I’m not ashamed to be a grown woman who loves cartoons. I have loved animated television since childhood, and my appreciation for the genre has only grown as I’ve gotten older. There is a special place in my heart, however, for animated shows in the superhero genre.
This ranking – purely personal opinion – includes all animated shows featuring DC heroes (including non-Timmverse shows). So without further ado, here are my picks:
5. GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
The only CG animated show in this list, Green Lantern: The Animated Series (GTLAS) comes from the masterminds of Bruce Timm and Giancarlo Volpe. The show follows Green Lanterns Hal Jordan and Kilowog as they serve and protect the galaxy.
The animation took some getting used to, but it was stellar nonetheless. One of my favourite episodes was “Babel”, in which Hal, Kilowog and Razer run out of power in their rings and are no longer able to communicate verbally. The beauty of the animation really stands out in this episode; the precision of the facial expressions and body language was truly impressive.
What makes GTLAS a truly great series, and what sets it apart from most of the other shows on this list, is the intensity and evolution of the show’s characters in just one season. I’m a sucker for a redemption story, and this show has one that’s touching and incredibly well-executed.
The show’s most fascinating characters weren’t the main GLs, but Razer and Aya. Razer was created for this series, an angry Red Lantern who struggles with guilt, regret, and confusion over a love he doesn’t understand. Aya, the artificial intelligence of their ship, becomes more and more “human” – and is broken by the inexplicability of human action and emotion. The evolution of those two characters is intriguing and, at times, heartbreaking.
GTLAS was unfortunately cancelled by Cartoon Network after one season, as the failure of the Green Lantern live-action movie meant that merchandise wasn’t being sold. It’s unfortunate; the show was already great and would have only gotten better.
4. BATMAN BEYOND
Back in 1999, the producers of Batman: The Animated Series made a bold and dangerous move. They created a show that revolved around a future Batman that was not Bruce Wayne. The move seems even bolder when you take into account that they created that character specifically for the show; Terry McGinnis was a brand new character, entirely non-canonical. The result was Batman Beyond, and it was a gamble that paid off big time.
What I loved about Batman Beyond is that it brought a refreshingly different element to the world of Batman. Neo-Gotham was edgier and more electric than the old noir Gotham we were used to, but somehow was a much darker place. Batman had a slicker suit with more high-tech gadgets, and the villains were just as sinister or crazy (Mad Stan, anyone? “Blow it up! Blow it all up!!”).
While Bruce Wayne was driven and was (almost) always willing to sacrifice having a normal life for the sake of the cowl and for Gotham, Terry was just a teenager who had to learn to balance his life and rebellious nature with the responsibilities of the Caped Crusader.
Bruce, as a slightly vulnerable old man, became even more humanized over the course of the show, as he came out of his bitter, curmudgeonly shell while developing a relationship with Terry. That being said, even though he wasn’t wearing the cape and cowl, somehow Bruce Wayne was no less Batman than he ever was. As the new “Alfred”, Bruce was still as sharp and determined as he was as Batman, and he still defined the character as he shaped Terry to carry on the legacy.
3: YOUNG JUSTICE
I didn’t think that there could be a series about the young sidekicks that would have matched – and exceeded – the quality of Teen Titans. However, then came Young Justice; a series built around the Justice League’s sidekicks, who conducted covert missions on behalf of the Justice League while dealing with larger conspiracies. It’s not part of the Bruce Timm DC animated universe, but who cares? It was awesome.
Young Justice was produced by Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti. This series was sharply written and did a fantastic job of introducing and developing the young heroes as the show went along. The plot was rich, mature, and complex with twists and turns everywhere (especially in season 2). The animation was just striking, and the action sequences were just phenomenal. There were fight scenes in season 2 that I watched over and over and over.
