In recent years, superhero movies have bridged the gap between animated movies and their live-action counterparts. That said, there’s still a lot of superpowered action that remains better represented in animation that cameras simply can’t capture.
While Marvel has a clear advantage when it comes to the quality of its live-action movies, DC has been killing it when it comes to animated features. From the Justice League to the ever-present Batman, the animated adventures of these caped superhumans are something to behold.
The Best Animated Superhero Movies
Batman: Hush (2019)
Gotham’s Caped Crusader is known as a man that’s always shrouded in mystery. Imagine just how shocked he was when he faced Hush: a new player in Gotham’s crime world that seems to know every one of Batman’s secrets. Based on one of DC’s most popular Batman adventures, 2019’s Batman: Hush is a great example of how to do a comic book adaptation properly.
This film includes many of Batman’s gallery of rogues and even some familiar faces from the larger DC universe. Unfortunately for fans of Batman: The Animated Series, legendary actors Kevin Conroy (Batman) and Mark Hamill (The Joker) are missing from this movie. Still, it’s one of the best animated superhero movies out there.
All-Star Superman (2011)
The Man of Steel is one of the most popular superheroes in the world, and 2011’s All-Star Superman might be one of the Kryptonian’s most touching stories to date. After Superman saves the crew of the first manned mission to the sun, he becomes deathly ill due to the solar radiation. This, however, is just part of Lex Luthor’s ultimate plan to get rid of Superman once and for all.
Based on one of Superman’s most acclaimed comics, All-Star Superman is a touching ending to the life and feats of the Man of Steel. While there are some pivotal deviations from the source material, critics still praised this animated adaptation. It’s definitely one of the best animated superhero movies.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Not every superhero movie stars some burly man in tights and cape: some of them feature tiny Lego figures from virtually every Warner Brothers franchise. The Lego Batman Movie stars Will Arnett as a Lego version of the Caped Crusader, and he’s just the first in the long list that is this film’s star-studded cast.
This original story follows Batman as he learns to depend more on the help of others and also takes a look at his love/hate relationship with The Joker, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. The movie is also a treasure trove of references for fans of DC to spot, and even some more obscure ones that can only be caught in repeat watches.
Planet Hulk (2010)
One of the most criminally underrepresented comic book heroes in live-action movies, Planet Hulk is one of the Incredible Hulk’s best storylines to date. While the events of the “Planet Hulk” arc were partially adapted in the MCU film Thor: Ragnarok, this animated adaptation shows us the whole story of Hulk’s out-of-this-world adventure.
When he is ejected into space, the Hulk lands on an alien planet ruled by a powerful tyrant known as the Red King. Seeing his superhuman skills for combat, the Red King puts the Hulk in his arena, where he must learn to fight alongside new allies if he hopes to survive this brave new world.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)
While the live-action adaptations of the Suicide Squad have been, let’s say, bumpy, the morally dubious superteam has had better luck in the realm of animated flicks. 2018’s Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay reunites the team to carry out a high-stakes heist, one that could very easily cost them their lives.
Featuring the voice talents of Christian Slater and Tara Strong, Hell to Pay is one of the finest adventures starring the group of oddballs that is the Suicide Squad. Unlike the rest of the films we’ve seen on this list so far, this movie was rated R by the MPAA. Keep that in mind as you hear the impressive amount of profanity throughout the whole movie.
Wonder Woman (2009)
This Amazonian princess is undoubtedly the most popular superheroine in the world, so it’s only natural that there’s a DC animated movie entirely dedicated to her exploits. The plot of this animated film is very similar to Wonder Woman’s 20117 live-action movie, which is based on the revised origin story of this legendary character.
Wonder Woman follows Diana as she meets USAF Colonel Steve Trevor, eventually falling in love with the man and learning to care for the lives of mortals. Beautifully drawn and animated, this is a solid film that transcends the medium and stands as one of DC’s finest animated movies.
