Crowning Moments of Awesome: The DCAU
When it comes to comic adaptations, the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) is pretty much the cream of the crop. Running for over a decade, the shared universe included Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and the various tie-in movies and comics that connected to them. While the animated series aren’t comics, I think they’re awesome enough to deserve a list of Crowning Moments of Awesome all their own.
A good number of these moments come from Justice League Unlimited, which is my favorite of the DCAU series, but that’s not intended as a slight to the other shows. I could easily give a top 10 list for each series, but since this section is intended more for comics than comic adaptations, I figured just one list would do. Suffice it to say that most everything associated with the DCAU was awesome, and the shows generally got better as they went on.
#10: John Stewart Doesn’t Quit (Justice League, “In Blackest Night, part two”)
Yes, this one gets on the list because of the Green Lantern oath. I’m in love with the oath, and Justice League has the best on-screen version I’ve seen. (The worst goes to Green Lantern: First Flight, where it’s treated as an afterthought. Don’t put the damned oath in if you’re not going to make it a big deal.)
The Guardians of the Universe have been duped by their original creations, the robotic manhunters. One manhunter has taken control of the central power battery that charges all Green Lantern rings. John Stewart has just been framed for the destruction of an entire planet, pretty much abandoned by the Green Lantern Corps, and left powerless as his ring goes dead. With even the Guardians giving up, John steps up to the central power battery and delivers his oath, which charges the ring, absorbs the giant motherfucking energy being, and then turns it into celebratory fireworks.
Green Lanterns don’t quit, and John Stewart is one of the best Green Lanterns out there.
#9: Adam West, Adam West… (Batman: the Animated Series, “The Gray Ghost”)
You didn’t think Adam West was not going to land on a list of awesome moments, did you?!?!
This one comes from a heartwarming episode in which Batman meets the hero he idolized as a kid. In a terrific bit of homage, said hero is voiced by Adam West himself. Whether you like the campy version of Batman from the 1960s, you have to acknowledge that Adam West is one of the top reasons that the Caped Crusader is as popular as he is. And, as he shows in his appearance in this episode, he also has some dramatic chops. Sure, he’s taking a page from real life by playing an actor who got his career ruined by typecasting, but he still delivers in spades.
Even without the Adam West angle, this episode is very strong in presenting the human side of Batman. Batman not only solves the crime, but saves a poor guy who has hit rock bottom. He even comes as close as he can get to flat out telling the guy his secret identity, knowing that he can be trusted. One of the reasons I like the DCAU Batman more than his comic counterpart is that the show never forgot that Bruce Wayne is really a hurt boy inside. While the comic book Batman gets his gritty and mean side played up too much at times, the DCAU always kept the human side of the character. Few other moments offer a glimpse at the man Bruce Wayne is than when two generations of Batman collide.
#8: Amanda Waller versus Batman (Justice League Unlimited, “The Doomsday Sanction”)
Prior to the 2011 DC Comics reboot, Amanda Waller was one of the most interesting characters in comics. The leader of the Suicide Squad, she was a heavy-set black lady who grew up in poverty and climbed her way to one of the top positions within the United States government. She worked with supervillains and often had blood on her hands, yet was constantly motivated by her desire to do what was best for her country.
Her introduction in the DCAU was extremely well-handled, and no scene is more perfect for her than this one. Batman does his Batman thing and interrupts Waller in the shower because Cadmus, her branch of the government, has been taking action against the Justice League. Rather than let Batman paint her as a bad guy, she stands up to the Dark Knight and gives some very good reasons why the government should view the Justice League as a threat, including the fact that they have a high-powered death cannon and that alternate universe versions of the League killed the president and took over the country.
Waller gets points for not only standing up to Batman, but doing so after he surprised her in the shower. The Waller-Batman dynamic is a great part of the series, with the two going from adversaries to developing a mutual respect for one another. And with all due respect to Angela Bassett, who I think is a perfect person to play the Wall on the big screen, CCH Pounder owns the hell out of this role, playing the character as though she had stepped right out of the pages of the Bronze Age’s Suicide Squad comics.
#7: Darkseid Says Hello (Superman: the Animated Series, “Father’s Day”)
Man oh man oh man, does Darkseid have a lot of cool scenes. He was only in a handful of DCAU episodes, and yet I could have picked any single one of them as a crowning moment of awesome. I ultimately choose his introduction to Superman as his best moment, because without speaking he provides a perfect breakdown of what he is.
