The DC Extended Universe got off to a rocky start with the middling Man of Steel and the critically-panned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The fledgling film franchise set out to rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of both scope and scale, but its constant missteps set it up as the laughingstock of Hollywood for years before filmmakers finally started to reverse the trend.
The live-action DC films inevitably draw constant comparisons to Marvel’s movie series. Are these comparisons fair? Should people measure DC’s films on their own merits, or is it impossible to see the DCEU as anything other than a corporate-mandated answer to the most successful film franchise of all time?
Today, we’re ranking all the DCEU movies to finally answer the question: Are they really that bad? Our list is in ascending order of quality, starting with the messiest and most dour entries and escalating to the most impressive and crowd-pleasing films in the nearly decade-old DCEU.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
There are few films as hilariously bad as Zack Snyder’s disastrous 2016 movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Nearly every scene in this cinematic train wreck is laughable, and none of them are supposed to be funny. The film takes itself extremely seriously, and it clearly wants everyone in the audience to treat the proceedings as something worthy of reverence.
Then the two characters, who hate each other, become best friends instantaneously when Superman calls his mother by her first name, apropos of nothing, causing Bruce Wayne to realize that’s also his own mother’s name. This isn’t a joke–Batman v. Superman’s central conflict is actually resolved by this unbelievably ham-fisted piece of nerd trivia.
Jesse Eisenberg is also in this movie, playing Lex Luthor for some unknowable reason. Gal Gadot does her best to save the movie from drowning in its own dourness but she gets precious little screentime to be her normal awesome self. The result is a confusing, overbearing movie that gets nothing about either of its title characters right.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Suicide Squad manages the impossible and is almost as bad as Batman v. Superman. It’s astonishing to watch director David Ayer throw out everything that makes the Suicide Squad comics fun. Rather than focusing on the team’s unhinged supervillains and unlikely friendships, Ayer is more concerned with choppy action scenes and nonsensical plot diversions that distract from the confusing main story.
It’s impossible to talk about Suicide Squad without talking about its version of The Joker. Jared Leto gets a surprising amount of screen time as a cringe-inducing new take on the classic villain, giving the word “overacting” a new meaning.
Ben Affleck also cameos as his always-frowning version of Batman, further steering the story in pointless directions before the inevitable CG-heavy final battle. Margot Robbie and Will Smith turn in great performances, but even their natural charisma can only go so far in this misguided and uninspiring film.
Justice League (Theatrical)
Warner Bros. steered into the skid with Justice League. After Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad all disappointed critics, the studio was clearly struggling to find a new voice for its flagship superhero franchise. A personal family tragedy pulled director Zack Snyder away from Justice League during production, resulting in Warner Bros. bringing in filmmaker Joss Whedon at the last minute to oversee reshoots.
Joss Whedon’s vision for Justice League injected more levity and quips, making it feel more like his take on The Avengers five years prior. However, this new tone clashed immensely with Snyder’s Olympian dramatics, leaving a bizarre mish-mash of a film after cutting numerous plot threads.
The resulting film isn’t the worst movie ever made, but it’s tonally jarring and hard to follow. It stuffs far too many characters into a single film, and it never gives audiences enough time to get to know newcomers like Aquaman and Cyborg. This cut of the film also gives Ezra Miller’s excellent Barry Allen shockingly little screentime. There is a silver lining, though: Snyder’s cut of the film eventually saw a release on HBO Max, and it’s wonderful.
Man of Steel
The first DCEU film was the Zack Snyder-helmed Man of Steel. It’s a serviceable Superman origin story, though Snyder shows he understands little about what makes the Big Blue Boy Scout such a likable character. The director’s version of Clark Kent rarely cracks a smile and spends little screentime actually saving people. Instead, he’s too busy brooding and heeding his dad’s terrible advice about hiding his powers.
These fundamental misunderstandings reverberate out through the film and all early DCEU outings. Snyder’s lack of connection to the selfless, civilian-saving version of Superman leaves the character as a compromised, unlikeable alien figure who looks down on humanity.
Man of Steel sports some delightful fight scenes, though. Snyder’s mastery of action cinema shines through in the film’s third act, which sees Superman doing things he’d never do in the comics but that nonetheless look awesome on screen.
Wonder Woman 1984
The follow-up to 2017’s incomparable Wonder Woman could never live up to its predecessor’s heights. Director Patty Jenkins seems to reach for too many things at once with the sequel, stuffing plot threads together in an attempt to leave Wonder Woman where she needs to be for the timeline in Batman v. Superman and Justice League to make sense.
Despite this, the film still manages to leave audiences wondering how these events could go unremarked in later DCEU entries. Without getting too in the weeds, it seems bizarre that the DCEU’s civilian population would still be in the dark regarding metahumans after Wonder Woman 1984’s climax.
Despite its messy story and cheesy script, 1984 is still a blast of a movie. It’s entertaining and ridiculous, which makes it a great popcorn movie, even if it’s not as good as some other DCEU entries.
