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Ranking the DC Extended Universe ahead of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’

Ranking the DC Extended Universe ahead of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’

Ranking the DC Extended Universe ahead of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’
February 04
12:00 2021

Minor spoilers discussed for all movies

This June will mark the eighth anniversary of the ongoing DC Extended Universe, DC and Warner Bros’s attempt to emulate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This franchise has had its ups and downs like any other but has also seen a far more drastic shift in the type of movies it puts out. Much like Superman, it’s got range. Then there’s the legendary “Snyder Cut.”

Let’s be clear here — Zack Snyder has outright said his time with the DCEU is over and that his beefy four-hour cut of “Justice League,” set to release March 18 for HBO Max, will not be part of it. However, considering it will feature some of the plots Snyder planned to explore in the unmade sequels, it will definitely be the culmination of the original ideas and themes that were driving these movies before DC and Warner Bros took a drastic course correction.

So, with that coming out in less than two months, it’s time to look back on what’s come before. Without further ado, here are all nine films of the DC Extended Universe from worst to best.

9. “Suicide Squad” 

Directed and written by David Ayer, the problems behind this colorful trash fire have long been dissected by people far smarter than me. The movie can’t decide between being a more character-focused war movie or a silly comedy, and the editing is schizophrenically incoherent and the characterization for everyone (including Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn) is shockingly weak and underpowered. Why it’s reliant on cliches, that’s not really the problem — it’s the fact the movie can’t find any way to execute them in any remotely satisfying way.

It’s not entirely Ayer’s fault “Suicide Squad” ended up getting mutilated into a poor man’s “Guardians of the Galaxy ” — that’s on the studio who took scissors to the movie during the editing process after the returns on “BvS” and the excitement over the “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer. Still, I don’t think I’m interested in a potential “Ayer Cut.” With “Guardians” filmmaker James Gunn set to release his own soft-reboot of the Squad later this year, this is one team better left dead and buried.

8. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, this grim, contemplative superhero thriller competed with “Captain America: Civil War,” blinked once and was knocked flat to the mat by the critical and audience reception. The sad thing is there are few things I like if not outright love about “BvS”: Ben Affleck’s uniquely weary performance as Batman, the debut of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Hans Zimmer’s electrifying score.

The warehouse sequence during the extended climax is still the best Batman action sequence on the big screen. However, just about everything else breaks down. To get to the actual title card fight, Terrio and Goyer rely on a mix of contrivance and convenience, undercook the focus on the superheroes’ alienation from the public and ultimately discard the potentially interesting political debate on the consequences of large-scale superhero violence.

While the “Ultimate Edition” does truly restore a lot of detail in the plot, it also bloated it quite a bit. The critical reception and box office returns ultimately made this the death-kneel for Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCEU. While he was still creatively involved for a while afterward, the emotional pain of a family tragedy and the executives’ getting cold feet towards him brought his role as the driving creative force behind DC’s shared movie universe to a close.

7. “Man of Steel

Directed by Zack Snyder and written by David S. Goyer, this is sometimes cited as among the best, if contested, of the DCEU’s offerings. I disagree because I found “Man of Steel” to not only mostly drag but an amazingly misguided misfire.

I do want to clarify that I don’t think this movie is bad because Snyder wanted a more “grounded” or different take on Superman. There’s nothing wrong with Snyder wanting to examine his more alien nature and relationship with humanity.  However, I found this take on Superman to be… spiteful. Henry Cavil has some charm as Supes, but I found the writing for him and both sets of his parents to be bizarrely selfish and hypocritical.

There are some pretty good bones here: Clark learning his powers, Amy Adams’s Lois Lane and again Hans Zimmer’s score. However, the movie really drags its feet for most of it, spending time on emotionally heavy-handed wangst, comparing Supes to Jesus and the sharp contrast and near-renaissance like camera precision Snyder’s known for feels lacking here. In contrast to his earlier stuff and “BvS,” “Man of Steel” looks like someone slapped a concrete filter over the camera.

