While I did one of these “every DC Films flick ranked” post in Christmas 2018, the number of so-called DC Films flicks has essentially doubled since then. This isn’t unlike what we saw with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which offered up six films in Phase One from 2008 to 2012, six films in Phase Two from 2013 to 2015 and then eleven movies in Phase Three from 2016 to 2019. While Covid obviously put a crimp in the next wave in Warner Bros.’ comic book universe (with the pandemic kneecapping the commercial potential of Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad while bringing the Zack Snyder-helmed films to the front of the discourse), the slate is about to get very crowded.
With the caveat that not every movie featuring a DC Comics superhero is “part of the DC Films continuity” (at least not yet give or take whatever The Flash does in terms of reboots and multiverses), next year will see The Batman, Black Adam, The Flash and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom with Shazam: Fury of the Gods opening in 2023 plus allegedly HBO Max-bound flicks featuring the likes of Blue Beatle, Batgirl and Static Shock. And, yeah, since we’ve had five new movies just since Aquaman, we can take a glance at the Snyder-specific era as well as the Hamada-supervised batch of DC flicks. So, yeah, with the disclaimer that my list won’t be your list (and yes, counting Joker and both versions of Justice League), here we go.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Budget: $175 million
Global box office: $745 million
For all the hub-hub and ire directed at Warner Bros.’ post-Dark Knight Rises attempts to craft its own MCU-style super heroic universe, Suicide Squad is arguably the one unmitigated disaster. It’s no secret that Warner Bros. panicked after the negative reception of Batman v Superman and the positive response to the first jokey, needle-drop-heavy trailer and pretzeled what was likely David Ayer’s attempt at a Fast & the Furious-style supervillain flick into something attempting to mimic James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Regardless of who is to blame, the final product is a mess, with a first act dominated by redundant character introductions, only to shoot them out of the sky right away and strand them on a random city street. At least the flashback-filled intros are surface-level entertaining.
That it turns into a glorified zombie movie means we are watching Task Force X slaughtering innocent people in increasingly unimaginative and tension-free action sequences. The actual A-to-B narrative makes little sense and wreaks of post-production panic. The core performances (Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis and Joel Kinnaman) do what they can. The sheer similarity between Suicide Squad and Ayer’s Netflix flick Bright implies that maybe the problem with less about executives micromanaging a big movie and more about an inherently doomed directorial vision. Either way, the film was so badly reviewed and indifferently received that we tend to forget that it still earned best-case-scenario box office. Alas, Birds of Prey would pay for its sins, and we’ll see if The Suicide Squad faces a similar Tomb Raider Trap-style peril.
Man of Steel (2013)
Budget: $225 million
Global box office: $668 million
There’s so much that goes right in Zack Snyder’s swing-for-the-fences Superman origin story that it’s a heartbreaker when it buckles under its own weight in the second half. And even while that second hour devolves into video game action (not in a good, John Wick way), the third act offers a truly awesome mix of comic book superhero movie action and kaiju-level carnage. But at no point does the film ever actually present Clark Kent (a game Henry Cavill) as explicitly choosing to be Superman and hoping that the world will accept him. Having Clark be the one to push the button that brings Zod to Earth essentially puts the blood spilled in the city-destroying climax on his hands.
The acting is fine, the movie looks gorgeous and Hans Zimmer’s theme is every bit as iconic as John Williams’ Superman music. Honestly, this whole “Twilight of the Gods meets Godzilla meets The Day The Earth Stood Still’ approach would better with almost any hero other than Superman, especially when it still tries to sell the whole “Superman represents our ideal” theme and mostly ignores the horrific third act body count. Like Avengers: Age of Ultron, the lead superhero endangers the entire planet and brings about horrible carnage and saves the consequences for the sequel. At the very least, Man of Steel goes for a reverse Exodus, whereby “Moses” defends his adopted people against the wrath of “God.”
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Budget: $200 million
Global box office: $166.5 million
Kneecapped commercially by being the sacrificial lamb in Warner Bros. and AT&T’s “put all of our 2021 movies in theaters and on HBO Max” plan, and kneecapped critically by the spree of hate-watching and out-of-context excerpts, this was still admittedly not the movie most folks were expecting as Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman follow-up. Considering how much Jenkins likes both the first two Superman movies and the 1970’s Lynda Carter Wonder Woman television series, I wasn’t that surprised to see this 80’s-set follow-up go full Secret of the Ooze or Superman III). The irony is that Wonder Woman 1984 is everything we say we want (kid-friendly, colorful, optimistic, avoiding conventional formulas, lacking in violence, etc.) in our comic book cinema and yet we turned our noses.
