Who says animation isn’t as good as live-action? In today’s culture, where superheroes are all the craze, little attention seems paid to animated superhero movies, especially those created by industry giant DC. Though most people tend to envision the MCU Avengers or the DCEU Justice League when they think of modern superheroes, DC has delivered an ample fare of animated epics, many of which are taken straight from acclaimed comic book series created by some of the medium’s most talented writers and artists.
Since starting with 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, DC has released dozens of animated films based on their superhero properties, like Batman, Superman, and the collective heroes of the Justice League. As with the MCU, some of these movies are great, some are simply okay, and others can be seen as somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, DC has done a remarkable job adapting these comic book stories, using vivid animation and dramatic characterization to create movies as entertaining, intelligent, and interesting as any live-action film released by Marvel.
From the earliest entries in DC’s animated filmography to the company’s most recent efforts, here are some of the best animated movies we’ve seen from DC so far, ranked from best to worst.
1 – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
The first DC animated movie, 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, is the best animated film the company has yet to put out. A continuation of the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, it retains the overall look and spirit of its original cartoon counterpart, updating it with slightly more adult themes (namely, murder). The change in tone allowed for a smoother transition of Kevin Conry and Mark Hamill’s respective takes on Batman and Joker to film, setting a shockingly high bar that every subsequent DC movie is still trying to measure up to.
2 – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part One and Part Two)
To this day, Frank Miller’s postmodern take on the Batman mythos with the 1986 miniseries, The Dark Knight Returns, is considered the finest Batman comic ever written. Bringing a never-before-seen level of realism to Gotham City, Miller penned the ultimate ode to the Dark Knight, reshaping him into the chiseled, silent specter he is today (rather than the wise-cracking, child-friendly hero he was in the Bronze Age). Faithfully adapting Miller’s story into 2012’s The Dark Knight Returns, the filmmakers manage to preserve the original hard-boiled atmosphere that made Miller’s comic so memorable in the first place.
3 – Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox
The Flashpoint story arc is one of the most important storylines ever presented in the DC canon. With how integral it is in the overall context of the DC universe, it would take a movie of immense quality to live up to the expectations of fans everywhere, something that can certainly be said for 2013’s Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. Featuring an all-star vocal cast that includes Kevin Conroy, Cary Elwes, Ron Perlman, Nathan Fillion, and Michael B. Jordan, it’s what the live-action Justice League movie could have been with more planning and better execution. As it is, it’s among the finest achievements in DC’s animated series.
4 – Batman: Under the Red Hood
Trust us. We’re actively trying to avoid this list becoming stocked with nothing but Batman movies. However, given the superior quality of the Dark Knight’s films, it’s hard to form a list without mentioning some of the most noteworthy movies to feature Gotham’s Caped Crusader – Under the Red Hood foremost among them.
A wonderful adaptation of Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke’s comic series, it resurrected everyone’s least favorite iteration of Robin (Jason Todd, played here by Jensen Ackles), revitalizing Todd’s character for an entirely new generation of Batman fans.
5 – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War
Justice League Dark: Apokolips War proves you don’t need to adapt a comic book for the screen strictly. Instead, you can mix and match several comic book series elements enough for a suitable amalgamation. Combining storylines from “Darkseid War,” “Final Crisis,” and “Futures End,” Apokolips War properly ups the ante of Justice League Dark, focusing on the pooled efforts of the Justice League, Teen Titans, Suicide Squad, and Justice League Dark to stop Darkseid from conquering Earth.
6 – Batman: The Long Halloween (Part One and Part Two)
As with The Dark Knight Returns, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s seminal collaboration on The Long Halloween resulted in one of the greatest comic books in history. Though its cinematic counterpart has a tough time recreating Sale’s distinct artistic style, its anime visuals are perfectly tolerable, adequately accompanying Loeb’s neo-noir story. Featuring appearances from nearly every prominent villain in Batman’s rogues’ gallery, it also doesn’t hurt that it has one of the most stacked casts in DC’s animated film series (including Jensen Ackles, Josh Duhamel, Naya Rivera, Troy Baker, and David Dastmalchian).
