The DCEU has had a rough start, but keep in mind that the MCU didn’t have a smooth liftoff. Iron Man was fantastic, but then they had to figure out The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2. The DCEU has generated its fair share of controversy, but to its credit, it’s also trying to find its own path, keeping the formula of superhero crossovers, but with a tone that’s separate from Marvel. It hasn’t been easy, and I don’t think we’re quite done with the growing pains, but it’s fascinating to see how Warner Bros. is attempting to get their superhero movies flying.
Please note that a DCEU movie has to have some link with other DC movies, so that’s why we haven’t included films like Joker or Catwoman even though they come from DC Comics.
We’ll continue to update this list as more DCEU movies are released, and here’s how they currently rank from worst to best.
9) Suicide Squad
What an absolute mess. I was so excited for Suicide Squad because it looked weird and different with a great cast and David Ayer behind the camera, but it couldn’t have turned out to be more disappointing. The film couldn’t even come up with a solid reason for why a team of superheroes would be entrusted with a mission, and the main conflict is a result of Amanda Waller being a total dummy (Viola Davis shows she can do anything by making you believe in that character even though on the page Waller is a dope). Yes, the cast is packed with colorful characters, but it doesn’t really know what to do with them.
What’s even more frustrating is that the marketing is more colorful than the movie. For a cast that’s filled with psychopaths, Suicide Squad doesn’t know if it wants to be grim and gritty or loose and zany. It falls apart on pretty much every level of filmmaking, and while you can point to a few bright spots like Will Smith and Margot Robbie’s performances, those are mired in an awful story that does a disservice to their characters.
The kicker is that I don’t think Suicide Squad is entirely a lost cause. I think there’s room in the superhero landscape for a movie that follows a team of villains, but they have to be given a much better reason for fighting (perhaps a black ops mission where they’re required to kill) and strong character arcs. I wouldn’t mind seeing this group back together again if Warner Bros. trusts a filmmaker to follow through with his or her vision as opposed to letting a trailer company cut a version of the movie and splitting the difference.
8) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Cut)
The Extended Cut (aka the “Ultimate Edition”) of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is slightly better than the theatrical cut only insofar as the movie makes slightly more sense. There’s still no explanation on what Lex would have done with Doomsday had he succeeded in killing Superman or why Bruce Wayne’s dreams can see into a possible future, but you at least get a clearer sense of what Zack Snyder was going for with his superhero smackdown.
Unfortunately, his approach essentially retreads the worst elements of his previous movies, Watchmen and Sucker Punch. Like with Sucker Punch, Snyder is both condemning and condoning his audience. He wants us to question the very nature of superheroes like Batman and Superman rather than give them our unquestioned reverence, which would be fine, except he also wants us to enjoy the mayhem those heroes unleash. When Batman beats down a warehouse full of henchmen, we’re not supposed to be aghast at his unilateral vigilantism. We’re supposed to cheer. We’re supposed to question Superman as a god-figure filled with self-doubt, but we’re also supposed to be happy when he punches Doomsday a bunch.
This kind of deconstruction is perfect for Watchmen, but it does a disservice to the characters featured in Batman v Superman. If you’re going to have Batman kill people, you need to then ask how is that true to what the character became? Yes, Batman killed in his earlier comics, but he left that behind, and it’s for the better because otherwise why would he let criminals like Joker live? Yes, Superman can feel distant from humanity, but then where does he get his desire to do good? This is Batman v Superman, not Rorschach v Dr. Manhattan, and Snyder’s desire to re-contextualize his title characters ends up doing both of them a disservice.
The failure to depict his superheroes as heroes is the main problem in Batman v Superman, but it’s far from the only one. The plot, even in the extended cut, still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex seems divorced from the rest of the movie, and everything is oppressively dark from the very beginning and almost seems to luxuriate in that darkness without ever questioning how that tone serves the overall picture.
7) Justice League
Yes, it’s slightly better than Batman v Superman, and yes, given its turbulent production, it could have been much worse. But when you look at all the potential, Justice League should have been so much better. Warner Bros. had just as much time from the start of their universe (Man of Steel) as Marvel did (Iron Man), but in four years, they couldn’t crack the formula and instead created a rush job where they tried to simply pile in a bunch of new characters and hoped that audiences would get on board, or at least interested enough that they’d go see the eventual solo movies.
