DC has come under fire over the last couple of years, with its Extended Universe struggling to live up to the caliber of its heroes, but DC movies were around for a long time before Warner Bros. announced a shared universe in the first place. The studio brought in Zack Snyder to launch a joint movie for its two biggest names, but Batman and Superman’s past portrayals, from Christopher Reeve all the way to Christian Bale, left the 300 director with impossibly big shoes to fill.
But in a history dating back a lot further than Marvel’s cinematic career, DC still has plenty of gems to its name. This week’s Wonder Woman marks only the fourth entry in the DCEU, but it is the 35th movie based on DC Comics to get a theatrical release. Once you take names such as Halle Berry, Shaquille O’Neal, and Joel Schumacher out of the picture, you’re left with a solid set of films.
With Wonder Woman still fresh in our minds, it’s difficult to know where to rank DC’s latest effort against some of the movies that defined the superhero genre, but really, we should be thankful it makes the top 20 in the first place. Find out how Wonder Woman compares to some of DC’s greats, as we count down the Best DC Movies Ever Made.
20 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Arguably the most anticipated DC movie ever made, the most frustrating thing about Batman v Superman is that there are flashes (no pun intended) of greatness in amongst the moments that let the movie down; namely the hypocrisy of its title characters, its lazy introduction of comic book legends, and a Jesse Eisenberg performance that might be more at home in a superhero movie parody.
The first 10 minutes of the movie are everything you want them to be, but they’re the first 10 minutes to one of three movies happening inside this movie. When you’ve finally wrapped your head around the fact that Batman v Superman is all at once a Man of Steel sequel, a Batman reboot and a set-up for Justice League, and the titular duo still haven’t fought, not even an epic Wonder Woman cameo can save the remainder of the film.
19 Superman Returns
Likewise, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns toes the dividing line between fans and critics. Singer famously abandoned the X-Men franchise to kickstart his dream Superman project, and while casual moviegoers are quick to question his decision-making, its solid approval ratings give the impression that he made exactly the right call.
Looking at it objectively, there are strong cases to be made on both sides of the argument. The movie is too long, Brandon Routh is there for no reason other than to look like Christopher Reeve, while Kate Bosworth is unbelievable (in the most literal sense of the word) as Lois Lane.
Kevin Spacey, on the other hand, plays a captivating Lex Luthor, the plane rescue combines with John Williams’ score for a genuinely epic Superman moment, and the film deserves credit for skipping the obligatory origin story.
Let’s get this out of the way: as a comic book adaptation, Constantine is all over the place. The 2005 supernatural thriller couldn’t be further from its source material, ditching the British charm and dry wit of Alan Moore’s Hellblazer for an all-American gloomfest starring Keanu Reeves. Even mentioning the movie’s name is enough to offend readers of the comic, but as a straightforward, original piece, Constantine has a lot going for it.
Reeves turns in a customary Keanu Reeves performance, but the actor finds himself surrounded by a movie that embraces it. The noir presentation of modern LA suits the actor’s monotone delivery, and when the film descends further into the horror genre, director Francis Lawrence is clearly in his element. It loses points for claiming to be based on a comic at all, because there’s a standalone movie in here somewhere.
While its 2013 sequel doesn’t do it any favors, RED actually delivers a surprisingly good time, even if it does require a certain suspension of disbelief. Based on a miniseries by Homage Comics (owned by DC), RED gets by not on the strength of its plot (because there basically isn’t one), but on the sight of Dame Helen Mirren wielding a submachine gun.
Mirren and co-stars Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Morgan Freeman don’t seem to care that the movie they’re in is not as good as they are. In fact, RED is Willis’ most convincing performance in years, and his genuine chemistry with Mary-Louise Parker turns a generic action romance into the one relatable thread in a film that only gets more ridiculous the longer it goes on.
