DC’s Cinematic Universe has gotten off to an explosive start. Whether you’re thrilled or outraged by the darker, edgier versions of some of the most iconic characters in all of comics, you’re probably not bored by them. That has more than a little to do with an undeniable fact: every one of these characters has a deep, rich back story established over several decades in the pages of their respective comics.
There have long been debates among fans about whether comic book movies should faithfully adhere to their source material or be allowed to take dramatic creative liberties, and whether or not there’s a healthy middle ground. The DCEU has taken a fairly scattershot approach so far; some characters seem like they sprung directly off the page, while others are barely recognizable reinventions. With all of that in mind, here’s How 15 DC Movie Superheroes And Villains Compare To The Comics.
15 Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn’s path to becoming a household name is probably the most unusual among DC’s roster. She was actually created for a TV show (the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series), but the character formerly known as Harleen Quinzel has come a long way.
The breakout star of Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s take on the character was instantly iconic. Despite a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homage, the movie version’s hot pants and “Daddy’s Li’l Monster” t-shirt look bears little resemblance to the classic black-and-red jester getup of the comics (though it’s not too far off from her New 52 revamp in 2010).
In contrast to the visual differences, Harley’s origin as an Arkham Asylum therapist who falls for the Joker and becomes his devoted sidekick/girlfriend is right out of the pages of her earlier stories, particularly Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s one-shot Mad Love. Her association with the Suicide Squad is, again, a more recent New 52 occurrence in the comics, and it will be interesting to see if future movies allow her to at least temporarily let go of Mistah J and indulge in some adventures of her own like in her more recent comics.
KGBeast has one of the most ridiculous, over the top, amazing debut stories in all of comics. A covert assassin for the KGB (duh), Anatoli Knyazev was deployed by a secret cell of the Soviet agency in the closing days of the Cold War. He was sent to wreak havoc on United States officials in an effort to sabotage improving relations between the two nations. He ran afoul of Batman, who he pushed to the limits of his longstanding moral code with his ruthlessness. He cut off his own hand to avoid capture! His costume was awesome!
The movies, sadly, used absolutely none of this. Portrayed by Callan Mulvey in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Knyazev is just a glorified hired goon, carrying out Lex Luthor’s byzantine schemes with a permanent scowl. No cool costume, no ties to the KGB, no hand chopping. Mulvey does a perfectly serviceable job with what he’s given, but there’s just not much to the character. Ironically, his best moment is his fiery demise, which itself is an homage to another nameless henchman’s death in Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. You deserved better, KGBeast.
13 General Zod
Despite being created over 50 years ago and having been portrayed as the main antagonist in two big budget Hollywood movies, General Zod has never really been a consistent presence or well-defined entity in Superman comics. Despite a few well-intentioned creative pushes, Zod is usually the same guy in the comics: a cartoonishly evil survivor of Krypton who was banished to the Phantom Zone by Superman’s father, Jor-El. Comics Zod's always hell bent on universal conquest and vengeance against Superman.
The Zod of Man of Steel is a bit more nuanced. Portrayed with visceral rage by Michael Shannon, Zod actually agrees with Jor-El that Krypton is dying. Instead of advocating for the planet’s evacuation through the government like Jor-El, Zod attempts a violent coup, which fails (resulting in Jor-El’s death), and he’s again banished to the Phantom Zone.
Once he escapes, he’s not looking for generic conquest; he directs his army toward Earth, where he intends to use a genetic code hidden in Superman’s DNA to restart Kryptonian society on Earth. Evil? Absolutely. But it’s at least a fairly compelling motivation for a character who generally doesn’t rise much above the level of a mustache twirler.
12 Alfred Pennyworth
Batman’s most constant and loyal ally, Alfred is, in his own way, as iconic as the Dark Knight himself. The stoic, droll butler has been a near constant presence in Batman’s lore, always ready to serve Master Wayne a meal he probably won’t eat or offer a piece of advice he probably won’t follow.
Jeremy Irons’ version of the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, in some ways, a departure from his usual portrayal. On a purely physical level, Irons doesn’t much resemble the bald, rail-thin, mustachioed Alfred of the comics. He dresses a bit more casually, and definitely enjoys his booze more than one generally thinks Alfred would. He’s also decidedly blunter toward Batman; it reads more as a partnership between equals than a master/servant relationship (this take does owe at least a hat tip to Geoff Johns’ version of the character in Batman: Earth One).
Yet Irons still nails the essence of the character. This is unmistakably Alfred. Even as Batman is reaching the outer limits of his own moral code and facing threats he could never fathom, Alfred is his constant companion and, ultimately, his voice of reason.
11 Lois Lane
Lois Lane is unquestionably Superman’s most important supporting character and a pillar of the DC universe in her own right. It’s impossible to imagine Superman’s mythos without her. And yet, to this day, every version of the character in the comics has a fundamental flaw: she’s supposedly one of the best investigative reporters in the world, yet she can’t figure out the guy sitting next to her at work is the superhero she’s personally and professionally fixated on.
