To say that the DCEU has experienced some growing pains since its inception in 2013 with the release of Man of Steel would be the understatement of the century. Unlike the well-oiled Marvel machine, the DCEU’s development has been far less consistent, with previously plotted plans being thrown out at the last minute (see Zack Snyder’s initial intentions for his Justice League trilogy) and new timelines seemingly set up on a dime, generating retcons galore and causing this cinematic universe to contrast poorly with the smooth and straightforward interconnected storytelling of the MCU. Even worse, every time the franchise hits a home run (Wonder Woman, Aquaman), a brutal stumble forces filmmakers to pump the brakes on their progress (Suicide Squad, Justice League).
With the imminent release of James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad – a sequel/spin-off-of-sorts to David Ayer’s 2016 take on the supervillain team that is said to deliver in spades and give the DCEU the big boost it desires, if early reactions are to be believed – it feels fitting to look back at all of the prior pictures in this franchise and see which films stand out amongst the rest, from the wondrous watershed moments in movie history like the aforementioned Wonder Woman to the more mixed affairs like the divisively received Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Without further ado, after evaluating all ten titles extensively, here is our definitive ranking of the DCEU so far.
11. Suicide Squad (2016)
Without a doubt, Suicide Squad is by far and away the worst entry in the DCEU at this point in time. Sure, the film features a few solid elements – it introduced us to the marvel that is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Will Smith made for a delightful Deadshot, and Viola Davis delivers, as always – but that’s where the compliments stop. The final cut has some of the most haphazard editing ever seen in a theatrically released major motion picture, the scattershot story doesn’t make a lick of sense, and don’t even get us started on Ayer’s gross male gaze and the film’s overall offensive objectification of Harley (and the less said about the glorification of her abusive relationship with the Joker, the better). Thankfully, the DCEU hasn’t sunk this low since Suicide Squad’s release, as it’s not only a stain on this specific series, but the entire superhero genre as a whole.
10. Justice League (2017)
For as much bitterness as 2017’s Justice League has brought about on social media, the final feature is largely a watchable – if woefully generic – superhero saga that checks off all the boxes in under two hours and seems scientifically engineered to satisfy its audience. But that’s the exact problem – this is the first Justice League live-action movie ever released, and the best thing we can say about it is that it’s… fine? Love him or hate him, at least Zack Snyder had an original vision for his initial interpretation of this story (more on that later), while the reworked version plays like a run-of-the-mill Avengers redux. To make matters worse, the DCEU didn’t even take the time to introduce us to these characters beforehand as the MCU did, and it doesn’t devote any energy to catching us up to speed here either, severely sapping our interest in the events onscreen. And, without even considering his current controversies, Whedon’s style simply doesn’t fit; he fails to understand the fundamental differences between the Avengers and the Justice League, and his sophomoric humor hurts the final product profusely.
9. Shazam! (2019)
In what may be the most disputed placement on this list, Shazam! finds itself at ninth. Upon release, the film was praised for being part of a “return to form” for the DCEU – following the billion-dollar-success and solid reception of Aquaman – but as it’s aged, its shine has dulled somewhat, feeling more and more like a “Diet Deadpool” (albeit for kids) that only offers fun in spurts. Anytime Zachary Levi is onscreen, the film jolts to life, and his chemistry with Jack Dylan Grazer is admittedly quite compelling, but when he’s absent, the stereotypical story truly stands out, and Shazam! simply feels far less special. Throw in an obscenely overlong runtime (there’s a short and sweet 90-100 minute movie caught in this 132-minute final cut) and some overwrought melodrama (primarily relating to some perplexing plot twists in Billy’s search for his mother), and Shazam! can’t quite match the might of the movies that rank higher on this list. Still, the character work with Levi and Grazer is so strong that it’s worth a watch regardless.
8. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is neither as brilliant or as bad as its supporters or skeptics would lead you to believe. It’s a messy monstrosity, but not without moments of masterful moviemaking, largely located in the more mood-driven first half that surveys Superman’s place in modern society and asks tough questions about the way superheroes would actually be perceived by the public. Aside from Lois Lane’s extraneous subplot, everything here is firing on all cylinders – Cavill is a stellar Supes, Ben Affleck brings his all to his take on Batman, Gal Gadot has a dynamite debut as Wonder Woman, and Snyder’s spectacle is staggering. Unfortunately, the CGI chaos of the film’s second half nearly derails the epic entirely, threatening to wash away all the positive thoughts audiences had when the film started by beating them over the head with drawn-out drama. It’s honestly hard to form a firm opinion on the film with all this tonal whiplash, but the bright beginning is more than enough to earn it a spot in the middle of the pack.
7. Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Sure, Wonder Woman 1984 sacrifices the sharpness of its predecessor for a story that is a bit “sillier” (centered around what is essentially a “wishing rock”), and it can certainly get a tad too crowded as well, shortchanging supporting characters like Chris Pine’s resurrected Steve Trevor and Kristin Wiig’s wonderful Barbara Ann Minerva, but Gal Gadot’s charm and charisma in the title role is as enthralling as ever, and the softhearted sincerity Patty Jenkins brings to her filmmaking is too ravishing to resist. Questionable plot choices aside (did Steve really need to come back in the form of another man, muddying up the movie’s morality?), it’s admirable how Jenkins is so willing to wear her heart on her sleeve in her storytelling, especially at a time when so many directors try to shy away from sentimentality at all costs in the name of rooting their films in “realism.” Call the movie’s conclusion “cheesy” if you want, but in this age of cynicism, more artists would do well to remember the importance of idealism.
6. Aquaman (2018)
James Wan is one of the most distinguished directors of his generation, mastering a number of franchises and film genres and making it look like child’s play. Naturally, his contribution to the DCEU is no different, as Aquaman’s arresting action and adventure offers top-of-the-line operatic entertainment, and Wan balances its charm and its corniness brilliantly. Likewise, Jason Momoa and Amber Heard fall into the roles of Arthur Curry and Mera with finesse, capturing a convincing chemistry that anchors their entire endeavor and givesDCEU fans a riveting romance to root for. Additionally, the visual wizardry on display suffuses the story with wonder, setting it apart from “dark” and “dreary” blockbusters of this day and age as colorful setpieces take center stage and Wan floods the film with absurdist fantastical art of the highest order. At nearly two and a half hours, Aquaman is a whole lot of movie, and some may say it bites off more than it can chew, but it’s so punctually paced and effortlessly entertaining the whole way through that it’s hard to complain.
5. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
For many DCEU fans, Birds of Prey might rank at the top of this list, and it’s hard to argue with that assertion; its stakes and story may be “small-scale” compared to some of the other films in this franchise, but its style is so singularly satisfying and simulating that it’s tough to care too much. The R-rating really allows Robbie and co. to explore the true crime and chaos of Gotham like never before – complemented with erratically engrossing editing – and Christina Hodson’s subversive script serves up maniacal meta humor and cleverly borrows from the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie while still remaining its own unique comic-book concoction. Freed of the male gaze, Robbie’s Harley thrives and comes into her own both aesthetically and thematically, and it helps that she’s surrounded by such an engaging ensemble of equally amusing actresses like Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosie Perez as well. The film actually proves to be far stronger as a result of its “slighter” frame of focus, allowing for the creatives to concentrate on deepening the character development of its cast and simultaneously “letting loose” without the constraints of the larger cinematic universe demands.
