Sure, there are twentysomething Marvel movies that we could sort and rank and argue over. In fact, the good people SportsAlochol once tried this as a group, and we may circle back to the project one day. But you know what’s a lot easier? Ranking the extended-universe movies from DC Comics, which kicked off in 2013 with the Superman reboot Man of Steel, and now, the better part of a decade later, continue to wonder around, stumbling across various megahits, disappointments, and flops, sometimes, somehow, in the same film. In celebration of the DCEU’s first actual sequel, the brand-new Wonder Woman 1984 hitting theaters and HBO Max in the U.S. on December 25th, here’s one man’s rundown of the whole DC shebang, before The Batman comes out in 2022 and makes it all even more confusing. All your favorites are here: Wonder Woman! And others! Like Enchantress! Now please let this all last long enough for them to make a Starfire movie!
Every DECU Movie, Ranked
Finally, a comic book movie inspired directly by dorm-room posters of Taxi Driver and a passing familiarity with The King of Comedy! Yes, yes, I know this is its own thing that has nothing to do with your filthy funnybooks, because Todd Phillips is an artist and provocateur who had the absolute audacity to make a gritty, real-life Joker origin story. But ten is such a neater number than nine, and also, you lose 90% of your affected transcending-comics sensibility when your movie still makes time to depict onscreen for at least the fourth or fifth time the murder of Batman’s parents. Spiritually, this is right in line with Zack Snyder’s DCEU work, only it’s not as interesting to look at, doesn’t have Amy Adams, and has less to say. Joaquin Phoenix commits, because he always does, but seeing him bend and contort his frame after The Master only underlines what a total waste of fucking time this is by comparison.
9. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
By far one of the most misbegotten movies for which I own a three-hour director’s cut on Blu-ray, it actually pains me a little to put this movie so far down the list, because if I catch it on cable, most likely I will watch 10 or 15 minutes before shaking out of my stupor and demanding that I find something more valuable to do with my time, like re-reading ALF comics that my best friend gifted to me decades ago. But, look, there are things! I love Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I love that scene with Clark and Lois in the tub; helpful reminder about how Marvel movies are so defiantly unsexy that Ant-Man and the Wasp is a romantic comedy too abashed to even fully admit that sex exists. Ben Affleck’s surly, alcoholic, swole, self-loathing Bruce Wayne is objectively hilarious (and also perhaps cinema’s worst Bruce Wayne). It’s a classic rebooted superhero movie that steadfastly refuses to admit that it is wholesale ripping shit off from its predecessor, but if you’re going to watch a movie like that, better this than The Amazing Spider-Man. And Zack Snyder, who has never met an idea he couldn’t overwrite into muddy oblivion, is not an untalented image-maker. How he even got to direct half a Justice League after this is truly baffling, in a way that keeps me coming back to this movie.
8. Suicide Squad
It’s an ungodly mess cut to feel like a two-hour trailer, however: Margot Robbie and Will Smith run a master class in how movie-star charisma can provide a clear and graspable throughline. Granted, they ran this class already in the vastly superior con-artist movie Focus, but sometimes people want it done again, in superhero. Also: I legitimately think Margot Robbie approaches Hugh Jackman/Tobey Maguire/Chris Evans levels of distilling a potentially cartoony comic-book character into a workable live-action performance without losing any of the character’s essential qualities. Her “backwards in heels” is “in a confusingly plotted and cut to shit David Ayer movie.” Also, points for Killer Croc and Enchantress, because I am in charge of points.
7. Justice League
I saw this in 70mm. Did it make it look better? Probably not! It was shot digitally by two different directors! But a more smoothly fused version of Whedon’s heartfelt quipping and Snyder’s ultra-detailed digital inking would probably be right up my alley. Of course, that joining of the minds is, as we see here, pretty much impossible, and at the same time, kind of works as a lifelike Saturday morning cartoon. I dunno, there’s something to be said for a superhero team-up movie that’s less punishing than Batman v. Superman and, you know what, a lot less full of itself than Avengers: Infinity War. Justice League kind of sucking is a blessing in disguise, because no one on the internet will claim that it’s the culmination of everything we’ve been waiting for [[SnyderCut materializes]] OH NO
6. Man of Steel
At first glance, this wouldn’t appear to have much to do with the old Richard Donner Superman movie, due to it, say, having scenes where Pa Kent urges Clark not to become Superman whilst giving him to a tornado, but it does follow the Donner in one respect: The first half of the movie is kind of great (despite that Pa Kent stuff), and the second is kind of a letdown. Krypton done up as crazy high fantasy with Russell Crowe, Superman traversing the country as a hobo, Lois Lane knowing Superman’s secret identity right away because she’s a fucking investigative reporter… all very good stuff. But in contrary to the laws of the universe, things aren’t as good once the main character faces off against Michael Shannon (?!?!). Shannon himself is always a delight, and I do appreciate Snyder’s boneheaded but not exactly wrong attempt to visualize what it would be like if two figures with godlike powers just went absolutely nuts on each other for like several hours, but the effect is more numbing than thrilling, and the worst thing about Snyder is that he’d probably go on and on and on about how that’s the point, man.
