The (de)Evolution of DC Animated Movies

The DC Universe Animated Original Movies (DCUAOM) has long been one of my favorite areas of the expanded media empire that comes along with DC Comics being part of the Warner Brothers family.  Although they didn’t initially grab me with their extremely simplified 2007 interpretation of Superman: Doomsday (I felt it fell apart after the Superman funeral), they continued to pump out two-to-three features a year of overall quality entertainment.

From my personal favorite Batman: Under the Red Hood to the May 2014 release of Son of Batman, the movies have ranged from adaptations of an existing story (Dark Knight Returns, Public Enemies) to looser interpretations (Superman: Unbound, Wonder Woman) to anthologies that included adaptations of existing stories (Emerald Knights, Gotham Knight).  It is only with the August 2014 release of Batman: Assault on Arkham (AoA) that we get our first 100% original feature of the DCUAOM. Deceptively titled for marketing reasons, AoA marks the 9th feature (of 21) that tags Batman in the title and the 14th one overall to include DC’s most popular character.  Now while Batman may be a part of the story, it is undoubtedly a Suicide Squad feature, with particular focus on the characters of Harley Quinn and Deadshot, as they attempt to liberate a MacGuffin from Arkham and encounter disaster along the journey.

In a similar vein as the Guardians of the Galaxy film, this is not a feature about good people doing good things for the sake of being good. Rather it’s about despicable, demented people doing completely insane things for generally selfish, yet occasionally understandable, reasons like self-preservation or (pun intended) mad love.

Still this is not a look at the story of the feature nor is it an analysis of the characters compromising this iteration of the Suicide Squad. It’s not a review of the Blu-Ray product and its bonus content and it is not a look at how AoA fits into the continuity of the Batman: Arkham video game series given that it is set in an ill-defined time between Origins and Asylum.  Rather this is a piece centered on my immediate reaction to AoA that can likely be summed up in three words: NOT FOR KIDS!

Now that may not come as a surprise if you simply look at the PG-13 rating slapped on the box of this release (the same rating on every DCUOAM release mind you) but when you explore the content of this feature it becomes glaringly obvious just how accurate those three words truly are.  When looked at in comparison to where they started with Doomsday, you can also see just how far they have come/fallen depending on your perspective.  Mind you, I am writing most of this from my memory of the DCUOAM features given I don’t have the liberty of time to rewatch all 21 of them so forgive me if I’m not 100% accurate.

AoA is, without question, the most “adult” feature that has been released in the DCUOAM line given its copious amounts of animated blood, severed heads, and usage of curse words along the lines of “bitch” (a favorite of the Arkham series), “douchebag”, “shit”, and a teased “fuck” here and there.

On the violence front, just in the sequence that introduces our leads, Harley rips a woman’s ear off with her teeth and we are witness to the aftermath hanging from Quinn’s blood-tinged mouth.  Then we get King Shark casually rising out of a blood-filled bathtub inside a hotel room littered with hanging corpses.

The fight pitting Deadshot against The Joker is likely the most blood-soaked and violent thing I have seen in any of the DCUOAMs and, given the liberties animation can take over reality, arguably spills more Type A than any live action movie I’ve witnessed in quite some time.

It could be argued that given our leads are villainous characters this violence and language is only fitting but the counterpoint would be that these same characters have been featured in their birth medium, as well as in other animated features, thousands upon thousands of times without the usage of such blatant “adult” content.  I use adult in quotes mind you because there is nothing inherently adult about the content. Rather there is a belief that the usage of such content automatically makes a product adult and adult, for whatever reason, somehow has come to be interchangeable with edgy and/or sophisticated.

AoA is also the first of the movies to blatantly include sexuality as an aspect of their characters. For example, take Harley’s all-nude late night hotel booty call to Deadshot.  It’s a scene that includes some side boob, quickly shows a nude Deadshot between the naked legs of Harley as they roll off the bed, and Harley’s orgasmic “YAHTZEE!” leaves little doubt there has been sex between the two.  Also take the character of Killer Frost whose inexplicably naked “corpse” gets a creepy eyeballing from the attendant in the Arkham morgue and gets a moment to zip up her gear just ahead of her breasts being visible.  The thing that makes this scene ridiculous (beyond the mortician’s reaction to her naked body) is the fact that, given how it plays out visually, Frost had her boots on inside the body bag AND her costume was half-on with breasts exposed for absolutely no reason.

Tack on another “nudity for no reason” moment when Harley stands around with the top half of her body exposed (complete with Joker tattoo) as an Arkham guard catches her in a restricted area.  Why she needs to be half-naked to distract a guard in a room with Deadshot, Black Spider, and Killer Shark is beyond me, it’s T&A for its own sake as is the copious amounts of blood spilled and limbs severed.

At thirty-five years of age as someone who was cinematically weaned on the likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees since he was eight and saw AKIRA in theaters upon its US release, this is not material that offends or disturbs me in anyway but it still stands out as quite a surprising sight in an DCUOAM.  Despite their visual stylings, these are not the anime movies in which blood, cursing, and nudity is frequently common place but rather they are the somewhat sanitized world of DC Comics played out in animated form.  Yet over the course of the last several releases, particularly since Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, there has been a definitive increase in the “adult” nature of the DCUOAMs.  I have noticed the violence factor cranked up, I have noticed the language becoming a bit more colorful, and have certainly caught how the amount of blood accompanying the violence is more exposed than ever before.

