Batman’s great, especially animated Batman. But we’ve got so much of him, and HBO Max just keeps adding his finest animated outings, and then some (please, for the love of god, watch Batman: The Brave and the Bold). But with the recent arrival of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited on the service, you’ve got time to check out some great DC Animation where Bruce isn’t the one in the Bat-spotlight.
Justice League and JLU gave us some of Kevin Conroy’s best moments as the Dark Knight—“Epilogue” remains the definitive end cap on generations of Batman storytelling for this version of the character—but while the show could occasionally feel a bit like Batman and Friends, what makes each iteration of the show really shine is the moments it allows everyone, not just our favorite billionaire brooder, a chance to shine.
Here are a few of our favorite episodes that touch on the corners of the Bruce Timm-verse that stretch beyond Gotham’s reach.
Tired? Follow-ups to Batman: The Animated Series plotlines and character arcs. Wired? Follow-ups to Superman: The Animated Series plotlines and character arcs. Okay, we kid, we kid, but this episode focusing on Darkseid and Superman’s duality is one of Justice League’s greatest gifts of expanding on the DCAU its predecessors laid the groundwork for. It also contains one of the best Superman action sequences the show ever had.
These two episodes—one from League, the other from Unlimited—aren’t really a traditional two-parter, but the latter builds on the former in some really touching ways, especially when it comes to fleshing out Hawkgirl’s character in her relationship with Solomon Grundy. That’s even before we mention that these episodes are basically a magic B-Squad highlight, as Grundy (replaced by Amazo in “Wake the Dead,” Hawkgirl, Aquaman, and Doctor Fate team up to be Marvel’s Defenders long before you’d heard about Netflix’s plans for Charlie Cox and Kristen Ritter. Cthulhu’s involvement’s just a cherry on the cake at that point.
All I should have to say about this JLU story is “It’s got The Question, the superior DC detective, in it” to get your interest, but this is a pretty fascinating approach to Unlimited’s bigger-picture plotline dealing with the arrival of Amanda Waller and the mysterious Cadmus organization. While the main team is off directly butting heads with Waller, Batman included, this story sees The Question, Green Arrow, and Supergirl chasing down the connections between Waller and Galatea, the sinister clone of the girl of Steel. It’s a smart way of presenting just how these bigger storylines could impact the wider League at this point—which, in Unlimited, had vastly expanded its roster—but also it’s just a great outing for The Question in particular.
Is it a cheat to recommend the rare time Justice League mostly directly adapted a comic book plotline, and to do it when they adapted one of the most iconic and beloved Superman stories around? Maybe. Maybe even more so given that Bruce is part of the narrative framework, joining Wonder Woman in giving Clark some birthday gifts, only for things to go awry when Mongul crashes the party to put Superman under his thrall in a reality that could’ve been. But this is first and foremost a Superman story, and it’s an incredibly touching one at that.
Maybe we all give Jason Momoa too much credit for transforming Aquaman’s rep as kind of a joke, because before we got pretty shirtless men emerging from nordic waters and questionably delightful deployments of Pitbull, Justice League gave us this characterization of the King of Atlantis inspired by writer Peter David’s iconic run on the comic. Giving Arthur political tussles to deal with at home while also trying to fend off the League’s attempts to recruit him, for many it was this moment where we first learned that Aquaman was about so much more than some fish-talk jokes.
One of the best things about Unlimited was how its expanded scope let it dive into comics history that Justice League could never have really handled when it was about just the core unit of its founding members. Case in point: this journey to Kirby’s fourth world and the realm of the New Gods, via Mister Miracle and Big Barda. It’s an epic tribute to what, at this point, was a mostly unseen side of the DC universe in animation.
Sure, it’s February and watching a Christmas episode might feel a little weird right now, but hey: time’s just a prison in which we live, do whatever you want. This episode of little vignettes as the JL prepare for the holidays in their own ways (Batman, being a moody git, is naturally not a focus) is incredibly sweet. There’s a lot of fun in The Flash’s quest to save Christmas for some orphan kids but come for the candy-cane sweet relationship between Superman and Martian Manhunter, as the former invites J’onn to the Kent farm for Christmas.
Bruce plays a big part here, admittedly, but he’s not the star...because the star’s kinda sorta dead, but not really? Building on the premise that Superman has seemingly been killed in action (long story short, he actually gets transported to a far off world to face off against Vandal Savage), it’s a story that explores the League and the world’s relationship with the Man of Steel by making them believe that that relationship has been permanently severed.
Beloved comics writer Gail Simone gets to basically have The Question, Huntress, Green Arrow, and Black Canary riff off each other for 20 minutes. Wait, I have to sell you more? Okay, fine: keeping its focus tightly on the “street-level” stars of JLU, “Double Date” flips the script on the series’ expanded scope to tell a story that would otherwise be seen as too small-scaled for a team-up of the World’s Finest. That, and the aforementioned riffing is just really good.
A tribute to the Justice Society of America and the silver age hero teams that came before the League in the comics, this weird, alt-universe tale is equally a powerful lesson on respecting the past enough to let go of it. Not to mention the danger untempered nostalgia can wreak.
The show’s very first season finale represented a chance to go big in ways Justice League hadn’t up to that point. A timey-wimey Vandal Savage tale about our heroes trying to stop the course of World War II from being changed forever by the sinister time-traveler is a highlight of season one. While the whole team gets some great moments, the real stars here are John Stewart and Princess Diana.
Ah, Booster Gold does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It’s such a good premise, but it’s also a surprisingly touching bit of character work for Booster, examining why he wants to be a hero in the first place.
“Starcrossed” requires a lot of context of everything Justice League had built up for Hawkgirl to really hit hard, but it’s still worth recommending just for the fact that the DCAU as we know it very nearly came to an end with this tale that directly centered Shayera’s character before anything else. Seeing the team deal with an invasion of Earth by Hawkgirl’s people, the Thanagarians, it’s both an epic clash of superheroes and an intimate character drama, as Shayera is forced to pull herself between the friends she’s made in the League and her own people.
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