It kinda feels like bullshit that I have this ranked as high as this, because it’s the only DC movie from this run so far that I do not own on Blu-ray. (I am anticipating owning Wonder Woman 1984 on Blu-ray.) But it would also feel dishonest ranking this below the miniSnyderVerse, because it is well-executed. It’s so likable, performance-driven, and drab-looking that it could almost pass for a Marvel movie. Honestly, the thing that makes me want to spite-lower its ranking is the number of times it was described as having heart. If a 35-to-45-year-old comics-oriented dude (and in this formulation, anyone can be a dude) describes a movie as having so much heart, there’s a good chance it’s making them feel things I want them to take a break from feeling.
4. Wonder Woman 1984
Superhero movies have become so recognizably templated that I’m now sometimes jolted to attention to one that merely throws back to different superhero movies than usual. The reference points for this sequel to (list spoilers!) the best post-Nolan DC movie are, for me, Spider-Man 3, in that it is overstuffed with earnest relationship-based melodrama that will make a lot of nerds uncomfortable, and Batman Forever, in that it is brightly colored and feels comfortable starting to crib from a campier TV incarnation of the character at hand. It’s also got some Richard Lester Superman sequels in there, with an opening sequence that’s practically a redo of Superman III, made more coherent. Yet director/co-writer Patty Jenkins is constantly striving to move away from the comics-movie insularity all of this implies; she wants to make a movie that reaches out to its audience, beyond their desire for superheroic spectacle (which, while not exactly absent here—there’s probably about as much action-y material as the first movie—is spread over a longer running time, rather than whipped into showstopping overkill), into our real world. There’s too much shoe leather involving solo scenes of Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord implementing his wacked-out evil plan for this to work as well as the original; for all of its magical, comic-book-y silliness, the pulp is far less streamlined this time around. But Gal Gadot and Chris Pine continue to make a winning, bittersweet pair, and in the end, even if the movie’s emotional currents require a lot of uncertain build-up, they do give the movie a certain admirable power. The thing is, it just has so much heart OH NO
3. Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
A movie that really brings home how important it is for these movies to have some kind of visual signature, even if it’s not sustained all the way through, Birds of Prey pops off the screen thanks to Margot Robbie’s star power, Cathy Yan’s energy behind the camera, and a handful of kickass sequences that put most of Zack Snyder’s action filmmaking to shame. A lot of the movie’s narration, time-scrambling, etc., is more irreverent than truly funny or even especially revealing; more Guy Ritchie than Quentin Tarantino, in other words. But hell, I’ll take Guy Ritchie (and isn’t it weird that he hasn’t made a WB-released superhero movie yet?), and unlike in Suicide Squad, the performers supporting Robbie are given interesting characters to play, especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s socially maladjusted Huntress and Ewan McGregor’s more broadly maladjusted Black Mask. Hoping for a sequel to a movie that is itself sort of a rejiggered sequel to another movie (which is getting its own, also-rejiggered sequel next year) seems foolish, so I’ll just say that I hope Harley, Black Canary, and Huntress keep popping up in DCEU movies for years to come.
In my middle age, I’ve become increasingly appreciative of expensive-looking fantasy boondoggles like Mortal Engines or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur. Aquaman is like one of those, but so heedless in its high-fantasy conviction that it transcends its own stupidity and becomes sort of sublime—a trickier and more impressive feat than self-mockery. It turns out that James Wan has been building to this level of daft muchness for much of his career, making fantasy-superhero extravaganza that overflows with perfectly bombastic, memorable images: Amber Heard’s impossibly fire-engine-red hair. An octopus playing the drums. Nicole Kidman dressed like the Predator. Black Manta jamming out to Depeche Mode. What a picture!
1. Wonder Woman
There are a limited number of superhero movies that I’d describe as genuinely moving, and Wonder Woman makes the cut, along with Logan and Black Panther. There’s a lot to love about it: the pulpy adventure tone that makes it a strong companion piece to Captain America: The First Avenger and the Indiana Jones pictures; the superhero romance that so few of these movies get right (DC may lack the numbers, popularity, or consistency, but it’s got the sexiness!); and, related, the crisp movie-star performances from Gal Gadot and Chris Pine; the inclusion of Spud from Trainspotting in a substantial role. But the moment everyone comes back to is the right one: Diana Prince, her horror at man’s inhumanity to man building as she tours the World War I trenches, finally breaking from her espionage task to answer Steve Trevor’s “this is not what we came here to do” with a simple mission statement: “No, but it’s what I’m going to do.” The No Man’s Land sequence that follows is one of the genre’s best, most stirring feats of superheroism. For all of the Zack Snyder fandom’s whingeing on about his high-minded, grown-up approach to superheroes, it’s the Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman that actually best articulates (and visualizes) the conflicts of attempting to place heroic idealism into the moral murk of our world.
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