One of the most radical (and best) changes Man of Steel makes to Superman’s origin is having Amy Adams’ Lois know from the very beginning that Clark Kent is Superman. Not only does she know, but she figures it out through… wait for it… investigative reporting! And it’s not just that she knows Superman’s secret; she’s integral to him establishing his life both as the public hero Superman and the Metropolis beat reporter Clark Kent. It’s mind-boggling that, through all the reboots and relaunches, DC could never bring themselves to do this in the mainline comics. Not only does it enrich Superman’s origin-- it also makes Lois seem like a smarter, more crucial character.
10 Captain Boomerang
Digger Harkness is one of comics’ most celebrated scumbags. An early member of The Flash’s Rogues, he really came into his own in the 1980s run of John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. A thief, a murderer, and a racist, he was arguably the least trustworthy member of a team that wasn’t exactly brimming with virtue to start. He died a suitably ignoble death in the controversial Identity Crisis event series, shot by then-Robin Tim Drake’s father as Harkness was murdering him. He was revived during the Brightest Day mega-crossover, as despicable as ever.
Jai Courtney has a considerable amount of fun channeling his inner low-life playing Captain Boomerang in Suicide Squad. The scene where he decides to test the effectiveness of the explosive implants in the Squad members’ necks by manipulating Slipknot into trying to escape is lifted directly from the comics. Yet Courtney’s version of the character never really comes off as nasty as Harkness is generally portrayed in the comics. Sure, he’s a thief and a killer, but he doesn’t really turn your stomach. And let’s be honest: he’s just not the same without the scarf and funny hat.
Originally a Batman villain, Floyd Lawton has been largely defined in the comics as a cornerstone of the Suicide Squad. A misanthropic hitman with a death wish, Deadshot was the perfect instrument for Amanda Waller’s shadowy operations. More recently, he’s also been a member of the Secret Six, a group of amoral mercenaries with more than a passing resemblance to the Squad-- though without the ever present threat of Waller detonating their skulls.
Traditionally Caucasian in the comics, the casting of Will Smith in Suicide Squad was a stroke of genius. Smith, one of the most charismatic movie stars alive, was able to largely subvert his usual blockbuster personality to portray a guy who was fun to root for but, other than his devotion to his daughter, didn’t have a lot of redeeming qualities. The costume was mostly spot on, though his distressing lack of eye patch and sweet mustache are nigh unforgivable.
8 The Flash
It’s a good time to be Barry Allen. The Silver Age Flash was dead in the comics for over 20 years, replaced by successors like Wally West, the original Kid Flash, and Bart Allen, his grandson from the future (it’s complicated). Barry made his long-anticipated return to the living in 2008’s Final Crisis. He reclaimed his spot as the premiere Flash, and his popularity has only grown in the wake of the CW’s wildly successful show starring Grant Gustin as the scarlet speedster.
The decision to cast someone other than Gustin for the DCEU movies was met with some controversy, but so far Ezra Miller has shown he has a worthwhile take on the character. Considerably younger than the character is generally portrayed, Miller’s version of Barry is endearingly awkward and as eager to join the Justice League to make friends as he is to save the world. His armored, makeshift costume is a considerable departure from the source material, yet still features enough iconic elements to be identifiable as the Flash. One of these days DC is going to cast someone with Barry’s trademark blond hair, but until then, the role seems to be in good hands.
7 The Joker
Batman’s greatest foe and one of the most iconic characters in all of pop culture, the Joker has seen dozens of iterations just within the pages of the comics. He’s been a murderous bank robber, a cartoonish pie thrower, and a sadistic monster, but he’s always unmistakably the Joker.
The DCEU’s version of the clown prince of crime is, in some ways, the most radical interpretation of the character yet. No longer sporting his iconic purple suit, this Joker wears the garish, tacky garbs of modern wannabe mobsters, is covered in tattoos, his trademark grin obscured by a grill. Jared Leto cranks his performance all the way up to 11, giving us a Joker who is both theatrical and utterly unpredictable. Hi genuine devotion to Harley is not something you genuinely associate with the character in the comics; the level of abuse in their relationship has long been a point of controversy. Maybe we just caught him in a romantic mood in Suicide Squad.
The real test of this Joker, of course, is yet to come: his inevitable confrontation with Batman. How can you really judge a Joker who hasn’t stared down the Dark Knight?
6 Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is the most iconic female superhero of all time. While her comic origin has shifted over the years, the basics are usually the same: a native of Paradise Island, a community of Amazons, Diana encounters Steve Trevor-- a pilot who crashes on the island-- nurses him back to health, and returns with him to Man’s World where she decides to stay and become a freedom fighter.
Gal Gadot’s casting in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with some uncertainty: there were legitimate questions about her acting ability and experience, as well as less legitimate questions about her looks. Gadot’s brief appearance turned out to be one of the highlights of the movie. While her costume was a little more muted than usual, she brilliantly captured the spirit of the character, both as the regal, mysterious Diana Prince, and the fearsome, warrior Wonder Woman.
Our first glimpse of the Wonder Woman trailer suggests her origin will meld the best pieces of her Golden Age roots with the modern innovations of the New 52 (with a new World War I setting thrown in for good measure). After her brief, exciting turn in BvS, her solo outing is easily one of the most anticipated movies of 2017.
