You have to get up pretty early in the morning to make me not want to engage with a Superman movie, but Zack Snyder has been managing the feat pretty handily since 2013’s Man of Steel. He’s imprinted subtext on the character that is utterly at odds with the story’s origins, all while Warner Bros. has rushed along, trying to replicate Marvel’s domination of the box office to the detriment of almost everything they’ve released. After a stream of entitled fan whining induced Warner Bros. to drop tens of millions of dollars on a new edition of Justice League, “The Snyder Cut” AKA Zack Snyder’s Justice League is coming out four whole years after the theatrical cut debuted.
I still do not care. Snyder is not interested in any of the things about Superman or the other Justice League members that might make the characters interesting in 2017, let alone 2021. If you feel the same way I do, then I have good news: You have plenty of other options when it comes to great Justice League stories on the big and small screens, and due to HBO Max’s acquisition of all things DC Comics-related, they’ve never been easier to find under one roof.
Here are 10 better ways you could be spending your time if you want to see great superhero crossovers and Justice League team-ups, or if you just want to see Superman punch Darkseid harder than sound.
Superman: The Animated Series has never quite won the same universal acclaim as its immediate predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, a show with which it shares continuity and creators. The ’90s in general seem like they were not a great time for the Last Son of Krypton: The totally rad Rob Liefeld/Todd MacFarlane brand of character was busting onto the scene, and folks felt thrown for a loop by the whole Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen story arcs.
The cartoon show was at times absolutely awesome and iconic, though, particularly in its portrayal of Darkseid (Michael Ironside). In the fourth season two-parter “Legacy,” Superman is brainwashed by Darkseid into believing he is a native of Darkseid’s homeworld of Apokolips, and leads an invasion against Earth. When he is defeated and imprisoned, he breaks his mental conditioning and, consumed with thoughts of revenge, warps back to Apokolips and starts cleaning house. It ends in one of the most savage battles in a kid’s show, with Superman casting a broken and defeated Darkseid down among his own oppressed subjects.
But, rather than cast off their chains, Darkseid’s people come to his aid and carry his battered body away. He’s many things, but on Apokolips, he is God.
The “Diniverse” of DC Comics-based cartoons (named for frequent writer Paul Dini) was such a success in part because it drew on an ever-expanding pool of actors and established characters through show after show that it eventually got to the point where it could tap into the crossover chaos that fans of comics couldn’t get in any other medium. Kevin Conroy’s Batman came to the show after his own successful turns in two other series and a feature-length theatrical film. For the series’ finale, nothing less than a world-ending threat would do.
Since ending worlds is basically all Darkseid does, and since in this continuity he already had the aforementioned grudge against Superman, a massive invasion of Earth by an army of shrieking parademons made perfect sense as a catalyst for forcing every member of the Justice League (even the scores of them you’ve never heard of) to work alongside every single villain in the series (including Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor—one of the most iconic portrayals of the character ever).
At the last, it comes down once again to Superman and Darkseid. But this is not the Superman he’s faced before. As Superman explains, his problem is not that he lacks the will, or that he’s not powerful enough, but that he is so powerful that he’s always worried about losing control and committing a wrong that can never be righted. Superman finally realizes that Darkseid can take it. Too bad for Darkseid.
The Harley Quinn cartoon masterminded by and starring Kaley Cuoco is hands down one of the best DC adaptations to come out in I don’t know how long. It is unbelievably funny, unrepentantly violent, unexpectedly heartwarming and does justice to fan-favorite female characters who are often poorly served in other narratives.
It also features regular appearances by Justice League members, and a completely hilarious appearance by Darkseid in the episode “Inner (Para) Demons,” in which Harley, in a bid to become the true crime lord of Gotham, steals a Mother Box and boom tubes herself to Apokolips, where she bumbles her way through mortal combat with Granny Goodness in a bid to receive an army of bloodthirsty parademons from Darkseid. Once she’s unleashed them on Gotham however, she realizes she doesn’t want to be that kind of villain.