Darkseid had been operating behind the scenes well before Superman met him, testing the waters for a potential invasion of Earth. When his son Kalibak goes against orders and fights Superman, Darkseid shows up and lays down the law by seemingly killing his son. Superman shows up and demands to know who Darkseid is, to which the lord of Apokolips answers by blasting Supes with repeated low-level bursts of his Omega Beams. When Superman is down and unconscious, Darkseid leaves, informing him, “That is who I am.”
Darkseid is one of the best villains of all time, and I think the DCAU is the first series that actually did him some justice. He is the epitome of tyranny. He represents the fear that causes people to avoid making decisions, because the wrong decision can cause pain. His introduction to Superman demonstrates exactly that – go against his will, and he can bring even the mighty Superman to his knees.
Incidentally, Darkseid is played in the DCAU by Michael Ironside, the same guy who played the horrible villain General Katana in Highlander II. So that’s about as definitive as you can get in proving that it wasn’t a talent problem that killed the Highlander franchise.
#6: The Great Brain Robbery (Justice League Unlimited, “The Great Brain Robbery”)
I’m going to cheat and put this entire episode down as one big extended moment of awesome. Through magic monkey-business between Lex Luthor’s tech getting mixed up with Dr. Fate’s magic, Luthor and the Flash wind up switching minds. This sounds like a stupid sitcom plot, but it is done incredibly well, thanks in large part to snappy writing and the terrific acting ability of Clancy Brown and Michael Rosenbaum.
Here’s the middle of the episode, which can be found in three parts on YouTube. My personal favorites are Luthor-Flash looking in the mirror to find out the Flash’s secret identity only to realize that he doesn’t know who that is and Flash-Luthor proving the other supervillains that he’s evil by not washing his hands after using the bathroom.
The DCAU is one of those rare shows that managed drama and comedy with equal skill. And despite Lex’s misadventures, he still managed to come off as completely badass later on in the series.
#5: The Joker’s Eulogy to Batman (Batman: the Animated Series, “The Man Who Killed Batman”)
One of the more frustrating elements of modern DC Comics is the complete reduction of the Joker to a one-note mass murderer. No longer the cunning yet utterly insane for of yesteryear, most DC Comics now just give the Joker super murder powers where he can do stuff like make someone slip on a banana peel and die. Or worse, they try to crib from his more menacing portrayals in The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight, ignoring his madness and trying to just one-up the body count each time. It’s led to the Joker becoming a dull villain, and it leaves the people of Gotham and Batman himself looking stupid because of their refusal to kill the madman, instead letting hundreds of people die each time he escapes. Luckily, we all still have the DCAU to show us how the Joker is done.
The Joker is a guy who is a complete monster but also an unpredictable lunatic. At his best, you never know whether he’s going to hit you in the face with a pie or melt your skin with acid. Possibly the best example of the Joker’s unpredictability comes in “The Man Who Killed Batman,” when a lowly schlub named Sidney seemingly gets lucky and kills our hero. The Joker shows up, convinced that Batman isn’t really dead, and proceeds to pull a string of robberies in hopes that he can lure his old foe out of hiding. When Batman seems to really be gone, we get this scene.
The Joker might be Mark Hamill’s best role ever, and it shows here. He gives a heartfelt eulogy to the Batman, casually tries to murder poor Sidney, has Harley Quinn play “Amazing Grace” on a kazoo, and even sheds a tear for his fallen foe. About three seconds after crying, he turns to his henchmen and blurts out, “That was fun. Who’s up for some Chinese?”
That, my friends, is what the Joker should be like more often. You just cannot begin to guess what is going on in that chemically-scarred brain of his.
#4: Everything the Question Ever Does (Justice League Unlimited, various)
If I was cheating before with “The Great Brain Robbery,” I’m definitely cheating now. The Question is just a walking crowning moment of awesome. He’s been that way ever since he was created by Steve Ditko for Charlton Comics. In the DCAU, he’s even better.
The original Question was an objectivist superhero who didn’t bother with that mild-mannered crap – he was just as likely take a villain down as Vic Sage as he was in his superhero guise. When the Question became part of the DC Universe after Crisis on Infinite Earths, Dennis O’Neill added a lot of eastern philosophy to the character. In the DCAU, he’s a Fox Mulder-style conspiracy buff, which is something totally new. And yet he manages to be completely awesome in this role.
