12 Episodes in the DC Animated Universe that, as They Say in the Business, May Not Be Suitable for Younger Viewers
1. “The Underdwellers,” Batman: The Animated Series (original airdate 10/21/92)
When news of Batman: TAS surfaced shortly before its 1992 premiere, fans didn’t harbor high hopes for the series. Despite the success of 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns in bringing the character back to his darker roots, images of Bat-Mite, the Wonder Twins and “Holy catchphrase!” were too engrained in the public consciousness. It didn’t take long for the series to put those images to rest, thanks mostly to its art-deco style and faithful adherence to the moody atmosphere that Batman’s creators infused into his early stories. At a time when bland Saved by the Bell knock-offs were taking over Saturday morning, there was literally nothing like Batman: TAS on the tube, and kids and adults alike tuned in to watch their hero bust some heads, old-school style. A big part of the draw was the fact the show didn’t shy away from depicting the more dangerous aspects (physical, mental or otherwise) of costumed crimefighting… but sometimes things got a little too dangerous onscreen, and parental caution was advised. The title of this Season 1 episode, for instance, refers to a gaggle of abused homeless children who are forced to live in Gotham’s sewers and steal on behalf of the Sewer King, a Fagin-like villain who thinks nothing of using his pet crocodiles to discipline his charges and frighten them into silent obedience. Pretty scary stuff for a kid in 1992 who just finished watching Bobby’s World, wouldn’t you say?
2. “Unity,” Superman: The Animated Series (5/15/99)
Gah! Isn’t this screen grab enough to get this episode on the list? Compared to Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS was a little lighter both in content and color schemes, and the smaller number of certified psychos in Superman’s gallery of rogues meant there were fewer chances of kiddies getting scarred by scenes of PG-rated depravity and violence. But “Unity” is perhaps the only episode in the entire DC Animated Universe that I can’t bring myself to watch a second time, probably because of OH MY GOD WHY IS THAT THING STICKING ITS THROBBING TENTACLES DOWN PEOPLES’ THROATS!?!?! I have this… um, thing about seeing tentacles, alien or otherwise, and so any depiction of, say, alien appendages writhing from Ma Kent’s mouth or Supergirl trussed up by same while the Smallville townsfolk are hooked up to feed a writhing, pulsating mass of… you know what, I’m getting a little woozy just describing it, so never mind.
3. “The Terror Beyond,” Justice League (11/15/2003)
After the successes of Batman: TAS and Superman: TAS, a series featuring the entire Justice League line-up was next logical step, with the larger cast offering plenty of opportunities to focus on classic DC characters that had yet to make a big impact outside the comic books. In this episode, Doctor Fate and Aquaman recruit Solomon Grundy, a hulking zombie with limited intelligence and serious anger-management issues, to help them ward off an ancient evil’s incursion into our plane of reality. (Old-school comic nerds with an eye for detail — ahem — will appreciate the obvious parallels between this motley crew and Marvel’s original Defenders team.) The Justice League arrive on the (astral) scene to take issue with their methods, arguing Grundy is not capable of understanding the choice he’s being asked to make. But in the end the undead man dies in Hawkgirl’s arms, finding peace at last. This list was inspired by this very episode; after my superhero-crazed son discovered my Justice League DVDs, I got an earful from the other parent in our household, who was left with the task of explaining to a teary-eyed boy why Grundy had to die. True, he wasn’t really “alive” in the first place, but try explaining that to a blubbering five-year-old.
4. “Wake the Dead,” Justice League Unlimited (12/18/2004)
As if putting poor Grundy out of his misery once wasn’t enough, this episode brings him back to get whacked a second time. After a spell by a trio of amateur sorcerers inadvertently brings Grundy’s body back from the dead, the Justice League is faced with finding a way to stop a massively powerful, rampaging monster who doesn’t display even the limited amount of intelligence or restraint he once had. When all seems lost, it’s up to Shayera — the former Hawkgirl who left the League after they became aware of her role in an alien invasion — to save the day, which she does so in a final scene that owes more to Old Yeller than any superhero cartoon really ought to.