5 Lex Luthor
Superman’s greatest foe has gone through several different permutations in the comics: a mad scientist, a real estate mogul, even President of the United States. The most iconic take, however, is that of a brilliant billionaire businessman who resents Superman for making him feel like anything less than a god among men.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor actually embodies this version of the character pretty well. However, instead of the stern, intimidating mogul of the comics, this version is more in the mold of the 21st young tech billionaire: eccentric, socially awkward, self-obsessed, and with a terrible fashion sense. The mop of hair is also pretty unusual for Lex.
Easily the most polarizing casting of the DCEU so far, Eisenberg’s Luthor is a bit underrated. There are some who will always find his take too grating, but the surface differences actually make the character’s eventual reveal as an amoral monster more interesting. His daddy issues aren’t the most original backstory ever, but his unwitting ties to agents of Apokolips should make him a fascinating wild card moving forward.
Of all the DC characters currently getting a major push in the movies, the most surprising might be Cyborg. Vic Stone is a brilliant, athletic high schooler who is involved in a terrible accident. His father, Silas Stone, is a scientist at S.T.A.R. Labs, and is able to save Vic’s life through the use of experimental implants and prosthetics, which give him extraordinary abilities but leave him feeling robbed of his humanity.
Traditionally associated with the Teen Titans, Cyborg has only been a member of the Justice League since the New 52 reboot. The parallels between Vic Stone’s reality and the way we all live in the age of smartphones and other technologies we’re increasingly dependent on have been fertile creative ground.
As part of the New 52 reboot, Cyborg’s accident and rebirth have become closely tied to Apokoliptian technology, namely a Mother Box. The brief glimpse we see of Silas’ attempts to save Vic in Batman v Superman suggests this is going to carry over into the movies, and it seems safe to assume Cyborg will be crucial to the plot of Justice League, as the heroes battle the Apokoliptian general Steppenwolf.
Though he's long been the butt of lazy jokes, nobody’s laughing at Aquaman anymore. A founding member of the Justice League, Arthur Curry is generally portrayed as the half-human son of a lighthouse keeper and Atlantis royalty. He has such amazing abilities as superhuman strength, the ability to breathe underwater, and the ability to communicate telepathically with marine life.
Despite decades of comics, ranging in tone from magical swashbuckling to dark, violent soap opera, Aquaman has largely been defined in the public eye by the Super Friends cartoon. When people thought of Aquaman, they thought about the poorly-animated blond guy in the orange shirt who could talk to fish.
Jason Momoa’s casting has changed all that. Known for his striking performance as Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, Momoa’s Aquaman is a considerable departure from the iconic look of the character (though he does resemble the darker '90s reinvention of the character). No more blond hair, no more orange shirt, and if you ask him about talking to fish, you’d better be prepared for a fight (just ask Batman). Both Justice League and the upcoming solo Aquaman movie are sure to do plenty to readjust public perception of the rightful King of Atlantis.
The world's first superhero was also the first entrant into the DCEU. After the underperforming Superman Returns (largely an homage to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies), fans were ready for a cinematic Superman who took his cues more from the source material. In some ways, that’s what they got with Man of Steel. Henry Cavill is the spitting image of the farmboy from Smallville. Despite the lack of red briefs, his costume is also pretty faithful, with some tasteful modern upgrades. And unlike the previous big screen incarnation, Superman was more than ready for a fight when necessary.
Beneath the cosmetic similarities, however, are some controversial shifts in the character’s worldview. Perhaps most significantly, Jonathan Kent was no longer a proponent of his son using his powers to make the world a better place. This iteration of Clark's father was much more cautious, protective parent, whose love for his son manifested largely as fear of whether the world would accept him. This ultimately resulted in a version of Clark Kent who was unsure of himself and distrustful of humanity for most of his life before donning the iconic red cape. It’s a genuine departure for the character-- one that a lot of fans can’t get past. And while there's precedent in the comics for Superman killing Zod, the image of him snapping the rogue Kryptonian's neck is one that will always haunt this iteration of the character.
The caped crusader has long been DC’s crown jewel, and it always made sense that he’d be a cornerstone of the DCEU. Ben Affleck’s casting caused a kneejerk wave of outrage, but you’d be hard pressed to find many people who still feel he’s wrong for the role. More than any other live-action take on the character, Affleck’s Batman looks like he sprung directly off the page. His costume manages to find the perfect balance between comic book accuracy and not looking ridiculous in the real world.
Affleck’s Batman owes more than a little to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Both versions have been fighting crime for decades and have become tired and cynical. And while Miller’s version presented the most violent Batman up to that point, even that version wasn’t as casual about killing as Affleck’s, perhaps the clearest indicator that he feels like his mission has been in vain.
The DCEU version’s greatest innovation might be that Batman doesn’t learn about other superheroes until he’s much older, and instead of fueling his paranoia, they ultimately serve as renewed inspiration for him; that there might be a path toward redemption, toward justice, after all.
Which characters live up to their comics counterparts? Let us know in the comments!