Ironside’s return as Darkseid is pitch-perfect: He delivers clueless lines about shuttered mall storefronts with the same snarling conviction with which he threatens people with torture and death. And though he may not destroy Gotham or planet Earth, the episode ends in a revelation that shatters Harley and Poison Ivy’s world, at least. (They hooked up. It isn’t sleazy about it. This show is incredible and we need more of it.)
Ben Affleck’s growling Batman has a throwaway line in the theatrical cut of Justice League that indicates he’s been brutalizing Gotham’s criminals for 20 years. It’s the only live-action movie to hit theaters that seems to acknowledge that these days, when people envision Batman, they tend to envision him as older, more cynical, more beaten down by his grim crusade. It’s a choice I approve of: Why can’t we let these characters age? And why can’t we let them bow out, triumphant?
Of course, Warner Bros. already dedicated an entire show to an aged Batman, Batman Beyond, which was a direct sequel to the Animated Series and tied in with the other Diniverse series. Perhaps because they knew they had the opportunity to do it, the creators even slipped in an episode that concluded the story of Kevin Conroy’s Batman. “Epilogue,” a random episode shuffled into the second season of Justice League Unlimited, is set 50 years into the future, featuring Terry McGinnis (Will Freidle), the inheritor of Batman’s mantle, as he grapples with his own backstory and his fraught relationship with Bruce Wayne’s flaws and virtues, with plenty of cameos from other Justice League members and nemeses (like C.C.H. Pounder’s Amanda Waller).
Besides the emotionally satisfying conclusion, it also features one of the most heartbreaking moments in any Batman show. Besides his “wit, body and will,” Batman is also, you know, a good guy. Sitting beside a scared, abused, dying girl until the end is not “super,” but it is heroic. Snyder’s movies have never understood that.
Batman and Superman—their rivalry and their friendship—have served as the basis for some of the best storytelling in comics, and in their screen adaptations. With the success of their two separate animated series, a superhero team-up was inevitable. The three-ish-episodes-that-could-air-as-a-TV-movie The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest finally got the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel together, first as distrustful rivals and then as reluctant pals.
For their big team-up, the movie pitted them against an alliance between Lex Luthor and the Joker, with all parties portrayed by their original voice actors, including Brown and Mark Hamill. It was to the film’s credit that it dwelled just as much on the contrast between the villains as it did the heroes.
Warner Bros.’ animation division has cranked out a number of mid-tier made-for-TV superhero movies, some of which have done interesting things with flagship characters. Among those were two that built up to a devastating showdown between Darkseid and the trio of Batman, Superman and Supergirl: Batman/Superman: Public Enemies and its sequel Batman/Superman: Apocalypse.
Batman and Superman clash as well as cooperate in the comics, and the problem with Snyder’s movies thus far has been that they focus way too much on the clashing and not enough on the mutual respect the two have historically had. In Apocalypse, Wonder Woman and Supergirl are added into the mix, with everything culminating in a battle on Apokolips for Supergirl’s soul. It’s a great superhero team-up movie, a great showcase for Jack Kirby’s delightfully twisted and weird characters, and another great chance to see Clark and Bruce trade friendly barbs while they dodge Omega Beams.
The Justice League’s neverending mission to fight existential threats against Earth often seems to be at odds with Batman’s lone crusade to protect the citizens of Gotham. Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t really do very much to explain this away: When asked what his superpower is, Affleck’s Batman merely deadpans “I’m rich.”
Among the numerous stories in which Batman’s presence in the League makes sense and emphasizes why he’s so important is the Batman Beyond two-parter, “The Call.” McGinnis is inducted into the Justice League and quickly finds himself in the midst of a superhero-themed cozy-style mystery, as members of the league are injured by a mysterious villain who must have access to their organization. It turns out the league members, Superman included, have been body-snatched by aliens, and it’s only Batman’s ingenuity that can save the day.