16 Batman: The Movie
It’s genuinely impossible to know where to rank Batman 66, whose tongue is planted so firmly in its own cheek that it’s poking out the other end. It has to miss out on the top 10 for being, frankly, not a good film, but it also has to make the list for... "Bat-shark repellent."
If there exists a comic book movie that is further departed from its source material, we’re yet to hear about it, but the fact is that Batman: The Movie is one of the funniest superhero movies ever made. Granted, the humor isn’t always on purpose, but Adam West and Burt Ward sell it so convincingly that you legitimately don’t care what is and isn’t meant to be funny.
It’s comforting to know that film studios have moved on over the years, but in the dark days of the DCEU, it’s just as comforting to know that an alternative like this exists in the world.
15 The Dark Knight Rises
46 years and seven theatrically-released movies later, things were looking a little bit different for Batman on the big screen. The Christopher Nolan trilogy rounds out with its darkest installment, and arguably its weakest, but that’s less a criticism of The Dark Knight Rises than it is praise of its two predecessors.
On the surface, the movie takes Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne to a place he’s never been: outmatched physically and questioning the need for his alter ego to ever have existed. The movie holds up on concept alone, and the action set pieces make the two-and-three-quarter hour run time entirely worthwhile, but they don’t quite manage to mask the uneven pacing that was absent in the previous two movies.
Overall, The Dark Knight Rises is a solid finale to the Nolan saga, but the title character just has one too many conveniences go his way in the third act for it to compare to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
14 Man of Steel
Not even a year after The Dark Knight Rises came the DCEU, with Zack Snyder the man given the responsibility of launching a shared universe for the studio. As is often the way in the comics, Superman was entrusted to lead the way for DC, but this version of the character just isn’t all that interested in saving lives.
While Snyder can’t quite get a grip on his lead character’s morals, he does inject the movie with the incredible visuals we have come to expect from the director. The action sequences are stunning-- more so than any previous Superman movie, and the film is so heavily stylized that it clearly set the tone for the Extended Universe going forward.
The origin story, though relatively bland, is a safe bet following the risks taken by Superman Returns, and there’s little doubt that Man of Steel is a step up from its hero’s last outing.
13 Road to Perdition
Coming off the back of American Beauty, director Sam Mendes’ next project would be an adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ graphic novel Road to Perdition, published under the Paradox Press branch of DC Comics. Tom Hanks stars as Michael Sullivan, whose crimes during his time in the Irish mob come back to haunt him, and the film depicts his efforts to protect his son from a similar fate.
If anything, Mendes is trying too hard to follow one Oscar-winner with another; Road to Perdition is not quite the crime masterpiece the director thinks it is, but Hanks and co-star Paul Newman are always on-hand to keep the film afloat. The credit for the overall critical success of the movie should lie with cinematographer Conrad Hall, whose imagery takes center stage in the final act, which features a grand total of six lines of dialogue.
No one was quite sure what to make of Watchmen when it debuted in 2009. With its exceptional run time, obscure comic characters and apparent lack of any star power, it’s only recently that critics seem to have settled on a verdict; that Zack Snyder spins an unadaptable comic book into a faithful and fascinating movie.
You don’t even have to like Watchmen to recognize how much Snyder cares about Alan Moore’s source material. Moore famously disowned the film without ever having seen it, but Watchmen is everything his graphic novel requires of it: explicit, unapologetic, and perfectly cast.
There’s no getting past the fact that it’s overly long, but it’s Snyder’s commitment to doing Moore’s comic justice that, ironically, would land him the Justice League gig several years down the line.
11 The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Movie doesn’t do quite enough with Batman to earn its own entry, but the Lego Batman follow-up tells a conventional Dark Knight story in the most pleasantly unconventional way possible. The Lego Batman Movie is stunningly animated, but it goes a step further, making use of its Lego backdrop to showcase a series of stunts that would be practically impossible to film in live action.
