Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be released in theaters in just a few short weeks, and if my calculations are correct, it will mark the end of the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros. failed attempt to copy the success of the MCU. I’m not going to go over the big picture of the DCEU, or most of the turmoil the franchise has suffered over the past decade. This is a simple ranking of the movies themselves. The vast majority of these are objectively terrible in many ways, but some were better than others, and I actually did enjoy a few of them a great deal.
Now, full disclosure, I haven’t seen all of them, but I don’t think you care.
Honorable Mention: Blue Beetle.
I did see this one, but I’m not including it in the official ranking for two reasons. One, I’m saving my thoughts on it for another piece, and two, it exists in a weird Schrodinger state between the DCEU and the DCU, James Gunn’s reboot of the franchise. Quick review: It doesn’t really know what it is.
13. Black Adam.
A truly baffling movie, and easily the worst entry in The Rock’s filmography. This is probably the most poorly written script that has ever been developed, it is sincerely difficult to understand what people are trying to say. It completely wastes the character of Hawkman. The same could be said of Dr. Fate (one of my favorites), but Pierce Brosnan was admittedly good in the role. It’s the only thing close to a redeeming quality. The backdrop of the story is a facsimile of the Israel-Palestine conflict– why the creators thought they could handle something like this is beyond me. This movie was also in production when Noah Centineo was like, a thing, so he’s in it.
12. The Flash.
Another head scratcher, with a basic multiverse narrative that’s an excuse for one extended cameo, and unacceptable visual effects. Unlike Black Adam, The Flash does have one legitimate redeeming quality: Ezra Miller is shockingly good in this movie. I have always found them to be extremely grating as Barry Allen, but this time around, they bring the character more in line with the source material. They play two parts that are technically the same person, so they’re not doing anything special, but the roles are different enough to praise their efforts, and they’re entertaining for different reasons. Also, they’ve got a little bit of Jim Carrey in them, with a lot of odd facial contortions and physical comedy that I actually liked.
11. Suicide Squad (2016)
This movie feels like a two-hour long trailer, because the final cut was literally edited by a trailer company. It is the best example of the tragedy of the cutting room floor. So many cool ideas were cut for reasons I will never understand. It also marked the end of Jared Leto as a serious, respectable actor, and the end of the public viewing method acting as a worthwhile performance strategy.
10. Wonder Woman: 1984
I remember watching this when it was released on Christmas Day 2020 on HBO Max. For some reason, I really liked a lot of elements on the first watch, particularly Kristen Wiig as Cheetah. As it sat with me, my opinion on it lowered by the minute. I thought Gal Gadot was great when she was introduced in 2016’s Batman v. Superman, buoying a modernized take on Wonder Woman. But she got noticeably worse with every movie, and by the time this came out, she was just a charisma black hole (to be fair, she wasn’t given great material to work with.) The only moment that was remotely well done was Diana saying goodbye to Steve Trevor. I want to give it credit for this, but it’s immediately undercut by Wonder Woman doing Spider-Man swinging in the clouds for some reason.
9. “Josstice League” (2017)
The first live action rendition of the Justice League, ruined by Joss Whedon’s creepy brand of egomania. This is when the MCU copying became truly shameless, as they poached the guy who did the first two Avengers movies to direct, after Zack Snyder had to leave during production. It is very easy to tell that this was the end result of two people’s conflicting visions, almost on a scene-by-scene basis. Henry Cavill’s mustache being removed with VFX was so goofy it completely took me out of it. Spoiler for the rest of the ranking, I guess, but everyone involved in this project is lucky that it is overshadowed by a far superior version of it.
Blockbusters– especially superhero movies– live and die by the strength of their leading men. The quality of the movie is almost symbiotic to the person that is picked to helm the project. If you make a good choice, you get to build an empire off of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man. If you make a bad one, you will be led to ruin by a sheepish everyman like Tobey Maguire, the worst Spider-Man (I know that’s a hot take.) Which brings me to Zachary Levi, a perfectly fine actor to lead a perfectly fine movie as a perfectly fine character. Shazam has never been super compelling, he’s rarely a part of the main justice league roster, and when he is, he’s firmly positioned as a supplementary role player. Shazam! is formulaic, and about as good as a movie about him could possibly be.
Aquaman isn’t well made in many respects, but it subsists entirely off of its action and visuals, which are good enough to earn a respectable ranking. People might not remember that the character was a laughing stock, but he was legitimized over the course of many years, and Jason Momoa’s tenure in the role felt like the final push for this. I thought that horror director James Wan would do a more grounded and left-field take on the character; the ocean’s a scary place, you can do a lot with it. This wasn’t the case at all. This movie is nuts, with a globe-trotting plot, frenetic and spastic fight scenes, and a Lord of the Rings approach to its final battle. Its interpretation of Atlantis is interesting, most adaptations opt for a fantasy setting, but this version is more sci-fi. Also, Black Manta is in this one, and he’s probably my favorite DC villain.
