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13 Batman/Superman stories you should watch instead of Batman v Superman

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is, as you may have heard, getting truly awful reviews. It currently has around 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. For some perspective, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace got around 56 percent.

And that movie starred Jar-Jar Binks.

If you're a die-hard DC Comics fan like me, this is truly depressing news. But thankfully, there's an alternative: Since the early '90s, DC has been making absolutely top-notch animated TV shows and movies.

The DC Animated Universe, or DCAU, has frequently spotlighted Batman and Superman (and, to a lesser extent, Wonder Woman). Its handling of the two characters, and particularly their relationship with each other, is orders of magnitude smarter and more compelling than Zack Snyder's grimdark wankfest. It toes a perfect line between taking these characters seriously and being funny, between a serious examination of what it would be like for superpowered people to exist and letting the comic bookiness of it all breathe.

So if you don't want to shell out $15 to see a bad movie, here are 13 awesome movies and TV episodes from DC's animated offerings that focus on Batman and Superman — who they are, what they mean to each other, and, occasionally, who would win if they fought. (The episodes are listed in mostly chronological order, not ranked.)

1) The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest (1997)

(Warner Brothers)

The first DCAU project is 1992's Batman: The Animated Series, easily one of the best animated TV shows of all time. But Superman doesn't appear until late in the show. The Batman/Superman Movie is the DC team's first attempt to create a shared universe with multiple heroes.

Clearly, it worked pretty well.

The basic setup is simple: The Joker (voiced by a pitch-perfect Mark Hamill) travels to Metropolis, contracted by Lex Luthor to kill Superman. Batman follows him — and that's where he first runs into Supes.

At first, the two men can't stand each other. Superman interrupts Batman's attack on some Metropolis criminals, prompting Batman to chuck him into a wall. There's a great expression on Superman's face as he flies backward, a sort of mild shock, as if he can't believe someone actually hit him back. The scenes that follow, where they suss out each other's secret identities, are the stuff of beauty.

For much of the movie, the two characters are at loggerheads: Superman can't stand Batman's harsh brand of justice and is more than a little pissed that Bruce Wayne begins dating Lois Lane. The story, then, is less about the challenge posed by Lex and the Joker, and more about how these two superheroes can get over their differences — and even, by the end of it, begin to like each other.

How to watch: Streaming on DailyMotion.

2) Justice League: "A Better World" (2003)

(Warner Brothers)

You'll see a number of Justice League episodes on this list. If you're really a Batman/Superman fan, you should probably just go watch Justice League straight through — and then keep going with its arguably superior sequel, Justice League Unlimited.

But if you're not sure about diving right in, "A Better World" is perhaps the best episode to start out with.

The episode opens with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman breaking into the White House. Superman arrives in the Oval Office alone, where he faces down the president ... Lex Luthor. Luthor taunts Superman: "You need me. You wouldn't be much of a hero without a villain, and you do love being a hero, don't you?"

"I did love being a hero," Superman replies. "But if this is where it leads, I'm done with it." And then he burns Luthor to death.

As we later learn, this isn't our Superman — it's Superman on an alternate world, one where, after killing Luthor, the Justice League has decided to rule as global dictators. Using extreme, often deadly force, they've managed to stamp out crime — and any last vestige of freedom. You even see Green Lantern and Hawkgirl attack some college protestors demanding real elections.

These Justice Lords, as they call themselves, eventually decide that stopping all crime on their world isn't enough. They figure out a way to get onto our Earth, where Superman, Batman, and the rest still refuse to kill. The central conflict of "A Better World," then, is between the Justice Lords' effective totalitarianism and the Justice League's conviction that murder and authoritarianism aren't acceptable ways to stop crime.

It's Batman, more than anyone else, who gets caught in the middle. The two Batmen end up in conflict inside the Batcave, where each tries to convince the other to switch sides:

Justice Lord Batman: Think about it. A world where there's no crime, no victims, no pain.

Batman: And no choice. Who elected you, anyway?

Justice Lord Batman: Who elected you? The problem with democracy is it doesn't keep you very safe.

Batman: It has other virtues, but you seem to have forgotten them.

Justice Lord Batman: I didn't forget. I just chose peace and security instead.

Batman: You grabbed power!

Justice Lord Batman: And with that power, we've made a world where no eight-year-old boy will ever lose his parents... because of some punk with a gun.

It's an episode that showcases the light and the dark of both Superman and Batman: what makes each of them dangerous, but also what makes each of them a hero.

