In a week, the Justice League will finally unite on the big screen. It’s far from the first time DC’s finest have gathered outside of the comics, and if the live-action has anything to live up to, it’s the beloved animated series and its continuation, Unlimited. Want to binge-watch to get in the justice mood? Here’s the best of both series.
A quick note before we head in: instead of jumbling together both versions of the show—the original Justice League, which largely revolved around multi-episodes stories, and Unlimited, which vastly expanded the scale and cast of the series to include a whole host of extra DC characters—into one list of recommendations, we’ll be listing 10 of the must-watch stories from both separately.
The three-part opening of the show is not the strongest entry in the series—it first premiered as a complete movie, so in its episodic form the pacing is a little wonky. But there is still something enchanting about seeing these iconic heroes come together for the first time, especially with the background of familiarity Batman and Superman bring from their respective animated series. Plus, there’s a great sense of scale to the Imperium invasion that makes it really feel like something only the formation of the Justice League could prevent.
The Justice League movie has faced a tough proposition in having to combat the general public perception of Aquaman as the Super Friends-style lame dude who talks to fish but doesn’t do much else. Their response was to have Jason Momoa play Arthur Curry as a wild, bro-esque underwater warrior, but the Justice League cartoon’s answer was to give the DCAU a much more self-serious take inspired by the comics run where Aquaman lost his hand and replaced it with an extremely rad hook. Plus, the political machinations Atlantis faces both above water and below are surprisingly gripping, given this was a relatively early entry in the show’s first season.
A touching tribute to the Silver Age of comics that gave us the League in the first place, this episode sees the League seemingly thrust back in time to the ‘50s to meet the Justice Guild of America, a less than subtle allusion to the Justice Society of the old comics. While it’s a loving homage, “Legends” also does well to remind audiences that times have changed, as have social mores, balancing a reverence for these heroes comic book origins with a reminder that sometimes rose-tinted nostalgia can hide critiques we’d rather not see.
Nobody loves alternate universes more than DC Comics, and Justice League’s take on an alt-reality (where Superman not only murders Lex Luthor, but leads the League as it rules over the entire Earth) is the show’s tribute to the multiverse concept. As with all good alt-reality stories, it holds a mirror up to characters we know and love and makes them question (and ultimately embolden) the attitudes they hold dearly—especially Batman, who sits at the heart of this story alongside his horrifying alternative counterpart.
Remember that time the Justice League basically fought Cthulhu? While that in and of itself guarantees “The Terror Beyond” a spot on this list, it’s also a very important episode for laying down some groundwork Justice League Unlimited would eventually return to. For one, it widens up Justice League’s narrow focus to a few new DC characters beyond the core team, like Dr. Fate, but also establishes an intriguing rapport between Hawkgirl and Solomon Grundy that starts some important character work for both characters that is picked up on in Unlimited. Plus, did I mention the bit where they basically fight Cthulhu!?
Although at times the shows could feel like it, Justice League and Unlimited were not Batman: The Animated Series: The Newer Adventures, so few of the great villains of Gotham City got much of a showing. The Joker only appeared in a handful of episodes, but “Wild Cards” stands out with a unique format and a plan that makes the Clown Prince of Crime feel like a significant threat not just to Batman but the whole team, since he enlists the superpowered Royal Flush crime gang as his minions. Plus, they were voiced by the main voice cast from the then-current Teen Titans cartoon. The animated TT/JL crossover we never got!
An excellent Superman-focused episode that actually picks up where the relationship between Darkseid and Superman left off in Superman: The Animated Series (which ended with Darkseid brainwashing Clark to turn the world against him), it’s also a wonderfully tense build-up to one of the greatest pieces of action on the whole show, as a furious Superman really lets go and goes toe-to-toe with one of his greatest villains in a truly brutal fight.
Justice League has a few stories where a smart team of villains manages to outplay the League at first, but this story involves Gorilla Grodd forming a superteam and sowing discontent among the League till they reach a breaking point and eventually (albeit briefly) split up. What makes it fascinating is that while there’s a brief aside acknowledging Grodd used his vast mental powers to split the League, he actually didn’t brainwash them: He just removed their mental filters to let all the thoughts they’d had about one another come pouring out. It makes the split feel much more real than if it had just been simple mental trickery, and by the time the League comes back together to move past their division, it means they’re stronger than ever.
World War II, time travel, and Wonder Woman combine to make this a great Justice League story. The main concept is thrusting our heroes back into World War II, where Vandal Savage is lending advanced technology to the Nazis to change the course of human history. But where it really shines is introducing the DCAU Diana to Steve Trevor, her long-time love interest in the comics. Playing with the star-crossed lovers across two time periods, it provides a touching heart to the blockbuster spectacle of the episode, the show’s first season finale.
