- DC’s animated shows are not afraid to tackle disturbing and mature themes, even though they are aimed at children or young adults.
- The episodic format of these shows allows for a deeper exploration of somber, depressing, or unnerving subject matter, making them more impactful.
- The inclusion of dark and heavy storylines in DC’s animated properties showcases the presence and importance of their adult audience.
Series like the DC Animated Universe weren’t afraid to venture into disturbing territory for many of their episodes. Part of what gives many of DC‘s cartoons such staying power is their willingness to discuss and depict disturbing subject matter. Though most of these series were ostensibly aimed at children or young adults, many of DC’s animated properties were eager to include mature storylines that betray the presence of DC’s adult audience.
Part of the benefit of the episodic formats of the various animated shows featuring DC’s properties is their ability to focus on particular subjects over longer periods of time. DC’s catalog of animated films sometimes explores more mature themes and storylines as well, though those projects are often presented less young-children-friendly from the start. DC’s TV shows being collectively longer than movies makes their forays into somber, depressing, or straight-up horrifying territory all the more impactful.
10 Batman Beyond’s Peek Suffers A Fate Worse Than Death
Batman Beyond, 2000
The critically acclaimed, far-flung sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, was chock-full of villains fueled by technology gown awry straight out of a Black Mirror episode. Oftentimes, the same advanced tech that antagonists used to commit their heinous crimes proved to be their ultimate undoing. Of these examples, none exemplify this arc better than season 2, episode 18’s “Sneak Peek,” featuring the titular villain Peek.
A reporter by trade, Peek made a name for himself in the daytime talk show “The Inside Peek”, which granted unnervingly personal looks into the lives of Gotham’s celebrities. It’s revealed that Peek uses a high-tech belt that allows him to phase through solid matter to sneak around, getting valuable gossip culminating in his discovery of Batman’s secret identity. However, his technology betrays him before he can reveal the scoop, sending his permanently intangible body to fall to the bottom of the Earth, seemingly for eternity. The only prospect more terrifying than Peek’s fate is Bruce Wayne’s callous indifference to it.
9 Static Shock Faces Racism From His Best Friend’s Family
Static Shock, 2000
Despite the character originally hailing from Milestone Comics, Static Shock integrated itself into the larger DCAU timeline thanks to its hit success. Being one of the first animated superhero series to feature an African-American protagonist, Static Shock didn’t shy away from heavy subjects. Societal issues surrounding race, considering Virgil’s significance as a Black superhero, were certainly on the table.
No single storyline highlights this better than the series eight episode “Sons of the Fathers,” in which Static meets the parents of his best friend and co-hero, Richie, for the first time. Virgil is quickly subjected to subtle bigotry from Richie’s father, which is later revealed to be fueled by full-on racism after Static hears overhears a conversation between him and Richie’s mother. This episode, while dark, it is an accurate and important representation of the tragically real discrimination kids like Virgil experience.
8 The Joker And Harley Quinn’s Abusive Relationship
The New Batman Adventures, 1999
Batman: The Animated Series is famous for making lasting additions to the Batman mythos that have stood the test of time, perhaps none being more famous than the introduction of Harley Quinn. Now one of the most popular DC characters, Harley’s origins in the DC Universe are steeped in a tragic tale of love and abuse with The Joker. No episode in the original animated series examines these topics as they relate to the character as thoughtfully as the sequel series, The New Batman Adventures.
Though the character has the rare distinction of being a television original later adapted for comics, the episode “Mad Love” of The New Batman Adventures was adapted from a one-shot comic of the same name. This episode examines the cycle of romance and abuse that Harley Quinn is trapped in, regaling fans with a clear origin story alongside her current rocky relationship with Mr. J. This intense episode has Harley attempting to seduce The Joker in an alarmingly adult manner before getting heartlessly thrown off a building, a messed-up installment of a supposed kid’s series.
7 Starfire’s Arranged Marriage
Teen Titans, 2004
An acclaimed depiction of its titular teenaged team, the Teen Titans animated series of the early 2000s was markedly not as adult as the preceding DCAU. The show was overall steeped in levity, heavier on the comedy that was reflected in its animation style, leading to the conception of Teen Titans Go! as an eventual replacement for the show that leaned into the laughs even harder. That being said, Teen Titans would occasionally find its way into deeper waters with difficult subject matter.
In season 3, episode 3, “Betrothed”, Starfire is finally called back to her home planet of Tamaran. Much to the dismay of the Titans, especially Robin, she is to be married to someone she’d never met in a political play orchestrated by her sister, Blackfire. Though the episode ends with Starfire getting out of her duties, her initial willingness to accept her part in an arranged marriage for the good of her people plays at a level of maturity unseen in the other members of the Titans, the dark implications of this wedding left to simmer in the background.
6 Miss Martian’s Abuse Of Her Powers
Young Justice, 2010
The niece and protégé of founding Justice League member Matian Manhunter, Miss Martian was a natural choice when it came to the formation of a younger version of the heroic team. As a white Martian, M’gann M’orzz has incredible psychic abilities, possibly even more so than her Uncle J’onn. This incredible potential makes Miss Martian as much of a danger to the team as an asset, and her misuse of her abilities has been a frequent sore spot on the team.