Also: The way Justice Lord Superman handles Doomsday is just ice-cold, and a really good use for this hyperpowered villain.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

3) Justice League: "Hereafter" (2003)

(Warner Brothers)

This is the episode where Superman dies. Sort of.

Superman jumps in front of a disintegrator ray (stay with me) aimed at Batman and Wonder Woman, saving them but seemingly being killed in the process. But in true comic book fashion, he isn't dead: Rather, he's been transported 30,000 years in the future, to a post-apocalyptic world where immortal villain Vandal Savage is the only person left alive.

The Superman/Savage scenes in the future are interesting, but the real action in the episode happens back in 2003, when the show is set. Everyone on Earth assumes Superman perished, and there's even a funeral where a tearful Lois Lane embraces a surprisingly dismayed Lex Luthor.

Batman, however, skips the funeral: He's convinced Superman isn't dead. Afterward, he visits Superman's grave, and delivers a speech that beautifully captures their friendship (and illustrates why voice actor Kevin Conroy makes for such a great Batman):

I've got some things to say. I should've said them when you were here, but... despite our differences, I have nothing but respect for you. I hope you knew... know that. You showed me justice doesn't always have to come from the darkness. I'll miss...

(explosion in distance)

What did you always call it, Clark? The Never Ending Battle?

To underscore the point, Superman is temporarily replaced by Lobo, a superpowered bounty hunter/total asshole. Lobo is incredibly powerful, but also the kind of person who, when Wonder Woman tells him that he's "no Superman," replies that "the ladies say different."

Lobo's dickishness, and occasional bouts of ultraviolence, point to Superman's true role on the team. It's not just the godlike powers — it's that he shows how one can use those powers without treating others like garbage.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

4) Justice League: "Wild Card" (2003)

(Warner Brothers)

This is an episode of a TV show, whose target audience is children, that begins with an extended and unsubtle sex joke.

That's not the reason I'm recommending it here, of course, but it does demonstrate how the DCAU does a great job making a show that appeals to kids while being equally fun for adults. Ultimately, though, the real reason to watch this episode is that it boasts one of the Joker's finest moments.

The Joker has planted bombs around Las Vegas and is going to blow them up unless the Justice League grabs them all. Superman spends most of the episode flying around at super speed, defusing bombs and grappling with the Joker's super-strong henchmen; Batman coordinates the search effort while simultaneously engaged in hand-to-hand combat. It's a neat encapsulation of their two skill sets and roles on the team.

Too much explanation of this episode will spoil it, but suffice to say that there's a lot more going on than it seems at the beginning. It's the Joker's last appearance in the DCAU — and one of his cleverest.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

5) Justice League: "Comfort and Joy" (2003)

(Warner Brothers)

To be honest, this episode doesn't really concern Batman and Superman being together. But it belongs on this list because it's really cute, a tone the DCAU does surprisingly well.

It's December, and the whole Justice League is going home for the holidays. Except for Batman, who volunteers to hang out and keep an eye on Justice League headquarters, because of course he does.

Superman, by contrast, takes J'onn J'onzz — the Martian Manhunter, a fellow Justice Leaguer and alien — home to Smallville. They don't fight any villains there; instead, they visit with Ma and Pa Kent.

"Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Kent. I hope I'm not intruding," an uncomfortable J'onn says when he arrives. "Super ... err, Clark was most insistent I join you for the holiday. My name is J'onn. I'm a Martian."

"Oh, we're no strangers to aliens in this house," Pa Kent replies. "Make yourself at home."

The allegory for immigrants in a new country, always there with Superman, isn't hard to spot. And, as always happens in the best Superman stories, it ends on a hopeful note.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

6) Superman: The Animated Series: "Knight Time" (1996)

Superman cosplaying as Batman.
(Warner Brothers)

"Knight Time" is a nice break from the epic-scale adventures you tend to see in Justice League episodes. The drama here is simpler: Batman has gone missing, and Gotham is being overwhelmed by crime as a result.

Superman swings by to help Robin keep things together — and, in the episode's most entertaining scenes, actually impersonates Batman until Bruce Wayne can be found.

What's fun about this episode is you see just how different Superman and Batman's basic worlds are. Batman skulks around, using his detective skills and training to foil villains. Superman just punches stuff. When Superman faces off against Bane, for example, the Kryptonian knocks him out without breaking a sweat.

There are also some clever nods to the characters' roles in fandom. "You're every bit the detective your followers on the internet believe," one villain tells "Batman."

