The DC Extended Universe, if that’s what we’ve all decided to call it, officially kicked off with 2013’s Man of Steel, but limiting the films made from DC Comics just to those (mostly uneven) films is to miss decades of history … decades with their own drama.
We had multiple sets of Batman films, a Superman arc that, because of corporate maneuverings, totally fell apart at the end, and two Swamp Thing movies. Alan Moore had his own wing, and of course don’t forget about the animated films, Keanu Reeves, Jonah Hex and Shaq. Also: Ryan Reynolds has some thoughts about his role in all of this.
For a long time, the DC Comics movies had no unifying thread, no Kevin Feige overseeing everything. This makes them vary dramatically in quality, but it also eliminates any sameness: The bad movies are truly bad, but the ceiling is raised as high as a Christopher Nolan, Richard Donner or Patty Jenkins can take it. It’s quite a journey.
So, today, we rank the 33 DC Comics movies, including the latest, Birds of Prey. We intentionally left off films made from imprints later purchased by DC Comics. So, sorry, Hellboy, Road to Perdition and A History of Violence: You’re excluded here.
33. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Christopher Reeve called this a “catastrophe from start to finish,” and if you don’t believe him — you should really believe Christopher Reeve, by the way, when he tells you a Superman movie is a “catastrophe” — you can try sitting through this bargain-bin, basement-price title, made by Cannon Films on a shoestring budget in which even the shoes and the strings don’t look real. Gene Hackman seems to realize immediately that he’s just signed up for a shitshow and hams it up in his final run as Lex Luthor, but nothing could save us from the monstrosity of Nuclear Man, a villain so lame that he’s never mentioned in DC canon again. Honestly, watch this fight scene:
It makes us sad that Christopher Reeve had to do that.
32. Steel (1997)
Writer-director Kenneth Johnson thought of his hero as a “blue-collar Batman,” and, you know, he’s not entirely wrong: If you took away everything that was cool about Batman and replaced all his tech with tin cans and garbage lids, you might have Steel. This film is widely derided today for its casting of Shaquille O’Neal as the hero, but Shaq, while wooden and cheesy, at least has enough natural charisma to escape mostly unscathed. Judd Nelson, as the villain (repeat: Judd Nelson as the villain!), is not so fortunate. The movie is pitched at the humor and dramatic level of a Bazooka wrapper, and it has roughly the same lasting impact.
31. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
“Batman vs. Superman is where you go when you admit to yourself that you’ve exhausted all possibilities. It’s like Frankenstein Meets Wolfman or Freddy vs. Jason. It’s somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp.” A spot-on review of Zack Snyder’s abysmal 2016 team-up between the two iconic superheroes? Nope, that was what the screenwriter David S. Goyer himself told the Los Angeles Times back in 2005 about Warner Bros.’s previous aborted attempt to make this project happen. Goyer was right then, and he’s right now. Like his spiritual forefather Michael Bay, Snyder is a visionary action filmmaker who conceives blockbusters with an utterly original aesthetic and sensibility. And like Bay, that doesn’t mean they’re any good. The culture has already properly roasted Dawn of Justice’s stupid Martha business, but we’ve yet to fully absorb how much this film tarnished the legacy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman. His Dark Knight was a powerfully conflicted, reluctant hero. By comparison, Sad Affleck was just a dude encased in a metal suit.
30. Catwoman (2004)
May we humbly submit that the time might be right for a Catwoman solo film? A movie that’s willing to go into the darkest place of Batman, but with the pain, danger, and righteous fury of Catwoman, might have some legs in the current nightmare-scape in which we live. Still, overcoming the stigma of this DOA Halle Berry vehicle might be too tough to accomplish even 15 years later. The problem with Catwoman is that it never thinks about its character any further than “Halle Berry in a catsuit,” and while that might have its implicit appeal, Berry and the rest of the cast (particularly Sharon Stone as the villain) simply flail about. Another shot at this isn’t the worst idea, right?