To ensure it wasn’t just my memory making these recent DCUOAM releases more violent, I popped in Superman: Doomsday as a point of comparison and what I found was a world of difference between the movies produced seven years apart. The closest we get to sexual content is Lois Lane in a towel, no cleavage depicted, telling Superman they need to find a room with no robots in it; innuendo not explicit.  As for violence, yes there is a ton of violence given the Doomsday/Superman fight but shockingly, the only blood seen during this battle is at the very end after the monster has been defeated.  Superman comes stumbling through the clouds of dust with little streams of blood on the corners of his mouth before he dies in Lois’ arms.  The only other instance of blood I found is quite extreme but it is used, rather effectively I might add, to drive home the differences post-Doomsday between the Superman clone (who people believe is the actual Man of Steel) and the real deal.  The clone takes Toyman up into the air only to drop him to a bloody death on top of a car below.  While I could easily see the newer iterations of the DCUOAMs showing the entire descent complete with mangled body post-impact, this original release only shows the blood on the ground around the car while the body remains covered by a sheet.

That’s it; two instances of blood, one allusion to sex, no nudity, and while there is violence, it does not feature beheadings or exploding heads, no limbs being severed, and not one shard of glass stabbed into flesh with the accompanying sprays of blood I expect from Fist of the Northstar not a DCUOAM.  I supposed what it comes down to is that in the same fashion which fans talk about the New 52 being a darker and more violent place, so too are the animated features released since the DC reboot.  The PG-13 rating alone lets you know these are not intended for the little ones but yet there is something about animated features that makes the general public feel as if it SHOULD be kid appropriate, especially since it’s one about superheroes.

Is this “adult” path the best way to go? From a sales performance standpoint, you can check out the Wikipedia page yourself to judge the financials.  From a creative standpoint however, I see these choices as ones that the creators believe cater to the adult audience that ARE actually buying the material rather than the younger audience that many people THINK are buying them.  The younger audience has shows like Teen Titans GO! for their viewing pleasure (even though its humor is a little older than its intended audience I’d say) and had Batman: Brave and the Bold which was perfect kid-friendly material.

My main fear is that this increasingly “adult” tone from the DCUOAMs will begin to chip away at the quality of the story as I believe it did with Son of Batman. The soul of Grant Morrison’s father/son tale was not really sold for me but there certainly were some severed limbs and bloody swords flying around. Also, perhaps because I found the source material empty in the first place, Justice League: War is arguably my least favorite of the entire DCUOAM line.  I can see potential for the animated corner of the DCU to experience a dumbing-down (certainly from the Bruce Timm era) akin to the complaints that have been heaped on Guardians of the Galaxy and modern cinema in general.  More sex, more violence, more naughty words (“OMG! Wolverine said fuck!”)…

Still I have hopes for Throne of Atlantis as it is my favorite Justice League story of the New 52 and think, if they hit the political overtones well, it could be one of the best stories of the DCUOAM line.  Then again, given that it’s a war movie, it could also be a bloody mess of limbs and cursing…

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Christopher Maurer is a graduate of Michigan State University w/ a BA in English who then proceeded to get wrapped up in the world of videography for local news & sports, including the 2003 March Madness tournament, before migrating to Philadelphia in late-2003 where he then jumped into the crazy-ridiculous world of professional wrestling under the moniker Shane Hagadorn. It is a world in which he, his wife, and cats have since resided for the last 10 years. Chris, an avid fan of comics for 25 years & counting, has been writing his own personal blog since late-2010 at 20 Plus Years of 32 Pages and recently had his first published work in the September 2013 issue of Philly Beer Scene Magazine. His loves include Batman, mutants, Grant Morrison, craft beer, and not taking it all too seriously...

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1 Comment

  1. Bruno Franco says:

    Though i completely disagree with your statements regarding Guardians of the gallaxy, im haapy someone shares my concerns. DC’s animations are a shadow of their former selves. I genuinely enjoyed Falshpoint Paradox, with its violence and all, simpy because it wasnt it’s main focus, but rather the emotions of the characters at the culmination of an appocalyptic event that whould destroy the world and how some people heroically rose to confront the madness of selfish political figures (The scene were they find an anorexic Superman allways tugs at my hearstrings, just because of all the wonderful things i know he could do for humanity).

    Personally, War was the beginning of the fall to me, but mostly because it was forgettable, not outright empty-headed like Son Batman. What mostly disapointed me about about that one was the fact that they had the oportunity to make Thalia Al Ghull the ultimate, archetypal, nemesis to batman. She could have become the super-genius, all-powerful, zillionaire megavillain that was superior to the Dark Knight in every aspect, but no, instead she was reduced to a damsel-in-distress looking to avenge her father. Grant Morrison’s innovations to the mythos were all but glansed over, and that to me is just baffling concidering the bravery these films were showing up until now. Even JLA Advetures: Trapped in Time has more heart, and a compelling narrative that respects the source material, and i still fell like i was the only person on Earth who watched it.

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