The extended DC film universe has only been around since 2013 with Man of Steel. The movie was meant as a dark reinterpretation of the Superman mythos and the DC universe as a whole. This has worked at times (Wonder Woman), and failed miserably at others (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). The DCEU wants to think their versions of DC characters are mature and dark, but they’ve got nothing on the DC animated films that have been coming out for the last decade.
Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and the rest of the Justice League have been popping up in way more movies than anyone really realized. Quietly, Warner Bros. animation has been pumping out a series of incredibly engaging (and increasingly dark) DC animated films that have done a better job of embracing mature themes and situations than anything in the live-action films have yet to manage. Going everywhere from analyzing the darker character motivations that drive them, bloodily dispatching side characters, and just being all around nuts, the DC animated films have been providing some of the darkest material that these heroes have ever seen. Here are fifteen moments from the DC animated films that are darker than anything in the DCEU. And warnings now: some light spoilers follow below, but everyone should still check these out.
15 Batman’s Son Isn't Enthusiastic About Being A Superhero (Son Of Batman)
In the DC universe, Batman has been, well, a chick magnet. Almost every major DC female character has been teased romantically with him at some point. But in Batman’s eyes, there have only ever really been two women who really got his attention: Gotham thief with a heart of gold Catwoman, and the brilliant and dangerous daughter of Ra’s al Ghul, Talia. While Catwoman is usually portrayed as the one he’ll end up (if he ends up with anyone), Batman’s relationship with Talia is still incredibly intense, as on display in Batman & Son.
For all their differences, the two are drawn to each other. And in one such moment nine years ago, Bruce maybe got a little drunk and ended up sleeping with Talia – and nine months later, she secretly gave birth to their son, Damian. Damian is raised by Talia as a ruthless assassin (because of course he is), and she taught him the importance of not holding back. This naturally annoys Batman and his whole “no killing” thing when they meet. And how do we know Damian’s thoughts on murder? Because less than five minutes into the movie, Damian has multiple kills. It happens during the black-ops/ninja battle sequence that opens the film (also you guys these movies are kind of amazing), where Damian manages to nab a gun and shoot down a number of soldiers while rushing to his Grandfather’s aid. This is a movie that starts with Robin just cold shooting guys.
14 Multiple Villains Meet Pretty Horrifying Ends (Assault On Arkham)
Suicide Squad was a disappointing chapter in the DCEU, squandering one of the most complex and interesting set of characters from the comics and managing to make the Joker/Harley Quinn relationship even somehow creepier. And what makes it extra hilarious is that just two years earlier, an animated film about the Squad managed to be roughly fifty times better, called Batman: Assault on Arkham. One of the crazier aspects of the Suicide Squad in general is that the government official who’s conscripted these super villains into performing dangerous missions for the government (namely, Amanda Waller) straps a little bomb to the base of their skulls, and threatens to blow the bomb if the criminals ever step out of line.
In Suicide Squad, we see thing trick pulled once, at the corner of the screen and in the dark. In Assault on Arkham, we see multiple people get their heads blown up (RIP, KGBeast). There’s a plot point in the movie where the Squad gets Riddler to diffuse the bombs with an electroshock machine, which catches Waller’s attention and makes her activate the bombs. The shock worked, well, for the most part, and another character we’ve been following all film has his head slowly and painfully explode on screen. This is then followed by some goof called Tarantula (who Batman switched costumes with to infiltrate the Squad) getting cornered by the Joker and then his head explodes too. And Joker’s reaction is one of the best dark gags DC has ever told.
13 Harley Quinn Seduces Nightwing (Batman & Harley Quinn)
Harley Quinn has one of the strangest developments as a character in the history of DC comics. And considering that’s a franchise that once tried to make a breakdancing Hispanic stereotype into a respectable character, that’s saying something. She’s transformed from a gag character into one of the mainline DC creations in just over twenty years, and it’s strange to see the elements that have been embraced versus the ones that haven’t. One of her creators, Bruce Timm, made Batman & Harley Quinn in part due to the new interpretations of the character.
The Joker never appears in the film, which instead focuses on Batman and former-Robin-gone-solo Nightwing recruiting Harley to help them stop her friend Poison Ivy’s plans. Also, Harley sort of ties a guy up and seduces him, which seems like the opposite of weird, psycho murder Harley we got in Suicide Squad. See, at one point, Harley captures Nightwing and handcuffs him to her bed in her studio apartment while trying to think of what to do with him. But during all this, she notes that it’s cute that he’s Robin “all grown up” and notices just how cute Nightwing is. So she turns off the lights and joins him in bed. It's a flirty and sexy scene that plays into their relationship for the rest of the movie. Compared to Superman jumping into a bath fully clothed, this scene manages to be more seductive and sultry.