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Parts I & II (2012 & 2013)
Ok, we might be cheating a bit for this one, but it’s impossible to talk about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I without mentioning its equally stunning sequel. Released in 2012 and 2013, these two animated films are an adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, a Batman story set in the not-so-distant future.
Tired and old, Bruce Wayne’s unending labour as Gotham’s defender is proving to be too much for just one man to handle. After a ten-year hiatus, Batman is ready to return to patrolling the nights; but can a 55 years-old Batman instil the same fear he once did?
As impressive as these animated movies are, we almost got what could only be described as a masterpiece. In the early 2000s, a live-action adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns was in the works, and the studio chose none other than Clint Eastwood to play the aged Bruce Wayne.
For many people, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns I & II are the best animated superhero movies ever. And we can’t disagree.
The Incredibles (2004)
Long before Disney acquired Marvel, the studio toyed with the idea of creating their own superhero team. The result was 2004’s The Incredibles. It might not feature any well-known superhuman, but this family of supers is one of the most soulful superhero teams in the business.
Considered one of Pixar’s finest movies by many critics, this film proves that you don’t need brand recognition to develop a successful superhero flick. A touching look at what a superhero family would look like, this is a film that you should definitely watch at least once, even if you’re not all that big on superheroes.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
One of the main reasons why animated superhero movies are so appealing to fans is that it’s the closest you’ll get to a comic book brought to life. At least, that used to be the norm, until 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse broke the mould of what an animated superhero film could look like.
This is easily the most vibrant animated movie ever made: every frame of this movie could be considered a work of art, and the intriguing plot and charming characters are just the cherries on top of this amazing cinematic dessert. Into the Spider-Verse is a love letter to all of the things superheroes stand for and teaches us that a true hero can be found inside any of us.
Again, for many, it’s a choice between Into the Spider-Verse and The Dark Knight Returns for the title of best animated superhero movie ever.
Animated Superhero Movies & TV Shows Better Than Live-Action Versions
“How could they get it so wrong?” That’s the general attitude of fans whenever they watch live-action adaptations of their favourite comic books. Okay, maybe not all the time. There are plenty of adaptations which have been great. But even at the best of times, there are moments when fans may be disappointed by something which wasn’t shown properly. Either Wally West isn’t as interesting as he should be, or the World War II JSA is as far from the WW2 JSA as you could get, or Hawkeye wasn’t wearing enough purple, or, um, Thanos is on the throne again.
Then there are those times when they not only got the small things wrong but the big ones too. Maybe the entire script just stank or one of the biggest villains of all time came across as just a goof with a jar of peach tea.
So what’s the solution? Well, the most obvious is to read the comic books again. Or you could watch the animated superhero shows or movies rather, which will almost always get it right.
Don’t believe us? Check out these examples…
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes & Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Since it first came out, this film has received some flak for its weak story. Everyone loved James Spader’s voice as Ultron, yet strangely nobody has made a big deal about the Vision – and he’s supposed to be a huge character! So why not watch the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes stories where you see Ultron created (properly) by Hank Pym, becoming a sentient AI program whose plan to destroy humanity carries real weight, and where the Vision actually does things? It’s a huge ongoing story arc right from the beginning, but culminating with Ultron Unlimited where he tries to create Jocasta.
In that last episode alone, the Vision learns the value of human life the way he should. In fact, throughout the whole series, he becomes a well-rounded, likeable character. Ultron is a great villain too, struggling with its own contradictory level of humanity, and the battle which follows is just as much about human intelligence and guile as it is a slugfest. Oh, and Hawkeye talks about how great a hard-light holographic Captain America shield is… just like the one Agent Coulson is currently using in Agents Of SHIELD..
Superman: Last Son Of Krypton & Man Of Steel
Superman is the “nail” of the DC Universe, and his origin deserves to be told properly. Yet, Man of Steel didn’t do that, even if it chronicled planet Krypton’s final days, Clark Kent’s time in Smallville and his first public appearance as Superman. The Superman animated three-parter Superman: Last Son Of Krypton is vastly superior though, despite its seeming simplicity.