Among any number of its other awesome story arcs, a similar story played out at the end of Young Justice’s first season, when Vandal Savage used crazy techno-sorcery microchips to enthrall the entire Justice League, leaving Robin and the other younger heroes to face off against their own mentors. Both stories are a much better examination of the question “Whatever would we do if the good guys were actually… b-b-bad guys??” than any of Snyder’s films thus far have been.
Live-action TV adaptations of DC properties have been extremely hit or miss, but I argue even some of the less essential shows contain some pretty great superhero team-ups. Smallville is not a show I like—it’s too much to ask of anyone to watch umpteen seasons of a show about Superman that’s completely disallowed from ever calling him “Superman” or do anything overtly super. And yet the show still manages to beat the Snyderverse at its own game with episodes like “Justice,” in which Green Arrow, Cyborg and Aquaman all join forces with Clark Kent (codenamed “Boy Scout” in a sly wink) to save Impulse (a Flash-type dude).
This episode was the culmination of several appearances by each of the heroes separately, all building anticipation for an eventual team-up. For devotees of the show, it was a major payoff for seasons of build-up. Warner Bros. began its superhero movie project in a blazing hurry, trying to immediately replicate the success of Marvel’s The Avengers, rather than by building a solid foundation. They’ve only now begun to try mostly one-off films and, for the most part, those have actually been significantly better—which only highlights the stumbles of Justice League.
The “Arrowverse,” which began with The CW’s Arrow, is one of the best things to happen to DC properties on television in a while, and certainly the best set of live-action adaptations in recent memory by a wide margin. As it turns out, The CW’s instinct for soapy teen drama actually fits the serialized, anything-goes mold of superhero stories like an anti-friction supersuit. The trouble with live-action superhero adaptations for the small screen is that until fairly recently, Warner Bros. seemed cagey about letting its flagship heroes headline their own titles. The writers of the CW shows solved this problem by simply making Batman and Superman shows that don’t actually star Batman or Superman.
Arrow is such a Batman show that he actually fights Ra’s al Ghul at one point. The Flash was less overtly a Superman analog, but his relationship with Green Arrow is clearly meant to fill out the other half of that dynamic—Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen acting as the dour vigilante to Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen, who is the shining, friendly neighborhood paragon. Any of the season finale team-up episodes starring the two rank among the best DC superhero stuff that’s come out in a long while.
A big crossover event made perfect sense after Arrow and The Flash frequently showed up in one another’s season finales to a chorus of fan squeeing, and thus ushered in a whole slew of other shows. It just so happened the crossover went absolutely nuts.
Crisis on Infinite Earths pitted Arrowverse favorites against a universe-ending threat, embracing the multiverse theory for the purposes of cramming its high-stakes melodrama with cameos and character appearances by a laundry list of actors who have portrayed DC characters for almost as long as there have been such things as comics adaptations on TV. Burt Ward (Robin to Adam West’s Batman) and Tom Welling (the not-quite-Superman of Smallville) were two who showed up. Kevin Conroy, who by then had been the canonical voice of Batman for a generation, showed up on screen in the flesh for the first time to portray a ravaged Bruce Wayne held together by an enhancement suit reminiscent of the one the character had in Kingdom Come. Brandon Routh, who portrays The Atom in other Arrowverse shows, reprised his role as Superman in a nod to his role in the movie Superman Returns.
It was sheer geek overload, equal parts awesome and completely, gratuitously ridiculous. It felt like a celebration of everything people have loved about these characters and stories, no matter when they may have come to the phenomenon. It was a reminder, too, that taking these stories too seriously, demanding that they be too dark or too mature, is to limit them.
Some people felt we needed to revisit Snyder’s last film, which did none of these things when it came out in 2017 and which I am pretty sure is not going to do them four years later, no matter how many millions were spent on reshoots. It remains frustrating to me, and all the more so in light of so much great work by so many other artists over the years who have had no trouble finding the essence of these characters even as they reinvent them for new generations of fans.
Kenneth Lowe is many things, Kryptonian, but here, I am God. You can follow him on Twitter or read more on his blog.