In 2014, Warner Bros. released Justice League: War built on the New 52 continuity. This was the first installment in what has so far become eight films revolving around the DC Universe, using Batman as the foundation for its existence.
All eight films use somewhat mature language, some with sexual innuendo, and doesn’t cater to young children, but rather the young adult/full adult demographic that DC often bets on (look no further than Batman v Superman as evidence). This might be the reason Warner Bros. decided against a theatrical release, whereas The LEGO Batman Movie got one since it allowed for a much younger audience, ultimately helping ticket sales. What’s noteworthy though, is that all eight movies of the DC Animated Movie Universe are done so thoroughly, a theatrical release for each could have stood on their own legs. The animation and voice work is simply outstanding and it’s obvious a lot of planning has gone into making each movie a piece of something larger. Running concomitantly to the gatherings of the Justice League is a broad Bat family storyline that ultimately centers on Damian Wayne as he transitions from the messed-up world of Ra’s al Ghul to the, erhm, well, slightly less messed up world of Bruce Wayne. And make no mistake, Damian is at least on equal footing as the Justice League in this universe. In many ways, it’s his coming-out party that will in the future lay the groundwork for him being included in the actual cinematic universe.
The structure of the DCAMU is one that stands solid. You understand by the second installment, Son of Batman, that the Bat Family is the true center of it all – a correct bet by DC/Warner – and the Justice League comes in as a secondary thing, especially after Batman vs. Robin that introduces the Court of Owls. Batman, Robin (Damian), and Nightwing are more fleshed out than Superman for example, which remains my one gripe with the franchise, but we’ll get back to that.
Having clear lines drawn up makes this universe function, even if it could be argued that launching the franchise with Batman solely would have made more sense in terms of creating clarity. While staying in touch with a small army of characters, the latest being the Teen Titans, DC keeps the door open to dig deeper into whomever they want. In War, Cyborg develops over the course of the film, and in Justice League: Throne of Atlantis Aquaman is, obviously, the center of attention. Having the ability to also re-visit characters in later movies after initially meeting them provides unique opportunities in giving them more screen time. Here, the Teen Titans roster present a wonderful example. Their first film, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, introduced us to Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy, and Blue Beetle. In it, Raven ended up carrying the movie with the rest of the group being brought along at a slower pace, but at least getting enough input to set themselves up for larger future roles, which is the case with Beast Boy, and to some extent Blue Beetle and Starfire, in Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.
The DCAMU even offered Justice League Dark, a cavalcade of characters who are universally lesser known, such as Deadman and Swamp Thing. Having Batman spearhead the line-up might seem a bit cheap on the surface, given that Constantin and Zatanna are well-enough established to carry such a movie, but in today’s world of instant-gratification media, you need to use one of your big guns to establish secondary characters.
(The counter point to that is Guardians of the Galaxy, but at this point Marvel could introduce a completely unknown character never seen before in comics, and the movie would likely earn $500 million.)
Now let’s pick up on Superman. Despite appearing in half the movies, he remains only vaguely developed. In some ways, I’m inclined to forgive that seeing as developing Supes is practically impossible. Make him too serious, and people tune out due to negativity. Make him too optimistic, and everything seems too easy for him given his powers. Striking that balance requires literal perfection, and so far, no one has really nailed it (Sorry, Richard Donner fans). He’s due being the emotional center of the next Justice League installment, and almost out of necessity. Superman, to me at least, is the one link that needs to be explored simply due to his role in DC’s history. Regardless of how difficult he is to develop, we can all agree that a Justice League without Superman will always lack a certain punch. As such, he need to be prioritized.
To be fair, however, I think the writers got caught in a bind a little bit with Supes as well. In the New 52, he’s romantically linked to Wonder Woman, and on the big screen he and Lois Lane have had more than their fair share of scenes establishing his undying love for her that comes first, second, and last. That contrast is difficult to toy with, as it would create a lot of confusion for the average viewer. In Throne of Atlantis, an awkward diner scene might be the starting point to changing the dynamics between Clark and Diana, but it needs to be written well for those two to maintain a professional relationship when fighting off aliens and supervillains.
Is the DCAMU perfect? No, but even with some flaws to some key players (The Flash and Green Lantern could also use some attention) the franchise is extremely well done, and you consistently sense the continuation from one movie to the other. Each flick beautifully captures the feeling of it being a part of something larger, and making the more grounded Bat Family the woven fabric of it all adds a level of normal day humanity to the stories, which wouldn’t have been the case had we gone to Oa or entered the Speed Force right off the bat. Making Earth the castle in need of defending makes you more inclined to be emotionally connected to the plot, whereas immediate deep trips into space would have been disengaging.
It’s a time commitment to go through all eight (each are between 72 to 84 minutes) but it’s worth every second if you enjoy shared universe stories that take you on visits to the corners of the DCU, while always bringing you back to the key players. Personally, I recommend to not binge them Netflix-style. Take a day to let each one settle before moving on to the next, because the emotional setting changes for each movie, given the change in lead character. Batman: Bad Blood is moderately dark and deals with breaking family ties, so following that up with a more optimistic teenage-humored Justice League vs. Teen Titans would not give either movie a chance to stand on its own merit. For your own experience’s sake, implement a 24-hour rule.
The viewing order is as follows:
Justice League: Throne of Atlantis
Justice League vs. Teen Titans
Teen Titans: The Judas Contract