Arguably the most frustrating thing about Justice League is that the movie belongs to no one, and for such an important team-up, its only effects will likely impact Warner Bros. The superhero genre is strong and other studios are finding ways to push the envelope and go interesting places, but Justice League is a film striving for basic coherence rather than anything that would make it stand apart. I understand that Warner Bros. didn’t want to be left behind, but this is a gamble that didn’t really pay off even though, as you can often say DC movies, “Maybe they’ll get it right the next time.”
Justice League isn’t a total failure. Flash and Wonder Woman are good, there are glimpses of a Superman who isn’t an aloof, uncaring god-figure, and occasionally you’ll get a character beat or moment that works. But those moments are few and far between, and what remains is a slog where we have a lousy villain with basic motivations and a team with no identity. For a movie that should have been epic and possibly groundbreaking given the pedigree of the characters, Justice League just kind of exists.
6) Wonder Woman 1984
There are things to like in Wonder Woman 1984. Pedro Pascal‘s Maxwell Lord is an absolute blast, and Kristen Wiig acquits herself well as Barbara Minerva/Cheetah. Also, like in the first Wonder Woman, the Diana/Steve Trevor stuff fires on all cylinders as Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have tremendous chemistry, and 1984 provides a nice inversion by having Steve awed by the world rather than Diana like in the previous movie.
But every strength in this film is smothered under an avalanche of atrocious screenwriting. This script was not ready for filming, and the result is a muddled, confusing, and limp story where every theme gets undercut and every plot point is belabored. It isn’t the grim slog of Batman v Superman or the director-less franchise gruel of Suicide Squad or Justice League, but everything intended to be fun or thoughtful in Wonder Woman 1984 falls flat, especially when compared the more assured and direct original.
For a film about the dangers of excess, Wonder Woman 1984 participates in that same excess without understanding the faults of its behavior. For a film about not taking shortcuts, it’s a film where characters randomly appear because a fight scene needs to happen. It makes totally unforced errors like requiring Steve to come back by taking over some random guy’s body, but doesn’t feel the need to explain how a wall can magically appear in the desert. But perhaps its greatest sin is failing to center the movie on Diana and her journey, which leads to a film that feels adrift without its endearing hero.
The biggest problem with Aquaman is that it’s massive without being ambitious. It would be one thing if director James Wan had crammed plenty of crazy ideas into his superhero sci-fi fantasy, but the plot is painfully conventional, and the film seems desperate to steal ideas from other movies without every finding much of a personality of its own. That’s a shame because Jason Momoa is incredibly genial and charismatic, putting his own stamp on the character that makes him feel unique among superheroes.
There are the occasional fun bits like an octopus playing the drums or a giant battle with crab people, but more often than not, Aquaman goes with what’s safe and predictable, crushed under plodding exposition, clunky dialogue, and set pieces that feel desperate to keep our attention every ten minutes. Aquaman is a lot of movie, but for all of its colorful visuals, it never achieves the joy or charm it hopes to convey.
The best thing that can be said about Aquaman is that all of the elements are there for a better sequel. They have the right actor in Momoa, and Wan has crafted a brilliant, eye-popping world under the sea. But if the film does get a sequel, the filmmakers will need to be far more ruthless with the script (there’s no reason an Aquaman movie needs to be almost two-and-a-half hours) and go for a less staid and well-worn plot.
4) Man of Steel
Like with Batman v Superman, I can see kind of what Zack Snyder was going for with Man of Steel. He didn’t want to do what Richard Donner and Bryan Singer had done with the character, and it felt like he needed to go in a more “realistic” direction while still delivering big-screen bombast that would allow him to really throw down against a worthy opponent. So technically, Man of Steel succeeds at what it attempts to do insofar as it tries to be more realistic with Clark’s abilities—likening them to a special needs child who must adapt—while also providing an epic fight against General Zod.
The problem is what surrounds these items. When it comes to Superman’s upbringing, it’s difficult to know how he gets his moral compass. Part of why the Superman story has worked for so long and connected with so many people isn’t just that he’s a guy with lots and lots of powers. It’s that he’s part of the heartland, and those “heartland values”, are imbued in him growing up to help people. But in Man of Steel, that runs up against Pa Kent’s belief that the world isn’t ready for Superman, and that it’s far better for Clark to hide his powers. While that’s an understandable desire for a parent, it doesn’t get us to why Superman helps people. The answer “Because he’s Superman,” doesn’t work if you’re trying to re-contextualize the character into a more “realistic” story.
