Did you see a movie this weekend, only to suddenly find yourself wondering why you ever decided to like superheroes in the first place? Do you need a Doomsday-sized palate cleanser (just to pick a random example)?
Well, I do. And I could start up a rewatch of Batman: The Animated Series or Justice League Unlimited, but frankly I need something both more direct and more comprehensive. So here are 10 stories — most of which you can watch on Netflix or Amazon, the rest of which you can purchase on Comixology — that will restore your faith in the very idea of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
From 1993 to 1995, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale collaborated on a yearly Halloween story about the Caped Crusader. "Ghosts" is the final of the three, reprinted with the rest in Batman: Haunted Knight. It's simple to explain the story here: it's A Christmas Carol, but with Bruce Wayne, and on Halloween. The role of the ghost of Jacob Marley is played by the ghost of Thomas Wayne, who fears his son is allowing obsession to rule his life.
"Ghosts" raises a question that few Batman stories like to touch: Bruce Wayne's life isn't something any parent would wish on their child, so who is he really doing it for? With help from some spooky spirits, Bruce realizes that he is on a path that would squander his family's legacy in Gotham, even as he saves the city from its worst fates as Batman. The story concludes with Bruce greeting trick-or-treaters at Wayne Manor for the first time, and vowing to incorporate philanthropy into his lonely mission. A fitting origin tale for the charitable Wayne Foundation.
When Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Dwayne McDuffie and many of other folks who'd shepherded the much-beloved DC Animated Universe through a half dozen interconnected television shows made "Epilogue," they believed it to be the last story they would ever tell in that universe. And while Justice League Unlimited would go on to be renewed for another season, "Epilogue" stands as their swan song, their heartfelt farewell to the version of the character of Batman who paved the way for Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock and five seasons of Justice League cartoons.
That story, told through Waller's flashback, is about the best aspects of Batman: his unflinching dedication to his ideals, his immense capacity for compassion, his bravery in the face of the unknown and, ultimately, his keen insight what it is like to be a frightened, lonely child.
Three kids wander around Gotham at night with a batsignal flashlight. Why would their parents allow them to do such a dumb thing? Shush, they're all sharing their stories about what they think Batman is really like, manifested in full animated homages to the work of Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, and — in what's probably the best version of The Dark Knight Returns ever adapted — Frank Miller.
Eventually, of course (it is Gotham, after all) trouble does catch up with them, but help — and finding out what Batman is really really like, is just a signal away.
It's a move that makes Amazon society more relatable than a never-changing cadre of immortal, isolationist philosopher/warriors, but it also preserves the miracle of Princess Diana's birth. And, it makes for juicy Game of Thrones-style politicking when those among the Amazons who doubt Queen Hippolyta's devotion to the gods or her ability to rule Themyscira without bias now that her mortal daughter walks on the island.
Just as a political plot to oust Hippolyta from rule reaches its zenith, Diana's compassionate bid to help a friend strands her in Man's World, with limited memories of Themyscira due to Magical Shenanigans. It's here that Legend has begun to dig into Diana's adventures in the United States during World War II, under the watchful and concerned eye of college co-ed Etta Candy.
The field of contenders for "best Wonder Woman movie" is not well populated. In fact, this direct-to-DVD installment from Warner Bros.' DC Universe Animated Original Movies is the only contender, at least until 2017. But even if it did have competition, Wonder Woman would likely rank high.
Adapted from an early script by veteran Wonder Woman writer Gail Simone and produced by DC Animated Universe co-creator Bruce Timm, its cast includes Nathan Fillion, Alfred Molina, Rosario Dawson and Oliver Platt, with Keri Russell in the role of Diana herself.
All you really need to know about this, otherwise, is that there's a scene where Diana comes upon a little girl who is crying because the boys won't let her play pirates with them unless she plays a damsel — and teaches her the proper method of disemboweling her opponent in a sword fight.
To those above, from those below.
I ask that my enemy surrender, or failing that, that he fall in battle, without further bloodshed and grieving from his loved ones.
I ask that you protect my allies, whose only folly is valuing my life above their own. Do them no harm, I ask, with everything my heart is or will ever be.
But grant us victory, this above all. For any other ending means the death of all I hold dear.
You created this ground I tread upon. Allow me the strength to stand on it, 'til my mission is done.
I'll grant you, Justice League's Christmas Episode, "Comfort and Joy," is not purely about Superman. It's also about Green Lantern and Hawkgirl flirting, and about the Flash enlisting a supervillain to help him find the year's hot toy to give to a bunch of orphans.
But listen: the plotline about Superman bringing the Martian Manhunter home with him for Christmas might be the most heartwarming thing in the whole show. J'onn J'onzz's arc in Justice League is ultimately about finding a way to accept earth as his home and humanity as his adopted people. It's not surprising that Clark Kent would see a kindred spirit in the Martian Manhunter, but to invite a giant green alien shapeshifter to his parents' Kansas farmhouse for the holidays is quintessentially Superman.
Also, there's nothing more humanizing than finding out that the most powerful being on the planet has parents who still treat him like a kid — because they have to, because otherwise he totally peeks at the presents with his x-ray vision.
Read the original Alan Moore comic or watch the episode of Justice League Unlimited that faithfully adapts it — either way, you're looking at one of the greatest Superman stories ever told.
Batman and Wonder Woman visit the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate Superman's birthday, only to find the Man of Steel catatonic, trapped in the tendrils of a strange alien plant that has created an illusion of his greatest conscious and unconscious desires.
Page after page of Moore's story hits like a punch in the gut: Wonder Woman's brutal brawl with alien conqueror Mongol, who trapped Superman as the first step of his plan to rule earth. The revelation that Batman's perfect, inescapable fantasy is simply a world in which he watches his father beat up the man who took his parents' lives, forever. Kal-el of Krypton's slow realization that everything he thinks he knows — his peaceful Kryptonian farm, his beloved wife (an amalgam of Lana Lang and Lois Lane), their son, his father's successful career as a respected scientist, Krypton's continued existence — is a beautiful lie. And the rage of a Superman when he find the man who duped him.
In its last moments, it's ultimately and emphatically about the idea that we are not the product of society or society's expectations: we are who we choose to be. But there's a subtler message lying underneath those final moments: that without heroes as examples, we might never know the full extent of our choices.
If you're having trouble remembering why you even like superheroes in the first place, watch The Iron Giant. We are who we choose to be, but we can only choose what we've seen.