It also takes us back to the ‘60s, when Batman as a movie character didn’t take himself quite so seriously. At the same time, Lego Batman does what Batman: The Movie didn’t, with a surprisingly faithful take on the origins of Bruce Wayne, and obscure references (Condiment King, anyone?) to keep the comic fanatics satisfied.
For a film that could easily have come across as overly silly, The Lego Batman Movie is a reminder to everyone (filmmakers included) that a Batman adaptation can still be fun.
10 Batman Returns
After Tim Burton proved to Warner Bros. that he knew what he was doing, the studio offered him creative control for the 1992 sequel to Batman, and it’s instantly clear that Batman Returns is the movie the director was desperate to make from the start. The sequel is so overcome with gothic imagery that this particular Gotham City depicts the Batman as a symbol of fear better than any other Dark Knight movie, and only The Dark Knight itself rivals Batman Returns in lead performances.
Christopher Walken and Michael Gough are great in supporting roles, but it’s the Keaton/DeVito/Pfeiffer trio that defines Batman Returns. There’s a strong argument that each represents the definitive version of their character, with Keaton finding the perfect balance between Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, and Michelle Pfeiffer somehow outdoing all three iconic actresses to have played Selina Kyle opposite Adam West. DeVito has less competition, but it takes some serious chops to pull off a circus freak villain in the single darkest Batman movie of all time.
Batman isn’t quite as true to Tim Burton’s initial vision as Batman Returns, but its marginally lighter tone and understated sense of humor makes all the difference in its overall ranking. Prior to the movie’s debut, there hadn’t been a theatrically-released Batman film since 1966, and we all know how that turned out. Batman 89 was the perfect gateway into a new era of Batman movies, maintaining the fun of Adam West’s depiction, but at the same time taking itself entirely seriously.
Bruce Wayne is a brutally tortured character this time around, as Michael Keaton silences the 50,000 Batman fans who sent complaints to Warner Bros. over his casting. There could be no more perfect villain for this version of Batman than the Joker, who chips away at any sanity Bruce has left, and Jack Nicholson’s genuinely unhinged performance sets in motion a rivalry that has become one of DC’s greatest assets.
It seems strange to think that even in this modern age of special effects and endless possibilities, the movie to best capture the spirit of the Superman comics came almost 40 years ago. Richard Donner’s first Superman movie is innocent and heroic, and for everything that works in Man of Steel, the 2013 reboot is definitively neither of those things.
Christopher Reeve gives what is still the quintessential Superman performance, dispelling the myth that Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses and a different hairstyle by playing both characters with recognizably different personalities. On reflection, Gene Hackman is better than the dialogue he’s given by Godfather writer Mario Puzo, but the minor issues with story and performance are far outweighed by groundbreaking visuals and effortless charm.
7 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
A spin-off of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm blends the dark tone of Tim Burton’s Gotham City with animation for an altogether unique Dark Knight experience. The plot hits some familiar notes, as Batman is hunted for a crime he didn’t commit, but at its core is an emotional thread rarely associated with the character.
This all leads to a genuinely jaw-dropping reveal as the Phantasm is unmasked, and Batman is left dealing with a villain for whom he almost gave up the cape several years before. The backstory with Andrea Beaumont is as good as comic lore for some fans, who have universally accepted Phantasm as one of the most faithful Batman adaptations. Add the iconic voices of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and you’ve got yourself one of the best animated superhero films of all time.
6 V For Vendetta
The movie responsible for Alan Moore’s distaste for adaptations of his own source material, V for Vendetta is admittedly not for everyone, touching on controversial themes that Moore claimed were unfaithful to those of the graphic novel. But even at its worst, the Wachowski-written script is rapid and thought-provoking, while Hugo Weaving in particular gives a committed performance that allows you to fully identify with his masked anti-hero.
With the totalitarian world entirely realized by the final act, director James McTeigue allows events to descend into beautifully-structured anarchy (in every sense of the word). The film draws to a close with a slow-motion underground stand-off choreographed to perfection, and a display of urban destruction rarely captured in modern cinema. Ironically, V for Vendetta signs off as the single best adaptation of Moore’s work.