6. Birds of Prey
This feels like it’s too high up on the list, but I straight up didn’t know where to rank this one. It’s not that much different than the others, but it feels more subdued and small-scale. It’s far closer to the best than it is the worst, so this just feels right. I never really liked the character, but Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn ranks among the best comic book movie castings ever. She is an exact, one-to-one replica of Harley in the comics (and pretty much every other adaptation.) Now, granted, she’s a very one-note character, but I imagine she’s pretty difficult to get right in live action. Birds of Prey isn’t great, but I’m happy there’s one movie in this universe that revolves entirely around Harley, where Margot is just let loose and allowed to carry. I also thought it had a really interesting roster. I’ve always liked Huntress and Black Canary, and Victor Zsasz and Black Mask are cool villains, even if they’re not well developed.
5. Wonder Woman
We are officially in the “actual good movies” part of the list. Wonder Woman takes heavy influence from 2011’s Captain America, telling the story of her exploits during WW1. In the world of comics, we get a lot of “definitive runs.” Batman: Year One is recognized as the standard for that character. Chris Claremont penned the X-Men run that serves as the starting point for every adaptation (Wolverine/Storm/Nightcrawler/etc.). This extends to other mediums as well, most modern Superman adaptations borrow heavily from the Christopher Reeves movies. And I think this should be seen as the definitive Wonder Woman. The setting and mythos are literalized, and the characters are really potent. Chris Pine has always been one of my favorite actors, and he’s perfect as Steve Trevor. And, most importantly, Gal Gadot was still good when this came out.
4. Man of Steel
I don’t know why people didn’t like this movie. Everything about it just works. It was a darker, more grounded echo of the aforementioned Christopher Reeves saga, and it clicked. More than anything, it was a movie that took itself seriously, in sharp contrast to other superhero movies at the time (2013). Zack Snyder’s direction was reigned in, it felt monumental without being melodramatic. Everyone felt believable in their roles. You could see Amy Adams as a bold career-oriented woman, you could believe Henry Cavill as a lowly drifter and a virtuous hero at the same time, you could buy into Michael Shannon as a crazed imperialist. We didn’t know what would come after this, but we knew it was the foundation of a new cinematic universe, and to this end, it was successful. It introduced a distinct, substantial vision for DC. And for the very brief time they were sticking to the plan, I was on board.
3. The Suicide Squad (2021)
If we are being entirely honest and objective, this is probably the best one, by a very wide margin. It succeeds as a movie in a way that none of the other entries do. It is well-written, well-acted, and well-directed– the only movie on this list that is all three. It serves as a proof of concept for James Gunn’s new DC universe. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I will say that I’m not the biggest fan of his style and I have my concerns. For the time being, this is all we have to go off of, and much like Man of Steel, it has its own voice and its own tone, and is perfectly functional as the introduction to a potential new world of stories. My only caveat is that I think it wastes a lot of cool things that could have been saved for the new universe. I don’t know where you take Harley Quinn after this, you can’t do Starro again, and Idris Elba isn’t likely to return. This puts a lot of pressure on Peacemaker to be a creatively lucrative character, and while his show was pretty good, I’m not sure he can be a true building block.
2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I will defend this movie with my life. I hate the term “guilty pleasure” when it comes to entertainment, but that’s what this is for me. It’s far more operatic and dour than everything that came after it, in large part due to Zack Snyder being allowed to indulge himself more on this one. It makes a lot of big mistakes, to be sure. Doomsday is disappointing, Superman barely speaks, and its teasing of the other heroes is awkward and unnecessary. But it’s held together by two things, the first being Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. People hated this on release, but I always thought he was misunderstood. Lex has always been a mad, obsessive genius, and while that’s usually hidden under the surface, Eisenberg puts this front and center, with an aggressive eccentricity. Now, as for the second thing, this might be the hottest take I’ve ever dropped, but here it goes: Ben Affleck is the best Batman. It’s his movie. He is a different, more intense Bruce Wayne. A grizzled, traumatized veteran, as opposed to a swanky playboy like his predecessors. Affleck was supposed to write and star in his own solo movie. Or, maybe just write and direct. Or just produce? The point is, it was in limbo for a very long time, and eventually metastasized in 2022’s The Batman. As good as that movie is, it’s a shame we never got to see Affleck’s.
1. Zack Snyder’s Justice League
At no point was I ever invested in the #RestoreTheSnyderVerse drama. But after it concluded with the release of “The Snyder Cut” in 2021, I’m glad people got what they wanted. I never thought this movie would ever exist in the first place, and when it was released, I expected it to be a remaster, with enhanced VFX and maybe a few deleted scenes. I was very wrong. I’ve alluded to a vision several times, a plan, a tone, etc.. This is the apotheosis of said vision. Long, dark, epic, and uncompromising. Nothing is cut, nothing is toned down, nothing is superfluous. Justice League (2017) was the skeleton of a good movie, this is the whole body. It’s sincere and takes pride in itself, there are no quips or winks and nods or fourth wall breaks. It had the balls to include Martian Manhunter, my favorite superhero. It was touching to see that Zack dedicated his magnum opus to his deceased daughter. It exists as a singular work, you don’t really need to see any of the other ones to understand it, but it builds on what came before, and sets up several directions for the story to go after. It’s a moment in time, the only part of a grandiose plan that worked. A black (mother)box in the wreckage.