7 – Batman: Year One
Frank Miller’s work on Batman: Year One may not be as universally cherished as his earlier work on The Dark Knight Returns, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an exceptional comic in its own right. A primary influence on 2005’s Batman Begins, the 2011 adaptation of Batman: Year One follows Batman in the earliest days of his crime-fighting career, as well as his initial interactions with future adversaries like Selina Kyle, Carmine Falcone, and Harvey Dent. Plus, it’s got Bryan Cranston as Jim Gordon – arguably the best casting decision ever made in an animated film.
8 – The Death of Superman
Given Superman’s total invincibility from virtually all methods of harm, stories that explore his mortality tend to stand out more noticeably than other Superman-related comics. The Death of Superman is one such example, focusing on Superman’s demise in his first major battle with Doomsday. One of the most popular comic book arcs of the 1990s, the 2018 adaptation of The Death of Superman adds a notable amount of depth to Superman’s character, helping you understand who he is, what he stands for, and what he holds closest to his heart.
9 – Superman: Red Son
From the 1990s into the 2000s, the popularity of DC’s Elseworlds series was in full swing, ushering in a wave of well-loved comic books like “Gotham by Gaslight” and “Superman: Red Son,” both of which would go on to form the basis for later animated adaptations. With Superman: Red Son, the filmmakers can double down on the aspects that make Mark Millar’s original comic so enjoyable – like imagining what the world would be like if Superman crashed into Stalin’s Russia rather than the U.S.’s heartland.
10 – Batman: Hush
In the early 2000s, “Batman: Hush” was all the craze, presenting a central murder mystery that Batman (and readers by extension) furiously pondered over for months. Eventually making its way onto film with 2019’s Batman: Hush, Jeph Loeb’s story is explored to its fullest dimensions, featuring detailed portraits of Batman’s most infamous foes (not unlike Loeb’s earlier work on The Long Halloween). Not only that, but it also features some first-rate banter and rapport between sometimes-friends, sometimes-enemies Batman and Catwoman, their romance unfolding as they continue to investigate the mysterious new villain ominously known as Hush.
11 – Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths
Easily one of the most underrated animated superhero films in DC’s catalog, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths takes place in a fascinating alternative universe where the Justice League are power-hungry dictators who’ve used their superhuman might to subjugate mankind. Facing off against their villainous counterparts, the Justice League essentially battle mirror versions of themselves, giving way to a brilliant movie with a mostly original storyline.
12 – Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker
When you look at the entirety of pop culture, no villain comes close to matching the Joker (not Sauron, not Voldemort, not Hannibal Lecter, not even Darth Vader). The giggling arch-enemy of Gotham’s Dark Knight, the Joker has become a staple of every Batman-related movie, TV show, and video game that’s come out over the years. With Mark Hamill once again returning to his role as the Clown Prince of Crime, 2000’s Return of the Joker was an effective continuation of Batman: The Animated Series, bridging the narrative gap between the 1992 series and its 1999 spinoff, Batman Beyond. (Just be sure you watch the uncut version of the movie rather than the original theatrical release.)
13 – Batman vs. Robin
Very loosely based on Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's “The Court of Owls,” Batman vs. Robin poses that age-old question comic fans have wondered since the 1940s – who would win in a fight, Batman or his spunky sidekick, Robin? Such a simple question forms the basis for a surprisingly nuanced look at Bruce Wayne’s relationship with his son Damian. Fraught with tension, estrangement, and continuous bickering, the film’s presentation of Damian is one of the best in DC’s canon thus far.
14 – Justice League Dark
For those unfamiliar with DC comics, Justice League Dark is a collection of superheroes primarily featured in the company’s horror or fantasy genres (like the trenchcoat-clad magician John Constantine, the poetry-quoting demon Etrigan, and the philosophical vegetative heap Swamp Thing). Shining a light on this underexplored cadre of characters is 2017’s Justice League Dark. Pairing the JLD with their counterparts in the JLA, Justice League Dark takes advantage of its R-rating, delivering a darker superhero the likes of which DC rarely releases.
15 – Justice League: Doom
A standalone sequel to 2010’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Justice League: Doom is perhaps most worth watching for its focus on largely underappreciated DC villains – like Vandal Savage and his fellow cohorts in the Legion of Doom. With some inspiration taken from Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel, Justice League: Doom is also worth seeing for the tensions that come into play between Batman and the rest of the Justice League. It may not be singularly fantastic as Crisis on Two-Earths, but it's an enjoyable enough sequel in and of itself.