Then there’s Pa Kent.  To simplify, he is borderline abusive. He’s trying to raise a demigod, yeah, but his lessons come off as not only poorly-thought-out and irresponsible, his death especially comes off as an attempt to win an argument against his son. There’s been debate about how the film presents him, but the musical flourishes in his death and dialogue in the sequel does try to cast him and his beliefs in a positive light, which is kind of yikes.

Snyder’s take on Superman’s origin ultimately set the early direction of not only the DCEU but the criticism surrounding it as well. While “Man of Steel” has its fans, I think it’s best remembered like Krypton — left in the past.

6. “Wonder Woman 1984” 

Directed by Patty Jenkins and co-written with Geoff Johns, this will probably be another controversial ranking. Most people think this movie is either okay or an overlong mess. I think it is very much a mess, but a glorious one at that.

As a sequel to a trailblazing and culturally important blockbuster, it’s a pretty standard case of “sequelitis.” While Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord and Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah are better villains than Ares, they’re not great. The action and special effects are somehow even less consistent than last time, pacing derails towards the end and the film’s focus on “truth versus lies” is pretty ill-fitting in the grander scheme of the big MacGuffin. Also, Steve’s resurrection is icky.

Yet, there’s is this weirdly charismatic undercurrent, with an earnest corniness to it all. When Gal Gadot’s improved performance as Diana Prince, it not only feels like it’s replicating the good-natured optimism of the old “Superman” movies with Christopher Reeves but the cheesiness of the original “SpiderMantrilogy from Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire. There are times where I actually liked the cheesy stuntwork and practicality on display.

Still, as a follow-up to one of the better superhero movies released last decade and a trailblazer for superheroines on film, it falls short. At least it implodes into something colorful.

5. “Justice League” 

“Justice League” was directed by Joss Whedon who co-wrote with Chris Terrio. You might ask, ‘This disjointed mess above Zack Snyder’s two big contributions?’ Yup. While I do hear the fans’ complaints above how executives supposedly screwed over Snyder, Ray Fisher’s allegations about how he was treated and how it was essentially pulled apart and glued back together in a couple of months like “Suicide Squad,” I find it hard to call it anything harsher than “just average.”

That’s this movie’s biggest sin — everything is “just average.” It’s okay. Ben Affleck is okay as Batman, Ray Fisher and Ezra Miller both entertain as Cyborg and the Flash, Jason Momoa is… kind of “meh” as Aquaman. Everyone’s fine. The effects are a bit haphazard, but they didn’t really pull me out of the movie. There’s just not much to say with this one, though I liked seeing Henry Cavil embrace a much warmer take on Superman.

Is this movie a bit of a mess? Definitely and the Whedon-bits feel like Whedon’s style has finally run its course. However, the fact he was able to pull this entire production together in just a couple of months when it very well could have been a disaster on a scale similar to the “Fantastic Four” reboot is an accomplishment itself. A minor thermodynamic miracle, if you will.

4. “Aquaman

Directed by James Wan and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall, “Aquaman” is the first DCEU movie that rises just above “okay.” Those first two acts are pretty uneven, but the final act is what brings the whole dish together.

Jason Momoa is honestly much more likable here and refined here as Arthur Curry, bouncing off of Amber Heard’s Mera and Willem Dafoe’s Vulko pretty well. On the villainous side, Patrick Wilson screams a lot as Ocean Master while Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is cool as Black Manta but very underused and underdeveloped. The dialogue is pretty uneven with some unconvincing improv between Momoa and Heard, but Momoa really cements himself as an entertaining superhero near the end.

It is an uneven movie, but it’s also gleeful like “WW84,” but in a way that’s wonderfully childlike and irreverent. Wan and the writers are also going for a distinctly retro throwback to old adventure movies like “Indiana Jones” and it’s a fun time. The camerawork is also pretty distinctive, with Wan having his own style when it comes to the action and the descent into the Trench is one of the most stunning shot scenes of the entire DCEU.

It’s dumb but endearingly dumb and I found myself cracking a smile to my own surprise.  If nothing else, “Aquaman” is the loud, friendly himbo of superhero movies.

