Go back to the Toons of the 2000s Intro.
It begins under a full moon. Gotham is enjoying a rare, crime-free night. The cops in their patrol zeppelin are alone with the clouds and their boredom. Then, from nowhere, a swift, shadowy creature soars through the sky. “You see that?” one of the cops cries. Yes, we do. But it’s not quite what we think it will turn out to be.
So begins “On Leather Wings,” the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series, and the launching point of the DC Animated Universe. And those who tuned in expecting to see just another superhero cartoon, like He-Man or Superfriends, quickly learned not to trust their own expectations.
After sixteen years of fan comment and criticism, it’s hard to write about the DCAU without recapitulating the same familiar points: its taut action and psychological depth; its fecundity of wit and imagination; its solidly crafted but easily accessible mythos.
But pictures are better than words, and particulars can stand for the whole. Here are 10 episodes that illustrate the DCAU’s virtues.
Few DCAU episodes were written specifically for children, and the producers populated the “ghetto” of “afternoon cartoons” with complex characters and stories you wouldn’t expect to to find there.
Batman: The Animated Series: “Heart of Ice”
Season 1, Episode 14
Plot: Mr. Freeze, embarks on a crime spree, stealing equipment from the company owned by the sleazy CEO who caused the accident that destroyed his life. Freeze intends to enact his revenge by sealing Ferris Boyle in his corporate headquarters, along with all of his innocent employees. Batman’s sympathy is with Freeze, but he must first stop him carrying out his chilling vendetta.
The studio blocked the producers from using any Batman characters in Justice League Unlimited. They made a virtue of necessity, and elevated beloved and oft-times overlooked C-List characters from the mainstream DC Comics continuity.
Justice League Unlimited: “Greatest Story Never Told”
Season 1, Episode 8
Plot: Booster Gold is on “crowd control” while the rest of the Justice League engages in an epic battle with Mordu in downtown Metropolis.
Forced to introduce a younger Batman to appeal to a kid audience, the producers paired a teenager with a sour past with an aged and disillusioned Bruce Wayne in a series that was possibly darker than the original.
Batman Beyond: “Rebirth”
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2
Plot: It’s the dawn of a new age and a new Batman. Terry McGinnis has discovered a dark secret. Bruce Wayne was Batman. After his father is killed, McGinnis uncovers a plot by Wayne-Powers CEO, Derek Powers, to sell an airborne bacterium to a bio-terrorist. After unsuccessfully pleading with the elderly Wayne for help, he steals Batsuit from the Batcave. Terry plans to stop Derek Powers and find the man who killed his father. But what will Bruce Wayne do?
Death? Go heartwarming! Put in a scene reminiscent of Old Yeller between Hawk Girl and Solomon Grundy.
Justice League: “The Terror Beyond”
Season 2, Episodes 39 and 40
Plot: After Aquaman frees Solomon Grundy, Hawkgirl and the Justice League are convinced that the Lord of Atlantis has gone rogue. But when the trail leads them to the mysterious Dr. Fate, they discover there is more to this strange partnership than meets the eye.
Alternately, make the death scene powerful. Make it sudden. Make it hurt.
Superman: “Apokolips … Now!”
Season 2, Episodes 33 and 35
Plot: Darkseid brings his battle against Superman to Earth. Orion, an escapee from Apokolips’ firepits, teams up with Superman to stave off Darkseid’s advances. After Steppenwolf, a hunter from Apokolips, joins the battle to conquer Earth, a crushing blow is dealt to Metropolis and Superman in the death of a friend.
There was much great, original material in the DCAU series, but they also made some first-class adaptations from the source material.
Batman: The Animated Series: “The Laughing Fish”
Plot: The Joker develops a chemical which induces “Joker” smiles on fish. He then visits the Gotham copyright offices, demanding a copyright for his Joker fish. When the frightened bureaucrats tell him that such a copyright is impossible, he threatens to kill them one-by-one until he gets what he wants.
But sometimes adaptation ran the other way, and characters created for the cartoon made their way back into the mainstream comics continuity.
Batman: The Animated Series: “Harlequinade”
Plot: Batman and Robin form an uneasy alliance with Harley Quinn in hopes of discovering the location of a pilfered atomic bomb. She takes them on a madcap hunt through Gotham, ending with a deadly showdown with the Clown Prince of Crime himself. Torn between her promise to help Batman and her twisted love for the Joker, what will Harley do?
All good things must come to an end, but you should always leave the audience wanting more. What better way to do that by throwing in a twist and leaving Earth’s greatest hero hated and mistrusted by the society he has sworn to protect.
Season 4, Episodes 53 and 54
Plot: Darkseid strips Superman of his memory, adopts him as a son and uses him as a tool in his efforts to bring the citizens of Earth to their knees.
Intricate continuities are the bane of contemporary comics. The animated series kept its stories relatively discrete while keeping fans happy with subtle asides and allusions to their connections.
Batman Beyond: “The Call”
Season 3, Episodes 50 and 51
Plot: Terry joins the Justice League at the behest of Superman who suspects there is a traitor amongst the team. Batman ferrets out the turncoat and the reason behind the traitorous behavior, with the episode culminating in a one-on-one battle between Batman and one of the greatest heroes of all time. The results of the fray lead to lasting repercussions for the dark knight and the Justice League.
Or maybe you just close the circle without quite tying it off.
Justice League Unlimited: “Epilogue”
Season 2, Episode 26
Plot: Fifteen years after the final episode of Batman Beyond, the stories of Batman, Superman, the Justice League and Cadmus converge and reveal secrets of Terry’s past. What will his future hold?