With the new millennium, cartoons began to take leaps far beyond what they had completed before. The rise in popularity of Japanese comic books (Manga) and animation (Anime) in the United States led to a stronger influence on popular media. In the late 90s, comic book artists such as Joe Madureira became popular for artistic styles that blended traditional comic book art and Anime/Manga.
This style further expressed itself in cartoons that began to appear when 2000 started to gain some steam. This experimentation in art form and style in turn led to experimentation in narrative structure as well. Again, DC blazed this trail.
Batman Beyond kicked off at the beginning of 1999 and was instantly a game changer. While other titles have explored the future of a main character before in both print and screen, they never were longer than one or two episodes. What made Batman Beyond different is that it sought to create its own mythology, its own foundation not entirely dependent on what came before. The X-Men animated series did have storylines like the “Days of Future Past” or “Age of Apocalypse,” that explored the future of the established universe. However, the stories were still very much rooted in the established lore of present day comics.
Batman Beyond goes beyond this in its handling of the Batman mythos. Bruce Wayne is still alive as an aged elderly man, far away from his days of fighting crime. The majority of Batman’s rogues gallery is dead or retired, save exceptions such as the Royal Flush Gang. Others such as Mr. Freeze and the Joker do pop up through clever story mechanics. Even with the scattered appearance of former Batman characters, the new Batman clearly establishes himself as his own hero, with his own story and not simply building the same stones on the previous foundation. This look and most importantly feel helped to make our next example possible.
Marvel Comics quite possibly saw Batman Beyond as an opportunity or maybe paid it no attention. However, when reviewing X-Men Evolution, it is hard to deny that what DC did in terms of throwing the mythology out the window and starting fresh didn’t have any effect whatsoever. Kicking off in the fall of 2000, X-Men Evolution took a new spin on favorite X-Men characters such as Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine. The series started fresh in terms of character development and plot without feeling weighed down on both previous incarnations and fan boy expectations. The series started off practically saying, “These are your favorite characters, but we’re going to do something different that you’re going to love,” and it delivered on that promise. The show lasted 3 seasons and was extremely popular.
2001 brought DC’s first successful cartoon series featuring an ensemble cast since the Super Friends in the 70s and 80s with Cartoon Networks Justice League. The series initially started with a small cast consisting of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl and carried on the existing visual aesthetic of the previous Batman and Superman series created by animator Bruce Timm. Still considered one of the best ensemble shows in comic book animation, Justice League lasted for five seasons. The second season finale initially was to be the series finale until Cartoon Network announced a revamp of the title into the Justice League Unlimited, which increased the ranks of the league considerably to be more in line with what fans were used to in the comics.
As the decade, progresses we find several other shows that would play either with artistic style or narrative. Shows such as the Spectacular Spiderman (2008-2009), The Batman (2004-2008), Legion of Superheroes (2006-2008), and Wolverine and the X-Men (2009-2010) usually only held on for about 2-4 seasons. What we do find is an increase in not just television programming but a dramatic increase in animated films directly to video/DVD.
DC really got ahead of the train with the concept of animated movies produced exclusively for DVD distribution, often even obtaining big name talent such as Dean Stockwell, Jensen Ackles, Chris Meloni, and Nathan Fillion to voice popular characters. They kicked off this trend in the new millennium with Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which was a movie about the Joker making his reappearance in the futuristic world of Neo-Gotham. DC soon realized the benefits of this level of production and has since released 10 other titles in the 2000-2010, with more coming in the next few years.
What is important about this turn of events is that DC, and now Marvel, realize that they can adapt popular storylines and remain faithful to both the character and spirit of the content without having to worry about series continuity and censorship. I expect that we will see a lot more quality storytelling and animation as the next few years progress when it comes to comic book animation.