5. “The Forgotten,” Batman: TAS (10/8/92)
The first season of Batman: TAS was a curious mix of episodes built around established Batman villains (“Christmas with the Joker,” “Pretty Poison”) and stories featuring more mundane sources of evil, like the aforementioned Sewer King or a two-bit mobster who lucks into an experimental invisibility suit. “The Forgotten” is firmly in the second camp, with Bruce Wayne going undercover to investigate the disappearance of several homeless men… and ending up an amnesiac in a mining camp where the men are forced to work as slave labor. It’s not traumatic in terms of depicted violence or scary images, but it’s a damned dull slog, and most kids tuning in to watch Harley Quinn’s antics may not be up for a discourse on the inherent evils of the capitalist system, despite the humorous antics of Alfred attempting to pilot the Bat-Wing.
6. “The Hand of Fate,” Superman: TAS (10/6/97)
This episode, in which Superman recruits Doctor Fate to help him defeat a demon lord with plans to take over the mortal realm, illustrates the problem with most stories involving magical enemies: saying the right spell or using the right talisman is usually all that’s needed to save the day, and so most of the show is spent finding the right spell/object instead of kicking super-villain butt. Plus there’s that thing about demons not having much depth to them — they’re here, they’re (the physical embodiment of) fear, get used to it, etc. — so the chances of character development or compelling motives are close to nil. The evil Karkull is released from his prison by a hapless burglar at a museum, and he celebrates his freedom by transforming the Daily Planet building into the focal point of his plan to turn all humans into mindless demon slaves. We know he can do this because we’re shown several examples of Daily Planet staffers, including Lois and Jimmy, transformed into demon beasties in rather graphic fashion. Unless you’re the type who cherishes regaling the young’uns with stories of Cthultu and the like, you probably want to give this one a pass.
7. “House and Garden,” Batman: TAS (5/2/94)
Poison Ivy was one of the more prominent female villains used in Batman: TAS, and for obvious reasons her original man-hating motives were toned down to present her more as a radical environmentalist (in her first appearance, she targeted Harvey Dent for death solely because of his support of a new prison on an ecologically sensitive site). While her methods were extreme, she was rarely depicted as insane or flat-out creepy — but “House and Garden” made up for that, and then some. Released from Arkham and married to the doctor who treated her, Poison Ivy appears to have turned over a new leaf by becoming a devoted wife and stepmother to the doctor’s two young boys. But there’s still the matter of giant green monsters running amok in Gotham while their robbery victims die of strange poisons, so Batman and Robin investigate. It turns out that Ivy’s happy “family” were in fact plant-derived copies based on her captive doctor’s DNA — and Batman and Robin actually witness the latest batch of babies “born” in Ivy’s lab, babies that are transformed into green monsters by Ivy’s special growth formula and then melted down by Batman’s herbicidal counterattack right in front of our eyes. Hell-ooooo, nightmare fuel!
8. “Avatar,” Batman: TAS (5/9/94)
Part of the appeal of Batman: TAS is that the series, much like its star, seemed comfortable exploring just about any genre, whether it was a detective-style thriller, a straight-up superhero slugfest, or a dramatic story involving, say, a pair of brothers on different sides of the law. “Avatar,” the episode that appeared right after “House and Garden,” brought back immortal baddie R’as al-Ghul to bedevil the Batman, but this time the story is very reminiscent of an Indiana Jones-type adventure, where ancient evils are unearthed by unwitting archaeologists and square-jawed hero types fight to contain ancient evils with bullwhips (or Batarangs, in this instance) and hand grenades. There’s nothing too intense for the kiddies to deal with until we reach the climax and a desiccated Thoth Kephera, resembling a distaff version of the Cryptkeeper, sucks the life force out of R’as with a kiss. Oh, and it’s also the first episode in which Batman is shown purposely trying to end the life of a sentient being, but forget that because seriously, that kiss? Ewwww.
