Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has to be one of the most divisive films in the history of live-action superhero cinema. The first to bring DC’s two most popular characters together on the big screen, this second installment in the expanded DC Cinematic Universe had fans foaming at the mouth after its release earlier this year. Many fans loved it, others absolutely hated it. Critics eviscerated it, and many news outlets declared the film a flop… yet it cashed in at close to 900 million dollars. With a budget of around 250 million, the numbers scream “success” despite the reviews saying “failure”, even after factoring in the film's sizable marketing costs.
In fact, Batman v Superman ended its run in theaters as the fourth highest grossing DC movie ever, taking into account both inflation and the worldwide box office. In real numbers (not adjusted) it comes in third place – domestic and worldwide. Clearly the figures aren’t everything – but they are interesting. Box office success, far more than fan and critic response, decides whether or not a film will get a sequel. At the end of the day, ticket sales ultimately determine the viability of a franchise. After all, studios are in it for the money, even if the cast and crew are doing it for the art. So where do the rest of the DC movies rank when it comes to cold, hard, cash? We’ve pulled together the top fifteen earners of all time, and the results may surprise you…
Note: This list was created with the help of figures from Box Office Mojo, but they're not an exact science. All totals are adjusted for inflation and based on worldwide box office numbers, unless otherwise stated.
15 Watchmen (2009) - $213,912,372
Like Batman V Superman, Watchmen is a polarizing film for many DC fans. This live-action adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel is dark, gritty, and violent – attributes that garnered as much praise as criticism. Although the film captured the tone of the comics brilliantly, it was something that superhero fans hadn’t seen before. Watchmen definitely lacks the optimism and simpler dynamic of good vs. evil that fans of Superman expected from something with the superhero label, and it led to quite a bit of controversy around the film.
However, as the genre continues to develop and expand to allow for purely adult-oriented superhero films, Watchmen is increasingly recognized as a fantastic DC film. Many argue that if it were released today, Watchmen would do even better at the box office, as fans are more welcoming of superhero stories with lots of sex and violence (*cough Deadpool), but even in 2009 it managed a respectable $185 million worldwide, bringing it safely into the bottom spot on this list.
14 Green Lantern (2011) - $240,089,678
Universally considered to be a terrible film, even by star Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern still manages to scrape into the top fifteen. Part of this is undoubtedly due to Reynold’s star power, as the Canadian actor has definitely become a big box office draw. However, another reason for Green Lantern’s almost respectable take was the timing.
In 2011, Marvel was already well on its way to building the MCU as we now know it, and comic book fans were hungry to see fresh new characters in live-action. For many years, DC stuck with their big two – Batman and Superman. Hal Jordan was a breath of fresh air, and superhero fans were excited to see someone new on the DC side of comic book movies. Sadly, the terrible reviews (combined with even worse responses to Jonah Hex and Catwoman, and mediocre reactions to Constantine) were a factor in DC’s decision to shelve new characters in favor of more Batman and Superman movies for another few years. The DC universe is finally expanding again, however, and this time it looks like they are going to do it with a bit more care.
13 Constantine (2005) - $311,928,509
The third (and final) non-Batman/Superman movie to make it into DC’s top fifteen, the foreign box office made all the difference in the world for Constantine. If we were considering domestic figures, this story of the supernatural anti-hero in a trench coat wouldn’t have made it onto the list at all (Superman III would be occupying this space instead). However, fans outside the US were surprisingly enthusiastic about the film that bombed domestically, not even covering its budget.
Like Green Lantern, Constantine is a movie that was helped along hugely by the star power of the lead (in this case, it’s Matrix star Keanu Reeves). Shia LeBouf also appears as Constantine’s sidekick, but this was before he shot to fame with Transformers, so it’s fair to assume that his role had little impact on the numbers. Many comic fans were disappointed to see Reeves as John Constantine, as he bears little physical resemblance to the blonde, British character. Others weren’t even aware that the film was based on a comic book, as Hellblazer wasn’t as well known as the more iconic DC figures that we had seen in movies before. Still, the film pulled in respectable numbers, though it didn’t perform quite well enough to warrant a follow-up.