3. “Wonder Woman

Directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Allan Heinberg, this is not only a cultural touchstone for women-led blockbusters but the first DCEU film that is pretty good. “Wonder Woman” not only had the unenviable task of proving superheroine movies could be great but that the DCEU could impress both critics and audiences four movies in. And it did exactly that.

Not only does Gal Gadot double down on her breakout role as a fresh-faced Wonder Woman, she also gets great chemistry with Chris Pine’s more cynical Steve Trevor and his band of for-hire guns. Jenkins also not only refuses to shy away from the horrors of World War I, she focuses on the more human moments between Diana and Steve, their friends and the spirit of hope Diana brings to no man’s land. It also helps the action is mostly solid if CGI-heavy.

Sure, the third act is very uneven and where the special effect failures really rear their ugly head, but it’s still a nice optimistic saga that was not only somewhat refreshing for its cinematic universe, but superhero movies in general. Nearly four years later, “Wonder Woman” is still a great journey worth endeavoring upon, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing to its destination.

2. “The Birds of Prey (and the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn)”

Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, this is definitely another controversial ranking for a pretty polarizing movie. Above “Wonder Woman?” You better believe it. Not only is Margot Robbie back as Harley Quinn, she’s the central protagonist, her breakup with the Joker leads to her having narrative agency and we get a top-of-his-game Ewan McGregor hamming it up as Black Mask. The Birds of Prey themselves are great, too.

Are there problems? Yes. The members of the titular team don’t get quite the individual focus they deserve, Cassandra Cain is blatantly an in-name-only character and the first act drags a bit, but the individual Birds still leave a mark and it’s fun seeing a more sunny, neon-lit side of Gotham we’ve never gotten to see before. The “neon-lit” part also shows how much harder Yan and Hodson are willing to embrace a more comic-book-inspired visual style than their predecessor.

It’s also solid as an action film. This is in part thanks to “John Wick” director Chad Stahleski supervising the action, leading to some of the best action sequences in the entire superhero genre.  The police precinct shootout, Huntress’s killings, the Carnival brawl, the climactic car chase, it’s also just handled so impeccably. There is hardly a single misedit or fumble during any action sequences, the car chase, in particular, being a standout just for how it progresses the narrative.

This is definitely a “Harley Quinn” movie first and foremost, but that’s not bad. It may have underperformed, but it’s still a great little movie, either on its own or as a much better sequel to “Suicide Squad.”

1. “Shazam!”

Directed by David F. Sandberg who co-wrote with Darren Lemke, “Shazam!” is far and away the best movie DC has put out in a long while.  More down-to-earth with a big heart of gold, “Shazam!” completely embraces its silly source material with childlike wonder while being unafraid to deliver some emotional goodies.

The best part is “Shazam!’s” hero, Asher Angel as Billy Batson with Zachary Levi as his alter ego. While both Angel and Levi explore what a kid would do if they could turn into a grown-up superhero, which would be stupid things, they also hold their own weight during the more dramatic moments. This isn’t without nuance, as not only does Sandberg and Lemke explore how Batson’s life as an orphan has affected him emotionally, but how he ultimately chooses to be good in spite of it.

The supporting cast is great, with Mark Strong doing a solid job as a surprisingly threatening Dr. Sivana, Jack Dylan Glazer is a scene-stealer as disabled-snarker Freddy Freeman and everyone else in Batson’s foster family is a treat to watch bounce off one another. The comedy also hits 90 percent of the time. “Shazam!” probably had the least going for it, yet it ended up excelling in every area, proving the DCEU was capable of great movies beyond “Wonder Woman.”

So, that’s all nine current DCEU films ranked. Some of these rankings may anger some people, but that’s okay. We’ve got the “Suicide Squad” coming this year if we don’t suffer any further delays, plus the Robert Pattinson-led “Batman” reboot in about a year. All-in-all, after a rocky start, things are looking up for a franchise that once seemed on the brink of death.

Courtesy Warner Bros.

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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