So I signed up for HBO Max a couple of months back, mostly to get access to the new Wonder Woman movie. Much to my surprise, HBO Max has quickly become my favorite streaming service, thanks to its sizable backlist of classic films through the TCM hub, something most other services are sorely lacking.
Another thing I have very much come to enjoy, however, is the immediate streaming access the channel provides to my favorite DC storylines ever created: the collected Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, or as it’s come to be known, the DC Animated Universe. I’ve found myself going back and doing a deep dive into the DCAU from the very beginning, and it remains as good as it ever was. So let’s all step in to the Wayback Machine and look back at what I had to say 15 years ago, when the DC Animated Universe was coming to an end:
THE END OF AN ERA: Farewell to the DC Animated Universe – May 10, 2006
It’s never easy to say goodbye.
In today’s media-saturated video age, it’s gotten a little harder to get attached to things, with hundreds of channels on the dial and programming coming and going practically overnight. And on the rare occasion you find a series you connect with, more often than not, it ends before its time, leaving you with another little hole in your week, one less welcome distraction from the stresses and insanity of the “real world” you call your life. For a show to maintain its integrity and unstinting standards of quality for over fourteen years, through numerous iterations and across several different networks, is damned near unprecedented, and yet that’s what happened.
And this Saturday night, it’s coming to an end.
The final episode of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, “Destroyer,” airs this Saturday at 10:30 p.m. While the easiest route would be to rail on about the injustice of such a fantastic show not being picked up while far inferior programs stay on the air, let’s instead try to stay positive and take a brief walk down memory lane with JLU and its four predecessors, a truly remarkable body of work both in its depth, its scope, its wit and its intelligence.
Longtime readers may remember me telling the story about the first time I saw an episode of the new BATMAN animated series in ’92, at the WonderCon in Oakland. As I sat in the darkened conference room and watched Batman and Man-Bat engage in a fistfight of unprecedented brutality (at least for TV animation at the time), I remember thinking “There’s no way this will ever get on television.” Instead, as the next couple of years went by, we were treated to episode after episode of smart, suspenseful action, brought to us by a group of creators who clearly understood the character and cleverly synthesized the best of every previous interpretation of the concept with plenty of their own innovation, coming up with what many people still consider to be the ultimate statement on the character.
With visually striking designs of the classic Batman rogues’ gallery, as well as the creation of several all-new characters like Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya whose popularity would lead to their introduction in the comics as well, the BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES designers (particularly Bruce Timm and Kevin Nowlan) reconceptualized the Batman universe for a whole generation. But it wasn’t just the pretty pictures. Under the pen of producers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini, the scripts were tense, briskly paced affairs, with an emphasis on keeping Batman a mysterious, intimidating force and a penchant for moody, somber tragedies explaining just how the villains came to their unfortunate lines of work. Completing the puzzle was the acting, under the direction of Andrea Romano, who cleverly and correctly eschewed the use of traditional “cartoon” voice artists in favor of stage- and film-trained character actors, who gave the performances a heart and edge and reality that transcended their pen-and-ink origins.
After BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES’ 80 episodes had come and gone, fans feared that the good times were gone — instead, we were treated to an unexpected reprieve: THE SUPERMAN/BATMAN ADVENTURES. The BTAS production team had been reunited, with the addition of designer Glen Murakami, who with executive producer Bruce Timm redesigned the Batman cast from top to bottom, giving them a sleek new angularity that proved to be as controversial as it was successful. To go with the new look came a new status quo, with a grown-up Dick Grayson, a full-time Batgirl and a new, younger Robin working with an even more stoic and taciturn Batman. Accompanying THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES was the brand-new SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, in which Timm, Dini and company gave Superman the same treatment they had earlier given Batman, reconceptualizing Superman’s villains and taking a back-to basics approach to Superman himself, with a series that drew equal inspiration from the comics, the movies and the original Fleischer theatrical animation. The SUPERMAN series also gave us the best translation of Jack Kirby’s FOURTH WORLD characters, with its limited but oh-so-expertly played use of Darkseid as the series’ ultimate villain.