12 Batman & Robin (1997) - $449,427,816
The fourth Batman movie of the ‘90s, Batman & Robin has gone down in history as one of the worst superhero movies ever made -- it ranks dangerously near the bottom of our own ranking of DC Comics films -- but that didn’t stop it from doing extremely well at the box office.
Preceded by Tim Burton’s incredible Batman and Batman Returns, and Joel Schumacher’s reasonably successful Batman Forever, moviegoers were loving Batman and came out in droves to see the Dark Knight’s latest adventure. Sadly, however, the ticket sales did not reflect the general opinion of the film. Despite bringing Batman (George Clooney), Robin (Chris O’Donnell), Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) together, Batman & Robin was critically panned, and it became best-known for its somehow increased use of the Bat-nipple!
Still, the popularity of the character gave the movie the third highest opening weekend of the year, and overseas ticket sales boosted more lackluster domestic earnings. It didn’t make quite enough to reach the top ten, but Batman & Robin still did pretty solid business for such a critical flop.
11 Batman Begins (2005) - $505,574,681
The first film in the incredible Dark Knight Trilogy, many may be surprised that Batman Begins doesn’t sit a little higher on this list (it does sit a little higher, at the number ten spot, on the adjusted domestic grossing ranking). Introducing Christian Bale as Batman and Christopher Nolan’s incredible vision of Gotham and its protector, the film provided a new take on Batman’s origin story.
Although the film doesn't now break DC's top ten, when it opened in theaters, Batman Begins held the top spot in its opening weekend, claimed the top spot for DC’s Batman franchise ticket sales, and broke the five-day opening record in IMAX theaters. Accolades followed ticket sales, with an Oscar nomination and multiple awards for the film. Although the film did well, it may not have achieved the kind of numbers that the top entries on our list did because fans didn’t know what to expect from a totally new Batman movie. Some of the films from the ‘90s (and 1989, of course) were excellent, others were awful. The reception for this new film was therefore a little cooler than it may have been had all previous films been unqualified success stories.
10 Superman Returns (2006) - $517,063,072
Brandon Routh’s brief outing as Clark Kent opened to mixed reviews, and this version of the Man of Steel is often dismissed or forgotten in favor of the classic Christopher Reeve or the current Henry Cavill iterations of the character. Originally intended to start a new franchise, Superman Returns forgoes the usual superhero origin story in favor of an established Superman returning to Earth after a prolonged absence – and dealing with the fallout.
Although reviews were largely positive, many felt that the film was a little too glum and cerebral, and that it would have been vastly improved with more action and less introspection. Still, the movie had a great opening weekend at the box office, and set a new record for Warner Brother’s top earning film (a mantle previously held by Matrix: Revolutions). Despite doing well internationally, the domestic performance wasn’t all that fantastic (not even breaking the top ten adjusted domestic grossing DC films), and WB wasn’t impressed with the film’s performance. Although a sequel had been previously announced, the project was delayed multiple times before eventually being scrapped in favor of a reboot.
9 Batman Returns (1992) - $556,790,744
Tim Burton’s follow up to 1989’s Batman set the Dark Knight up against two villains, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Although Burton deviated hugely from the comics when it came to these two character’s backstories, it didn’t much matter to comic book fans. The film was so well done that audiences didn’t just forgive the changes – they embraced them.
Burton’s Catwoman has become absolutely iconic, with her patched-together PVC suit constantly referenced and reproduced in pop culture. The film was so well-received that it is often considered superior to 89’s Batman, despite being its sequel. Batman Returns performed very well at the box office as well, becoming the record holder for highest opening weekend (which obviously also gives it the title of highest opening weekend in ’92). The film was also the third highest grossing film of the year domestically, and adjusted for inflation, it remains the sixth highest (domestic) grossing DC film ever, raking in just under 400 million. Still, Warner Brothers hoped that it would perform even better, and decided to continue their Batman movies with a new director and a lighter, more family-friendly tone.