This is a perfect example of animated superhero movies being are better.
Do you want originality? Try Jor-El’s battle against Brainiac before Krypton explodes.
Do you want Clark learning life lessons in his youth? Check, and Jonathan Kent doesn’t even have to die for him to learn them either.
Clark’s first meeting with Lois is a classic and, while stopping a pre-Metallo John Corbin may seem lightweight compared to Zod, Superman’s future conflicts with Lex Luthor are teased to perfection. And this is still the best on-screen Lex ever. It introduces every character naturally and creates future plotlines with ease, as well as setting up the Lois and Clark relationship right off the bat thanks to an outstanding Jimmy Olsen moment (as opposed to just killing Jimmy once he’s shown up).
The Dark Knight Returns & Batman v Superman
It’s like Captain America: Civil War only more boring. Actually, it’s hard to know what the real problem is with this film because it’s hard to stay awake throughout its increasingly-bloated running time. Before you think that’s an unfair description of it, be honest – even Bruce Wayne can’t stay awake in this movie for the whole thing. Add to this the weak character development (or no character development, to be more accurate) and the poor motivation for Batman and Superman actually fighting, and there’s little reason to get excited. So why not look at the cartoons? The animated superhero movies are better.
If you want a Batman and Superman movie, there’s The Batman/Superman Movie. Or you could try the two-part animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns since that was the source material. Which, in turn, also featured briefly in the Batman Animated Series episode Legends Of The Dark Knight. The Superman vs. Doomsday fight came across better in the animated Superman: Doomsday, but if you want to get back to Batman v Superman then they even battled in Batman: The Brave And The Bold. There’s a lot to choose from, and every single version is better than what was offered on the big screen.
Hulk Vs. Thor & Thor: The Dark World:
If you like villains who kick Asgard and heroes who put the hammer down, it means you’re a Thor fan. But even the biggest Marvel movie fans know that Thor 2 was a bit disappointing, and the best thing about it was Loki.
So what’s better than that? Why not try the animated Hulk Vs. Thor, where Loki possesses the green goliath to put a real beating down on Thor and smash Asgard to pieces? Not only does this feature one of the best cans of whup-ass being opened up on the god of thunder, but it also forces him to work with Loki when the Hulk goes on an even bigger rampage than first imagined. Plus it features Amora the Enchantress, who really should have been in the films by now.
Or, if you’re looking for a tale where the Dark Elves stick the boot in, then you could watch Thor: Tales Of Asgard. This animated film details the adventures of a young Thor and Loki, sees them teaming up with the Warriors Three, learning a lesson in humility from Sif and covers the politics of Asgard. Which, basically, is just about everything you could ever want from any Thor film. Oh, and Amora cameos in that too!
Batman: Assault On Arkham & Suicide Squad
Were they the worst heroes ever? They were certainly worse than their animated counterparts. If you’re looking for a real classic Suicide Squad story then you only have to watch the Justice League Unlimited story Task Force X, where Amanda Waller sends her team to infiltrate the JL’s Watchtower itself. It’s a high-stakes story which is so well executed that you’re actually cheering for them to beat the Justice League. How impressive is that? Very. The animated superhero movie is superior to the feature film we got.
Then again, if you want a Suicide Squad animated feature which is just like the actual movie, then watch Batman: Assault On Arkham. It really isn’t a Batman film at all, it’s all about the Suicide Squad. It features a funnier, sexier, madder Harley, a superior Deadshot who you can emotionally connect with, the Joker’s appearances actually mean something in this, Waller kicks even more ass, Captain Boomerang is more entertaining… simply put, it’s a better film and makes the live-action one look even more boring than it already is.