5 Wonder Woman
We’re not sure just yet how Wonder Woman will stand the test of time, but if anything bodes well for the future, it’s a current approval rating of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. The fourth DCEU entry and comfortably the best of the lot, Wonder Woman follows Diana Prince first through Thymescira, and then through America in the midst of the First World War.
While Chris Pine is fantastic in both scenarios, nailing the fish-out-of-water comedy and the drama of war in equal parts, make no mistake: this is Wonder Woman's movie. The lead character is left isolated in the past so as to avoid the inevitable Justice League distractions, and what follows is a character-driven piece in which Gal Gadot truly shines.
The underdeveloped villains that come with modern superhero movies keep it from being absolute perfection, but they highlight further the personal story that ensures Diana remains the best character in the DCEU. Most of all, Wonder Woman does the seemingly impossible, and makes an origin story feel fresh again.
4 A History of Violence
Starting out as another graphic novel from Paradox Press, A History of Violence was adapted into a 2005 movie directed by David Cronenberg. Only, Cronenberg had no idea that the script was based on a comic book, which is a glowing endorsement of John Wagner’s original story if ever there was one, and the movie itself comes across as so subtle and naturalistic that you can understand the director’s oversight.
The neo-noir thriller offers a deep character study on Tom McKenna (Viggo Mortensen), a quiet restaurant owner trying to keep his violent past a secret. The less you know about the explosive finale the better, but an Oscar-nomination for Josh Olson’s adapted screenplay is all the evidence you need that A History of Violence is a criminally underseen movie.
3 Superman II
For all the complaints that Superman is an overpowered, uninteresting character, there exists solid proof that Clark Kent can be one of the most compelling superheroes out there, and it’s called Superman II. Few comic book movies have pulled off the “what it means to be a hero” trope quite like Superman II, whose title character is caught between an early retirement with Lois Lane, and Terence Stamp’s iconic portrayal of General Zod.
On the surface, there is very little to separate the first two movies in Christopher Reeve’s series, with both sitting comfortably around the 90% mark on Rotten Tomatoes, but the sequel gets the nod for better understanding its protagonist. Incidentally, The Richard Donner Cut turns one of the best comic book sequels into one of the genre’s best ever movies.
2 Batman Begins
It’s no surprise that Christopher Nolan rounds out the top two, and Batman Begins is a lot closer to its sequel than you might think. For one thing, it resurrected the Dark Knight as a big screen presence following the potentially fatal Batman and Robin, but its impact on superhero movies as a whole is not to be understated.
It sets a tone that the DCEU is desperately trying to capture, and even the MCU has been caught taking notes from Batman Begins on how to tell an origin story, with 2016’s Doctor Strange the latest comic book film to hit a lot of the same beats.
But Batman Begins is one of the first and only superhero movies to balance two fleshed-out villains, subtly set up a pair of sequels, and at the same time tell possibly the most definitive origin story for its title character. Of all the comic adaptations since, none has quite found the balancing act that made Batman Begins so groundbreaking, and the Nolan trilogy so successful.
1 The Dark Knight
There’s very little to say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said. From a critical standpoint, the second act in Nolan’s trilogy is ranked as the single greatest comic book movie of all time, let alone in the world of DC, and it set the benchmark to which all other superhero films will forever be compared.
While Batman Begins tells arguably a tighter story, any inconsistencies in The Dark Knight serve only to highlight the erraticism of its villain. It’s no mistake that The Dark Knight is synonymous with Heath Ledger, who overturned impossible odds in transforming the Joker from one of Batman’s most iconic villains, to one of the most iconic villains in cinema history.
The Dark Knight is Nolan in his element, co-writing a script that scored Ledger the only acting Oscar to date for a comic book role, and directing in a style that forever broadened the possibilities of the superhero genre.
Agree with our list? Leave your favorite DC movies in the comments!