Alas, the film’s good ideas (using a me-decade tale of shortcuts to success and the allure of easy fixes) are hampered by a plot which A) brings Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor back from the dead and B) spends the second act explaining and justifying that decision. Nonetheless, Kristen Wiig and Pedro Pascal make most unusual comic book baddies, while the made-for-IMAX spectacle mostly delivers. At its best, Wonder Woman 1984 refutes the notion of a stereotypical bad-ass female superhero merely just being an attractive woman cosplaying a male power fantasy, arguing that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is more than just Thor “backwards and in heels.” It may not all work, but this is exactly the kind of wild, unconventional swing we want from our studio-backed tentpoles.
Budget: $65 million
Global box office: $1.073 billion
Todd Phillips and Scott Silver’s transparent “make an old-school character drama but gussy it up with world-famous comic book characters” flick works on its own terms, especially disconnected to the month-long “this movie will inspire real-life violence” ridiculousness that followed its Golden Bear-winning Venice debut. In the end, the film inspired no riots or copycat crimes, instead becoming the first R-rated movie ever to top $1 billion worldwide. Credit some high-profile late-2019 delays (Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die and Death on the Nile) and Joker’s as the singular “all things to all audiences” flick for those looking for a buzzy adult movie, an awards season darling, a seasonal horror movie and a franchise tentpole.
The film works best when it’s not trying to make a grandiose statement about how the system fails its downtrodden and simply concentrates on being about one singular individual who is heading down a grim path. At its best, it’s a gorgeously cinematic (Lawrence Sher’s towering and colorful cinematography makes Arthur Fleck painfully small amid its decaying metropolis) “one man show.” Joaquin Phoenix is as good as you’d expect, but its existence (and success) signified that the genre appropriation that allowed comic book superhero movies to take over the blockbuster industry had officially extended to all forms of cinematic feature film. We’ve gone from “pretty good for a comic book movie” to “the only commercially viable genre filmmaking.”
Justice League (2017)
Budget: $300 million
Global box office: $658 million
Underrated in 2017 because too many folks considered Zack Snyder the second coming of Transformers-era Michael Bay, and underrated in 2021 due of Joss Whedon’s alleged offscreen transgressions, the 119-minute, theatrical version of Justice League is still firmly “pretty good.” In a sane world, where comic book superhero movies didn’t dominate pop culture discourse and weren’t expected to be towering works of art, Justice League would be a perfectly enjoyable three-star Super Friends movie. All that Justice League is really missing is a big, explosively grand and epic third-act smackdown. Even with the reshoots and rewrites, the film works as both a direct sequel to Batman v Superman and Wonder Woman while serving as the “end” for Phase One of the DCEU.
The action is comparatively slight, and Larry Fong’s jaw-dropping cinematography is missed, but it works as a light melodrama about a bunch of depressed would-be superheroes becoming a surrogate family and realizing that they have something to live for. By the end, this group of Super Friends are both united as a team and committed to being better to their friends and family. When it’s about superheroes talking to each other, bonding with each other and working out their emotional conflicts, it’s as good as The Avengers (sans that film’s false “this team can’t work together” conflict). Making a Justice League movie that resembled The Avengers was always a doomed proposition, but this is quite fun in a Challenge of the Superfriends fashion.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Budget: $70 million (just in additional costs)
Global box office: NA
The one “for grown ups.” Removed from years of controversy and its place in the culture war, Zack Snyder’s four-hour Justice League shows that Whedon didn’t so much make a new movie but make a heavily-abridged version of Snyder’s initial designs. It’s certainly a visual improvement, even if it too lacks Larry Fong’s eye-popping template. It’s attempting to be a mythical epic, losing both the hyper-realism of Man of Steel and the propulsive apocalyptic madness of Dawn of Justice. Even as it draws out character arcs and plot points that were exactly long enough in the theatrical cut, it retroactively stands out amid a Disney-dominated culture and benefits from our hindsight enjoyment of Aquaman. Heck, it’s a much better film if you hit “stop” at the end of Joe Morton’s stirring climactic monologue without the fan-bait (but defeatist) epilogues.