Ultimate Spider-Man & Agents of SHIELD
When it first aired, some fans were disappointed with this show and tuned out. It’s a shame because it’s evolved into one of the finest shows on TV, with great pacing, storytelling and fight scenes which are as good as any action movie. But it continues to let fans down (albeit slightly) with Agent Coulson, one of the standout characters from the Marvel films. So why not watch him in Ultimate Spider-Man instead?
Voiced by Coulson actor Clark Gregg, the animated Coulson is every bit the Coulson we know and love, and then some. From wearing Captain America pyjamas and fanboy-geeking over Cap’s shield to working out ways of balancing the school budget through strategic meatloaf recipes, he’s hilarious. For the best example though, watch Attack Of The Beetle, where he dates Peter Parker’s Aunt May. He shows he’s an action hero and a gentleman unlike any other.
Batman Beyond & The Dark Knight Trilogy
Liam Neeson may be a near-unstoppable force in films (let’s be honest, the only clear defeat he’s suffered was at the hands of Darth Maul) and his portrayal of Ra’s al Ghul was a solid one. Marion Cotillard as Talia… not so much. Yet they continually mispronounced the name Ra’s as “Rarz” and not “Raysh”, and the romance between Bruce Wayne and Talia was ridiculously played out.
However, the DCAU versions are almost spot-on, with Batman’s complex relationship with Talia played out superbly in the Batman TAS episodes Demons Quest and Off Balance, which also shows Ra’s respect/hate relationship with the dark knight detective. In the Batman Beyond episode ‘Out Of The Past’, even the name thing is pointed out, with Terry McGinnis being lectured on the correct pronunciation of “Ra’s”. What more could you want?
Batman: The Brave And The Bold & The Flash
Gorilla Grodd is one of those Flash villains whom fans love to see. Unfortunately, with the restraints of a television show budget, it’s been hard to have him on screen for too long. However, he was done some justice by teasing his appearance early on, and he’s been a decent – if typically underwhelming – villain. While it’s true that in the animated world he can be on screen a whole lot more, it’s fair to say that he’s been given some far cooler storylines and a whole lot more to say and do too. Like in the JL episodes The Brave And The Bold.
Grodd’s educated, sarcastic voice works a whole lot better for this character and, in his first appearance, he succeeds in taking over the whole of Central City, while the Flash and Green Lantern are forced to team up with Solivar. If that isn’t enough gorilla warfare for you, the rest of the League travel to Gorilla City later on. What could be better? Some jokes? Well, Flash and Grodd’s banter regarding bananas is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Then again, if you want even more Flash action then check out the later JLU episode ‘Flash And Substance’, or the Batman: The Brave And The Bold episode ‘Requiem For A Scarlet Speedster’ to see Barry Allen, Wally West and Jay Garrick all at their best.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to on-screen duds there’s one superhero film which got almost everything wrong. Fant4stic set a new standard of boredom, and when even Wiki says the film is only “loosely based on the Marvel comics” you know there’s a problem. One of the biggest issues was how it misunderstood everything about all of the characters, in particular, the pivotal powerhouse villain of Doctor Doom. So just ignore this stinker and watch the 2006 series Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes.
With cameos from just about everyone of interest in the Marvel U, this show balanced the source material’s madcap humour with solid stories. For pure Doom brilliance though, watch the episode Doomed, where Doom and Reed Richards swap bodies. Not only does it give Doom a chance to live out the life of his most hated enemy, but Reed sees the world through the eyes of Doom… and learns to sympathise a little with the plight of the supervillain. Smart, savvy and stylish, this show was an unappreciated gem.
JLU Savage Time & Legends Of Tomorrow
When Legends ran an early promotional message featuring what was billed as “Sgt. Rock’s Helmet”, fans were elated. By the end of the season, they were disappointed to see the helmet was being worn by a nameless WW2 soldier and Vandal Savage’s destructive track record in history was dubious. How hard could it be to get it right? Not very, as the JLU Savage Time trilogy pointed out.