The Question is an example of an adaptation adding something new that works remarkably well with the character. Aided greatly by the terrific acting of Jeffrey Combs, the Question quickly became a fan favorite. Even the writers started looking for ways to fit the character into more episodes. The DCAU brought the Question from being an obscure but awesome superhero into a character who is now a fan favorite among many.
#3: The Flash Opens a Can of Whupass (Justice League Unlimited, “Divided We Fall”)
Superman can fly, has heat vision, super speed, and cold breath. The Martian Manhunter can shape change, read minds, has super speed, and can phase through solid objects. Wonder Woman can deflect bullets, has a magical lasso, can fly, has super strength, and possesses an invisible jet. All the Flash can do is run really fast. Sometimes, though, that’s enough.
For much of the Justice League series, the Flash was the comic relief character. Sure, he occasionally contributed something of his own, but in general Superman could do whatever he needed to do and Batman was smart enough to make up for any weaknesses in the League. Then in “Divided We Fall,” the Flash proved how badass he can be.
Lex Luthor and Brainiac have just merged and become an unstoppable superbeing who has just taken down the founders of the Justice League. The Flash is all that is left standing, and it seems like he’s running away. Except he’s not really running away…he’s building up speed. The Flash winds up running around the entire planet eight times, punching Lex/Brainiac with each go-round. Then he delivers a series of super-charged punches that literally knock the pieces of Brainiac out of Luthor’s body.
Sometimes, speed is all you need.
#2: The Joker’s Death (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker)
This is one that I wish would find its way into the comics, although I know DC Comics would never just kill off the Joker.
As I mentioned before, the Joker should be a complete monster but also a completely unpredictable lunatic. You should never know whether you’re going to get a guy pulling off wacky hijinks like giving all the fish in Gotham Harbor clown faces or if he’s going to kill a bus full of children. The Joker’s previous appearance on this list was more or less a comedic scene, albeit with his trying to kill somebody as a punchline. His appearance in the Batman Beyond movie Return of the Joker is much more frightening.
To make a long story short, the Joker kidnaps Robin, messes with his brain, learns Batman’s secret identity, and then goes out in a nicely ironic manner. To really get the impact of what he’s done, watch the clip.
The fun thing with this bit is that as disturbing as the Joker’s crime is here, the actual plot of his return in the movie is basically high-scale vandalism – he wants to use a laser from space to tag Gotham and let everybody know that the Joker is back. That this crime involves killing anybody in the path of this laser is incidental. And that’s the thing with the Joker – sometimes he’s basically just playing crime for laughs without thinking of the innocents he’ll be harming. Other times, such as in his death scene here, he knows exactly what he’s doing, and even Batman had better be on his guard then.
#1: The World of Cardboard Speech (Justice League Unlimited, “Destroyer”)
I wasn’t a big Superman fan coming into the DCAU, but he grew on me as the shows went on. His growing hatred for Darkseid particularly got me interested, as it showed Superman actually angry about something and facing a foe that he couldn’t just smash with all his powers. By the final episode of the series, I was a Supes fan, but his speech to Darkseid in their final fight really hammered it home to me.
The fun thing with Superman this fight is that it’s just about the only time we see Supes go all out against a foe. Any other time, as he explains, he’s living in a world of cardboard. This, not the cheesy lines about truth and justice, is the defining Superman speech here. Superman is a guy who could rule a world or destroy it. He could be a king or a god, but he chooses to keep himself reigned in at all times – until the time comes when he finally needs to cut loose. Conveniently, this scene also explains why Superman seemed to forget his powers or why his strength levels fluctuated so much early on in the DCAU – when you hold back for so long, you tend to forget the kind of power you really have.
Unfortunately, the wind gets taken out of Superman’s sails a bit when Darkseid pulls a dirty trick to turn the tables on Superman, but as a single moment, this is my favorite part of the entire DCAU. It is just a perfect encapsulation of the struggle facing the Man of Steel.
As I said, there are hundreds of awesome scenes from the DCAU, and I could have easily done a top ten list on every series. When it comes to comic book adaptations, there’s the DCAU, and then there’s everything else.