Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Ranking all the DCEU Films

The Definitive List, Part 2

We’ve already covered one half of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe., tracking the worst the franchise had to offer, from the absolutely dreadful Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the just mildly bad Black Adam. From here we can only go up as we track the tragic bungles from DC that led to only okay films, right up to the few real gems the series has to offer. Not everything on this second half of the list is a winner, but when you compare these to anything in the bottom half, the result feels like night and day. Sometimes a day put through a heavy filter of grays and blues, as is Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly.’s style, but day all the same.

Man of Steel (DCEU 01)

On the other side of the gulf, between good and bad, is Man of Steel. The first film in the DCEU, before that cinematic universe even had a name, this was the grand relaunch of Superman that DC wanted after the successful Dark Knight trilogy came out from Christopher Nolan. It had Nolan on board as a creative voice, it had David S. Goyer (who had written so many superhero films, good and bad) on as screenwriter. It had potential. But then the studio hired Zack Snyder and, well, the resulting film was about as good as you could expect from that director.

I know Man of Steel has its detractors, and I’m not here to try and argue that this is a great film. It feels like a very Zack Snyder film, dark and gritty and full of sorrow. The issue, of course, is that it absolutely doesn’t understand Superman in the slightest. Instead of making a film about DC Comics’ beacon of hope, the best superhero boy scout this side of Krypton, Snyder turned him into an Ayn Rand allegory, the kind of guy to help only because it helps him (“you don’t owe them anything,” his mother says in the film, completely missing the point of the hero). It’s a bleak and angry movie. It’s not Superman.

It is watchable for what it is and, despite the intentions of the director, Henry Cavill does try to play Clark as a boy scout. He does try to make his guy uplifting and interesting and everything you expect from Superman. His chemistry with Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is palpable and the story of their characters is fantastic. If only there was a solid superhero movie suitable for Superman in here. There isn’t, which keeps this from being a great film. As the flipside of Black Adam, Man of Steel is about the worst “good” movie in the DCEU. It has flaws, to be sure, but I’ll still watch this over just about everything below it on this list because while those are bad, this movie is just hideously flawed.

Wonder Woman (DCEU 04)

I really wish Wonder Woman were a better film. It is, in fact, two acts of an absolutely brilliant and wonderful film for the Amazon. If the film could have just been Diana on Themyscira, meeting Steve Trevor and then going off to have an adventure in World War II before saving the day in the middle of a war zone, fighting to defend people in “No Man’s Land” before ending it would be brilliant. That movie, right there, is great. Gal Gadot is solid as Diana, Chris Pine is wondering charismatic as Steve Trevor, and the film finds so many good moments between them that it powers the whole damn adventure (at least up to that point).

And then it has a ripping climax set in “No Man’s Land”, which Diana charging off into the middle of the land between the trenches, fighting off the bullets and mortars of the Germans while being the best damn (and, up to that point in either the DCEU or MCU) superheroine we’d seen on screens. That movie, that adventure start to finish, is everything fans wanted for Wonder Woman in the DCEU, and if we could have ended the movie there I think everyone would have left the theater absolutely satisfied.

But then the third act ruins everything. Instead of a grand adventure for Diana and Steven set in war torn France, the film descends into a pointless battle between Diana and Ares, full of horrible CGI. It lacks the tight character development, the grounded stakes, and anything we can care about. The film, in that last act, basically betrays everything it had set up, and it takes what could have been one of DC’s best films ever and turns it into something only pretty good. The wasted potential hurts all the more because you can see where it should have gone and then, right at the five yard line, DC fucked it up.

Aquaman (DCEU 06)

I don’t think Aquaman would make the top half of anyone’s “best comic book movies of all time,” but when we’re talking specifically about DCEU films, it absolutely makes the cut (because there’s so much that’s worse). While some might balk at me rating this film over Wonder Woman, my argument is that while Wonder Woman is two-thirds of a wonderful film, and those two thirds would far surpass Aquaman, as a whole, the king of the oceans has a more consistent, and more fun movie.

Aquaman is not a deep movie. It’s a big, dumb, silly movie. It wears its “bro dude” sensibilities on its sleeve and doesn’t try to be anything other than a movie where Jason Momoa gets to hang out and talk to fish. But that’s why it works. It doesn’t want to be anything more than what it is. It’s a bright and shiny film for Momoa’s Arthur Curry and Amber Heard’s Mera to go on a bit of an adventure, finding some relics, battling bad guys, and seeing the sights. And then in the end, there’s a big superhero fight and everyone walks away happy.

