From Batman to Zeta Project: A guide to the DC Animated Universe
Before the Arrowverse and the Marvel Universe, there was the DC Animated Universe (a.k.a. the Timmerverse, named after its leading creative force Bruce Timm), a glorious shared universe of TV shows that ran for over a decade on television. What made the DCAU such a landmark achievement is that it not only made the oft-convoluted DC Comics mythology accessible to newcomers, but it also pushed said universe in interesting and often weird directions that the DC Extended Universe (the current movie universe you know from, say, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad) can only hope to rival at this point.
The DCAU began with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. From there, the universe slowly started to grow, first with Superman: The Animated Series, which featured several crossovers with Batman's world. Then came the future-set Batman Beyond, the more kid-friendly Static Shock, and the oft-forgotten Zeta Project. In 2001, Superman and Batman joined forces with five other legendary heroes for Justice League, which eventually gave way to Justice League Unlimited, a love letter to DC Comics.
A good rule of thumb: Almost anything the recent live-action movies have attempted, the DCAU did it and did it better. However, because the universe lasted for over 10 years and featured several series and movies, diving into this material can seem rather daunting. To help you in your quest down this deep rabbit hole (that leads to Skataris), EW has put together this handy guide on where to start with the DC Animated Universe.
MUST WATCH: Batman: The Animated Series (1992–95; 1997–99)
It's best to start from the beginning with the Emmy-winning Batman: The Animated Series, which marked the debut of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill's iconic turns as Batman and the Joker, respectively. Over the course of 85 episodes and three movies, Timm, Eric Radomski, Paul Dini, and many more confidently dove into the Dark Knight's mythology with mature stories that were engaging for both kids and adults. From emotionally gripping episodes like "Heart of Ice," which gave Mr. Freeze a tragic backstory, to fun installments like "Almost Got 'Im," which finds Batman's rogues reminiscing about the times they almost got 'im, this series embraced every aspect of the character and his world — and introduced new elements to it, too, like Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) and Detective Montoya (Ingrid Oliu and Liana Schrimer). B:TAS was far more concerned with exploring Gotham than universe-building, which makes it a fairly standalone series. However, it sets the tone and standard for everything to come.
After its first two seasons and a title change (The Adventures of Batman & Robin), the series ended in 1995. It was revived two years later with a series called The New Batman Adventures as a companion to Superman: The Animated Series (HBO Max, where the show streams, divides the series up into three seasons and lists TNBA as season). With this new series, the producers gave the characters a sleeker look and pivoted into more team-up stories that showed off the rest of the Bat-family. (This development probably explains why Batman is grumpier here, too.) Moreover, unlike the original series, The New Batman Adventures embraced its place in a growing universe with a Batgirl-Supergirl (Tara Strong and Nicholle Tom) team-up in "Girls' Night Out" and installments that introduced DC characters like the Creeper (Jeff Bennett) and Etrigan the Demon (Billy Zane). While The New Batman Adventures is a bit more uneven than the original show, there are still some classics worth checking out.
If all those episodes weren't enough, there are also three tie-in movies: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998), and Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (2003). Phantasm, which was originally released in theaters, is the only one that you truly need to watch because it's one of the few times that the writers dive into Batman's origin story.
Essential episodes: See EW's ranking of the best 25 episodes (Available to stream on HBO Max)
MUST WATCH: Superman: The Animated Series (1996–2000)
While Superman: The Animated Series wasn't as good as B:TAS, it's necessary viewing because this is where Timm and company really started planting seeds that would blossom in future shows. Their take on the Man of Steel (Tim Daly) cast Clark Kent as both a superhero and explorer, and his many adventures would take him from Metropolis to the outer reaches of space (like Apokolips). Furthermore, the series gifted the world with Dana Delany and Clancy Brown's memorable portrayals of Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, respectively. (Praise be to voice director Andrea Romano, who helped cast so many terrific actors.)
With S:TAS, Timm and Burnett began world-building in earnest. Darkseid (Michael Ironside), the final boss of the DCAU, made his debut toward the end of the first season, and, from there, the show would go on to introduce many other DC Comics characters: more of Jack Kirby's New Gods, the Flash (Charlies Schlatter), Aquaman (Miguel Ferrer), Dr. Fate (George Del Hoyo), Green Lantern Kyle Rayner (Michael P. Greco), and, of course, a crossover with The New Batman Adventures in season 2's "World's Finest."
