The DC Animated Universe: Ranking All Six Shows

Thirty Years of Heroes

Superman:I once thought I could protect the world by myself, but I was wrong. Working together, we saved the planet, and I believe that if we stay together as a team, we would be a force that could truly work for the ideals of peace and justice.
The Flash:What, like a bunch of Super Friends?
Superman:More like a Justice League.

Justice League “Secret Origins” (Season 1, Episode 3)

DC released an extremely popular Batman cartoon in 1992. Its success led to a Superman show and several spinoffs, all of which took place in the same universe. The setting was dubbed the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) and became acclaimed for its writing and voice acting.

For many fans, myself included, the DCAU was our first exposure to the greater DC Universe. Not just the super popular characters like Batman and Superman, but lesser-known heroes, villains, and teams. Some characters were created for the shows and proved popular enough to appear in the comics. So what are the best shows in the DC Animated Universe? Let’s find out.

#6 The Zeta Project

Starring: Diedrich Bader, Julie Nathanson, Kurtwood Smith
Recommended Episodes: The Accomplice, Ro’s Reunion, Wired, The Hologram Man

Zeta: [opening narration] “My name is Zeta. I was built as a weapon to destroy, but I will not destroy anymore.

The Zeta Project

The DC Animated Universe created many new characters, but some didn’t catch on. Still, The Zeta Project deserves kudos for having an intriguing premise and the most overall potential.

Synopsis: A government assassination android named Zeta becomes self-aware and goes rogue after learning his new target is innocent. The NSA pursues him because they believe that he has been hacked by terrorists. Accompanied by a street-smart runaway named Ro, Zeta searches for his creator to learn why he became sentient.

Why This Show?: The Zeta Project is an interesting mix of The Fugitive and Blade Runner. The heroes travel through a future dystopia helping others, but are always on the run from the NSA. Zeta was unique among DCAU heroes because he is now a pacifist who rarely harms his foes, instead relying on stealth, agility, and holographic disguises.

Unfortunately, behind the scenes drama torpedoed the show. The studio forced the writers to tone down the dark story they wanted to tell and make it kid friendly. The animation also looks unfinished compared to other DC fare. The Zeta Project ultimately failed to bring in viewers and was canceled after two seasons. Perhaps DC will take a swing at reviving it someday.

#5 Static Shock

EPILEPSY WARNING: Static Shock features a lot of flashing lights whenever the main character uses his powers. Be aware of this if you are photosensitive.

Starring: Phil LaMarr, Jason Marsden, Kevin Michael Richardson, Michele Morgan
Recommended Episodes: Flashback, Jimmy, Static in Africa, A League of Their Own

Static:The name’s Static. I put a shock to your system!

Static Shock “Aftershock” (Season 1, Episode 2)

Static Shock was unique from the word go.  It was the only DC Animated Universe show to star an African American superhero and featured a hero from Milestone Comics a decade prior to their merger with DC. 

Synopsis: Teenager Vergil Hawkins is exposed to experimental gasses that were used to disperse a gang battle. He develops electrical superpowers and becomes a hero who protects Dakota City from the Bang Baby supervillains that were created by the gas.

Why this Show?: Static Shock featured interesting fight scenes, enjoyable characters, and good writing. The show wasn’t afraid to tackle complex issues like drug addiction, racism, and gun violence in between normal superhero stories.

The first two seasons are excellent, but the latter half of the show fell into a trap of relying on superhero crossovers and celebrity guest stars. It’s hard to take a hero seriously when he can only save the day with help from AJ McLean, Shaquile O’Neal, or a team of superpowered NBA stars. 

Fun Fact: Guest star Lil’ Romeo recorded a new theme song for the show’s final season.

#4 Batman Beyond

Starring: Will Freidle, Kevin Conroy, Cree Summer, Stockard Channing
Recommended Episodes: Meltdown, Lost Soul, Dead Man’s Hand, The Call

Bruce: “I should warn you, I can be a difficult taskmaster. I accept nothing short of excellence in all who work for me.
Terry: “I think I can handle it.
Bruce: “Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.

Batman Beyond “Rebirth” (Season 1, Episode 2)

The creative team behind the DC Animated Universe were some crafty critters. They were ordered by the higher-ups to make a show about Batman in high school, but realized that it didn’t have to feature Bruce Wayne in high school. That bit of rules lawyering resulted in a fan favorite series.

Synopsis: Gotham City has become even worse than usual twenty years after Batman retired. A teenager named Terry McGinnis discovers the Batcave and becomes Batman to avenge his murdered father. An elderly Bruce Wayne is impressed by his work and chooses Terry as his apprentice. 

Why This Show?: Batman Beyond was the first DCAU show to explore the consequences of heroes existing. Many plots are started by old ghosts from Batman’s past or tech belonging to villains. There was even a movie spinoff that showed Joker’s death and the end of the Bat-Family.

Terry is a very different Batman. He was a delinquent who spent time in juvie before becoming a hero.  As the new Batman, he constantly quips mid-fight and struggles to juggle heroics, schooling, and social life. In other words, he’s Spider-Man without superpowers.