Considering the overly serious tone of the first films of the series, and the wildly inconsistent stories, and the way the films didn’t even understand the basics of the heroes they were dealing with, Aquaman was a breath of fresh air (or water, take your pick). It was basic and consistent and watchable. It’s sad that, for the DCEU, “competent” is the bar we use to rate a “good” movie, but that’s what this series was like.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (DCEU 08)

While the first Suicide Squad film for the DCEU might not have been a winner (it absolutely wasn’t), it did at least give us Margot Robbie as Harley QuinnCreated to serve as "Joker's Girlfriend" as well as his primary minion for Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn quickly grew to be one of the most popular characters of that show, eventually finding a solid life beyond the cartoon in comics, movies, and media. and that performance was magic. The actress, in that right, was absolutely the best part of that movie and, almost immediately as soon as the film landed, DC was talking about making all kinds of spin-off projects for Robbie’s Harley. A Joker and Harley film, a Gotham City Sirens film, and a solo project for her. Over time, as fan reaction to Jared Leto’s JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled. turned from mixed to an outright rejection, and the various projects were blended up and stirred around as DC struggled to figure out their direction for the franchise, Harley’s projects became a Birds of Prey film that also featured the crazed harlequin herself.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) probably should have just been called Harley Quinn and acted as a backdoor pilot for the Birds of Prey ladies. It certainly would have been a more accurate title, and it would have gotten more butts in seats as Harley Quinn was absolutely the draw. She’s the best part of this movie, just like in Suicide Squad, but, unlike that adventure, Birds of Prey is actually a fun, amusing film that works as more than just a vehicle for CGI action. There are, in fact, no CGI monsters in this film, making it feel like a grounded, street-level film. It had its own vibe, its own tone, and it was a fun time.

But it also tanked at the theater (because DC didn’t know what to title it or how to market it) and that was the last street-level adventure we got for the DCEU because of it. Sad, since this film had potential to really open up stories for the DCEU, but audiences just didn’t show up.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (DCEU 05 Alt)

I feel dirty saying this, considering all the hate I’ve heaped on Zack Snyder, his films, and his career, but his director’s cut of Justice League is actually a very watchable film. I don’t think anyone was going to enjoy sitting through a four-hour superhero film, especially not one set in the DCEU back in 2017, but give time, a streaming service to host it, and audiences more amenable to what Snyder was selling for his cinematic universe, the idea of sitting through the purer vision for Justice League didn’t seem so bad.

Now there’s no way to know if this version of the film, produced in 2021 (four years after the film’s original release) and put out on MaxThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. Now known primarily for its streaming service, Max., is what Snyder originally intended to make. He had four years to think about it, a budget of $70 Mil to reshoot and adjust everything, and carte blanche to make the director’s cut whatever he wanted it to be. Without studio interference or the worry of how this would spin out into future media. Snyder could just do as he liked. We can’t say this would have been the film we’d have seen back in the day, but we can at least appreciate it for what it is.

And, damn it, it’s watchable. It’s actually a good movie. If we could have had this film back in 2017 I think there’s a chance we all might have viewed the DCEU just a little differently afterwards. It wouldn’t have felt like a failure of a cinematic universe five films in. It might just have been a success in theaters. Of course, some actual shorter, watchable cut of the film would have to be edited together, something that wasn’t four hours long and who knows if that version could have worked. This is Snyder’s vision free of constraints and the bounds of franchise filmmaking. It works, but I doubt it could have worked then. It’s a weird, one-off experiment that turned out watchable and I applaud that. We’ll just never see its like again, I’m sure. And Snyder, for his part, has yet to make anything else nearly as good.

Blue Beetle (DCEU 15)

By the time Blue Beetle hit theaters, most of the viewing public had tuned out the DCEU. In fact, as proven by the soft numbers for Marvel, they’ve tuned out the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. as well, and are even turning against the big, massive blockbusters that have dominated studio filmmaking for the last two decades. Audiences want something different, something new. Films like Barbie and Oppenheimer were the big winners last year while DC and Marvel’s films all pretty well tanked (and you can see these soft numbers with so many other studio sequels, like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Fast X as well). Audiences want something new, something different, and they’re really starting to turn against big, connected franchises.

Into that theatrical churn, then, DC dropped Blue Beetle and, unsurprisingly, it failed with audiences. It was a DC superhero film for a hero most hadn’t heard of before, yet another “big budget” production to try and milk a cinematic franchise. Audiences wanted none of it and, frankly, DC shouldn’t have even shoved it out that way. The film had been meant for Max, as a direct-to-streaming extension of the DCEU, and had it been released there, with lower expectations and for audiences already keen to watch WB products, I think it would have done well enough.

It’s a fun, light, enjoyable film with heart, and it tells its story well. Blue BeetleThree heroes in DC's history have gone by the moniker Blue Beetle, from a magically enhanced detective, to a tech-genius, and then a kid with a sci-fi scarab, but they've all kept the title of hero alive. is a great hero, and the film honors the long legacy of the superhero (and the various incarnations to wear the name and the mask). It, honestly, has everything a fan of the hero could ask for, and in the right era, at the right time, it probably could have been a monster at the Box Office. At the tail end of the DCEU when audiences wanted nothing to do with massive spectacle, that was the wrong time for the film.

It’s possible Blue Beetle gets a reprieve and can join the fun in the rebooted DCU. That would be a nice ending for this story. But as it is, DC and WB blundered in putting this film out in theaters, and they spent a lot of extra money to watch it fail. The hero is great, the film is great, it’s the WB that was awful in this instance.