In those episodes, the team time-travel to WW2 to engage in a full-on war against Savage, who has replaced Hitler as the leader of the Third Reich. While John Stewart hangs out with Sgt, Rock and Easy Company, Superman and Hawkgirl spend time with the Blackhawks, and Wonder Woman meets Steve Trevor. It’s an action-packed, intelligent, cameo-filled time-travelling extravaganza which makes Legends look even more lame than usual, delivering on everything Legends promised but has still failed to deliver.
X-Men: The Animated Series & X-Men: The Last Stand
Often hailed as the worst of all X-Men films, it was a poor mix of the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix storylines with the whole mutant “cure” thing, wiping out the major characters of Professor X and Cyclops before the halfway mark has even been hit. The film series may have tried to pretend this film never happened as much as the comic books tried to forget the whole dismal Xorn storyline, but it DID happen. So what would have been better? Where better to look than the classic original X-Men animated series?
Like so many classic tales, that show handled the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix sagas with all of the accuracy and respect which this tale deserved. From the usual Hellfire Club shenanigans all the way through to the Shi’ar stuff, it was all on display. Likewise, if you’re more concerned with the cure storyline, the animated show covered that too as Rogue travelled to Muir Island. If there was a downside to that, it was the poor voice work regarding accents, but even then it was still better. Then again, everything about that show was better, including Beast. No offence to Kelsey Grammer, but the animated Beast will always be best.
JLU & Arrow
Oliver Queen has always been at his best when he’s a snarky, social conscience-driven socialist who’s having fun with Black Canary. The live-action show has enjoyed success, but there is too much melodrama and poor character motivation to be taken seriously, and Felicity Smoak hasn’t helped in that regard. In DC’s animated universe, his character is introduced by having him turning down JL membership, insulting several League members (including his statement that Captain Atom was exactly the sort of person he used to protest against in college) and then becoming the conscience of the team. However, the JLU episodes ‘Cat & The Canary’ and ‘Double Date’ cover his relationship with Black Canary to perfection.
His romance with Black Canary is almost immediate, as he nearly sacrifices his life to save her mentor Wildcat from the underground superpowered fighting league ruled by roulette. What starts as a physical attraction becomes deeper in the second of these episodes, when pair become an almost inseparable duo as they race against the Question and Huntress – whose off-kilter relationship mirrors their own. It’s classic Ollie from the outset, and everything his fans could want.
JL Unlimited & The DCEU
DCEU producer Deborah Snyder made a statement that their version of Superman isn’t dark. Once you’ve stopped laughing at that statement, it’s fair to say that Superman’s struggle in balancing his god-like power with doing the right thing is one seen in the comic books at times… and the animated series. Yes, the DC ANIMATED Universe did a better job of this too than its live-action counterpart. And once again, it’s time to look at the JL Unlimited series.
JLU addressed the elephant in the room head-on, as Superman and the League’s actions become darker as the show goes on. So much so that the public begins to lose trust in them. It’s a powerful massive story arc which never crosses the line or alienates fans, but rather echoes their thoughts and concerns. Lois Lane, The Question, Green Arrow and even Batman chide the League’s heavy hitters as the episodes progress, one of the most impressive statements coming from Captain Marvel. Speaking for children, adults and fans alike, he says: “My whole life I’ve looked up to the League… I wanted to be you. But you don’t act like heroes anymore.”
Ultimately the storyline is resolved with style and class, as Superman publicly admits: “I’m guilty. We’re guilty. Of the sin of hubris… No-one should ever be afraid of us.” Hopefully, the live-action films will learn this lesson at some point.
Green Lantern: First Flight & Green Lantern
Avoid the film and just watch Green Lantern: First Flight. It’s as simple as that, and nothing more needs to be said about it. Seriously. Just… watch First Flight and you’ll know why. ‘Nuff said.
Tell us, what are your favourite animated superhero movies and TV shows?