The casting was perfect for this show, and the standouts for me would be Nolan North (Superboy), Jason Spisak (Kid Flash), and Khary Payton (Aqualad). One of my favourite episodes is Season 2’s “Depths”, which is memorable not only for the plot, but for two scenes which demonstrated the sheer precision with which the actors did the job. The first is a pivotal scene between Aqualad and Artemis, which raises the stakes because of how chilling Aqualad is. The other is a conversation between Superboy and Miss Martian, which brought me to tears because of the sheer hurt in his voice.
Young Justice, like GTLAS on the same network, suffered a lot from network mistreatment. The show went on long hiatuses during season 2. That season’s complexity really required regular watching, and the long breaks between random episodes didn’t do the show or the audience any favours. Cancelled after season 2, it’s yet another series that was gone too soon.
2. JUSTICE LEAGUE/JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (JL/JLU)
Another show in the Timm/Dini animated universe, the Justice League series told some of the best stories in the DCAU. Enough can’t be said about the fantastic writing, perfectly delivered by the voice cast. The show explored the evolution of the Justice League as a team, their strengths, vulnerabilities and conflicts, learning to work as a team and expanding the roster.
The fact that the characters were well-established heroes didn’t stop the show from having significant character development. This was mostly seen with Hawkgirl,who had to live with making planet-altering choices, and Martian Manhunter, who struggled to quell his isolation among the human race. Episodes like “For the Man Who Has Everything” really dug into the human elements – and tragedies – of Batman and Superman. Then there were episodes like “Divided We Fall”, with pure, unadulterated badassery on all fronts, especially with The Flash.
The serialization of Justice League (JL) was quite different from that of Justice League Unlimited (JLU); the former told a lot of mini-stories over two- and three-parters, while JLU opted for stories that spanned a season mixed in with standalones. While the stories in the first series were more compact, some of my favourite episodes were standalones in the JLU series. Two words: “Crowd control.”
While I loved everything about JL/JLU, what I loved the most was the snark. My goodness, the snark. The sarcastic banter among the team was hilarious, and the one-liners were downright brutal at times. When Flash can call himself the fastest man alive and Shayera responds with “no wonder you can’t get a date…”
1. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) emerged when animated superheroes were still campy and flat. The DC representations in animation were shows like Super Friends (Wonder Twin powers – activate!). Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the geniuses we have to thank for BTAS, didn’t pander to the supposedly uncomprehending minds that the young viewers were assumed to have. Instead, we got to enjoy mature stories and complex characters, paired with beautiful animation in a dark noir setting. Also, real bullets.
Even the introduction to BTAS was genius; it was essentially a mini-episode, telling us everything we needed to know about the tone of the show and who this Batman was going to be. There’s also the show’s absolutely stunning score by Shirley Walker (“A Bullet for Bullock”, anyone?). The subject matter was mature, covering everything from organized crime to child slavery. Then there’s the cast. Forget all the live-action Batmans. To me, the definitive Batman is, and will always be, Kevin Conroy.
BTAS was the first show to give some real depth to Batman, the first to show how layered and complex he could be. For the first time, on an animated series, Batman wasn’t just a dude fighting crime in a costume. He was a man with pain, passions, regrets, intelligence, and a sense of humour that didn’t involve slapstick or onomatopoeias. BTAS is the reason I still have a crush on Bruce Wayne (which only intensified when they updated the animation style for The New Batman Adventures). That dark hair, blue eyes and square jaw? Have mercy.
The show also gave depth to its villains. There was nothing cartoony about the villains in this cartoon, who were usually either sadly tragic or wickedly insane. On the tragic side, we got an entirely new backstory to Mr Freeze, which has since become canonical. On the wickedly insane side, Mark Hamill’s Joker was gloriously demented. Harley Quinn, a character created specifically for the show, walked a fine line between regretfully tragic and hilariously crazy.
I rewatched the entire DC Animated Universe over the past couple of years, and though it’s over 20 years old now, everything about BTAS stands the test of time.
So what do you all think? What was I crazy for including, or crazier for leaving out?