Essential episodes: "The Last Son of Krypton," "A Little Piece of Home," "Stolen Memories," "The Main Man," "Tools of the Trade," "Blasts From the Past," "Speed Demons," "Brave New Metropolis," "Ghost in the Machine," "The Hand of Fate," "Prototype," "Heavy Metal," "Apokolips…Now", "Little Lost Girl," "Knight Time," "New Kids in Town," "In Brightest Day," "The Demon Reborn," and "Legacy" (Available to stream on HBO Max)
MUST WATCH: Batman Beyond (1999–2001)
Timm & Co.'s boldest addition to DC Comics mythology came in the form of 1999's Batman Beyond, which is set in 2039 and follows Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle), a rebellious 17-year-old who assumes the Batman mantle from an older, bitter, and reclusive Bruce Wayne (voiced, yet again, by Conroy). To be fair, you could easily skip the series and not miss much, but that would be a mistake because it's one of the strangest and darkest projects in the DCAU and features the first introduction of its Justice League in "The Call." However, if you only have time to watch one thing (or four), I suggest going with the pilot, "The Call," "Out of the Past," and the movie Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (available on HBO Max).
SKIPPABLE: The Zeta Project (2001–03)
Odds are you've never heard of this series and that's okay — it's probably the most inconsequential series in the entire universe. Spinning out of the Batman Beyond episode "Zeta," the series follows Zeta — a military android who went rogue because he no longer wants to kill — and his pal Ro as they evade capture by the NSA.
MUST WATCH: Static Shock (2000–04)
Static Shock follows Virgil Hawkins (Phil LaMarr), a 14-year-old who lives in Dakota City with his father and sister. One day, his life is changed when a chemical explosion known as the Big Bang gives him electromagnetic powers. Unlike most of the other people who gained powers in the Big Bang, Virgil decides to use his for good and becomes the superhero Static, which also helps distinguish him from many other teenage superheroes like Spider-Man or even Terry McGinnis. He chose this life because it's the right thing to do and not because of some tragedy.
The show's biggest gift to the DCAU was bringing Static's comic book creator, the great Dwayne McDuffie, into the fold. McDuffie would go on to write some of the best Justice League and Justice League Unlimited episodes before his death in 2011. The show finally became available for purchase on DVD, Apple TV, and Amazon in 2017, with seasons 3 and 4 featuring the series' most substantial crossovers with the greater DCAU. It is also now available on HBO Max. If you're interested in an animated version of the Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean, then you should definitely check it out.
MUST WATCH: Justice League (2001–04)
The Man of Steel (now voiced by George Newbern) and Batman team up with Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg), Green Lantern John Stewart (Phil LaMarr), the Flash (Michael Rosenbaum), Martian Manhunter (Carl Lumbly), and Hawkgirl (Maria Canals) in this action-packed series that dives further into the DC Comics Universe with episodes that touch on Wonder Woman's origins, Gorilla City, Mongul, DC's WWII-era heroes, and more. However, its greatest legacy is that it helped make John Stewart one of the most well-known Green Lanterns for people who might not read comics, which tend to focus more on arrogant fighter pilot Hal Jordan. You definitely want to have watched Superman: The Animated Series before diving into Justice League, because it picks up where that series left off and you need to see the origins of Batman and Wonder Woman's flirtatious relationship.
Essential Episodes: See EW's ranking of every Justice League episode (Available to stream on HBO Max)
MUST WATCH: Justice League Unlimited (2004–06)
After watching everything else, it's finally time to dig into the DCAU's crown jewel: Justice League Unlimited. Picking up after JL's epic series finale "Starcrossed," JLU introduces an expanded League — which now includes Green Arrow (the show's everyman), the Question (Jeffrey Combs voices the most endearing conspiracy theorist), Huntress (Amy Acker), Black Canary (Morena Baccarin), and so many more — and builds on all of the work accomplished by the previous shows. Season 1, the show's best season, pits the League against Cadmus, a shadow government organization led by Amanda Waller (CCH Pounder) that grew in response to events going all the way back to S:TAS. (Real talk: Has any other "kids' program" attempted a story line about the deep state before?) The season 1 finale "Epilogue" (inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer's season 4 finale "Restless") pays tribute to how Batman started this entire universe and works as a de facto finale for Batman Beyond. While season 2 — which follows Lex Luthor and Gorilla Grodd's villainous Secret Society and visits far-off DC locations like Skataris and the 31st century — isn't nearly as good as the first one, it features some of the series' most fun episodes (for example, "The Great Brain Robbery," where Lex and the Flash swap bodies) and builds to an emotional and powerful series finale, "Destroyer," which doubles as a satisfying conclusion to the DCAU as Superman and Darkseid battle it out one final time.
Essential Episodes: "Initiation," "For the Man Who Has Everything," "This Little Piggy" (also inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer); "The Greatest Story Never Told," "Ultimatum," "Wake the Dead," "The Once and Future Thing" Parts 1 and 2; "The Doomsday Sanction," "Task Force X," "Double Date," "Clash," "Question Authority," "Flashpoint," "Panic in the Sky," "Divided We Fall," "Epilogue," "Alive," and "Destroyer" (Available to stream on HBO Max)