Miss Martian initially faces heavy criticism from her teammate and romantic partner, Superboy, after rampant overuse of her powers on the minds of captured villains, ravaging their minds and leaving them in catatonic states. Becoming desperate, M’gann crosses the ultimate line when she uses her powers on him in return, erasing his memory of their fight. This unsettling invasion of privacy was a dark moment for Miss Martian, but what’s made worse is how long it takes her to truly understand the error of her ways and reconcile.
5 The Enemy Below
Justice League, 2001
Long before Jason Momoa’s Aquaman was even a shimmer in the eye of the DCEU, the Aquaman of Justice League was still battling the public’s perception of the hero as a goofy, useless fish-talker. The animated DCAU Justice League did a lot to endear Aquaman as a serious hero to the public, giving him an edgy makeover in the same vein as his comic counterpart at the time. The sixth and seventh episodes of Justice League, “The Enemy Below,” make Arthur pay a heavy price for this newfound respect.
Going up against his classic villain and half-brother, Orm the Ocean Master, not only is Aquaman himself targeted, but his son is placed in danger as well. The two of them are thrown into a volcano that’s about to blow; Aquaman is given no choice but to saw off his own hand off to free himself from his restrains to save himself and his son. The resulting golden hook hand was a cool change to Aquaman’s costume, but the two-part episode’s depiction of self-harm and child endangerment gave Aquaman a weary mind to match his new look.
4 Robin’s Obsession With Slade
Teen Titans, 2004
Long believed to have been dead by this point in the series, Teen Titans antagonist Slade returns to haunt the group several times. Most chilling is his postmortem encounter with Robin in season 3, episode 5’s “Haunted.” Robin’s tenacity is one of his strongest traits as a great hero in his own right, but in this storyline, Slade uses it against him for one last strike.
The episode begins with Robin informing the rest of the Titans of Slade’s reappearance, leading his hapless team on a fruitless wild goose chase through all hours of the night. Robin’s relationships, mental health, and body slowly decline as he descends into madness, chasing the ghost of Slade on his own, culminating in his team having to restrain him in an attempt to prevent the prolong stress from killing him. In the end, it’s revealed that a hallucinogen in Slade’s mask triggered Robin’s behavior, but considering the Boy Wonder’s obsessive personality, it remains a dark glimpse into what his mind is capable of.
3 Baby Doll’s Breakdown
Batman: The Animated Series, 1994
While Batman: The Animated Series frequently pitted Batman against his most famous villains, the critically acclaimed cartoon wasn’t afraid to venture into new territory, either. The series was also perhaps the progenitor of DC’s penchant for creating mature stories for younger viewers and adults alike to enjoy. Season 2’s episode, “Baby-Doll,” stands among the darkest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.
The episode follows the tale of Mary Dahl, a former child actress who was at one time the star of a hit family sitcom, only to be replaced later on. Her unique ailment also kept her body in a perpetually childlike appearance despite aging mentally. Her unique medical situation and resentment of her show’s moving on without her leads to a psychotic break, culminating with a rare moment of tenderness from The Dark Knight as Batman comforts the criminally-insane Baby Doll.
2 Static Shock Faces A School Shooter
Static Shock, 2002
No stranger to sensitive subjects, Static Shock was a series that felt it was important to bring attention to the dangers kids watching could face in their daily lives. Meant to be an insightful take on bullying, Static Shock‘s second season finale, “Jimmy,” has Static facing not a super-powered criminal but a scared, bullied boy. The titular Jimmy nearly goes down the tragic, uncomfortably realistic path of a school shooter.
Bullied for a long time, Jimmy is an isolated kid and a victim of bullying, befriended by Virgil. Their relationship is quickly soured when Jimmy asks Virgil if he wants to see his dad’s gun, striking a chord with Static, who had lost his mother to gun violence. The episode culminates in Jimmy bringing his gun to a community center, nearly taking his revenge on his bullies and shooting Richie in the leg in the process. This shocking season finale brought to light important issues of bullying, gun violence, and even a thoughtful depiction of therapy, putting Static Shock truly ahead of its time.
1 Beast Boy’s Intervention
Young Justice, 2010
Introducing Garfield Logan early on, Young Justice‘s Beast Boy followed a brutally real trajectory that was a far cry from the familiar take on the character most fans knew from Teen Titans. After the death of a teammate on Mars, the entire superhero community was in mourning, but Beast Boy takes things particularly hard. Despite his success as a hero, celebrity, and movie star, Gar isolates himself from friends and teammates, falling down a dangerous spiral.
Miss Martian takes notice, diagnosing the young hero with PTSD and depression as a result of the trauma they shared on Mars. Beast Boy coldly ignores her, prompting an intervention to be formed for the shapeshifting green hero out of concern for his mental health. This attempt proves helpless, Gar opting instead to continue living with his damaged mental health on his own. Beast Boy eventually does get help, a refreshing depiction of the importance of mental health. But his initial lashing out, stating, “I don’t want to be needed,” is a shockingly realistic and dark moment in the DC Animated Universe.