I admit that nostalgia makes me a little biased here, but for my money the DC Animated Universe has done some of the very best storytelling using comic book characters. Superman '78 and The Dark Knight may be beloved for interpreting the Man of Steel and Caped Crusader for the big screen, but the cartoons — Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, and Justice League — have long been where fans could go to get a sense of DC Comics' very essence.
Which is why even the apologists should see that that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is absolutely trumped by Batman and Superman's late-90s animated team-up. 1997's The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest (yes, it's a mouthful) succeeds where Dawn of Justice fails.
Minor spoilers ahead.
World's Finest is really a three-part miniseries from Superman TAS, involving Bruce Wayne and the Joker coming to Metropolis. The Joker, after discovering a dragon statue carved out of Kryptonite. has concocted a plot to team up with Lex Luthor in order to take down Superman. Batman, naturally, is on the case, but needs Superman's help to defeat the arch-villains.
World's Finest works because it's simple
The key to this plot working is in its simplicity. Batman v Superman goes out of its way to justify why its title characters need to throw punches at one another, all before they figure out they need to team up for the greater good. The action plods along, with Lex Luthor working in the background in a pseudo-political thriller that never really makes much sense. World's Finest doesn't waste any time mulling over the meaning of being a superhero. The pair's philosophies clash and, sure, there's some shoving, but they're ultimately too busy trying to save the day than to throw the other through buildings.
The above exchange really gets to the heart of the characters, too. Batman and Superman work as uneasy partners because their methods are so different. Clark is the quintessential boy scout, while Bruce is a slightly unhinged vigilante. Establishing the tension in their working relationship is important, but Lex and the Joker are much bigger threats, and that's plain from the jump. All this is better than two hours of scheming before a tidy resolution involving superhero moms.
And the best part? This team-up effectively set the stage for the entire DCAU in the same way Dawn of Justice attempts to pave the way for the cinematic Justice League.
Zack Snyder based Batman v Superman on The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman, two classic DC comics. He might have been better off cribbing from the cartoons.