4. Man of Steel (2013)
The one that started it all still stands tall. Man of Steel generates a fair amount of disagreeable discourse and debate to this day, but in spite of all the fighting amongst fans, the film itself has aged well as one of the most original and outrageously entertaining superhero origin stories put to the silver screen, all the stronger for Zack Snyder’s authentic analysis of a superpowered alien living in America and the anxiety and angst that accompany such an existence. He may lay on the Jesus metaphors pretty thick, but Snyder’s impassioned ideas are ingeniously inventive, injecting life into a character many continue to label as “irrelevant” or “insignificant” in today’s cultural landscape. Yeah, you can argue that the third act turmoil is maybe a bit too bombastic, but few filmmakers are as adept at shooting Earth-shattering action like Snyder, making for magnetic spectacle nonetheless. And above all else, who can find a fault with the commendable cast here? Cavill is a natural charmer, Shannon is suitably spine-chilling, and Costner will cause your heart to split into two with his subtly soulful work.
3. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Is Zack Snyder’s Justice League technically a part of the DCEU or not? Considering this is the film we were supposed to receive in the fall of 2017, we’ll count it – and DC should be delighted, because it brings their batting average up significantly. Simply put, this superhero saga is a miracle of mythmaking, and there isn’t an inch that isn’t improved from the theatrical cut. The scope and scale of Snyder’s storytelling is stunning, and every single character is afforded a rich and resonant arc with ample depth and development (with Ray Fisher’s Cyborg making himself the MVP). While the visual artistry is utterly absorbing, it’s this captivating character work that wows most of all, allowing for Affleck, Gadot, Fisher, Miller, and Momoa to dig deeper into their roles than ever before and rival the iconic superhero interpretations from the MCU in just one movie. Even at four hours, not a minute is wasted, and it ends up feeling like an epic on par with Avengers: Endgame. It’s hard not to imagine how different the DCEU would be today if Warner Bros. would’ve let Snyder release this way back when instead of the pale imitation that was promptly panned.
2. The Suicide Squad (2021)
When you watch something done so right, it’s almost impossible to try and understand how it was done so wrong in the first place. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad isn’t simply a superior “sequel-of-sorts” to its pitiable predecessor – it’s a rollicking and ravishing revitalization of this brutal yet beautiful brand, showing this team of troublemakers as they should have always been seen onscreen thanks to his signature blend of heart and (delightfully dirty) humor and an absolutely exhilarating ensemble. The skillfully staged (and gloriously gory) setpieces are a stupefying sight to behold, but the characters are equally compelling, from Robbie’s hilarious Harley to Daniela Melchior’s miraculously moving Ratcatcher 2 to the killer yet kind-hearted King Shark and so many more. Even if one could argue that Gunn borrows from some of his Guardians of the Galaxy dynamics to give this group depth and dimension, he still manages to differentiate the movie enough with its masterfully crafted macabre imagery and some charmingly crude comedy interspersed throughout all the chaos. In a world of basic and banal blockbusters, The Suicide Squad is a sordid yet satisfying spectacle that stands out.
1. Wonder Woman (2017)
Ten movies in, no film in the DCEU has been able to reach the dizzying heights of 2017’s Wonder Woman, and it’s unlikely any DC movie can ever possibly replicate such a revolutionary feat of feminist filmmaking. Even four years after its initial release, its potent power and progressivism have been preserved, largely due to Patty Jenkins’ daring direction. Rarely has the female gaze felt as glorious as it does here, highlighting the heroism and heart of Diana and her Amazonian sisters above all else and stressing their strength and spirit before any surface-level physical attributes (as had long been the standard in cinema).
Furthermore, in sharp contrast with today’s dark and brooding (and mostly male) superpowered protagonists, Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince arrives with an aura of optimism and earnestness that feels so fresh, while screenwriter Allan Heinberg’s compassionate characterization allows her to be both ferocious and feminine, without sacrificing either attribute. In her purest form, Diana Prince is the antithesis to the anxiety and agitation that run rampant today, inspiring us to defeat forces that seek to divide us while never losing faith in humanity as a whole at the same time. And, lastly, few movies produce as magical of moments as Wonder Woman’s instantly iconic “No Man’s Land” scene, in which Diana dismisses the doubts of those who say she can’t succeed in crossing to the other side and both figuratively and literally beats back the power of a patriarchy that tries to silence or stall the success of women in society, summing up her enduring significance in one single set piece.