That...didn't go so well.
8 Superman II (1980) - $593,072,019
An absolute classic when it comes to the superhero genre, the 1980 follow up to Superman, Superman II sees Clark Kent reject his powers in order to be with Lois Lane, not knowing that the villainous Kryptonian Zod is on his way to Earth. The film suffered delays and production issues, and Richard Donner (who directed Superman) ended up leaving the movie in 1979. A second director, Richard Lester, was brought in to replace him – a decision that was not universally liked.
However, when the film did make it to screens, it was a resounding success. Buoyed hugely by the popularity of Superman, the film’s release was met with critical acclaim and huge box office figures. Superman II was the third highest-grossing film of the year, and had the highest-grossing opening weekend ever (although that honor has long since passed on to other movies). It's interesting to think about how the film may have done had Donner remained on with the production, and fans can now watch a "Donner Cut" of the film for comparison.
7 Batman Forever (1995) - $669,963,767
Although Schumacher’s first offering within the Batman franchise is generally considered to be a significantly worse film than its predecessor (the Tim Burton-directed Batman Returns), it earned significantly more cash. Batman Forever, starring Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne, Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent and Jim Carrey as the Riddler, was Warner Brother’s attempt to create a more family-friendly Batman movie. Burton’s efforts, though critically acclaimed and beloved by adult fans, were criticized for being “too dark” for children (and superheroes were still very much considered children’s characters at this point).
Though it was certainly more child-friendly, Batman Forever was not more critic-friendly, and most considered the film colorful… but misguided. However, when it comes to ticket sales, Batman Forever was a definite success. The star power of Jim Carrey, Val Kilmer and Tommy Lee Jones made for a solid triple threat, and the popularity of previous Batman movies led to a record breaking opening weekend (taking the title of highest opening weekend gross away from Jurassic Park).
Financially more successful than Batman Returns, Batman Forever led to the cartoonishly bright follow up Batman & Robin, as WB attempted to keep making the franchise brighter and more kid-appropriate.
6 Man of Steel (2013) - $711,595,841
Another hugely polarizing film for DC, the first film in the new DCEU may have disappointed many fans, but it was no disappointment in terms of ticket sales. Man of Steel rebooted the Superman character, replacing Brandon Routh with Henry Cavill, re-working the hero's origin story, and finally putting the Man of Tomorrow's underwear inside his pants.
Director Zack Snyder introduced us to a darker version of Superman, with muted colors and a new violent temperament – a choice that had (and still has!) many fans furious. Despite being the first film in a franchise and a reboot, Man of Steel dominated at the box office, earning over $668 million worldwide at the time. To date, it is DC’s highest earning solo Superman movie (excluding Batman v Superman as a team-up film, and not adjusting for inflation). However, box office numbers dropped dramatically in the second week, as negative reviews nearly outweighed the positive ones, and although the film earned WB a decent little profit, that’s still not quite enough to bring it into DC’s all-time top five.
5 Batman v Superman (2016) - $872,662,631
DC’s most recent offering (until the highly anticipated Suicide Squad hits our screens this weekend), and the follow-up to Man of Steel, Batman v Superman had a pretty successful run at the box office despite polarizing moviegoers in unprecedented fashion. The team-up movie brings Henry Cavill back as Superman, in addition to introducing multiple other members of the cinematic Justice League – including Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
With Snyder directing, the film is another dark and gritty superhero movie, something that many critics felt to be overplayed at this point. Gorgeous fight scenes weren’t balanced out by a coherent-enough plot, but the film still raked it in at the box office – which bodes well for upcoming films in the DCEU. Although the film never quite make it into the one-billion club, it pulled in over $870 million worldwide, with a large proportion of that coming in from overseas markets, proving that domestic grosses are not always an indicator of box office success. Advance ticket sales accounted for a huge opening weekend, but sales took a previously unimaginable drop in week two – of over 80%.