29. Batman & Robin (1997)
This was the moment when a lot of people became concerned that George Clooney wasn’t going to be able to make the leap from ER hunk to actual movie star. And even now, when watching Batman & Robin, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this guy doesn’t seem destined to have a successful big-screen career. Indeed, the two-time Oscar winner’s worst qualities are on display here — chief among them, the off-putting glib attitude meant to convey cheekiness. Batman & Robin leveled the franchise, reducing it to ash. It was Batman’s low point … until Zack Snyder got his hands on him a couple of decades later.
28. Suicide Squad (2016)
The year of our Lord 2016 was a nightmare for Warner Bros. creatively in terms of its DC properties. Batman v Superman was awful, while Suicide Squad was only moderately better. (Of course, both films made a ton of money, so what did the executives care?) Suicide Squad beat Venom by a couple of years on this whole “What if a superhero movie … but bad guys?” conceit, bringing together a decent cast in Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Viola Davis for a punk-rock action flick in which a group of criminals have to band together to defeat an even greater evil. Robbie has a ball letting loose as Harley Quinn, but Jared Leto’s monstrously irritating performance as the Joker strips away whatever meager merits Suicide Squad has. Turns out, End of Watch director David Ayer’s cynical brand of big-budget loud and stupid is just about as noxious as Snyder’s.
27. Jonah Hex (2010)
Before he was Thanos or even Deadpool’s buddy, Josh Brolin got into the comic-book game by playing Jonah Hex, a disfigured post–Civil War bounty hunter who can raise the dead, or something — it’s tough to keep it all straight in animator Jimmy Hayward’s muddled mess. You could maybe do a dark version of Jonah Hex in the Sin City style, and if allowed to go truly R-rated (like it might be today), you could perhaps have a supernatural Deadwood. Instead, you have this compromised, cobbled-together mishmash. Two positives: (1) the grinding, apocalyptic score from death-metal band Mastodon; (2) wow, that cast. Seriously, look at the actors in this movie: Brolin, John Malkovich, Will Arnett, Wes Bentley, Michael Shannon, and Michael Fassbender. (Oh, and also Megan Fox.)
26. Supergirl (1984)
Before we get into the rest of it, Helen Slater was a perfectly passable Supergirl: She was strong and kind and good-hearted and charming in the role, and if she wasn’t exactly Christopher Reeve, heck, she came close. It’s a shame she has this movie surrounding her, which takes everything you liked about the first two Superman movies and runs it through a washing machine so many times that the S looks rinsed and beige. Suffice it to say, Peter O’Toole, in essentially the Marlon Brando part from the first film, does not comport himself nearly as well as Brando did … and Brando wasn’t that great in his entry either. (For that matter, Faye Dunaway is no Terence Stamp.) In an alternate universe, this could have been played for maximum camp and been a bit of a blast. This is not that universe.
25. Green Lantern (2011)
All right, all right, we know that mocking Green Lantern has become its own cottage industry in recent years, not least of which by its star. And, yes, there’s a ton of cheese here, particularly when it comes to Peter Sarsgaard’s bizarrely phallic villain design. (His head is like a penis crossed with a Brussels sprout.) But seriously, not all of Green Lantern is terrible. The movie has a certain dorky good cheer that, particularly in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (and especially now that we’ve seen Zack Snyder’s DC films), is almost sort of welcome? Green Lantern is earnest and bright and, yeah, incredibly silly and a little embarrassing. But it also means well, and it turns out that Ryan Reynolds isn’t entirely without charm in the lead role. The movie isn’t good by any stretch of the imagination. But we’d watch it 40 times before we’d watch Batman v. Superman again.
24. Constantine (2005)
Another in the long line of post-Matrix messianic, pseudo-superhero roles for Keanu Reeves, which is a big problem because the Hellblazer comic this film is based on has a lot more going on than just being a Reeves vehicle. The idea here, that a man damned to Hell for a suicide attempt in his youth exorcises demons to get back in the good graces of Heaven, has its pleasures, and you wonder if it might work as a Netflix series down the line (rather than the weak cable version we got a few years back). But this one is too rushed and too poorly thought through to reach the heights you want it to.
