The DC Extended Universe was born in a state of crisis. When Marvel kicked off its world-conquering, ever-expanding "Cinematic Universe" with Iron Man in May of 2008, Warner Brothers was mere months away from releasing The Dark Knight, one of the most critically and financially successful superhero movies ever made. In comparison, Marvel Studios, striking out on its own after years of licensing its characters to other studios like Fox and Sony, was the (relatively) scrappy upstart. But by the time director Christopher Nolan brought his high-minded Bat-trilogy to a close with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, the ground had shifted. Standalone features were out; interconnected narrative playgrounds were in.
In an effort to catch up with the times, Warner Brothers and DC Films made some wild aesthetic choices and placed some peculiar narrative bets that didn't quite pan out. (Shout out to the Knightmare "flash-forward" in Batman v Superman.) Having weathered a storm of bad press and some behind-the-scenes shakeups, the company has shifted toward a new strategy that's more focused on playing to the strengths of individual characters, like the recent light-hearted adventure Shazam!, rather than prioritizing complicated, Avengers-like team-ups. So how do these movies stack up against each other? Suit up in your militarized Bat-Suit and read on.
(A note: This list only contains the films in the DC Extended Universe, and therefore doesn't include older Warner Brothers movies based on DC properties like any of the previous Batman films, the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Superman Returns, or Green Lantern.)
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7. Suicide Squad (2016)
What makes Suicide Squad the worst entry in the DC Extended Universe? While it's tempting to place the blame for the movie's creative failure on one party's shoulders -- Jared Leto's Hot Topic-core take on the (barely in the movie) Joker, Will Smith's sleepy turn as sad-dad leader Deadshot, or director David Ayer's visually drab action sequences all fail to inspire much excitement -- this is a case where nearly every aspect of the film fails to congeal. A scrappy, Dirty Dozen style superhero movie where villains team up to take on an even more evil, meaner class of villain shouldn't feel so belabored; the premise demands either a light touch or a total commitment to nihilism. The version of the story we got, which was reportedly reshot and tinkered with heavily leading up to its release, never settles on a tone or pinpoints a compelling theme. Like the forced camaraderie between the squad itself, nothing clicks. -- Dan Jackson
6. Justice League (2017)
It's difficult to remember the plot of the DCEU's big team-up, which tells you a lot. While Suicide Squad is loathsome and Batman v Superman is insane, Justice League is just thoroughly uninteresting. After its utterly dour predecessors, the studio wanted to prove to audiences that it could have more fun, but instead ended up with dramatically inert slog with a few quips thrown in for good measure. Of course, the production of the film was messy, with Joss Whedon taking over for Zack Snyder midway through, following a personal tragedy in the latter's family. But it seems unlikely that Justice League was ever going to be a creative success. The villain, Steppenwolf, is a CGI nothingburger. Meanwhile, the introduction of new characters like Cyborg, Aquaman, and The Flash do nothing to prove why we should care about these heroes as a team. The one blessing it gave us? The GIF of Jason Momoa bellowing, "My man." -- Esther Zuckerman
5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Unquestionably, Zack Snyder has a sensibility. While many modern blockbusters feel as though they were assembled by a committee, forged in boardrooms and marketing suites by pencil-pushing executives, Snyder's hyper-macho films vibrate with an Old Testament-like sense of grandeur and punitive anger. The degree of irony or sincerity involved in a given scene of Batman v Superman, the battle royale that's often considered either the height or the nadir of his DC run, can be difficult to parse. In specific moments, like when Bruce Wayne watches the violent chaos of Man of Steel unfold on the ground, that bizarre ambiguity and mess of real-world signifiers can be intoxicating. In less successful moments, like in most of Batman v Superman's confounding final stretch of punching and emoting, the effect is exhausting. Whether or not you enjoyed the "Martha" reveal or recoiled at the image of Batman mowing down henchmen with machine guns, you have to admire the movie's commitment to its own unhinged pomposity. -- DJ
4. Man of Steel (2013)
The trailer for Man of Steel is a better movie than Man of Steel actually is. Zack Snyder didn't exactly deliver on his promise of a gritty-yet-hopeful superhero origin story, opting for lethargic pace and a confusing plot. There is a genuinely affecting elegiac space opera hidden in the flashbacks on planet Krypton, and a few soundtrack themes from Hans Zimmer are actually wonderful. But, overall, it heralded an era of overly grimdark superhero movies that sucked all the fun out of the characters they were supposed to be championing. A weirdly dull interpretation of Clark Kent from Henry Cavill and a truly baffling performance by Michael Shannon as the most unhinged General Zod ever are emblematic of the film's baffling contradictions. -- Emma Stefansky
3. Aquaman (2018)
From Entourage punchline to billion-dollar-grossing blockbuster, Aquaman's journey from comic book pages to the big screen remains completely bewildering, a mark of just how rapidly the superhero industrial complex has transformed modern moviegoing. This should've been a disaster: Tasked with envisioning a vast underwater civilization and establishing a convoluted fantasy mythology, director James Wan, known for his work on horror thrill-rides like Insidious and the soapy action extravaganza Furious 7, and star Jason Momoa, a towering Game of Thrones cast member with a jocular charm, had their work cut out for them. (The character's first impression in Batman v Superman and Justice League didn't exactly set the world on fire.) And yet Aquaman, which delivers an origin story without getting bogged down in the details, is a refreshing blast of salty sea water. Leaning into all the ridiculous, goofy visual excess that money can buy, Wan makes you believe in a universe where an octopus can play the drums and Amber Heard eats a flower right off the stem. What's more beautiful than that? -- DJ
2. Shazam! (2019)
It's about time Warner Bros. and DC started having a little fun. Where Wonder Woman was a nearly transcendent film about the beauty of female power, Shazam! leans into the silly stuff, and injects some joy into this cinematic universe. It would be hard to suck the fun out of a movie about a little boy who gets the powers of Superman by just saying one nonsense word, and is subsequently tasked with fighting against the forces of evil while still trying to navigate life as a fully-grown musclebound dude half the time. Who among us wouldn't use our lightning fingers to charge a bunch of strangers' phones? Who among us wouldn't cause a little chaos while trying to test out our brand-new superpowers? Zachary Levi spends the entire movie acting like a kid in his daddy's business clothes, and the final act has a major, thrilling twist that drives home the movie's central message about finding family in those who love you. -- ES
1. Wonder Woman (2017)
There is no better moment in this entire franchise than the No Man's Land sequence in Wonder Woman. In fact, there are few moments in all of comic book movies that stack up to that sequence when it comes to portraying pure, exhilarating heroism. When Wonder Woman opened, the chances of a DCEU movie being good seemed slim. But the combined talents of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot helped reverse the losing streak, and made Wonder Woman not just the best movie in this extended universe but one of the best entries into the genre as a whole. The film was labeled "important" thanks to the nature of the story it told, but Jenkins made this Diana Prince adventure live up to that moniker, imbuing it with a mythological and historical grandeur. Gadot's turn as the hero makes her a movie star, equal parts ferociousness and charm, and her chemistry with Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is sparkling. Sure, the third act battle doesn't quite live up to the rest of the action, but it doesn't detract from the highs Wonder Woman manages to hit. -- EZ