The first hour is an exercise in operatic chutzpah, and I admire it for its trespasses. The third act, during which Ray Fisher’s Cyborg finally takes center stage and our Super Friends save the world in a truly epic final showdown, gave me the ending I wanted in 2017. There are things I like better in the “studio cut” (I prefer the Martha/Lois scene not to be a fake out), and much of the “new” footage (like the silent Iris West cameo or the lovely but unnecessary Cyborg origin material) would never have made it to theaters even had Snyder gotten final cut. There’s a perfectly good (possibly great) 2.75-hour movie buried in this unapologetic 242-minute monstrosity. But as its own thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a wild pitch in a sea of down-the-middle speed balls.
The Suicide Squad (2021)
Budget: $150 million (estimate)
Global box office: ??
Opening tonight in theaters and on HBO Max, James Gunn’s big-budget glorified Troma flick is absolutely an improvement on David Ayer’s compromised predecessor. Nonetheless, after a glorious first reel which captures the core essence of what makes Suicide Squad tick, the film quickly falls into some of the same patterns as the previous flick while riffing on themes, ideas and gags recycled from Gunn’s previous flicks. Sooner than you can say “Task Force X,” the film becomes another mostly street-level shoot-em-up with a handful of expendable super villains who find out that their mission is a little more complicated than they bargained for, complete with a sympathetic lead (Idris Elba’s Bloodsport taking over for Will Smith’s Bloodshot) who really does care about his daughter after all.
Nonetheless, Viola Davis’s deadpan comic turn as Amanda Waller (now presented as hyper-competent and dealing with conventional office staff) earns hearty laughs, as does Margot Robbie’s “just here to play” Harley reprisal and Elba’s weary and cynical old-school movie star turn. The violence is as gruesome and grotesque as you’d expect in an R-rated Gunn flick, even if I’d argue ramping up the “no harm, no foul” carnage in a macho, jokey superhero flick (where our core heroes are borderline invincible against hapless non-super powered soldiers) isn’t as transgressive as you might think now that DC and Marvel movies are essentially our main source of theatrical pop culture consumption. Perfect is not the enemy of good, and there’s much to enjoy in this goofy and cheerfully chaotic romp.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Budget: $250 million
Global box office: $873 million
As the movie intended to kick-start a massive cinematic universe, it’s a deeply misguided disaster of a botch. Heck, it might have been better received in the middle of a cinematic universe narrative rather than right at the start. But outside of that broader context, the film’s three-hour, R-rated “ultimate edition” cut is a noble failure that works at least as often as it doesn’t. The film remains a visual knock-out, offering a compelling mix of grounded realism and IMAX-friendly apocalyptic imagery that gives it a near-unparalleled sense-of-scale (bless you, Larry Fong). The movie tries to be essentially a mix of Alex Ross’ Superman: Peace on Earth and Brian Azzarello “For Tomorrow,” telling an of-the-moment story of a Superman crippled by the knowledge that every choice he makes is inherently political.
If only that pesky Batman (Ben Affleck, doing his best with an underwritten role) didn’t keep getting in the way. The “ultimate edition” restores much of the Clark Kent/Lois Lane footage, but the movie trips over itself trying to both be a topically relevant Superman movie and an action film that justifies Batman and Superman beating the snot out of each other. Turning the motivations behind that fight into one of misdirection and miscommunication while setting up Lex Luthor (a gloriously literate star turn from Jessie Eisenberg) as an all-knowing puppet master makes the plot more complicated than required. Absent the cinematic universe world-building, and the commercial considerations in play five years ago, this is a swing-for-the-fences superhero epic that gets points for trying. It’s an uncommonly rewatchable “bad” movie.
Birds of Prey (2020)
Budget: $83 million
Global box office: $203 million
Cathy Yan’s Christina Hodson’s R-rated party flick is a classic example of audiences saying they want “X” but then absolutely ignoring “X” when studios give us just that. Or, maybe it’s just another sign that Hollywood shouldn’t take its cues from online/social media discourse. The good news is that this gangster comedy is an absolute blast, with Margot Robbie in peak form in this skewed riff on the now-standard “bad-ass action lady must protect a kid” plot. Her co-stars (including a campy/scary Ewan McGregor and a pitch-perfect deadpan Mary Elizabeth Winstead) hold their own in this weird little romp. The action scenes, with a little help from John Wick helmer Chad Stahelski, are fluid, coherent and creative, combining bone-crunching violence with a Jackie Chan-like affinity for random props and unexpected uses of the environment.
The structure that makes the film feel like “a Guy Ritchie flick, but with female superheroes and super-villains,” and I’d argue Birds of Prey is better than most actual Guy Ritchie gangster flicks save for maybe Snatch. Besides its existence as a comic book flick, Birds of Prey is a delightful gangster comedy that doubles as a nuanced portrait of a young woman coping with the end of an identity-defining relationship (it’s an ultraviolent ode to “self care”). It’s a character study, a gangster romp and a superhero movie all in one. The pinball directing, the macabre gags and bone-crunching action offers a kind of “adult in the toy store” mentality, and anyone in the right mood will want to play in this “Snatch meets The Tick” concoction all night long.