This is about as epic as the show could possibly get—both because it’s how Justice League ended before its Unlimited rebirth, but because where else could you go after having Hawkgirl revealed as a reluctant sleeper agent laying the groundwork for an invasion and occupation of Earth by her fellow Thanagarians? It plays on two seasons worth of character development—especially the romantic relationship between Shayera and John Stewart—to twist the knife even further, but it’s also just the show firing on all cylinders to deliver the absolute best version of an invasion story it had tried a few times before. Before Unlimited, this would’ve been how the DCAU ended... and honestly, it would’ve been a fitting end if it had.
I shouldn’t have to say more than “This is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with cosmic goofball Booster Gold” for a reason to love this episode. But should I have to, I’d say it’s one of the funniest and clever standalone tales Unlimited ever did, and a smart way to play on a classic literary trope while shining a touching spotlight on a character that rarely got time to shine beyond a few jokes.
The League gets turned into kids! It’s goofy, silly fun and far removed from the action-packed spectacle of most episodes, but it’s genuinely sweet at times—especially when it comes to Wonder Woman and Batman’s ongoing will they/won’t they relationship.
When Unlimited vastly expanded the League’s roster, it also meant there often wasn’t enough time to balance spending episodes with the “main” team we knew and loved and the myriad new members of the cast. Often Unlimited was at its best when it wasn’t just exploring side characters, but its unpowered heroes who were still expected to be part of a superhuman fighting force tackling major threats. “Patriot Act” is a great example of why heroes like the Green Arrow and Shining Knight could still be important members of the league.
Bodyswaps are a classic, but Unlimited used the trope to excellent comedic effect by swapping the blazingly smart Lex Luthor’s mind with the cheerfully dumb mind of the Flash. It should be scary that an astonishingly smart villain like Lex suddenly has superpowers and access to the heart of the Justice League’s base of operations, but it’s mostly played for laughs, especially when Lex decides to learn Flash’s secret identity and takes off his mask, only to look at the face confronting him in the mirror and flatly say “...I have no idea who this is.” But the best line belongs to the Flash, in Lex’s body, explaining why he doesn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom: “Because I’m evil!”
The seeds left from Justice League’s “The Terror Beyond” finally blossom in this episode. It’s not only the return to the weird team of Dr. Fate and Aquaman (with Amazo replacing Solomon Grundy from the previous episode), but it’s the heartbreaking return of Hawkgirl after she left the League at the end of “Starcrossed.” If that wasn’t enough, she’s left to deal with the trauma of having to put a resurrected, frenzied Grundy down for good, despite the friendship they’d built together. It’s one of the many excellent ways Unlimited built a bridge between itself and the first iteration of the show, and a great character piece for Hawkgirl.
An excellent adaptation of an all-time classic Superman comic tale. Not only does this episode have some excellent action, as Wonder Woman and Batman battle intergalactic warlord Mongul after he puts Superman under the thrall of a mind-controlling alien parasite, it’s a touching character piece for Superman, as he’s enthralled in an alternate dream-life where Krypton was never destroyed and he lived a happy life on his homeworld. Viewers rarely got to see Superman put in an emotional spotlight like this, and it’s incredibly well done.
This episode is an excellent look on the street-level heroes of the League, penned by the beloved comics scribe Gail Simone, which should be more than enough reason to watch it. But when it’s Gail Simone getting to write Green Arrow, Black Canary, Huntress, and the Question? That’s top-tier stuff. “Double Date” sees Huntress kicked out of the League for trying to pursue her parent’s murderer, forcing her to come to terms with whether it’s right to want to kill her most hated foe revenge.. all while running away from Green Arrow and Black Canary, who have been begrudgingly tasked with protecting Huntress’ target.
The concluding half of the four-part storyline that introduced shady government group Cadmus to the DCAU throws the League’s reputation into disarray after a series of events puts them under public scrutiny and the eventual revelation that a merged Braniac and Lex Luthor are behind it all, but also focuses on the antagonistic relationship between Cadmus and the League. Sometimes, even in Unlimited’s largely optimistic view of superheroes, good people have to do bad things to protect themselves, and Cadmus is itself a compelling argument why.
The final saga of Unlimited, this is an all-out action spectacle. Thanks to the show’s boosted roster, the series could amp up the scale and threat of invasions that used to be the bread-and-butter of the original team to a crazy level—and it’s befitting that Darkseid is the culprit who earns the lavish treatment here. While other episodes before it were left to tie off the character arcs built over the show’s three seasons (and, in the case of the core six League members, five season’s worth), this is just blockbuster action, sending off the show with a bang.
Like I said before, Justice League and Unlimited could sometimes feel a bit like another Batman show, given that his beloved cartoon series is what helped make this animated universe such a success in the first place. While “Destroyer” was a send-off for the series at large, the second season finale felt like the perfect conclusion to this animated incarnation of Batman. Tying up plot points from across Justice League, Unlimited, and even Batman Beyond, this is a loving tribute to over a decade’s worth of animated Batman stories, and a perfect reminder that the tragedy that formed Batman’s destiny didn’t just create a hardened fighter, but a deeply compassionate hero.