Has any one person meant as much to the DC Universe over the past 25 years than Bruce Timm? When the animator and TV producer co-created Batman: The Animated Series with Eric Radomski back in 1992, he and his team at Warner Bros. offered a fresh take on an iconic character, finding a balance between the breezy fun of the ’60s Batman and the darker Dark Knight of the ’70s and ’80s. Timm then went on to co-create one of the more entertaining versions of Superman in another animated series, debuting in 1996; and in 2001 he carried the lessons from those two shows into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, which together comprise some of the best superhero television ever made.

After JLU ended, Timm helped launch Warner Home Video’s DC Universe Animated Original Movies, a straight-to-DVD/BD/VOD series that has adapted some of the most popular DC Comics storylines of recent times, in styles that combine Timm’s design sensibility — simplified, angular, and colorful — with the more mature content of modern comics. This week sees the release of the 26th of these films: Batman: The Killing Joke, an R-rated version of writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s landmark 1988 graphic novella.

In recognition of what may the highest-profile DC Universe Animated Original since 2007’s Superman: Doomsday, here’s a look back through all nine years of the series, which has generated some movies as good as almost anything DC/Warner’s live-action division has produced, and some that are … well, not. From smart reinterpretations of modern classics to a new non-Timm-produced sub-series of “shared universe” films, these 26 feature-length(ish) cartoons have been a fair representation of how 21st century DC tackles superhero storytelling. Here’s every single one, ranked from worst to best.

26. Superman vs. the Elite (2012)
Directed by Michael Chang

Writer Joe Kelly’s 2001 Action Comics issue “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?” was a defensive one-off inside joke, meant to spoof superhero-trashing comics by writers like Warren Ellis and Mark Millar. On its own merits though, the story doesn’t have a lot to offer to anyone who’s not already heavily invested in the fight between classicists and revisionists. Superman vs. the Elite’s spoof of ironic, amoral, British-accented super-teams comes off as way too simplistic — and nowhere near as funny as the 30 second Super Friends parody that pops up early in the movie. This is the kind of production that gives both this series and modern DC Comics a bad name. It doesn’t invite new fans in; it just hectors the older ones.

25. Justice League: War (2014)
Directed by Jay Oliva

It’s hard to keep track of all the ways that Justice League: War goes awry. The first of the new interconnected Animated Originals, the film gets off to a bad start by taking place in a version of the DC Universe that’s as dark and violent as some of the dystopian alternate timelines in the other movies. The inter-dimensional action—involving Darkseid and his Parademons—is clamorous but rarely exciting, and both the voice cast and the characterizations of the Justice League lack personality. (Poor Wonder Woman’s biggest character quirk is that she tries ice cream for the first time and decides that it’s just the balm for the soul after a day of hearing the American public shout, “You dress like a whore!” at her.) The shared continuity films have had a few good entries since, but War set a grim tone that’s made each subsequent project a little harder to greet enthusiastically.

24. Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009)
Directed by Sam Liu

Unlike the respectable attempts to evoke the art styles of comics artists in other Animated Originals, the versions of the thick-bodied Ed McGuinness characters in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies are never distinctive enough to overcome a tedious plot that essentially has the two main heroes running a gauntlet of super-villains and minor heroes for an hour. It’s fun to see some of DC’s B-team, including Silver Banshee, King Shark, Black Lightning, and Power Girl (who, in keeping with an all-too-common motif in this series, gets leered at by the creepy boy-hero Toyman). But the near non-stop succession of punches, bullets, and explosions gets tiresome quickly.

23. Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
Directed by Sam Liu

If Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox didn’t already exist, there’d be more of a raison d’être for Justice League: Gods And Monsters, another alternate universe story that explores the well-exhausted theme of what it really means to be a hero. Timm co-wrote the script for Alan Burnett with Sam Liu directing, but while all three men are DC Animated Original stalwarts, their combined sensibilities feel a little out of synch with dystopian science-fiction. The best thing about Gods and Monsters is the inclusion Dr. Will Magnus and his robot helpers the Metal Men, who rarely show up in any DC movies or TV shows. The worst thing? Probably the scene where Magnus says that a brilliant-but-angry female colleague has “a 200 IQ … emotional IQ not as high.”

22. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010)
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

There’s some good inter-hero banter in this team-up tale, which should really be tagged as “Superman/Batman/Supergirl/Wonder Woman.” But the Darkseid-driven cosmic clash is a reminder that Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters have rarely translated well outside of their original comics. And Superman/Batman: Apocalypse’s depiction of Supergirl as a somewhat ditzy teen who needs her cousin Kal-El’s guidance is another example of the casual sexism and paternalism that often makes these movies a bit of a bummer. (The stern, joyless, scantily attired Wonder Woman doesn’t help.)

20/21. Son of Batman/Batman: Bad Blood (2014/2016)
Directed by Ethan Spaulding/Jay Oliva

Not long after Warner Animation released the first of its Justice League movies with shared continuity, the studio spun off a Batman series, with the same voice talent (primarily Jason O’Mara as Bruce Wayne) and a mandate to adapt some of the stories and characters that have appeared in the past decade’s best-selling Bat-books. Batman vs. Robin has been the best of these—and one of the better DC Animated Originals overall—but the two films that flank it are fairly dreary. Even with top-shelf pulp novelist Joe. R. Lansdale providing the script, Son of Batman is a chore, as it pairs a brooding Batman with a humorless new Robin and some tediously violent villains. Batman: Bad Blood expands the cast, but is still way too heavy—and overfamiliar to boot, as it weaves in the same old flashbacks to the characters’ pasts, and covers the same old questions about where the lines between vigilantism and criminality lie.

19. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015)
Directed by Ethan Spaulding

A Justice League adventure that doubles as an origin story for the oft-mocked old-school DC hero Aquaman, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis isn’t the worst of the shared universe sub-series, but it’s not exactly a must-see either. On the plus side, writer Heath Corson and director Ethan Spaulding include moments of actual camaraderie between the heroes, as they get to know their new undersea ally. But the thick-necked character design and random profanity make Throne of Atlantis feel like an old Super Friends episode that’s pretending to be more adult than it actually needs to.

18. Justice League: Doom (2012)
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

Though intended as an adaptation of writer Mark Waid and artist Howard Porter’s superb “Tower of BabelJLA comics storyline, Justice League: Doom makes so many changes (and so many winking allusions to the old Super Friends TV series), that it never really develops any momentum as a piece of storytelling in and of itself. And that’s too bad, because the core premise — about what would happen if villains ever got hold of Batman’s secret plans to incapacitate wayward teammates — is a classic contemporary superhero plot. Here it comes across as another generic “a bunch of villains attack the Justice League all at once” plugger, shortchanging the story’s more provocative elements. Still, it good to see how well Justice League: Doom uses the character Cyborg, who has gone on to be a key piece of nearly every subsequent Justice League animated movie.

17. Batman: Gotham Knight (2008)
Directed by various

Easily the oddest of the DC animated features, this anthology film — the third overall release in the series — uses a wildly disparate mix of styles and approaches to tell stories about what Batman means to his city and its citizens. Some of the artwork here borders on the ugly, like an amateur attempt to ape the thin lines and funky futurism of Heavy Metal magazine, and the individual segments are under-plotted and overly violent. Still, given how uniform and predictable so many of these movies are, Batman: Gotham Knight deserves credit for trying something different, in the early days of a series that now tends toward the safe.

16. Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)
Directed by Jay Oliva/Ethan Spaulding

A solid entry for devotees of DC’s villains — or for anyone who becomes a fan after seeing Suicide Squad next month — Batman: Assault on Arkham is essentially an old-fashioned caper picture with an all rogue cast. (The “Batman” in the title is a little misleading, since the hero doesn’t appear much until the second half.) Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Killer Frost, and a few others team up on government orders to break into Arkham Asylum and retrieve information from their fellow bad guys that could prevent Gotham City from blowing up. With its more anime-like visual style, its funky soundtrack, and its darkly comic tone, the movie plays like a mash-up of Ocean’s 11, The Dirty Dozen, and some of the more adult-oriented 21st century Batman comics.