Batman Beyond unfortunately lacked a story arc like many other DCAU shows. Things happen and are referenced in later episodes, but there isn’t an overarching story being told over many standalone episodes. That makes it feel less important since plots are wrapped up within twenty minutes.

On the off chance that any Warner showrunners are reading this, both Michael Keaton and Kevin Conroy are senior citizens these days. Find a young star to play Terry and… well, food for thought.

#3 Superman: the Animated Series

Starring: Tim Daly, Dana Delany, Clancy Brown
Recommended Episodes: World’s Finest, Apokolips… Now!, Mxyzpixilated, The Late Mr. Kent

Lois:I’m confused, Kent. See, I’ve lived in Metropolis most of my life and I can’t figure out how some yokel from Smallville is suddenly getting every hot story in town.
Clark:Well, Lois, the truth is I’m actually Superman in disguise and I only pretend to be a reporter to hear about disasters as they happen and then squeeze you out of the byline.”
Lois: “…You’re a sick man, Kent.” [walks off]
Clark:You asked.”

Superman: The Animated Series “The Main Man” (Season 1, Episode 9)

It’s time for the DC Animated Universe to bring out its A-game. Zeta, Static, and Batman Beyond tried their best, but they lacked Superman’s built-in fan base.

Synopsis: An alien is sent from a dying world to Earth, where he grows up to become the world’s greatest hero. Alongside his reporter girlfriend, Superman protects the city of Metropolis from corrupt business mogul Lex Luthor, the alien tyrant Darkseid, and other threats.

Why This Show?: Superman: the Animated Series was able to balance lighthearted episodes with mature stories. Crossovers brought several heroes into the DCAU prior to Justice League. The show also introduced a pair of villains who made it into the comics: Livewire, a spunky shock jock with lightning powers and Mercy Graves, Lex’s bodyguard and Alfred counterpart.

Later seasons focused on story arcs and darker tales. The finale began a plot that ran through the rest of the DC Animated Universe, when Superman lost the world’s trust after being brainwashed into trying to conquer Earth. 

#2 Justice League/Justice League: Unlimited

Starring: George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg, Kevin Conroy, Carl Lumbly, others
Recommended Episodes: A Better World, Wild Cards, The Greatest Story Never Told, Patriot Act, Epilogue

Clayface: [backed up by five villains] “You didn’t think I’d come without reinforcements, did you?
Batman:Wish I’d thought of that. [Smirks as the Justice League bursts through a wall] Oh wait, I did.”

Justice League “Secret Society” (Season 2, Episode 17)

This is technically cheating because we’re combining two shows from the DC Animated Universe. However, the only difference is that all Justice League episodes are two-parters while Justice League: Unlimited has standalone episodes.

Synopsis: After uniting to stop an alien invasion, The Justice League defends Earth from various villains and threats. Their overwhelming strength and rapidly swelling ranks result in a cold war with the government-backed Cadmus organization. Can the two sides find common ground or will they be the spark that ignites a superpowered World War 3?

Why This Show?: Much like The Avengers, Justice League brings together many heroes who had been introduced in previous shows. Normal superhero stories were supplemented with an overarching story arc exploring the effect the team would have on global politics and the potential threat of the League going rogue.

Justice League: Unlimited was barred from using most of Batman’s characters because another Batman show was airing at the time. The “Bat-Embargo” was a blessing in disguise because it forced the writers to dig deeper and feature lesser-known characters like Warlord, Booster Gold, and the Seven Soldiers of Victory. They even provided a belated series finale to Batman Beyond.

Justice League put up one hell of a fight, but missed the number one slot because its episodes are formatted differently. Besides, our number one is that dang good.

#1 Batman: the Animated Series

Starring: Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, Loren Lester, Melissa Gilbert, Arleen Sorkin
Recommended Episodes: Heart of Ice, Growing Pains, Beware the Gray Ghost, Mad Love, Almost Got ‘Im

Batman:I am vengeance! I am the night! I… am… BATMAN!

Batman: the Animated Series “Nothing to Fear” (Season 1, Episode 3)

Is it any surprise that Batman: the Animated Series is the best DC Animated Universe show? Most of the shows on this list are spin offs of this Emmy-winning cartoon. 

Synopsis: After watching his parents die during a mugging, billionaire Bruce Wayne devotes his life to stopping crime. As Batman, and with the help of several sidekicks, he faces the most psychotic villains Gotham City can throw at him.

Why This Show?: The writing and voice acting are superb. The show was developed for prime time, so writers made the stories darker and featured nightmarish visuals. Despite the dark tone, they made sure to maintain a sense of levity instead of falling into The Dark Knight’s trap of wallowing in angst.

Many villains were revamped to great acclaim during Batman: the Animated Series. Mister Freeze was turned from a one-note ice villain into Batman’s most tragic foe in an episode that won an Emmy for writing. Many new characters were introduced before appearing in comics, including Renee Montoya, Lock-Up, Roxy Rocket, and breakout hit Harley Quinn.

Which of the DC Animated Universe’s shows is your favorite? Tell us in the comments.

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