Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Area Where DC is Untouchable

As stated, Marvel is kind of beating the pants off of DC in many areas of the media.
However, there is one set of outputs over a period of time (I recently watched again) where DC's quality is untouchable and unlikely to be equaled.

The DC Animated Universe.

Marvel's Nineties Spider-Man and X-men shows were excellent, and the flagships of a host of other cartoon series. However, Saturday morning cartoon budgets and censorship still had an effect. Spidey went five full seasons without throwing a single punch. 

Batman The Animated Series blew the doors of the genre.

The show built off the tone and imagery of the Burton films, but added comic book accuracy,. Those Seventy-Five episodes in the first two seasons captured the modern state of the character, his supporting cast, his rogues gallery and his environment like no show or movie did before or since. 
The Adam West series is still the best live action adaptation of Batman comics released at the time it was made, but as for the modern version, nothing comes close to the Animated Series.

Mask of the Phantasm remains the greatest interpretation of the Batman's origin and who he is in a theatrical film.

The episode count is high, and not all were well received. However, even those with poor reputations had moments of character brilliance, or added demonstrably to the world building.

Batman's show was followed by Superman The Animated series. A more streamlined art style defined what the DCAU was going to look like. There were complaints that Superman was underpowered when the show began. There are two arguments against this. One is that the first few episodes focused heavily on Kryptonite (either on its own or in Metallo) and the Parasite, both of which reduce Clark's powers. The second is yet another sign of the fantastic writing and execution of the series. In every fight, from the beginning of the show, to the finale of Justice League Unlimited's famous "World Of Carboard" speech, Superman's combat style is shown to be holding back and applying the absolute minimum of force needed in order to gage his opponent, before he begins to use more of his immense power levels. The Superman and Clark dichotomy is the reverse of the Batman and Bruce one, but handled just as well. Both series displayed that the true "real version" of themselves was only revealed to their closest allies, and wasn't fully either their super hero, or public secret identity personas. Superman's supporting cast was well developed and his villains presented a larger scope of evil for the DC universe at large. 

By the time the art redesign reached The New Batman Adventures and the end seasons of Superman hit, the creative team had it all down cold. The stories, characters, the interactions- every episode is fantastic. (Even "Critters." Yeah, its goofy, but how Batman deals with such an insane foe highlights his abilities, and those of his team.)
Those final seasons also heavily increased the use of superhero guest stars, testing the waters for proper characterization and hinting at things to come.

When the studio requested a new Batman show featuring Bruce Wayne and his enemies in high school, the DCAU brain trust knew exactly the proper response. 
"Boy is that stupid."
Instead of stating that outright, they went off and came back with the brilliant Batman Beyond. A
s an old Bruce Wayne, Kevin Conroy showed his versatility for the character his performance will always be iconic for. A future of the universe they began to define in the earlier shows was populated with original characters with bases and ties back to the classic Bat-villains, plus a boatload or new ideas. Return of the Joker let the group take on a more mature themes, and may be Mark Hamill's most chilling performance as the clown prince of crime.

I haven't seen either Static Shock or the Zeta Project recently, but I do remember those shows keeping up the quality established in earlier efforts. They added additional pieces to the DCAU world building until the mulit-phased capstone project was green lit.

The first season of Justice League was long awaited, excellent... and a learning experience.
In general it felt like the older Justice League of America comics where an issue would be found and the team would split up to address it. Except for the opening, each story focused on a sub-set of the heroes. The creators admitted following the same pattern with Superman gaging his foe, but then substituting another hero delivering the knock-out blow made the Man of Steel end up on his butt a lot and look bad. But they worked through the kinks, and the characterizations and performances were top notch as we learned more about the universe and these seven superheroes. John Stewart and Hawkgirl were reinvented and gained levels of prominence they'd never enjoyed in the comics. Wally West was cemented as a younger, but critical member of the team. Finally, Martian Manhuter was finally raised to the top tier level Grant Morrison returned him to in comics for the rest of the world. The tribute to the Golden Age and the importance of World War II to comic books was a fantastic way to end the season. 

In my opinion, Season Two of the original Justice League show is the overall peak of the DCAU. There are many individual JLU episodes that top this season, but as a whole, there's not a misstep in the bunch for season two, and all the storytelling is fantastic. The character development and relationships are masterful, truly establishing the founding seven of this Justice League as the pantheon and icons they have been in the comics when written correctly. The season even addressed shortcomings of season one, such as Superman justifying all the times he was put on his butt as saying every punch he took was a blow one of the other, less protected leaguers didn't have to. The tone and execution of the Christmas episode was perfection. The season culminated in a massive alien invasion story that still kept the focus on who the main seven Leaguers really were.

Not content with "the top" this series was followed by Justice League Unlimited. The palate was MASSIVELY expanded. Pretty much every DC hero and villain were ripe for inclusion. (Minus a few stupid Warner Brothers character embargos, of course.) As more and more characters were impeccably brought in, the first two seasons weaved an intriguing thread of Project Cadmus being the more paranoid and cynical parts of humanity's response to the Justice League. However, it wasn't that simple for two reasons. Many other disparate threads from both this show, the previous incarnation of Justice League, as well as Superman and Batman were interweaved. The second is that Superman (And by extension the League) are as good as they appear to be. Along the way, the show covered, comedy, horror, interpersonal drama, and questions of morality, all while keeping the iconic characters true to who they should be. There were too many new characters handled spectacularly well, but I need to call out Jeffrey Combs work on the outstanding reinvention of the Question as the conspiracy minded detective who gets to the bottom of everything first. 

The second season of JLU was meant as a DCAU finale, hence the parallel amazingly well done tales of current Batman and Batman Beyond. Then it got renewed for a third season. This "Victory Lap" maintained the epic quality level. Several lesser known DC characters and environments were brought in to tell one overall masterful story featuring the Justice League battling the Legion of Doom, and tying up a few loose ends going all the way back to Superman's series. It lead up to an epic clash between the forces of Apokolips and the combined super heroes and villains of Earth...
Because Superman is the center of the DC Universe. 

The final "Curtain Call" of the varied Justice League teams running into the camera was a gorgeous ending. 

The animation and voice work leading to the acting of the characters throughout all these series brought out huge levels of emotions of all kinds throughout. This is the only version of Batman / Wonder Woman shipping that works because of those performances. These shows created new characters and updated interpretations of existing characters that have carried over to comics and other media because the creators understood the iconic subjects as well as any writers ever have. 

DC has continued to make animated features, which can be hit or miss. However, I don't think any company will reach the quality level of the DCAU over that long a time with that much consistent excellence. 

Final thought- Justice League Vs The Fatal Five was a cool return to this universe. The inclusion of the Green Lantern Corps and the Legion was awesome. I did feel like it could have had more call backs to other characters from the Justice League cartoons. However, overall it met the excellent standards of the DCAU. Also, it did convince me we need Dianne Guerrero as Jessica Cruz in James Gunn's new live action DC movies.

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