15. Superman: Doomsday (2007)
Directed by Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, and Brandon Vietti

The first DC Universe Original is actually a fair representative of both the series’ weaknesses and its possibilities. While the animation and design are crude in comparison to some of what would come later, Superman: Doomsday does feel like a more mature, more fully realized version of what Timm (who co-wrote and co-directed) was doing with the DC heroes in the ’90s. But even though the story is well-rounded — with good plot-twists, quiet character moments, and strong contrast between Superman and Lex Luthor’s ideas of how to wield power — the movie’s adaptation of the “Death of Superman” comics unnecessarily eliminates characters and subplots, so that it can come in at under 80 minutes. Superman: Doomsday is a good film that could’ve been great, with just a modicum of added ambition on the part of its makers.

14. Superman: Unbound (2013)
Directed by James Tucker

Since Superman: Unbound came out in 2013, Warner Animation has released 10 films, all featuring either Batman or the Justice League — with no announced plans for any new Superman solo projects. If this ends up being the last standalone Superman movie in the series, at least it’s a fairly winning one: an entertaining, beautifully illustrated version of writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank’s “Brainiac” plot-arc, retelling the saga of the shrunken “bottle city” of Kandor. John Noble voices Brainiac, bringing a touch of pathos to the super-intelligent cyborg, in a story that touches on Superman and Supergirl’s Kryptonian origins.

13. Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011)
Directed by various

After an initial flurry of solo films for various DC heroes, Warner Animation has pretty much settled into making every release either about Superman, Batman, or the Justice League. The second Green Lantern feature is now a melancholy what-might’ve-been, representing all the standalone stories that DC fans aren’t getting from this project. It’s not just one story either; it’s five, presented anthology-style. The variety and cleverness of these tall tales (two of which come from Alan Moore-written comics) show off the possibilities inherent in Green Lantern and the Guardians of the Universe, whose adventures often tend to become provocative public policy debates about how peacekeepers should behave.

12. Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

Nearly everything that the 2011 live-action Green Lantern movie tried to be — a superhero origin story crossed with a Star Wars-style space-opera — was handled much better two years earlier by the animated Green Lantern: First Flight. While telling the story of how test pilot Hal Jordan was given an all-powerful ring and initiated into an intergalactic police corps, First Flight also tracks the corruption of Sinestro, a veteran Green Lantern who’s sick of following the rules. The film works as an action-packed sci-fi adventure and as a study of the kind of policeman who’d rather protect his power than the public.

11. Wonder Woman (2009)
Directed by Lauren Montgomery

To be frank, Wonder Woman has been pretty poorly served by the DC Animated Originals. With one other exception still to come on our list, this solo adventure, which fairly successfully encapsulates decades of the character’s best interpretations — from creator William Moulton Marston’s pro-feminist kink to George Perez’s dense Greek mythology — is her one highlight. Keri Russell provides a strong voice for Princess Diana, as she fights off old enemies in order to stay in the world of mortals. The character’s nobility and strength, as well as her confusion with her new surroundings, are all given their due, in a film that could stand to have a stronger plot, but does serve as an appealing introduction to one of DC’s main “trinity.”

10. Batman vs. Robin (2015)
Directed by Jay Oliva

DC Comics fans have had mixed feelings about writer Grant Morrison’s creation Damian Wayne, the chilly, imperious son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, who makes for a decidedly un-fun Robin. But the character is used very well in the movie adaptation of Scott Snyder’s “Court of Owls” comics storyline, which also introduced one of the better recent additions to the Batman mythology: An ancient tribunal of Gotham City aristocrats. As a rebellious Damian falls under the tutelage of the Owls’ enforcer Talon (well-voiced by Jeremy Sisto), the film covers the history of the city and the varied philosophies of crimefighting, with the help of a handful of genuinely creepy images and one good plot twist. A lot of these DC Animated pictures are slight, but Batman vs. Robin feels a lot like reading five or six page-turning Detective Comics issues in a row.