23. Superman III (1983)
It doesn’t matter how many times you watch it: It is never ever not surreal to see Richard Pryor show up in a Superman movie. The bummer part is that it’s stunt casting top to bottom: The movie never lets Richard Pryor be anything but Richard Pryor the celebrity, rather than Richard Pryor the comic, and thus it neuters him and makes him entirely boring. Robert Vaughn is a particularly pallid villain, and the movie’s case against computers, uh, hasn’t aged too well. It is fun to watch Superman in a bar though. “Hey, look, Superman’s drunk!”
22. Justice League (2017)
A movie marred by tragedy — Zack Snyder, who had to leave mid-production because of the death of his daughter, was replaced by Joss Whedon — Justice League feels very much a collection of bits and pieces, a litany of reshoots and warring sensibilities all fighting for attention. The film’s bright spot is Wonder Woman, although Gal Gadot isn’t nearly as magnificent as she was in her solo film, which came out a few months earlier. Do we remember anything of the plot? Not really: Basically, a bunch of joyless dudes (and an Amazonian princess) battle Steppenwolf, who wants to enslave the universe or something. Between the half-hearted wisecracks and Henry Cavill’s freaky digitally erased mustache, Justice League collapses under its own weight. This movie was meant to be DC’s epochal Avengers-like moment. Instead, it was completely forgettable.
21. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
The seminal Alan Moore comic got an animated adaptation that ended up making more news for a scene in which Batman and Barbara Gordon get it on.
That actually exacerbates a problem in the original comic, in which Barbara Gordon is sexually assaulted by the Joker’s goons, but it’s only taken as seriously as is required to raise the stakes for Batman. (The old “fridging” problem.) The movie isn’t weighty enough to take on all this subtext, and it ends up making you uncomfortable in the wrong ways.
20. Batman Forever (1995)
The first post–Tim Burton Batman has hints of the disasters that would be coming — the bat nipples, Joel Schumacher’s mostly glib, cartoonish vibe — but it never veers entirely into Mr. Freeze land. Val Kilmer cuts an excellent cowl, Nicole Kidman enjoys a rare vamping role, and even Jim Carrey carries some legitimate hellzapoppin’ menace as the Riddler. The less said about Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face the better, and this was certainly a step in the wrong direction for the franchise, but it’s not the fiasco its follow-up would be.
19. Man of Steel (2013)
The great pity about Man of Steel is that it never lived up to its terrific theme song.
Consciously moving away from John Williams’s equally terrific theme for the Christopher Reeve films, Hans Zimmer gave us a sense of Superman as a mighty, courageous figure — maybe a little darker than the Man of Steel that Richard Donner had conceived in the 1970s, but still a noble, powerful force of good. Unfortunately, except for some stirring segments, Man of Steel fails to craft a story worthy of its character. Essentially re-creating Superman’s origin story while inserting Superman II’s bad guys, Zack Snyder’s first go-round with the Kryptonian is a typically self-serious, lumbering affair. Henry Cavill is better in the role than he was given credit for at the time — nobody was going to replace Reeve in our mind — but very fine actors like Amy Adams and Michael Shannon are utterly wasted in beloved roles they fail to make their own.
18. V for Vendetta (2005)
In the wake of The Matrix, Lana and Lilly Wachowski were so hot that although they only wrote and produced V for Vendetta, many assumed they directed the film as well. C’mon, “James McTeigue” had to be an alias, right? But no: McTeigue, an assistant director on the Matrix films, made his feature debut on this big-screen redo of the Alan Moore/David Lloyd comic. (Moore, it will not surprise you, hated the film, requesting his name be taken off the adaptation.) There’s no question that the movie has a stylish, vaguely revolutionary tone — it’s mildly radical for a 21st-century studio offering — and Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving are sufficiently engaging as, respectively, a burgeoning insurgent and the terrorist who kidnaps her. At the same time though, V for Vendetta’s politics aren’t more sophisticated than “Hey, man, shit’s fucked up,” and the filmmakers’ pride in their not-very-edgy stance gets awfully tiresome.