Before THE SUPERMAN/BATMAN ADVENTURES had even left the airwaves, we were treated to a bold new direction for the DC Animated Universe with BATMAN BEYOND, a futuristic new series set some 50 years after the events of THE BATMAN/SUPERMAN ADVENTURES, in which troubled teen Terry McGinnis is grudgingly mentored as Gotham’s new Batman by an elderly, decrepit and extremely bitter Bruce Wayne. On the face of it, it sounds like the worst kind of pandering to a kiddie audience, introducing a “teen Batman,” but instead BATMAN BEYOND produced some of the DC Animated Universe’s best episodes, combining an even darker tone with a cold, almost cyberpunk style and the same consistently high quality in the writing. In a bold move, the producers didn’t fall back on the crutch of just cranking out futuristic versions of Batman’s familiar villains, instead creating an all-new rogues gallery for Gotham’s new Dark Knight.
When BATMAN BEYOND ended, DC Animated Universe fans feared the worst — until the news that had been rumored for years was finally announced: Bruce Timm and his crew were producing an all-new JUSTICE LEAGUE series to air on Cartoon Network. An ambitious project, and the producers approached it audaciously, turning out two full seasons of two-part hourlong episodes, giving the series a scope and dimension that the previous productions weren’t able to take advantage of. Balancing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl in a single series wasn’t easy, but the production team pulled it off, giving us a grand-circle tour of the DC Universe on screen, and along the way pulling off some surprising bits of characterization that bore most satisfying fruit towards the end of the series. And how about that ending — closing out the series with STARCROSSED, a straight-to-DVD film that turned the entire series on its ear, and seemed to mark the end of the DC Animated Universe.
Luckily, we received yet another unexpected reprieve with the production of JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, possibly best described as “Justice League on Steroids,” in which the Justice League expanded to put-near every DC superhero you can think of, with only a few notable exceptions. Even better, while the first season of the series concentrated on shorter episodic adventures to introduce the flurry of new characters, the second season provided a remarkable season-spanning story arc involving the League’s increasing distance from the planet they had sworn to protect, and a fearful government’s irrational decisions that follow. While the current season hasn’t had quite the emotional weight that last season did, the sheer giddy joy of seeing the Legion of Doom back on television engaging in a 13-episode rumble with the Justice League is a distinct pleasure all its own.
–The snowglobe slowly coming to a stop as Mr. Freeze’s icy fingers frost it over in “Heart of Ice.” (BTAS)
–The sudden, heartwrenching shock of Darkseid murdering Dan Turpin before the eyes of a horrified Metropolis. (STAS)
–The haunted look on a middle-aged Bruce Wayne’s face after he’s forced to defend himself with a handgun. (BB)
–Hawkgirl finally taking off her helmet for her first kiss with John Stewart. (JL)
–The Joker, taunting Batman as he escapes through a steel refinery: “You’re gonna melt like a grilled-cheese sandwich!” (BTAS)
–Batman singing the classic torch-song “Am I Blue?” to return Wonder Woman’s humanity. (JLU)
–Harley and Ivy’s demented Christmas shopping spree courtesy of a mind-controlled Bruce Wayne. (TNBA)
–Batman’s jaunty wave to a pajama-clad Clark Kent, only seconds after he’s learned Superman’s secret identity. (STAS)
–The note-perfect adaptation of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s MAD LOVE to animation. (TNBA)
–Seeing Superman fly alongside the Blackhawk squadron over the beaches of Normandy. (JL)
–Batman sitting at the controls of a kamikaze Watchtower, as he plans to take it in for a final attack against the Thanagrian’s central base. His final words to J’onn and Flash as he tricks them into the escape pods; “Gentlemen. It has been an honor.” (JL)
–The horror of a tortured and brainwashed Tim Drake killing the Joker before Batman’s eyes. (BB)
–Robin, to Batman, after remarking that the new costumed criminal Lock-Up had been hired by the Gotham prison system through one of Bruce Wayne’s charitable organizations: “Another fine villain, brought to you courtesy of a grant from the Wayne Foundation.” (BTAS)
–The Question’s heavily Ditko-influenced speech to Lex Luthor, explaining why he’s about to kill him. (JLU)
There are countless others I could mention. I can’t think of a single group of people who have collectively conspired to bring more joy through my television screen for such a prolonged period of time. To Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Glen Murakami, Dwayne McDuffie, James Tucker, Stan Berkowitz, Matt Wayne, Rich Fogel, Andrea Romano, and the hundreds of others whose names we never learned who labored so long to create such magic every week: thank you. Thanks for a job incredibly well done.