9. Justice League vs. Teen Titans (2016)
Directed by Sam Liu

Forget the title. The best entry yet in in Warner/DC’s recent shared universe series is really a straight-up Teen Titans movie, functioning as both a sort-of origin story for the team and as an adaptation of the classic “Trigon” storyline from the ’80s (where an extra-dimensional demon tries to take over our world with the help of his daughter, the Titan named Raven). DC’s younger heroes have always been well served in animation, from the two Cartoon Network Teen Titans series to the Justice League Unlimited semi-sequel Young Justice. In Justice League vs. Teen Titans, director Sam Liu and writers Bryan Q. Miller and Alan Burnett do an excellent job of balancing big action sequences with scenes that emphasize the likable chemistry between Starfire, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, and the adjunct Titans Cyborg and Robin (the standoffish Damian Wayne version).

8. Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010)
Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery

With the 2000 graphic novel JLA: Earth 2, writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely offered their interpretation of one of Silver Age DC Comics’ most mind-blowing inventions: An alternate universe where Lex Luthor is the lone hero fighting against a “Crime Syndicate” whose members resemble our Justice League. The animated Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (written by Dwayne McDuffie and co-directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery) suffers a little from the familiarity of some of the voices, including William Baldwin’s distractingly Alec-like take on Batman. But just as Morrison and Quitely found fascinating philosophical resonances in a tossed-off old comic book plot, so the cartoon works exciting hero-vs.-antihero standoffs into a thoughtful story, where one of the Crime Syndicate’s masterminds, Owlman (voiced by James Woods) determines that nothing anyone ever does has any real meaning, since the multiverse will always offer another variation.

7. Batman: The Killing Joke
Directed by Sam Liu

The original graphic novella The Killing Joke is far from Alan Moore’s most sophisticated take on superheroing. (Try the underrated Miracleman first, then Watchmen, then the oft-forgotten Supreme.) But this retelling/reimagining of The Joker’s origin story—intercut with our hero discovering just how sick his nemesis can be—is compact, provocative, and incredibly potent. The animated version is just as strong, even though screenwriter Brian Azzarello expands on Moore and artist Brian Bolland’s work and makes it even more unnecessarily shocking, by showing Batgirl in a sexual relationship with Batman. The best defense of the animated Killing Joke comes from producer Bruce Timm, who in an interview with Abraham Riesman for Vulture said, “It’s not my favorite Alan Moore comic, [but] warts and all, the story is what it is. It’s kind of a classic. And as uncomfortable as some of this stuff is, it’s not my story. I’m just the guy who’s putting it on the screen.” That may sound like feint praise, but from the stellar voice-cast (including Batman-imation faves Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, and Tara Strong) to director Sam Liu’s faithful replications of some of Bolland’s most famous images, The Killing Joke mostly stays true to its source. It’s true that everything questionable in the book is there in the movie. But everything artful and thoughtful is there too.

6. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
Directed by Jay Oliva

As its title (sort of) implies, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox is as much a Flash movie as a Justice League one. Based on writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert’s “Flashpoint” crossover event — apparently soon to be adapted by The CW’s The Flash and its sister shows — the film has the Scarlet Speedster racing back through time to change the past, before coming back to a much darker present. The Flashpoint Paradox’s alternate reality DC Universe is bleak, but not punishingly so, and director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Jim Krieg do a fine job of translating some of the original’s more horrifying images (such as a Flash stripped of his skin while trying to use lightning to regain his powers, and a scrawny Superman who’s been held captive by the government since infancy). This is another of the DC Animated productions that actually feels like a full story.

5. Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Directed by Brandon Vietti

Watching a lot of DC Animated films in a row can get a little confusing, since some voices recur from picture in picture different parts. The only major flaw with Batman: Under the Red Hood is that anyone who’s heard Neal Patrick Harris as the Flash in Justice League: The New Frontier might have a hard time accepting him as Nightwing here, just like it could be tough to take Jason Isaacs as Ra’s al Ghul when he was such a good Sinestro in Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (and a decent Lex Luthor in Justice League: Gods and Monsters). Other than that though, this is one of the best of the Batman stories, adapted by director Brandon Vietti and writer Judd Winick from two well-known comics arcs — the murder of the second Robin, Jason Todd, by the Joker, and the return of a resurrected Todd as a vengeful vigilante. The movie weaves flashbacks skillfully into the main narrative, to poignantly contrast the optimism of a young hero with the hardness of the veteran crimefighter.

4. Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)
Directed by Dave Bullock

After debuting with the just-okay Superman: Doomsday, the DC Animated Original team really earned fans’ trust with their second release: A reasonably faithful adaptation of Darwyn Cooke’s infectiously upbeat and stylish 2006 six-issue miniseries The New Frontier. The movie’s too short to get in all the weird and wonderful detail from Cooke’s reimagining of how Earth’s major superheroes teamed up in the early ’60s. But with its colorful look and offbeat voice-casting choices (including Kyle MacLachan as Superman, Jeremy Sisto as Batman, and Neil Patrick Harris as the Flash), this New Frontier translates both the original’s retro energy and its evocations of the possibilities of the Kennedy era.

3. All-Star Superman (2011)
Directed by Sam Liu

One of the major flaws with DC/Warner’s straight-to-video movies is that they’re generally locked into a running time of around 70 minutes, which for some storylines is way too long and for others barely scratches the surface. If the adaptation of writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely’s 12-issue 2005-08 All-Star Superman maxi-series had been allowed to run closer to two hours, then director Sam Liu and screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie would’ve made maybe the best DC film of all time — animated or otherwise. Instead, they only offer an abridged sampler of the series’ varied, imaginative, episodic tale of a Superman trying to complete a few more big jobs before he succumbs to radiation poisoning. Even in truncated form though, this is a delightful film, capturing the joy and brightness with which Morrison and Quietely approached the anything-can-happen Superman of their Silver Age dreams.

2. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012/2013)
Directed by Directed by Jay Oliva

Why are the two best DC animated features adaptations of Frank Miller? Maybe it’s because Miller is one of the most cinema-influenced writer-artists in the history of the comics medium, always thinking in terms of rhythm, juxtaposition, and “camera angles.” His landmark 1986 miniseries The Dark Knight Returns (illustrated with the assistance of Klaus Janson) helped kick off the controversial “grim ’n’ gritty” era of superhero comics, and has been ripped off so many times that it shouldn’t really be as effective as it is in cartoon form. Once again, the faithfulness of the Warner Animation team (including writer Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva) proves revelatory. Besides them taking the unprecedented step of stretching the film across two 76-minute parts, they keep in a lot of Miller’s offbeat storytelling techniques and social commentary — such as the way The Dark Knight Returns punctuates its action with a Greek chorus of TV commentators. On the page, those little touches seemed quirky. In motion, they just play like conventional montages, making the movie feel fuller, more varied, and more sophisticated. Add in a great voice performance by Peter Weller as a cranky, aged Batman, and this becomes a surprisingly stirring film, converting Miller’s violent dystopian vision into a paean to true heroism.

1. Batman: Year One (2011)
Directed by Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery

Writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli’s four-issue 1987 “Year One” story arc makes a strong case for the superhero comics industry’s love of the “retcon,” where a long-running character’s origin story gets retold with new nuances and details. Miller and Mazzucchelli reimagined Batman as a street-level superhero, learning to fight crime in his own way, at the same time that a young Gotham cop named Jim Gordon is doing the same. Their comic is essentially a hard-boiled urban police procedural, with Batman as the co-star. The animated version works splendidly because screenwriter Tab Murphy and co-directors Sam Liu and Lauren Montgomery respect what the original creators were going for. Batman: Year One is moody and muted, letting Mazzucchelli’s memorable compositions and Miller’s terse narration carry most of the load. It helps too that this film has some of the best voice-work in this series, with Bryan Cranston as a prematurely world-weary Gordon and Ben McKenzie (yes, the guy who plays Jim Gordon on Gotham) as a growly, deeply human Bruce Wayne.

More From ComicsAlliance