The first thing I think of when I think about animation based on comic books is the Fleischer shorts from the 40s. Even as a kid, while I didn’t really connect with them emotionally, there was something about them that felt foundational that I did connect with.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
I mean, what is there to say about this show that hasn’t been said before. It’s great. It’s really THE defining Batmanseries. I mean everything I gave Spectacular Spider-Man credit for with the way they built to Eddie Brocks turn into Venom, BtAS did over 15 years earlier with Two-Face. They turned Mr. Freeze, previously a nothing character, into an amazing tragic villain. Invented Harley Quinn from whole cloth. And presented so many iconic versions of these characters. Kevin Conroy is still Batman; Mark Hamill is still The Joker.
This is first series I’ve listed here that really took strong direct influence from those Fleischer cartoons. As much as this series was coming on the heels of Tim Burton’s Batman, BtAS‘s version of Gotham feels much more like Fleisher’s gothic Metropolis than it does Burton’s Gotham. And the way the animators successfully pulled from that well made the series feel instantly classic and iconic. This series (And other Warner Bros. Cartoons from this era) was just operating on a higher level animation wise… when it was on. The show could also get pretty badly off model at times. (Which is what led to the style redesign for the series, and others going forward, to the more streamlined look that now defines Timm.)
The opening to this series is just an amazing piece of animation, that functions as a great 1 minute Batman short film to get you in the mood. The only way it could have been better is if their Tim Drake had actually been Tim Drake instead of Jason Todd.
Superman: The Animated Series (1996)
There is literally only one problem with Superman: The Animated Series: It’s not Batman. They set such a high standard with the previous series, and already took so much from old Superman stuff, that when they got around to putting it back into Superman, it didn’t have quite the same impact. They came out with an all time great show but everyone was all like “Yeah, of course you did. We’d be disappointed with anything less.”
There are some things that make it stand out: mostly that it’s here that they started to push harder into serialized storytelling, in a way that Batman never did. The way the series builds to Darkseid, and the way they go for it on that Fourth World craziness, together with the best animation in the whole series, it’s in-fucking-credible. Batman does a great job with characters and it sure has plenty of iconic set piece moments, but Superman is where they really started working with scale.
Clancy Brown is perfect as Luthor. Dana Delany is perfect as Lois. Michael Ironside is perfect as Darkseid.
Jimmy Olsen kinda got the shaft though.
Batman Beyond (1998)
Batman Beyond starts with easily the best “end of Batman” scene I’ve ever seen: an older Batman, that’s had to make a super suit to keep fighting crime, has a heart attack in the middle of a fight and is forced to use a gun (Although he never fires it), and so he quits being Batman. This show successfully transitions its audience from it’s past to its future, in a way that say Spider-Man Unlimited doesn’t.
But the real secret to Batman Beyond is that it’s actually a Spider-Man show wrapped up in Batman and cyberpunk shit. Which is fair, basically every teenage superhero is a Spider-Man riff in some way, It’s just very amusing how all of Terry McGinnis’s enemies are Spider-Man analogues, I actually really like how far they go with it.
However, this is a show that starts out stronger than it ends. There’s a real strong focus and purpose to the first season (The first 13 episodes), but by the end of that Terry’s defeated the big bad. Then we have 39 episodes, that while good, just don’t go anywhere. The status quo improves, but after the focused first season the fallback to more episodic stories feels like kind of a let down that never really gets righted.
Justice League (2001) & Justice League Unlimited (2004)
I actually think the first season of Justice League is a little rough. They don’t have the character dynamics fully figured out and the plots don’t hit as hard as I feel like they should; things just don’t quite feel big enough.
A big part of that is the weird structure of the series, until it transitions over to Unlimited, all but one episode was at least a double episode. They’d set such a high bar for what justified a double episode in Batman and Superman, that the expectations for a double episode featuring both of them, plus other Superheroes, was really goddamn high. Let me put it this way: Superman hit its biggest highs with Darkseid, and Darkseid doesn’t show up until season 2. But by the end of season one, with Vandal Savage feeding himself information through time so that he can win World War 2, they’re got it figured out and season 2 keeps the train rolling. Season 2 is just banger after banger.
Justice League Unlimited is a little more inconsistent. Partly because of the giant roster expansion, with the flood gates fully open. Some of the best episodes are in there. Season 1 does a real great job at getting back to episodic stories in a way that works; they adapt “For the Man Who Has Everything,” there’s a great Booster Gold episode, and we get a crazy time travel double episode that bring back some Batman Beyond stuff. There’s also some good payoff of repercussions from past adventures. Season 2 goes heavily into this by getting back into building an ongoing story, with Lex Luthor running for president, and the repercussions of the Justice Lords story.
However, season 2 also ends with the worst episode of the series, a terrible and completely unnecessary Batman BeyondEpilogue. As much as I hold that that series needed a better ending, it didn’t need this retcon bullshit. It needed a buildup with Terry facing off against his own enemy, whether that was Blight again or someone new.
Season 3 also builds its own story, with Lex Luthor and the Secret Society as a complete, giant evil Justice League. There are a few episodes that don’t quite work for me, but the build is still good and there are plenty of great moments. And while I don’t think it ends on the best note, it’s not a great ex machina, the spectacle of the final fight is soooooo good.
Also bearded Superman is the best.