Budget: $175 million
Global box office: $1.148 billion
My oldest liked Aquaman a lot in theaters, and my younger kids took to it during the initial months of quarantine. Honestly, having watched it several times, this one improves on every viewing, leaving two specific questions. A) How is this movie not four hours long? B) How did this movie not cost $370 million to produce? It’s filled to the brim with so much *movie* that it makes Avengers: Endgame look like an art-house indie. And thanks to a charismatic and humble star turn from Jason Momoa, as well as strong support from Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (a murderous villain whom the film gives time for both a heart-to-heart chat with his father and a “doing science” music video montage), the film doesn’t feel overwhelmed by its stunningly successful underwater effects.
The movie rehashes any number of prior comic book movies (Green Lantern, Thor, Black Panther, etc.) and mixes as many other genre classics (Flash Gordon, Star Wars, National Treasure, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.) as it can into a delicious kitchen sink stew. The action is both well-staged and varied in tone, intent and content. It doesn’t apologize for its frequently-ridiculed hero, trusting an audience that grew up with Justice League: The Animated Series and Batman: The Brave and the Bold to consider Aquaman at least cool enough to deserve an outrageous cinematic adventure. If anything, the movie defends not just Aquaman but the super-cheesy Superfriends-worthy version of DC’s wettest superhero. James Wan pulled off a bonkers action-adventure fantasy that “saved” the DC Films franchise after the Justice League fallout.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Budget: $150 million
Global box office: $821 million
Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman wasn’t just a zeitgeist-y blockbuster that proved once and for all that female-led superhero movies that were given at least as much consideration, money and care as their male-led ones could play on equal footing at the worldwide box office. It didn’t just turn Gal Gadot into a pop culture icon while showing that, yes, a DC Films cinematic superhero could be as endearing as your favorite MCU star. It was also a terrific superhero drama that has aged well as its own thing. This period piece adventure balances conventional origin story tropes with a grounded humanism that makes up for a slightly half-hearted climax. Gadot delivers a star turn worthy of Chris Reeves and Chris Evans, while Chris Pine has a blast being essentially her Manic Pixie Dream Guy.
The first-act “Amazons attack!” set piece still stirs the soul, the “No Man’s Land” sequence remains a one-of-a-kind banger and the second act is full is quirky character beats and deftly-sketched secondary characters. Setting it during World War I gives it a cynical edge, while the fog-filled streets of London makes Diana’s iconic costume stand out that much more. Putting aside its pop culture impact, Wonder Woman is a fine action drama anchored by a superlative star turn that made Wonder Woman, not Superman or Batman, into the first true MVP of the DCEU. Yes, the third act is wonky and the villains are slightly undercooked (even with Danny Houston and, spoiler, David Thewlis giving it their all), but the movie works because its title hero is every bit as wonderful as her nickname implies.
Budget: $90 million
Global box office: $364 million
David F. Sandberg’s stunningly successful superhero origin story is filled with gee-whiz action, good-natured self-satire and kid-friendly suspense. It’s also a drama about a tortured foster child that is good and (relatively) raw enough that, yes, I would compare it to Instant Family, Antwone Fisher and Meet the Robinsons. It’s an achingly real family melodrama first and a comic book flick second, and thus works as a triumph even for those disinterested in the super-powered action fantasy elements. Asher Angel anchors the adventure in real pain and justified resentment, while even Mark Strong’s baddie gets just enough sympathy to make him more than a supernatural punching bag. But the key is that Billy’s latest foster family is so damn delightful that you’d happily watch a movie just about them going about their normal days.
The film holds its fantasy/fx elements in reserve and thus spends its first two acts focusing on real character development and real audience engagement. So, when the hero and villain start flying and punching each other out of the sky, it means something to them and thus to us. No spoilers, but we also get the best superhero movie plot twist since Iron Man 3’s Mandarin fake-out, one that works as a rousing affirmation of the film’s core values and sets up a potentially thrilling hook for Shazam: Fury of the Gods. By blending wrenching character melodrama, quirky characterization, terrifying supernatural violence and gee-whiz superheroics, Shazam! is thus-far the pinnacle of DC Films, by showing that all of these things can successfully coexist not just in the same universe, but in the same damn movie.