DC Extended Universe films are a hit or miss so far, for me. From Zack Snyder aesthetic of dark shots and brooding looks to interesting character portrayals and Martha, I never had high hopes for the likes of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. In contrast, the animated universe is fundamentally better. These movies are churned out often and don’t disappoint, giving fans a nice warm feeling when they finish watching, rather than a dissatisfied, empty grumble. In turn, how is an underfunded product regularly outpacing its highly produced counterpart? How is DC beating itself? Because the animated movies don’t need to do as much work as the live-action ones.
The DC Universe Animated Original Movies are more or less an extension of DC’s Animated Universe, with shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, and Static Shock. The series of direct-to-video movies built a small universe off of its predecessor’s character templates and dynamics with others. There’s no stretch of the imagination as to Batman’s relationships with Robin or Nightwing because they’re actively trying to deliver fanservice the people want.
From there, they add the new elements, weaved in through the comic storylines we know, both recent and old. Damian Wayne is featured more prominently in the 2000s and 2010s comics, so his eventual addition to these movies made sense. It keeps the movies fresh, builds on what’s coming from the comics, and allows for this universe to branch out into different directions somewhere down the line. See Justice League vs Teen Titans, where Damian plays a big role in a movie based on a somewhat original story.
In accord, the live-action movies are not building their universe out of the old. The recent slate of films has separated themselves from the universe of the Batman and Superman movies starring [insert big Hollywood actor] and Christopher Reeve, respectively, which littered the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. They don’t even touch the world of Batman Begins, which gives them the challenge to overcome. Do you build a universe based on one movie and that aesthetic? Or do you build each movie separately, but allow all of them to acknowledge each other in small ways while building towards a larger epic? In a world where Kevin Feige runs Hollywood, that second option is the wave. However, DC isn’t run by Feige.
With few exceptions, they’re cold worlds, with big-name actors playing superheroes. It’s nice to draw people in, but it doesn’t keep them interested. DC got lucky with Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman because it turns away from the principles around BvS. It is a bright and poppy origin story for one of their most popular characters. Maybe it should have landed in theaters before BvS, in order to flesh out the world these heroes are living in. The same goes for Aquaman, which was bright, witty and entertaining, but comes out too late to capitalize on a cinematic universe that is probably abandoned. If anything, maybe it would have generated more interest in Justice League, but honestly, Henry Cavill’s mustache couldn’t save that thing.
This brings up another important element of animated movies: they have much more freedom. It’s partially the critical track record, but also the fact that they’re fanservice delivery. I would never watch a Flashpoint movie on the big screen with Ezra Miller, or even Grant Gustin because the live-action universe isn’t structured enough for me to care. Also, Ezra Miller’s running hurts my eyes. However, if you make an animated version of that, I’m there. The investment in the characters and their arcs has already been implemented, so it’s easier to do outlier stories like Superman: Red Son or even Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. It doesn’t distract from the larger universe while breathing animated life into stories people enjoyed on paper.
All in all, the DC animated films fit a better structure that they inherited and continued to build. A lot of these movies acknowledge the legacy of their predecessors. Their connective tissue is strong, unlike their live-action counterparts. Over time, maybe the live movies will improve. We’re not going to get live-action Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, like in the animated version. Maybe separating all these films and their characters will work wonders. Wonder Woman 1984 looks like it will be great, while The Suicide Squad is the Jared Leto-less reboot the movie deserves. The Batman doesn’t appear terrible, even if it is not Batman Beyond. All of these movies are still a gravy train for DC/WB/AT&T, and until something bombs like Jonah Hex or Green Lantern, they’re going to continue with small pivots, hoping something sticks.