The success of James Wan’s Aquaman is nothing short of incredible. It stars a character who has been the butt of jokes for over 60 years. It takes place in a cinematic universe that many critics and fans wrote off as a lost cause. And its Shakespearean script veers precipitously close to melodrama on multiple occasions.
And it rules. It’s so good that it doesn’t make any sense. Jason Momoa is captivating (for more than just his muscles!) as the title character. The movie makes you care about a far-off undersea empire by leveraging its casts’ acting talents.
It’s also a gorgeous movie. James Wan’s direction helps the setpiece underwater battles remain clear and easy to follow even as hundreds of figures go to war with one another. In addition, Temuera Morrison deserves special praise for his excellent turn as Arthur’s dad, Thomas.
Shazam is everything DC fans want in a movie about a superhero. Billy Batson is a kid who can turn into a superhero by shouting “Shazam!” to the sky. The film doesn’t take its hero too seriously and allows him to do what every 15-year-old would do with superpowers. He makes a mess of things, crashes through the city, and occasionally saves people from problems… that he causes.
Meanwhile, the film establishes its villains as serious threats that could spell the end of humanity. Director David Samberg utilizes his horror background to make the Seven Deadly Sins feel particularly menacing, providing a contrast between them and the film’s otherwise breezy tone.
Shazam’s more energetic atmosphere is a welcome departure for the DCEU. Fans will be delighted if Warner Bros. keeps up this frenetic comic book energy in later movies.
Birds of Prey
Birds of Prey didn’t make waves at the box office, but it’s one of the DCEU’s best movies. The fast-paced superhero film stars Margot Robbie, who reprises her role as Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad. The film shares her anarchic, free-wheeling spirit, allowing Robbie a chance to make the role her own.
The movie plays like a Harley Quinn comic, seeing the character align herself with fan-favorite characters Huntress and Black Canary. The deadly trio square off against one of Batman’s recurring foes, Black Mask, and his deadly right-hand man Victor Zsasz.
If you’re a fan of Harley Quinn and you were disappointed by Suicide Squad, you need to check out Birds of Prey.
Wonder Woman helped rescue the DCEU from itself. The 2017 film was the first breath of fresh air for the unreasonably grim franchise. Director Patty Jenkins brought a comics-accurate sentimentality to the film that reframed Wonder Woman’s battle against Ares as an archetypal struggle for the human soul. The movie is beautifully shot and carries a timeless message that resonates with longtime comics fans and newcomers alike.
Gal Gadot is a force of nature as the protagonist, Princess Diana. She sells the character’s undying conviction in the power of love and compassion without winking at the audience. She’s the personification of justice and the movie plays it all straight.
This approach has informed later DC outings for the better. Even Snyder’s cut of Justice League seems to have benefitted from this gentler narrative shift, treating its heroes as aspirational myths instead of making them brooding caricatures.
Justice League (Snyder Cut)
Zack Snyder largely redeemed himself in the eyes of critics and skeptical fans with the release of his version of Justice League. After Batman v. Superman and the theatrical version of Justice League, most fans expected the Snyder Cut to be a trainwreck. When Warner Bros. announced that the director’s version of the superhero epic would run for four hours and play in an unusual square aspect ratio, DC’s doubters rolled their eyes and prepared for an embarrassing swan song to the DCEU.
Instead, they were greeted with an effective myth-building movie that showcased the director’s strengths without his usual grimness. The Snyder Cut is an accurate depiction of the Justice League, taking inspiration from some of the team’s best comic book arcs. The film shows a deeper understanding of Superman and Batman than Snyder’s previous outings, too.
Snyder’s version of the film deserves special praise for its attention to detail. Cyborg and Aquaman get plenty of time to expand their backstories, making them feel like integral parts of the team. Ezra Miller’s Flash takes center stage near the end of the film, proving that Snyder knows what he’s doing with the DC universe. For once, we’re actually excited to see what he’s working on next for Warner Bros.
The Suicide Squad
James Gunn is a visionary director who brings irreverent chaos wherever he goes. He was a natural fit for the 2021 version of The Suicide Squad, which earns its definitive article many times over. Margot Robbie turns in her best performance as Harley Quinn yet in the film’s B story, while its A plot sees Idris Elba and John Cena steal every scene.
The Suicide Squad is part sequel, part reboot, and all James Gunn. All of the director’s hallmarks are on full display in this glorified B-movie. It’s got a frenetic soundtrack that speaks to Gunn’s personal tastes, as well as unusually violent action sequences punctuated by eminently quotable dialogue.
If the DCEU continues to lean into the irreverent chaos of movies like The Suicide Squad and Shazam, it can carve a niche for itself that sets it apart from the MCU. Meanwhile, the success of Snyder’s version of Justice League and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman films proves that there’s still plenty of room for old-school super-heroics in the DC Universe. Well, as long as directors can strike a balance between self-serious gravitas and comic book silliness.