17. Aquaman (2018)
Because it had a pulse — something Batman v Superman or Justice League couldn’t claim — Aquaman was probably a bit overrated when it came out; critics and audiences were just so grateful not to have to suffer through another mope-fest that they’d happily accept an ultragoofy underwater adventure that’s part Raiders of the Lost Ark, part palace-intrigue drama. Jason Momoa makes for a pretty cheerful buff-bro Aquaman, and Furious 7 director James Wan cranks everything to 11, piling on the over-the-top imagery and spectacle until you burst out laughing or simply succumb to the whole ridiculous onslaught. Aquaman is spirited without ever being particularly good. Nevertheless, its relative high placement on this list indicates how often DC has done worse.
16. Shazam! (2019)
It is an indictment of the DC Extended Universe that this likable lark is one of the best films of this newish series … and yet it’s still not that great. Zachary Levi is grand fun as the adult superhero that teen orphan Billy (Asher Angel) turns into whenever he shouts “Shazam!” Jack Dylan Grazer is a delightful sidekick. And the movie has a real sweetness and sincerity to it, determined to give family audiences a superhero flick that’s not all ponderous brooding and dark origin stories. But that doesn’t keep Shazam! from feeling a bit formulaic. Mark Strong’s menacing villain is a bit of a drip, and the finale devolves into CG overkill. Nonetheless, director David F. Sandberg delivers a decent-enough ride for a first installment. Hopefully, the Shazam! sequel will have more of a personality and boldness.
15. Birds of Prey (2020)
That Harley Quinn’s spinoff is far superior to Suicide Squad is unsurprising: After all, it’s more about her and a whole hell of a lot less about everything else that was terrible about that 2016 film. Margot Robbie has given better, more nuanced performances, but she seems to absolutely love playing this twisted sociopath, who this time teams up with a local street tough (Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain) to protect a rare diamond from a ruthless mobster (Ewan McGregor). When Robbie’s onscreen, her character taking such delight in all the mayhem she causes, the film is a gas. Unfortunately, it’s not called Birds of Prey for nothing: Director Cathy Yan’s superhero movie also means to introduce that team of renegade, all-female superheroes. Give the film major points for being far more diverse and female-centric than most comic-book flicks. But the annoying truth is that the Birds of Prey weigh down Birds of Prey. Harley had to split time with less interesting characters in Suicide Squad — why make her do it again?
14. Return of Swamp Thing (1989) and 13. Swamp Thing (1982)
We know it’s cheating a little to put these two movies together, but jeez: They’re two Swamp Thing movies, and they’re both roughly similar in quality, so here they are. The first one is a little more straitlaced and straightforward. Directed by Wes Craven, it’s just a story of a nice guy (Ray Wise!) turned into a monster who attempts to take revenge on the evil scientist who made him that way. The movie has some spooky midnight thrills and a very game Adrienne Barbeau, but it’s mostly conventional. The sequel is pretty much a comedy, which might not be true to the comic but, well, probably makes a little more sense. They both work equally well, which is “just a little.” The downgrade from Barbeau to Heather Locklear in Return of Swamp Thing, however, is substantial.
12. Superman Returns (2006)
What if Superman III and Superman IV never happened? What if you just made a new movie that took place after the events of Superman II? Predating the “direct sequel” phenomenon, Superman Returns revisited the openhearted spirit of the first two Superman films, casting relative unknown Brandon Routh to channel the spirit of Christopher Reeve in the dual roles of Superman and Clark Kent. Quite often, Superman Returns is a poignant homage and also a melancholy reminder that the era that birthed the original Superman movies is long gone. At its best, the film leans into that reality, giving us a story in which Clark tries to repair past mistakes he’s made with Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). Ambitious, uneven, filled with feeling, Superman Returns ultimately couldn’t compare to the early Reeve pictures, but the attempt is touching.
11. Watchmen (2009)
Zack Snyder’s insistence that his Watchmen movie would be so loyal to the comic that it would be nearly a shot-for-panel remake was an odd one. But considering what Snyder would do when he started adding his own special sauce to comic-book movies, maybe he should have tried this approach more often. The film doesn’t have the apocalyptic menace of the graphic novel, but there’s enough good stuff here that it still works; Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, in particular, maintains much of his furious power. The best bet remains the opening credits sequence, which portends a better movie to follow. That movie doesn’t quite get there, but it still might be the best sequence Snyder’s ever done.
10. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
It’s possible that no human being has brought up this movie in conversation without thinking they’re the first person to add, “And you know, Mark Hamill is actually the best Joker.” We won’t go that far, but he’s pretty great in Mask of the Phantasm, the big-screen version of the popular animated series of the early ’90s. Kevin Conroy voices Bruce Wayne, who must reconcile with his past in several ways. (Dana Delany voices Andrea Beaumont, a former lover who walks back into Bruce’s life.) Like the series, Mask of the Phantasm does a nice job of catering both to kids and adults — this isn’t as intense as the Christopher Nolan films or as kinky as the Tim Burton movies, but it’s smartly written and respectful about what makes the Dark Knight such an evergreen character. As for Hamill, he finds his own twist on the Joker’s maniacal laugh and demented psyche — no easy feat, as Jared Leto could tell you.
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies were so paradigm-shifting, so overwhelming, that it was probably impossible for this third film to match either of them. The plot’s a little conventional, it’s more fanboy comics-centric, and the bombast and scope sometimes outpace everything the movie has to say. (The whole Occupy Wall Street subplot feels like an empty feint.) But this is still grand blockbuster filmmaking: The scene where bombs explode across Gotham is as memorable and terrifying as anything in the series. Nolan doesn’t wrap the trilogy up perfectly, but that doesn’t mean The Dark Knight Rises still isn’t powerful … and even fitting. He’s moved on, but the rest of us still can’t.
8. Joker (2019)
If nothing else, Joker accomplishes something that seemed nearly impossible in the post-Nolan era: It’s a DC film that actually feels relevant, inspiring debate, discussion, and controversy, a shocking turn of events after years during which the studio produced largely anonymous product that resided in Marvel’s imposing cultural shadow. And then there’s the movie itself, which manages to accomplish what it sets out to do: create a backstory for the Joker that both shows how he became such a horrifying figure and illustrates the brutality of the evil that he inspires in the world. Joaquin Phoenix is exceptional as Arthur Fleck, the troubled would-be comic who will find his calling in the most terrible of ways, and it’s a performance full of jittery intensity. There’s nothing about Joker that forgives or champions Joker’s behavior, and while the whole movie may not be as terrific as its most inspired sequences, Phoenix and director Todd Phillips capably present a new way to think of this monster. When Phoenix won the SAG Award earlier this year, he said, “I’m standing here on the shoulders of my favorite actor Heath Ledger.” That the two depictions of Batman’s greatest foe can stand toe-to-toe is a testament to how much Phoenix brought to the role: You can absolutely see his Joker as the horrible first inklings of the man that Ledger embodied in The Dark Knight.
7. Batman (1989)
“The Joker’s flamboyant. Batman wants to remain in the shadows.” That’s how Tim Burton described the key combatants in his 1989 blockbuster, which created the template for the modern superhero film — one in which darkness, vivid production design, and moody characters would reign supreme. Michael Keaton was all icy remove, while Jack Nicholson told all his previous extreme roles to hold his beer so that he could give us a supervillain that was pure ham. Not all of Batman has held up. (Danny Elfman’s score remains stirring, but genius that he was, Prince feels a little out of place on the soundtrack.) Nonetheless, Burton’s grand vision of how to translate a comic-book aesthetic onto the big screen remains stunning. Other DC movies rank higher on this list, but they’re all indebted to what Batman dared to dream.
6. Batman Returns (1992)
The last Batman movie they’d ever let Tim Burton do, and that seems to have been entirely Burton’s intention. This is aggressively weird and occasionally off-putting — Danny DeVito’s Penguin is just flat-out gross — which is the opposite of what Warner Bros. wanted from its sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time. But this is still when Burton had his fastball, and it’s thrilling to watch him exorcise some of his personal demons on this grand of a stage. These are all misfits and outcasts back when Burton still felt that way himself, and you feel their isolation, most notably in Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman, who strikes back with furious vengeance. Batman is more beloved, but Batman Returns is arguably more memorable.
