Sometimes, I like to look at my older posts just to see what kinds of stuff I used to write about and see how my style has evolved since then. While doing that recently, I came upon a post that looked, well, strange. It’s as if it’s something that I would’ve never written but did. The article was about how the DC Extended Universe looked like they were getting their act together and finally start making good movies. This was written a couple of years ago during Comic-Con and the Suicide Squad trailer came out and we also got our first glimpses of the then-upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League movies. Ah, how naive I was as Suicide Squad was a mess, Justice League was a disappointment and Wonder Woman was the only bright spot.
DC has been scrambling to get their DC Extended Universe on track but they’ve been busy trying to play catch up with Marvel’s series of successful movies. It almost seems impossible now because they’ve botched it time and time again; Marvel has yet to put out a truly disappointing film project while DC simply struggles to get a good movie out. This is in stark contrast with what DC had in the past as, believe it or not, they had a really successful “shared universe” in the past.
No, I’m not talking about the current Arrowverse that’s running on the CW right now. Sure, the shows are fine and all but I’m talking about when DC actually put together an interconnected series of shows that both hardcore comic fans and casual fans loved and adored. I’m talking about the DC Animated Universe! And to think, the entire thing was supposed to be “for kids” but thanks to Bruce Timm, a man who understood that superheroes could be enjoyed by fans of all ages, developed a shared universe that fans remember fondly to this day, which started with the incredibly awesome Batman: The Animated Series way back in 1992.
I’m not even sure if Bruce Timm even knew he was developing a shared universe when he developed Batman: The Animated Series. I’ll bet it was a wonderful for him when Warner Bros. approved his request to use some characters like Zatanna and Jonah Hex in the show so he just ran with it. But the show really didn’t need those cameos as the show did so many things right. The action was great and the stories were well written. It also had an incredibly eye-catching art styled that was so unique looking. While Batman and the rest of the characters didn’t copy the “realistic” look of the comics, the “dark deco” look was so different but totally fit the style of The Dark Knight. It was something that just couldn’t be used with other DC characters… or so I thought.
Thanks to the success of the show, Bruce Timm was given another project by Warner Bros. This time, he had to bring DC’s Superman to the animated screen. Superman: The Animated Series used practically the same style but things were much brighter, which made sense as The Man of Steel is the beacon of light and hope in the DC Universe. Once again, they included other DC characters like The Flash, Aquaman, Dr. Fate and Lobo into some of the episodes. But the biggest giveaway to the fact that this was the episode World’s Finest where Superman and Batman teamed up to fight the combined forces of Lex Luthor and the Joker! This was a dream episode for me as this was something I really wanted to see then and it was everything I wanted and more!
But this team up was just the tip of the iceberg as Warner Bros wanted more shows featuring this decidedly shared universe. We soon got Batman Beyond, a series that depicts the adventures of Terry McGinnis, who takes up the Batman mantle under the guidance of the original Caped Crusader, Bruce Wayne. We also got Static Shock, who wasn’t an original DC hero but they took a risk and gave him his own series and he did get a rather dedicated fanbase as well. Batman Beyond even got its own spinoff show called The Zeta Project, which was a totally new intellectual property about an android who rebels against his original programming of assassinating targets and is now on the run from the government. But all of that was just a warm up for something else. Something much bigger and something that was just beautiful.
That thing was Justice League.
Justice League and its follow-up, Justice League Unlimited, was indeed the culmination of all of the previous animated shows as it combined all of them into one beautiful show and it was a beautiful balance of both kid show antics and seriousness for adults to enjoy. Things definitely felt bigger as the threats were more targeted at the globe that was bigger than one hero could handle. Heck, during the first few seasons of Justice League, the adventures couldn’t even be contained in one episode as they always had to fill up two episodes! That’s how grand the stories were then!
But the original Justice League series only focused on seven heroes, namely Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern (John Stewart) and Hawkgirl. The last two may not been the most popular heroes but, hey! It worked. I bet for a lot of people who were growing up during the Justice League’s heyday, their “main” Green Lantern is still John Stewart and Hawkgirl is one of the most important heroes in DC Comics! Things got even bigger with Justice League Unlimited with a plethora of lesser known heroes like The Question, Huntress, Mr. Terrific joined the League. Even the even more lesser known heroes like Vigilante, Shining Knight and Wildcat even got some time to shine! You would think that the show would’ve gotten too crowded with all of these new characters but you’d be wrong because we loved it!
Alas, all things have to come to an end. The final episode of Justice League Unlimited aired in 2006, giving the DC Animated Universe an amazing 14-year run. I can’t help but think that the folks over at Marvel actually grew up watching the DC Animated Universe and intentionally made their Marvel Cinematic Universe follow the basic formula of why this worked. This is why it’s so astonishing that DC is having so much trouble duplicating the same success with their DC Extended Universe. There were a lot of factors that made the DC Animated Universe so popular, to be sure. All the shows had smart writing, characters that were true to the source material, fantastic action and beautiful designs.
But the biggest thing that DC has failed to learn from producing the DC Animated Universe that the entire thing took an incredibly long time. Everything developed slowly, from Batman: The Animated Series to all the way to Justice League Unlimited. It lasted for so long because, although it presumably wasn’t intentional, Bruce Timm concocted everything at a good pace so that we were slowly introduced to the heroes and we managed to get to know them on a personal level.
New DC cartoons have been released since then. Shows such as Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Teen Titans and even Justice League Action! will definitely have their fans and they’re all fine and all. But there was just something special about the seeing the DC Animated Universe grow for 14 years and deliver a shared continuity before Marvel did. I kind of envy the kids who’ve never seen them and just happen to stumble upon them one day as they would be able to feel the magic that I felt when growing up watching those show.
Have any memories of the DC Animated Universe? Let me know what they are in the comments section below!