12 Brainwashed Batman (Batman: Bad Blood)
There have actually been two follow-up films to Batman & Son, exploring Damian’s growing maturity and Batman’s relationship with him. In the third film of the series, Batman is captured early in the run time by agents of Talia. He then spends most of the rest of the movie being quietly manipulated by Talia, in part due to his time being mentally and spiritually broken by her in the early part of the film. Even in the DCEU, the villain’s master plan to break the heroes have usually fallen to simple speeches and maybe a vision of a skull mountain. Talia’s act is far more brutal, going into his mind and tearing it apart. Even his memories are used against him like a twisted Inception, and the lasting effects it has on Batman is felt throughout the film – building to a moment where Talia tries to force him to shoot Nightwing. Incapable of fighting the conditioning for long, Batman actually turns the gun on himself and almost goes through with it. He’s saved at the last second, but it’s horrifying how deep-seated the mental control she had on him was.
11 Meet A Superman With No Limits (Superman Vs. The Elite)
One of the common criticisms of Superman is that he’s an outdated relic of a bygone era. His steadfast clean morality doesn’t work with the darker shades of grey that modern stories like to incorporate. That conversation has been explored in Man of Steel, but it’s done much more succinctly in Superman vs. The Elite. The movie centers around Superman having to deal with The Elite, a new superhero team that is fine killing their enemies. They spend a good portion of the movie trying to break Superman and force his hand, gleefully attacking everything about him. But then, it happens. He snaps. And then Superman gets scary. He creates a wind tunnel that sucks the oxygen out of their lungs. He drags someone into orbit, and leaves them there. He ruins a city, just to get to the bad guy. It’s revealed that he was faking it all in an attempt to scare the lesson into the bad guy’s head, but it’s still way more frightening and provocative than Henry Cavill snapping Zod’s neck and then crying about it.
10 A Teenager Tries To Hook Up With A Grown Man (Teen Titans: The Judas Contract)
One of the darkest character turns in the DC universe came with the Teen Titans supporting character, Terra. A seemingly friendly member of the Teen Titans with powers over the earth, she’s revealed to be a spiteful and mean young woman who’s actually a spy for Deathstroke, an assassin hired to bring down the team in Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. But it’s not just her attitude that’s darker than most characters. Her appetite is also a little more specific than the more average characters of the movie. While meeting up with Deathstroke, Terra ends up surprising him in his control room. She’s scantily clad, and trying very hard to get his attention away from attacking teenage superheroes. Deathstroke, to his credit, isn’t all that interested in it.
9 Bane Buries Batman Alive – With His Dead Dad (Justice League: Doom)
Justice League: Doom sees a number of different villains unite under the leadership of immortal bad guy, Vandal Savage. To defeat the Justice League, Savage is able to help the villains learn about plans Batman had constructed to take down any member of the League that went out of control. It doesn’t take long for the villains to set the plans in motion, bringing the League to the verge of defeat. But since there’s no Batman plan in place (he is the one who wrote the files, after all), the bad guys leave it to Bane to deal with him. So, to keep Batman busy and out of contact with the League, Bane surprises Bruce when he’s visiting his parents' grave for his annual “sad and in the rain” pity party. He knocks Batman out, and then traps him in a coffin alongside the bones of his father. This is way darker than anything that happened in the Nolan Batman movies.
8 Batman Vs. The Cops (Batman: Year One)
Batman: Year One is an adaptation of Frank Miller’s landmark Batman book, Year One. It’s one of the most important comics ever created, and helped shape the next twenty five years of superhero stories. The film adaptation is also a really solid movie in its own right. One of the major aspects of the film is Batman’s early battles with the corrupt Gotham PD, a story beat that was also approached by Christopher Nolan in Batman Begins. But where the police corruption was limited to a single bad dude who stole food in Nolan’s film, it’s almost the entire department in Year One. And most of them jump at the chance to help bring down Batman during a massive raid on a building that leaves civilians dead and Batman just ruining a bunch of corrupt cops. It’s a shocking scene even today to see Batman in straight-up fights with cops, even ones who break the law. This is also a Batman who can kick a roof down onto some jerk cops, which is pretty incredible.
7 Evil Batman Tries To Blow Everything Up – Literally (Justice League: Crisis On Two Earths)
In superhero franchises, the concept of the multiverse is usually used as a way to introduce fun, quirky versions of our favorite heroes. It’s a trope recently introduced in Flash, and is at the core of Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. In this movie, the League is recruited to fight against their evil counterparts from an alternate dimension, called the Crime Syndicate. For the most part, they’re just twisted versions of the heroes. But evil Batman – known as Owlman – is revealed to be a nihilistic monster. He decides to try and use the universe hopping device to try and essentially destroy all of existence, because he’s mad there are other people like him in the universe. He and Batman get into a karate and bomb fight for a bit, and he ends up stranded on a frozen world with a bomb about to go off. It’s a much darker villain than the Enchantress.