How to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

7) Batman: The Animated Series: "Girls' Night Out" (1998)

(Warner Brothers)

This one is a little bit of a cheat: It's about Batgirl and Supergirl, not Batman and Superman. But it's a really great episode, one that actually tells you a lot about how the Superman/Batman universes intersect. And I'm really tired of talking about two dudes being dudely, even though it's sort of the nature of this list.

Superman villain Livewire, who controls electricity, has decided to visit Gotham. Batman, who is out of town on a mission, calls Superman to help — but he's also out of town. Supergirl and Batgirl decide to fill in, taking on Livewire, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn.

It's the kind of episode that makes you irritated that live-action studios are so afraid to tell stories starring female superheroes. Supergirl and Batgirl are every bit as fun to watch as their male counterparts, and their presence allows the writers to talk multiple shots at sexism in the comics world.

Detective Harvey Bullock, one of Batman's frenemies, dismisses Supergirl and Batwoman as "amateurs." The Penguin, freaking out because the other villains trashed his nightclub, screams at the heroes that he wants assistance from "Batman, Superman, or someone who can do something!" It's exactly the way a certain smelly part of the comics world talks about female characters, and it's really nice to see Supergirl and Batgirl's detractors proven wrong in the end.

Oh, did I mention that all the villains are women too? And that they're also badasses?

How to watch: Streaming on Amazon Prime.

8) Justice League Unlimited: "For the Man Who Has Everything" (2004)

(Warner Brothers)

In this adaptation of an Alan Moore–penned comic, Batman and Wonder Woman travel to the Fortress of Solitude to throw Superman a mini birthday party. Things do not go well.

When they arrive, there's a strange, alien-looking thing on Superman's chest. It's called the Black Mercy, and it puts you into an indefinite coma where you hallucinate your own perfect world. For Superman, that's one in which Krypton was never destroyed.

The episode alternates between Superman's hallucination and the other heroes' attempts to get the Black Mercy off him. At one point, they actually succeed — but then the monster affixes itself to Batman's chest.

Batman's perfect world is very different. He goes back to the night his parents were killed, only instead of Joe Chill shooting Thomas Wayne, Wayne wrests the gun from Chill and starts wailing on him.

That Superman's heaven is a preserved Krypton, and Batman's is his father endlessly beating on a criminal, tells you everything you need to know about the two characters.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

9) Justice League Unlimited: "Ultimatum" (2004)

(Warner Brothers)

"Ultimatum" is another episode about the Justice League's place in the world. In this case, they're dealing with a new superhero team called the Ultimen, who have showed up and seemingly displaced the Justice League as the public's favorite superheroes.

The Ultimen are unbelievably sappy heroes — to the point where they even piss off Superman. "I can't listen to any more of this," Superman complains after one of their leader's speeches about justice and such.

This isn't just because Superman is annoyed over having the Boy Scout beat taken from him, though that's definitely part of it. Rather, it's to contrast the relatively grounded views of the DCAU with the more kid-friendly superhero shows that came before it.

Ultimately, the Ultimen prove to be a hoax: an unstable team genetically engineered by a shadowy government agency. This agency, called Cadmus, isn't evil. Rather, it's the government's attempt to find some answer to the Justice League in case the Justice League turns rogue. The arc, about how the US government should operate in a world of all-powerful superheroes, is the most interesting thing Justice League Unlimited does.

Also, Cadmus's leader, Amanda Waller, is the best. "Who are you people?" Batman asks her at the end of the episode.

"That's a national security matter," Waller replies. "And if I were you, I wouldn't probe the situation too closely, rich boy."

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

10) Justice League Unlimited: "The Doomsday Sanction" (2005)

(Warner Brothers)

This is the episode where the Cadmus arc, first seen in "Ultimatum," really kicks off. It begins with Batman sneaking into Amanda Waller's house and (pretty hilariously) handing her a towel when she gets out of the shower.

They then go on to learn about the reason Cadmus exists: The US government somehow found out about the existence of the Justice Lords universe. And Lex Luthor is running for president, suggesting (ominously enough) that the real Justice League may eventually declare war on the US government.

The action in this episode, while certainly good, is secondary to the moral conflict. After Batman saves Superman from a Kryptonite-tipped nuclear missile (long story; watch the episode), they have a debate over the Justice League's role near Batman's sickbed. It's one of the most telling moments, philosophically, about the two men:

Batman: Passing judgment like gods, with our super-powered army... Cadmus is right to be scared. The human race wouldn't stand a chance.

