Zack Snyder’s long awaited “Snyder Cut” of “Justice League” is upon us and while Warner Bros. has churned out some genuinely iconic movies featuring DC properties over the years, in the last decade they’ve rarely hit the same popularity as Marvel’s MCU. However, it’s important to remember that without DC movies there would be no MCU. While Marvel has dominated in recent years, DC made superhero movies legitimate starting with the original “Superman” film and later “Batman” before dominating the 90s and nearly sinking the genre in the process through some subpar efforts. Still, these movies, for better or worse, came to set the standard for what would become an entire genre based on comic book properties. While their DC Extended Universe has failed to shine as bright as Marvel’s universe of films, it was DC that provided the first mainstream big-budget successes based on comics that stand on their own as worthy pieces of cinema history.
While 2017’s “Justice league” is certainly not a good example of DC’s potential, the “Snyder Cut” is touted to be Zack Snyder’s magnum opus bringing together everything his DCEU movies were working towards. So what better time than now to examine what I think are the best DC movies up to this point. Today’s list will examine my personal ten favorite theatrically released live-action films based on DC properties. I chose to leave animated movies off this list because most of them were not theatrically released and of the two that were “Mask of the Phantasm” honestly wasn’t going to make the top ten and “The LEGO Batman Movie”, which was super fun, was more of a celebration of all things Warner Bros. as a whole. The rest of the animated lineup, which one could argue are the TRUE gems of DC’s movies, were mostly straight to video and honestly are worthy of a list all their own.
I know I’m bound to irritate someone with this ranking because, like most fanbases, DC fans are very passionate and personally I consider myself more a fan of Marvel properties so please remember this is just my ranking. Feel free to share your favorite DC movies in the comments and look for my review of the ‘Snyder Cut” coming soon! Let’s do this!
“Aquaman” was a true shot in the arm for the DCEU injecting humor, color and a true sense of fantasy into the series. Although its inclusion here is based somewhat on recency bias, it’s still a movie I go back to now and again for some mindless superhero fun and, with the help of a charming Jason Mamoa, it made Aquaman cool again. I also find the rivalry between Aquaman and Ocean Master to be one of the best hero-to-villain dynamics in recent superhero movies DC, Marvel or otherwise. Its dependence on the overused “King Arthur” mythology was also one of the more interesting takes on that legend in a span of years where it seemed like everyone was obsessed with squeezing some kind of relevance out of that kind of story. Overall, this is a middle of the road film but one of the more memorable recent entries in the DC library.
9. “The Dark Knight Rises”
Considered by many to be the worst in the Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy “The Dark Night Rises” was still a solid movie in its own right. Concluding Christian Bale’s time as Bruce Wayne, this film pitted Batman against Tom Hardy’s Bane and served as a solid final entry for the grittier take on one of DC’s most iconic heroes setting the bar for the darker tones that would follow in other superhero movies still to come. While it didn’t completely stick the landing I’ve always found value in this movie for advancing many of the themes and plotlines established in the first two films with all three combining to become one of the greatest and most complete film trilogies of all time. While the other two stand out a bit more, and I’ll touch on them later, “The Dark Knight Rises” still deserves a lot more respect that I think it tends to get.
This is the original iconic superhero movie. While the 1978 “Superman” film wasn’t the first movie based on a comic book or even Superman himself, it arguably paved the way for every superhero adventure that would follow and while it feels pretty dated by today’s standards its legacy alone earns it a spot on this list. Sporting the tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly” a lot of the tropes and clichés we have come to expect from superhero stories on the big screen were born with this film and countless scenes have become iconic and lasting pieces of cinema history. Superman himself has long been the quintessential example of a costumed hero and this live-action interpretation packed just the right touch of campiness and color to create the perfect tone and pave the way for an entire genre.
7. “Batman Begins”
Batman’s origin story has been told so many times it’s not even funny, but Christopher Nolan’s retelling of Bruce Wayne’s beginnings as a crimefighter set the stage for a darker, more grounded approach to comic book films in the late 2000s and sparked his iconic trilogy. “Batman Begins” might not be as memorable as a lot of the Bat’s other film appearances, but it holds its own. Christian Bale’s Wayne faced off against Ra’s al Ghul and the Scarecrow in a fight for the soul of Gotham City that showed that superhero and comic book movies didn’t have to be “kid’s stuff” and could take themselves more seriously. Still, it’s worth noting that it wouldn’t be as memorable if it weren’t for its iconic sequel and is often overshadowed by a different gritty Batman movie from the 1980s.