6 Gotham Goes Mad (Justice League: Dark)
Justice League Dark utilizes many of the DC characters that most adaptions wouldn’t even come close to approaching, by showcasing the mystical and horror-themed characters teaming up with Batman to fight off some evil threats to the world. One of the most interesting things happens at the beginning of the movie, where the citizens of Gotham have their perspectives warped and twisted, so that they only see other people as monsters and demons. The city soon devolves into violence and crazed murder attempts, especially towards children. Batman is able to save some people, but the things they almost did (like raising a shotgun to their family or a new mother tossing her kid off the side of a roof) are terrifying in their own right.
5 Batgirl Has A Rough Time Of It (Batman: The Killing Joke)
Killing Joke is one of the most controversial Batman stories of all time, and not without reason. The book – released at roughly the same time as Batman: Year One – ushered a new kind of Joker into the comics. This story and Death of the Family cemented the idea that no one is a worse villain than Joker. After sleeping with Batman on top of a rooftop after getting into a shouting match, Batgirl almost loses control and murders a baddie. She decides to take a break and goes to visits her father Jim Gordon. And that’s when Joker shows up, and shoots her in the stomach. The shot paralyzes her, and is only the first part of his plan for her. Seriously, none of the DCEU characters have gone through half of what Batgirl has to deal with in just a few days. This is darker than anything the live action movie creators have ever done.
4 Joker Catches Himself A Robin (Batman: Under the Red Hood)
So, yeah, about the whole Death of a Family thing. See, by this point in the comics the first Robin has left the position to become Nightwing. His role was taken by Jason Todd, a harsher and angrier young man. Jason wasn’t as smart as his predecessor, and ended up going out on his own one time. And unfortunately, that’s when the Joker finds him. This is the opening of Batman: Under the Red Hood, which sees Joker use a crowbar to just ruin Jason before leaving him to die in an explosion. It’s an absolutely brutal turn of events, and does a better job of making the Joker a horrifying villain than the entirety of Suicide Squad could muster. Don’t worry about Robin, though. He comes back to life as basically the Punisher, because that’s what happens in superhero stories.
3 The Sad Story Of John Wilson (Justice League: The New Frontier)
The New Frontier might be one of the strongest DC animated films. An adaption of Darwyn Cooke’s beautifully designed miniseries, the series explores a Justice League that forms in the 1950s. As with the era, elements of real world chafe against the heroes. Things like the Korean War and the Space Race become major factors in the narrative, but one subplot explores racism through a superhero lens. Throughout the movie, news reports tell the audience about a man in the American South, fighting back against the KKK in his home area as the superhero, John Henry. But he’s eventually caught and murdered by the racists he fought in the first place. It’s especially heartbreaking when his origin is discovered – he was a family man who survived the lynching and burning of his family, and set out for revenge. His unjust death even makes Flash consider retiring as a hero. It’s a powerful moment (which is fifty times better in the comics, though it’ll make you cry), and the kind of complex, dark moment that the DCEU has yet to even approach.
2 Wonder Woman Is A Cold Blooded Killer (Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox)
We aren't joking. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox sees the Flash try to alter the past and save his mother’s life. He succeeds, but the effect has an expanding effect on reality as a whole, shifting the present into a dark world of nonstop war and no hope. A fledgling Justice League struggles to protect the world, especially from the destructive ramifications of the war between Wonder Woman and Aquaman. At the climax, the heroes fail to stop the war, and everyone falls in battle. But the most brutal moment comes when Wonder Woman manages to take down Shazam into his normal form of a young pre-teen named Billy Batson. And to keep him from changing back, she runs him through with a broken sword. Even broken, it still does the trick. Superman killing Zod may be surprising, but it’s got nothing on Wonder Woman here.
1 Every Last Bit Of Justice League (Justice League: Gods & Monsters)
This movie, created as a dark alternative Elseworld story to the DC Universe, is an interesting experiment. It takes the main three heroes of the DC universe (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman), and twists their characters into morally conflicted and darker versions of them around a murder mystery that’s genuinely interesting. The three are a more brutal Justice League, willing to cross lines and push boundaries. This movie includes a brutal hunt for scientists around the world. There’s even a love triangle between a girl, a mad genius, and a science-vampire in between the scenes where goofy concepts like Mister Miracle takes part in a bloody coup. These are versions of the characters that are just dark to their very core, and it's fascinating to see how they operate as a result. It’s one of the darkest things to ever come out of DC, and WAY bigger than anything that the DCEU has thrown at audiences.