The DC Animated Universe (which we shall henceforth refer to as DC Animated for brevity) on the other hand, has enjoyed relative success as a whole. It’s been received with positive criticism from both critics and fans and as far as comic book adaptations go, the animated films are much more enjoyable and capture the source material’s essence better than the live-action. The main reason for this is that the animated films do one thing that the DCEU never had the patience to do: establish. Establish a rich, lore-filled world. Establish characters and their various traits, motivations and principles. And most importantly, establish relationships and interactions between the characters as well as the world around them and how they are defined by those interactions.
The first film in the universe, Justice League: War is a far better film than Justice League (2017) because of this. Just like in the DCEU, DC Animated also led with the big ensemble team-up instead of their rival Marvel’s tried and true method of putting out individual movies first. However, Justice League War takes the time to effectively establish lesser-known heroes such as Green Lantern and Cyborg. In fact, it almost feels like War puts their character development in front of familiar faces such as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. GL’s hot-headedness and braggadocious charm litter the movie with levity while Cyborg’s hang-ups with his father serve as the emotional, human anchor to the story.
This is a smart move. Everyone already roughly knows who the big names in the Justice League are, there are literally countless movies, cartoons and TV shows about them. It’s these new and interesting heroes that we need to know more about and fall in love with.
When the film does touch Batman or Wonder Woman, it’s to establish lesser-known traits about them, such as how he is able to hold his own even against gods, aliens, and monsters despite being a mere mortal; and how despite her tough, warrior exterior, she possesses a kind emphatic heart that connects her to the people.
This is what Justice League needed: Relationships, emotions, levity—heart.
As the years went on, the animated films would carry with them the same spirit–Interactions, relationships, character, and world-building all take precedence above everything else. The result is that DC Animated would bring much more of the DC Universe to life in a way that feels fresh, charming, and unconfined.
This is best illustrated through Damian Wayne’s introduction and journey through this DC Animated Universe. He was first introduced in Son of Batman as Bruce Wayne’s offspring with Talia Al Ghul. After resolving his differences with his father and adopting his moral code, he dons the mantle of Robin (Batman VS Robin), and learns discipline as a member of the larger Batfamily (Batman: Bad Blood). Later he learns how to work as a team as he’s sent off to join the Teen Titans (Justice League versus Teen Titans). Damian remains a permanent fixture even until Justice League Dark: Apokolips War where he has a duel with his brain-washed father with Damian now upholding the values that he was taught instead of fighting against it.
Damian’s story serves as a major throughline in the whole DC Animated Universe. His journey serves as the lens with which we see this universe and with each passing movie he’s in, you know how much he’s gone through, learned, and ultimately grown. That’s how you establish.
All throughout the 15 movies, there’s this feeling that this is a living, breathing DC universe. You feel like past stories have already taken place, making room for new ones to be told. Dick Grayson is already Nightwing, which means that he’s past his many adventures as the boy wonder, putting him in a mentor role for the new Robin. The Teen Titans have older members in Nightwing and Starfire, hinting that this current set isn’t the first iteration of the group. There’s history in this world, made of stories we already know. In turn, this promises that the stories we’re about to witness are something relatively fresh and new.
In Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, all this storytelling and world-building comes to a head. The movie takes all of its relationships and character and melds it with another thing the DC Extended Universe is known for—grim and gritty darkness. Once again DC Animated does this better too because unlike in the Hollywood movies, the dark and gritty storytelling in Apokolips War actually serves a purpose: to elicit emotion.
The film opens up to a catastrophic defeat of the superheroes by the forces of Darkseid. Many superheroes meet their fate in horrific ways. This effectively establishes stakes from the very get-go. There’s a real risk here, no punches will be pulled and no holds will be barred. The film is saying: “No one is safe”.
So when the heroes go off for one final showdown against Darkseid, you actually feel something—which is more than I can say for the live-action films. You feel the crushing weight of their previous failure. You feel the desperation of the situation and the overwhelming odds they’re up against. Later on, you feel the hope in the turning tide of battle and finally in the end you feel the elation of victory before mellowing down to a somber note of change at the film’s end.
This is grim and gritty storytelling done right. It’s not just dark and grimy because it’s cool or edgy like in the case of BvS and Justice League, it’s that way because it actually serves a purpose which is to foster a connection to the audience.
In an effort to differentiate themselves from the competition, the live-action films lost sight of this. The result is a universe that feels heavy, edgy, and exhausting as well as one that kind of alienates fans and struggles to connect to its audience. And in their haste to catch up, they left behind great opportunities to establish an awesome world that a lot of people would love but thankfully, DC Animated does it all the right way.
Currently, there’s a lot of hubbub about the Snyder Cut of Justice League (2018), an alternative director’s cut of sorts that some expect will change the quality of the movie drastically. Right now we’ll have to wait and see if it does that—but if it doesn’t then know that there are 7 years worth of great, animated movies just waiting for you to give them a try.
What’s you favorite DC Animated movie? Let us know in the comments below! For more comic stuff check out 5 Spectacular Superhero Games You Should Play Today and What’s been going on with the with The X-Men
And while you’re at it leave us a like on the GG Network Facebook Page so we can keep you entertained with more videogames and geek stuff! Take care and stay safe out there!
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