The Suicide Squad (DCEU 10)

The idea of a second Suicide SquadA team of villans forced to work together to do heroic things, the Suicide Squad is a team that works because of their darker motivations (and the fact that the team rotates in large part because they aren't expected to come back time and again). film seemed like a terrible idea when it was announced, but then DC only had to say two words to make all the fans sit up and take interest: James Gunn. The writer / director, hot off of getting fired by Disney (for tweets he’d made years ago and then removed and apologized for long before the firing), was snatched up by WB almost immediately. They wanted him to give them they’re version of Guardians of the Galaxy, and were happy to let him do as he wanted. So he played to his strengths, grabbing another misfit team and slapping on his brand of off-color humor and cartoon violence to make a film that Disney would have never even dreamed of allowing but DC was all too happy to release.

The result, The Suicide Squad, is everything fans of Gunn wanted. It’s a fantastic, gory, violent, hilarious film. Anyone that knew Gunn from only the Guardians of the Galaxy might have been thrown off to see him doing an over-the-top, hard-R, supervillain film, but those that know his work (from his early days with Troma films, through Slither and then into the Marvel machine) this second stab at the Suicide Squad was everything we could have expected. And more, frankly.

This was exactly what the fans wanted, what Gunn wanted, and what DC wanted, and while it didn’t exactly make bank in theaters (actually coming out as a bit of a bomb, in part due to getting released at the tail end of the pandemic), that didn’t sour the relationship between Gunn and DC. He went on to make Peacemaker, a spin-off of this film, and that was very well received on Max. And then WB made him the co-head of DC Studios. Clearly his vibe, his style, is all DC wants and more. All thanks to Disney fucking up and letting the writer / director go off and make this nasty little supervillain film. It’s great.

Shazam! (DCEU 07)

Even though it was only a few short years ago, the state of superhero films felt very different in 2019 than it does now (here in 2024, and as I write that all I can think of is Marty McFly waking up going, “2024?!”). Now putting on a lesser known, C-tier superhero would be met with the hero getting completely swamped at the Box Office. But in 2019 we got two totally different Captain Marve films, one from Marvel called Captain Marvel and the other from DC called Shazam!, and they each were big successes. Sure, the Marvel version was a billion buck blockbuster released right in the middle of the culmination of Marvel’s big Infinity Saga, and DC’s was a little family superhero film that made family film levels of money, but they were both successful. Hard to imagine that happening today.

Shazam! (because DC was forced to change the name of their hero from Captain Marvel to ShazamOnce known as "Captain Marvel", this superhero (created by Fawcett Comics before they were bought by DC) has seen many changes to his story over the years. One thing has remained the same: his awesome, god-like powers. years ago) is a wish-fulfillment story about a kid getting superpowers and it’s about as far from the DC films that Snyder had directed as you could get. Hell, it wasn’t even officially tied into the DCEU initially, as if DC was hedging its bets, making sure people would accept this family-friendly hero before the studio said, “yeah, of course it’s connected,”). But the film was a quiet, happy little success and DC suddenly had another hit on its hands, right after Aquaman had destroyed the Box Office to the tune of a billion bucks as well just a few short months earlier.

The film succeeded because it was good. It was a fun, humorous, superhero adventure with heart. It had a kid, desperate to find his real family that he eventually made his own from the forester family around him. It had the chops to poke fun at the genre it was part of, at the peak of that genre’s success. It was everything it needed to be in 2019 to be a successful counter-programed film to play off DC’s own brand and what Marvel was doing. It was, frankly, the smartest release DC made in the DCEU.

Of course DC wasn’t able to pull it off a second time, floundering in the years after and even failing when it came to making a sequel to this film. Arguably it would have been hard to recapture the magic of this film in a sequel but it felt like DC didn’t even know how to try. Shazam! was magic in a bottle, the perfect little family superhero confection, and even if DC couldn’t do it again at least we got it once.

Peacemaker (DCEU 11)

Amusingly, Peacemaker is probably the farthest from the family-friendly confection of Shazam! And yet, it has a lot in common with that film: a tight, focused story. A solid message for its hero, who is desperate to find a family when his actual family sucks. And it’s hilarious and weird and over-the-top. It had all the elements to make for a fantastic DCEU-set story, and that’s before we take into account it was written and directed by James Gunn, acting as a spin-off of his also fantastic The Suicide Squad. In many ways it was destined to succeed.

But the actual resulting series is better than you would even expect just from “a spin-off of The Suicide Squad from James Gunn”. It knows how to balance all its weird elements to amazing effect. It had a great performance from John Cena, taking a character that was detestable in the film and making him into someone you can actually care about in the series. It has humor and violence in equal measure, making for a great contrast between the street-level heroics and the crazy-pants things the heroes have to do. And it had those opening credits, with the goofy dancing and the throwback hair metal (and that eagle). It all works so well in combination, more than just the sum of its parts.

It’s no wonder that, of all the things that could carry over from the old DCEU into the new DCU, Gunn has decided to preserve Peacemaker and its cast and continuity. This was what worked in the DCEU without question, and it’s the one piece that is unequivocally worth preserving, full stop.