The big fight against Zod also runs into a problem because while it’s neat to see Superman trading blows with someone who’s equally as powerful, there’s a lot of collateral damage. Even if you buy the excuse, “It’s his first day!”, that’s awfully careless for a guy who tells us that as a child he was taught to control his powers. So if Superman knows that he can wreck stuff if he’s really unleashed, shouldn’t he try to get Zod away from the city? To try and make an excuse for Superman’s actions is to ignore the obvious truth of the scene: it’s exciting to watch stuff blow up and get destroyed, but the movie didn’t think about the repercussions of these actions, so Superman looks careless.
It’s not a movie completely without merit, and I wish Snyder (or someone) had a little more time to develop Superman’s character and his place in the world before tossing him into the middle of Batman v Superman where he’s immediately tested, but we still don’t have a strong grasp on who he is as a hero.
3) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a movie I really wished I liked better. To be fair, there’s a lot to like about it. The color palette is fun and bombastic, Margot Robbie has made the Harley Quinn character her own, and the film is ostensibly about female empowerment. Harley Quinn isn’t the only woman looking for emancipation in this story, and that theme helps tie together the stories of Black Canary, Huntress, and Renee Montoya as well. Plus the performances across the board are loads of fun.
The problem is that Birds of Prey has trouble finding its own identity as it swerves between Deadpool imitation and riffing on Tarantino. It’s a film with some strong moments of unapologetic feminism, countered by what feels like a studio mandate to make it more like the thing from male-dominated pictures. This schizophrenia may oddly work well with the craziness of Harley Quinn, but as it plays out on screen, it makes the movie feel muddled and confused. You have four plotlines that feel like they’re working at cross-purposes, and we’re left wondering if Birds of Prey would have been stronger by just focusing on Harley Quinn, just focusing on the Birds of Prey, or if Quinn should have been paired with villains like Poison Ivy and Catwoman rather than heroic characters.
What’s most frustrating about Birds of Prey is that it’s not a “bad” movie. It’s far from the disaster of Suicide Squad and genuinely seems to have some things on its mind. But in terms of its execution, you can’t help but feel like Harley Quinn and her fellow DC characters deserved better.
Shazam! benefits from largely knowing exactly the kind of movie it wants to be. It’s Big with superheroes. That’s a simple enough premise, but director David F. Sandberg gets a lot of mileage out of it by leaning into the humor and heart of a kid who gets superpowers. The film also doesn’t shy away from the irresponsibility a teenager would have by being a superhero, and naturally young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) who transforms into the adult Shazam (Zachary Levi) when he shouts “Shazam!” has some growing up to do.
The biggest fault with Shazam! largely deals with the villain, Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong). Sandberg, who has a background in horror movies, kind of overdoes it with Sivana’s villainy, missing the nuance available to the character and instead just leaning into the horrors he inflicts, especially on a hapless group of executives who are at the mercy of the supervillain and his monstrous henchcreatures, the Seven Deadly Sins. In these moments, the film succumbs to a darkness that doesn’t fit with its upbeat tone.
Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, and Shazam! is happy to be a joyous movie where kids get to revel in the fantasy of having superpowers while still absorbing a good message about the importance of family. There may be nothing Earth-shattering in Shazam!, but it’s a fun film that invites the audience to have a good time. There’s nothing false about its upbeat attitude, and you can enjoy it as a light superhero romp.
1) Wonder Woman
The problem with DCEU movies to this point is that they keep trying to reinvent the wheel before they even know how to drive. On its surface, Wonder Woman is a fairly standard origin story, but just because it plays by familiar beats, that doesn’t mean those beats are boring or overly familiar. Director Patty Jenkins understood that just because we might know the tropes of the origin story, that doesn’t mean we know this character or what makes her unique.
Wonder Woman takes full advantage of showing not only what makes its protagonist a hero, but then proceeds to test that heroism. Wonder Woman starts out the film thinking about mankind in the abstract, and it’s only through her relationship to Steve Trevor and seeing the horrors of war that she gets a better idea of who she’s supposed to be fighting for. The film pushes her innocence to the limit by forcing her to realize that while Ares may bear some responsibility for war, mankind’s weaknesses is also a part of it, and she must decide to save us anyway.
That’s an incredibly uplifting message that’s also surprisingly mature. The movie doesn’t shy away from the horror of war nor does it exploit it for cheap thrills. It’s a delicate balancing act, but Jenkins manages the task beautifully, allowing her hero to not only shine, but also grow and evolve as an individual. The template may be familiar, but the story never takes a shortcut on Diana’s development and her heroism. What’s more, it does all of this while remaining true to her best depictions from her comics. The result is a movie that will likely be a touchstone of the superhero movie genre for generations to come.
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