4 Batman (1989) - $897,300,172
Tim Burton’s first outing with the Caped Crusader is an absolute classic, and its incredible financial success lands it squarely in the top 5. Introducing Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Batman became DC’s second superhero movie to win an Oscar. Although some fans disliked the changes made to comic book lore (the murder of the Waynes by the Joker, rather than Joe Chill, for example) and some viewers disliked this dark new take on a superhero character, the vast majority praised the film in a major way.
Another record-breaker at the box office, Batman became the first film to earn over $100 million within ten days of release, and held the top spot for DC films for many years (unadjusted for inflation). The movie also led to no less than three sequels; a second with Burton at the helm, followed by two Schumacher-directed films, all of which made this list of top earners. Despite all that, many still feel that the film’s greatest legacy is the cartoon series that it helped inspire, Batman: The Animated Series. Encouraged by the huge success of Batman, WB decided to create the show, which subsequently launched the entire DC Animated Universe.
3 Superman (1978) - $1,111,063,263
In third place is one of the first DC live-action movies ever made (after the 1960s Batman, and the ‘50s Superman and the Mole Men), which means that inflation accounts for almost 700 million of the total listed above. Christopher Reeve embodied the titular character in every way imaginable, and would remain in the iconic role for three sequels (not appearing in the disastrous spin-off movie, Supergirl).
A straightforward plot that introduces love interest Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), the film brought Superman to life in all his action-packed and optimistic glory, and it was an immediate success. Superman became Warner Brother’s most successful film to date, and was the second highest-grossing film of the year (the hit musical Grease beat it to the top spot). The film won a Special Achievement Award at the ’79 Academy Awards, and was nominated for an additional three Oscars that year. Often appearing on lists of the greatest movies of all time, Superman remains one of the most successful superhero films ever made – and with good reason.
2 The Dark Knight Rises (2012) $) 1,180,348,316
In the number two spot, we have the conclusion of Nolan’s Batman trilogy – The Dark Knight Rises. The second Batman film to pass the billion-dollar mark (pre-adjustment), The Dark Knight Rises was the third-highest-grossing film of the year. It currently ranks as the 17th highest grossing movie of all time, and it remains in the top five highest grossing superhero films ever made.
Christian Bale returns for the final time as Bruce Wayne, facing off against Tom Hardy’s incredible Bane and falling in love with not one but two of DC's beloved leading ladies. The star-studded cast and successful franchise are not the only reasons for The Dark Knight Rises’s phenomenal success, though. Like the two that came before, the film is absolutely stunning – ambitious, spectacular, thoughtful and action-packed in a perfect balance; the ideal wrap up to this near-perfect trilogy. There is no doubt that it deserves the critical acclaim it received, but with the DCEU really starting to expand their commitment to making even more superhero movies, we may see the top three changing in the very near future.
1 The Dark Knight (2008) $1,211,626,201
And the coveted top spot goes to... the second installment in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The Dark Knight is also a multi-award winner (including one Oscar and eight Academy Award nominations), the highest grossing film of 2008, and one of the highest grossing films of all time (currently holding 26th place).
The stunning return of Christian Bale’s Batman pitted him against the Joker – the undeniable star of the film, played by the late Heath Ledger. Ledger won an Oscar for his incredibly powerful and dark portrayal of the Crown Prince of Crime, one of over thirty awards for the performance, which many consider to be the best ever live-action version of the character. Sadly, however, this incredible film is remembered as Ledger’s last completed project, with his awards won posthumously, as the actor died of an accidental overdose shortly after he finished filming. As tragic as his death was, The Dark Knight remains its legacy as perhaps the greatest superhero film of all time. It's DC's finest work by a long shot, in our opinion.
What's your favorite DC film of all time? Which of these films do you think deserved to be bigger hits at the box office? Let us kn
Suicide Squad is scheduled to arrive in theaters on August 5, 2016, followed by Wonder Woman on June 2, 2017; Justice League on November 17, 2017; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; an untitled DC Film on October 5, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; an untitled DC film on November 1, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020. The Flash and Batman solo movie are currently without release dates.