5. Wonder Woman (2017)
Marvel has eaten DC’s lunch for years, but Warner Bros. can always hold this over its competitor’s head: It made the first female-driven superhero flick of this modern superhero era that was also directed by a woman. However, those distinctions don’t do justice to Wonder Woman, which made Gal Gadot a superstar, and deservedly so. Her portrayal of Diana gives this Amazonian princess the proper regal bearing, but Gadot also proves to have a wonderfully wry sense of humor as the character continues to be amazed at how weird male mortals are. Director Patty Jenkins mounts a few superb action sequences — Wonder Woman’s World War I battlefield gauntlet is an all-timer — and Chris Pine is a pitch-perfect romantic foil. After Wonder Woman, moviegoers weren’t necessarily clamoring for any more Superman or Batman films. We just wanted more of her.
4. Superman (1978)
Later in life, Christopher Reeve explained the trick to playing the Man of Steel. “Superman is a big fish in a small pond,” he told Esquire. “He’s Superman on Earth only because he’s in a different solar system. If he’d grown up on Krypton, if Krypton had not been destroyed, he might have been average — nothing special about him. That allowed me to underplay the character and make him quite casual.” Among its other attributes, Superman is shot through with a winning modesty, embodied by Reeve’s no-big-deal depiction of Superman. Probably no superhero movie since has articulated what a privilege it would be to find out you had incredible powers. Director Richard Donner chronicles Kal-El’s origin story with awe, eventually introducing us to one of the best cinematic villains in the dastardly, smart-ass Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). This movie could not be made now. It’s too square. Too corny. Those are some of the reasons Superman remains so special.
3. Batman Begins (2005)
Here’s where Christopher Nolan fully established that he wasn’t going to be typecast as merely a crafter of clever little puzzle movies. Batman Begins resurrected the Dark Knight from the trash bin of cinematic history, erasing people’s memory of the Joel Schumacher atrocities but also investing more fully in the dark perspective on the character that Tim Burton’s movies merely hinted at. Christian Bale wasn’t an obvious Bruce Wayne — he’d previously played a very different kind of wealthy weirdo in American Psycho — but he brought the right amount of gravitas to the role so that Batman Begins wasn’t less interesting when the superhero took the suit off. Add to the mix Liam Neeson as an underrated Dark Knight nemesis and you’ve got one of the finest origin stories ever conceived. And, of course, Nolan was just getting started.
2. Superman II (1980)
In the annals of big-budget rescue jobs, Superman II is high on the list of success stories. Initially meant to be filmed simultaneously with the first installment, the sequel faced internal battles, forcing initial director Richard Donner to be booted from the project. Enter Richard Lester, who had to take over the movie, as well as reshoot already existing material. Remarkably, Superman II shows little sign of its difficult birth. Here’s where Supes declares his love for Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), who comes to discover his true identity. It’s also the film that let the fearsome Zod (Terence Stamp), who was briefly shown alongside his evil chums in the 1978 original, strut his stuff. Inconceivably, Superman II is even more thrilling and stirring, not to mention touching and romantic, than its predecessor. If only Reeve and company had decided to stop there.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Beyond being one of the most indelible of all superhero movies, The Dark Knight might also be among the most quotable. (And we haven’t even mentioned the film’s most iconic line, “Why so serious?”) Raising the bar after the stellar Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan dissected the very nature of heroism, evil, and sacrifice for this second installment, and in Heath Ledger we had the greatest of all Jokers — which is to say the most inexplicable and, therefore, most terrifying. Before The Dark Knight, comic-book movies were mere playthings, enjoyable but disposable entertainments. After The Dark Knight, they were held to a higher standard. After all, if Nolan could make this, there was no excuse for superhero movies not to be ambitious, nuanced, and mesmerizing. DC has stumbled often since The Dark Knight, burdened by the long shadow this film created. But no superhero movie, from any company, has ever topped it.