6. “Wonder Woman”
I’ll admit this film hasn’t aged as well for me and maybe benefitted from actually providing some quality at a time where the best the DCEU had to offer was the divisive “Man of Steel”. Still, “Wonder Woman” is a truly good movie and even allowed DC to beat Marvel to the punch by debuting their female-led solo film first. Gal Gadot portrays Princess Diana as we see her embrace her destiny as Wonder Woman during World War I where she tries to hunt down the God Ares. Filled with heart and some awesome special effects and subtle, but meaningful and iconic moments “Wonder Woman” served as a solid standalone movie and set a high bar for everything the DCEU would churn out from that point forward. Too bad the 2020 sequel wasn’t anywhere near as good.
I’m not going to lie, the 1989 “Batman” movie is a classic, but it just hasn’t aged well for me especially with the “Dark Knight” trilogy to look back on. However, it’s hard not to respect what this movie meant for comic book films. While this wasn’t “Batman’s first appearance on the big screen, the previous film was a campy take on the Adam West series in the 60s. Director Tim Burton brought the dark atmosphere of Gotham to the screen in a new way with his special artistic touch while Michael Keaton proving doubters wrong by becoming possibly the most iconic live-action version of Bruce Wayne while Jack Nicholson was the perfect Joker. While I enjoyed “Batman Returns” and find at least some lasting fun from “Batman Forever”, the 1989 “Batman” is the best film to come from that era of DC and is arguably one of the most important films of its time for setting the stage for an entire genre to thrive in the 90s
4. “Superman II”
Whether it’s the original cut or the Richard Donner cut, the second “Superman” movie upped the ante in every way becoming one of the most iconic superhero films of all time with good reason. While its predecessor set the standard for the genre in many ways, “Superman II” defined what a superhero movie sequel should be by introducing more powerful villains and improved effects to the franchise. This time around Superman faces off against the iconic General Zod who teams with Lex Luthor to end Superman once and for all. The way this film explored Clark Kent’s dual life as a superhero and normal everyman is intriguing for those looking for deeper context in their comic book movies while the action was great fun for its time. Overall “Superman II” was the high point of the first true superhero franchise of cinema and while this series was never my favorite I have to give respect where it’s much deserved.
A movie that usually sparks mixed reactions from fans, “Watchmen” is in my opinion one of, if not the best movie Zack Snyder has directed to date. Taking the graphic novel many felt was unfilmable and making just enough creative changes to produce a compelling story, “Watchmen” explores an alternate history where superheroes were abundant and were used as tools for the government before being outlawed. Now those same heroes appear to be targeted by an unknown assailant bringing the titular group back together to solve the mystery. I have always felt this film was perfectly cast and the heroes extremely memorable with unique personalities and perspectives that challenge each other and the idea of what it means to be a hero in a dark reality. I can also appreciate the finale, which was infamously changed from the source material, that offers up complicated questions of morality. Visually stunning and thought provoking, “Watchmen” has always been an acquired taste but one I love to return to time and time again.
Not every fan appreciates what this 2019 Oscar winning film had to offer but it remains a personal favorite of mine. “Joker” took Batman’s most well-known and complex enemy and humanized him by deviating from the source material to tell a unique origin story for the clown prince of crime with Joaquin Phoenix winning an Oscar for his work in the lead role. This film’s exploration of the downtrodden of society and the effects of mental illness proved to be pretty daring and uncompromising, mixing violence with a gritty sense of humor and style to create something so familiar yet so unique at the same time. A unique comic book-inspired film with great subtext, “Joker” ignored the bombastic style most comic book movies embrace in favor of something more grounded in a reality not unlike our own. It might not be everyone’s favorite, but I still find a lot of value in it and highly respect what it tries to do with one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time.
1. “The Dark Knight“
The middle film in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy is often touted as not only one of the best DC movies ever, but possibly the best comic book movie of all time. Taking all the promise of Nolan’s gritty Gotham and doubling down on it, “The Dark Knight” is an action-packed thrill ride complimented by one of the greatest villain performances in cinematic history with Heath Ledger redefining The Joker. This movie is just as fun and engaging today as it was back in 2008 having aged spectacularly thanks to its challenging ideas that are universally relevant and its use of practical effects to pull off many of the stunts. When people think of DC movies this is often the first one that comes to mind with good reason. It’s as perfect as a comic boom movie can get while also being its own thing. It’s the obvious choice, but there’s a reason so many people agree with me that this is the pinnacle of DC’s live-action filmography.