Superman: We'd never go there. It isn't in our nature and nothing can change that.

Batman: Nothing? What if Luthor does become president, like he did in their world? What would stop you from doing what that Superman did?

Superman: There's always that Kryptonite you carry around.

Batman: You don't get to joke! Not today. I just took a bullet for you.

Superman: I'm sorry, Bruce. You're right. But you don't have to worry about the Justice League. Trust me. You know me.

Batman: Yeah, I do.

It's a conversation that shows how differently Superman and Batman see heroism — Superman believes in the innate goodness of heroes, while Batman worries about the threat they could potentially pose to the world.

How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

11) Batman Beyond: "The Call" (2000)

Old Bruce Wayne and the new Batman.
(Warner Brothers)

Batman Beyond is a sequel to Batman: The Animated Series, set in 2039. An elderly Bruce Wayne has handed over the Batman mantle to his protégé, a high school student named Terry McGinnis. In "The Call," a still-vital Clark Kent (gotta love that Kryptonian DNA) asks for Terry and Bruce's help. It seems that somebody is killing Justice League members, and Superman wants Batman's sleuthing skills to help figure out who.

The mystery here is interesting, but my favorite part is the Bruce-Terry-Clark dynamic. It's clear that, despite Bruce getting out of the superhero game, he and Clark are still friends.

But when it looks like Superman has gone rogue partway through the episode, he doesn't hesitate to give Terry a piece of kryptonite that he has apparently held in reserve for decades. "I always hoped I'd never have to use it," a sad and angry Bruce says.

"This could kill him," Terry replies, shocked. "Do whatever it takes," says Bruce, "but make sure you stop him."

Bruce Wayne's paranoia and instinct for planning, it seems, are even more defining than his superheroism.

How to watch: Used to be streaming on Netflix, but has recently been taken off. You can order it on DVD from the service, though.

12) Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)

(Warner Brothers)

After Justice League Unlimited, the last of the original DCAU series to air, DC shifted away from series starring Batman and Superman to standalone, direct-to-DVD movies with a new animation style and a somewhat more mature tone. Public Enemies is among the best of these.

Lex Luthor is president again (apparently the DC universe is populated entirely by Donald Trump supporters). Luthor kills longtime Superman antagonist Metallo, pinning the murder on the Man of Steel. He then orders Superman brought in and tried, along with Batman, his accomplice.

This setup is a shameless excuse to have Batman and Superman square off against a massive number of DC villains and heroes. As a result, Public Enemies lacks the emotional and thematic subtlety that you get from a lot of the best DCAU episodes.

However, it is really, really fun to watch. If you enjoy beautifully animated action scenes, and especially watching Superman and Batman team up to kick almost everyone else's ass, it's worth a watch.

How to watch: Available for streaming purchase on Amazon.

13) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012)

(Warner Bros)

The Dark Knight Returns is the animated adaptation of Frank Miller's comic of the same name, probably the most influential Batman story told in the past 40 years. According to Zack Snyder, the story's themes inspired Batman v. Superman — so if you're looking for a dark take on the two characters similar to the newest film, this is the work I'd recommend.

Much like Batman Beyond, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns features an aging Bruce Wayne. Only instead of being set in the future, it's set in a twisted version of the 1980s: There's an aggressive president, one who looks a hell of a lot like Ronald Reagan, courting nuclear war with the Soviets. This Bruce is a heavy-drinking loner, living in a world where crime is rampant, superheroes are outlawed, and Superman has become a wholly owned US government operative.

At the beginning of the story, Gotham is overrun by a new and horrifically violent gang, forcing Bruce to once again don the cowl and cape. The government, sensing a threat, orders Superman to take him down.

What makes the story truly great, as many critics have noted, is the simplicity of its core conflict. Superman believes justice requires serving human authorities; Batman believes that when institutions are failing, justice requires heroes to take matters into their own hands. In a fallen world, these ideals will inevitably bring the two men into conflict, even though they both only have the best of intentions.

The animated version ends up adapting the story from the comics pretty literally, essentially trying to make its panels come alive. This actually works better than Snyder's attempt to do the same in his live-action adaptation of Watchmen: I suspect the animated form makes it easier to capture a comic's visual nuances than trying to restage the whole thing with real sets and human actors.

If you haven't read the original comic, or even (especially?) if you already have, it's worth a watch.

How to watch: Streaming on HBO GO.

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