9. “Apokolips…Now!,” Superman: TAS (2/7/96)
One of the smarter things the producers behind Superman: TAS did was to hold Darkseid and the other New Gods in reserve until they were given a suitable opportunity to appear, well, godlike. After several episodes in which Darkseid makes small appearances as the power behind the scenes, he finally makes his move in this two-part episode by launching a full-scale attack on Earth. All seems lost, but Superman and his comrades rally to beat back Darkseid’s forces, but not without cost; as he retreats, Darkseid leaves Superman with something to remember him by. Inspector Dan Turpin was a member of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit who took great issue with the idea that the cops needed Superman to keep the city safe, but he grew to appreciate Superman’s presence over time. His death at Darkseid’s hands — a murder committed solely out of spite — left Superman feeling defeated in victory, and it signalled to viewers that, Saturday mornings be damned, we’re dealing with high stakes here.
10. “Growing Pains,” The New Batman Adventures (2/28/98)
Robin saves a girl from an attack on Gotham’s mean streets, but loses track of her when the Bat-Signal beckons. Finding her again, he discovers she’s a homeless person who can’t remember who she is, but she knows she’s running away from the scary man who haunts her dreams. When the man turns up, he claims to be her father and warns Robin to stay out of it, but soon the truth is revealed: the man is Clayface and “Annie” is a sentient piece of his own malleable body that he created to act as a scout while he was lying low. Robin refuses to allow Clayface to re-absorb her back into his mass, arguing she’s a living being, but Clayface does it anyway, enraging our young hero before Batman arrives to prevent Robin from killing Clayface for the “murder” he just committed. It’s a fascinating episode for philosophers or bioethicists to debate, but chances are younger viewers may be too traumatized by the image of the young girl’s slow immersion into Clayface’s body and eventual “death” to add much to the conversation.
11. “Earth Mover,” Batman Beyond (9/25/99)
Batman Beyond is set in a future in which an elderly Bruce Wayne acts as a mentor to the new Batman, high school student Terry McGinnis. While some classic Bat-villains made an appearance, most of Terry’s opponents were created specifically for the show, with many of them deriving their powers in various “gee-the-future-is-cool” ways, with gene splicing and technology mishaps the more common sources of super powers. “Earth Mover” is a definite departure from the norm, in that the villain of the piece is an accident victim buried in a cave-in while illegally dumping toxic waste… and while his business partner is no angel, either, he tries to make up for his misdeeds by raising the dead man’s daughter as his own. All is well until mysterious “dirt men” arise from the earth to stalk the young woman, and Batman is attacked by the ground itself when he intervenes. The reason: the dead man’s corpse has reacted with the toxic goop and dirt to create an earth-moving creature hellbent on revenge against the man he sees as his murderer. Bottom line: if you’re looking for a way to ensure your children suffer from nightmares about dead bodies or their parents’ untimely death, this may be just the ticket.
12. “Things Change,” Teen Titans (1/16/2006)
Yeah, yeah — it isn’t considered part of the official DC animated universe continuity, it’s a kid’s show, the Robin in this series can’t be the same Robin in the Batman series, etc. Deal, people. It’s true that this anime-influenced series has never been officially inducted into the DCAU, but like the other series mentioned here it achieved a mix of serious and silly that drew in kids and grown-ups alike, and that ain’t no small feat. While Season 4’s Raven/Trigon story arc featured some of the darkest moments in the series, it was the series finale episode, “Things Change,” that was a true departure for a show that wasn’t above the occasional bodily function joke to get a laugh. After the Titans return to the city after a successful mission and note the changes that have occurred during their absence, Beast Boy is shocked to meet a girl who looks exactly like Terra, the girl who betrayed the team before taking her own life at the end of Season 2 (itself a hairy moment for viewers). Convinced she’s somehow Terra returned from the dead, BB tries to strike up a conversation with the girl, but she makes it clear she has no idea who this “Terra” person was. Was it really her? The episode ends on an ambiguous note, never committing one way or the other, and many fans were left baffled by the downbeat and melancholy coda for an otherwise high-energy series. But if the writers wanted to make a statement about how even teenaged superheroes in a wacky anime-style universe have to deal with the inevitable pain that comes with growing up and moving on, then this episode delivered the goods.