The film legacy of DC Comics should never be understated, even as the maturing superhero genre continues to follow more diverse paths of success through comic book characters beyond DC's iconic catalogue.
But not all DC movies are created equal, and there's merit to reflecting on how these films measure up against one another as the DCEU approaches its fourth movie in the form of a solo Wonder Woman (and the crowd said, finally). This list attempts to do just that by holding every DC movie released in theaters to a consistent set of worthwhile standards, including the quality of the film itself, the onscreen performances, cultural relevance (both within and outside of box office considerations), overall impact, contributions to the genre at large, and originality.
Put more simply, a movie on this list won't trump another on ticket sales, alone (or at all). But perhaps you'll find an experimental DC film getting the leg up over another that is slightly more formulaic and unremarkable, despite being remembered fondly.
For obvious reasons, it's perfectly alright to disagree with this list, but keep in mind that expecting it to coincide with your personal opinions and observations will only leave you disappointed. That said, be sure to offer your own arguments and lists in the comments for others to weigh their opinions against, because...well, why not?
Let's start with the worst of the DC films (not an easy task), which is:
In 1984, this spin-off of the successful Superman movies was a massive failure in every way imaginable. Audiences rejected it out of hand for its incompetent storytelling, dialogue, and cheap-at-best effects. Worse, it squandered the potential of a much-needed superheroine film, souring any chance of getting another one for too long a time.
#32 Jonah Hex
Even the worst films are at least somewhat watchable, but Jonah Hex is as far away from that standard as you can get. Its troubles mostly consist of a rushed script, incoherent character motivations, and the apparent decision to make this film without any real oversight or revisions. On the bright side, though, the character wasn't squashed forever thanks to DC's Legends of Tomorrow series.
#31 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
At this point in the list, we're just looking at movies that are laughably bad enough to poke fun at. In this case, it's somewhat depressing to hate-watch Quest for Peace, possibly the worst-case scenario for Christopher Reeve's final movie as Superman and an utter catastrophe case study in how visual effects can actually get remarkably worse despite the movie releasing nearly a decade later after the original.
The biggest offense when it comes to Catwoman (aside from the obvious) is the clear lack of appreciation for the source material. It eschews every fundamental trait of what makes the villain/anti-heroine so endearing in exchange for lame cat puns, gaudy outfits, and lame cat puns (seriously, this warrants being repeated).
This other 1997 travesty is what happens when superhero movies are brazen about their true purpose: merchandising. Steel was likely made to be bad on purpose, worrying only about how many Shaq fans could be duped into wasting their time on a superhero film that makes TV-movies look like Oscar contenders.
#28 The Losers
It's a shame The Losers forgets why its characters call themselves losers in the first place: to honor the fallen heroes (or the real ones) they've been forced to replace. For that reason and also the disappointing performances from a fantastic cast, this boring and brainless adaptation is nowhere near as good as it could or should have been.
#27 Batman & Robin
For some, this Joel Schumacher abomination of the legend himself falls within "So bad, it's good territory," but even that mild praise is muted by the amount of sheer damage Batman & Robin did to superhero movies in general, let alone Batman. Going further, you can even make a decent case for not moaning this movie's existence thanks to how it essentially brought about Batman Begins almost a decade later.
#26 The Return of Swamp Thing
One of the critical sins of this painful sequel is how outwardly it chews on the decent energy and imagery of its predecessor, constantly worrying viewers that the innocent fun they had watching Swamp Thing might have been a fluke. Fortunately, most people acknowledge the obvious, which is that this unfunny, poorly made 80s flick isn't bad enough to make Swamp Thing worse.
#25 Superman III
The saddest thing about this third entry in the Superman movies is that most people didn't see this train wreck coming. It's also one of the weirdest films on this list, believe it or not, in how it thoroughly trades the spectacle and wonder of the first two films in favor of tonally distant comedy and silliness that is a little too faithful to how the comics for Superman were much the same.
#24 Green Lantern
There are plenty of essential problems to pick apart with Green Lantern (the basic CGI work, for starters), but one important thing to point out is how hollow a film can truly come across to just about everyone when its very existence is so obviously forced out of a desire to capitalize on a genre, not out of a passion for the intriguing characters and fascinating lore.
#23 Batman Forever
It's tempting to give Forever more slack for essentially preluding its even worse sequel, but at the very least, it contained some intertextual delights involving the live-action depiction of a modern Robin and other mildly enjoyable moments with the supporting cast (well, some of them). If only Schumacher and his team could have wrapped some of these highlights in a decent script or visual sense.
#22 Batman: The Killing Joke
There's adapting pages to screen and then there's The Killing Joke, which offers nothing extra or significant to the iconic book except to include wildly inappropriate fan-fiction concerning Batgirl in an uninteresting subplot that inexplicably takes up half of the film. And even once the story gets around to bringing out the Joker, we're still left with a stiff, jittery animation style that distracts from the joy of hearing the legendary voice actors do their thing.
#21 Red 2
Overall, this sequel to the adaptation of Warren Ellis's comic series featuring retired CIA operatives isn't bad by any means. The characters are still good in their own right, and the one-note premise of the original is carried over to decent effect. But the sequel is almost too reminiscent, even with some refinement, making Red 2 feel more like a boring retread than anything else.
#20 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Billed as an event movie before it even seemed to earn that right, Dawn of Justice mashes some viscerally interesting moments of spectacle with an incoherent narrative that managed to divide moviegoers on some of the most passionate sticking points they could latch onto. Credit where it's due, not very many superhero movies are able to elicit such a positive (or negative) reaction out of so many people.
*Note: We're only including theatrical releases for the purposes of this list for the sake of keeping it simple, so Ultimate Edition has no sway on this ranking. Though even if it did, the points it would gain from better explanation of perceived plot holes would likely get canceled out by an overlong runtime and existing issues within the film's latter half.
#19 Swamp Thing
Wes Craven's slow burn of a science fiction horror movie is a true testament to how time can alter the perception of a movie. Probably made long before it would have been more widely appreciated, Swamp Thing is one of the ultimate DC movie guilty pleasures and worth giving a second look if you think DC should revisit the monster movie genre.
#18 Batman (1966)
For its time, Adam West's live-action adventure into unrestrained campiness was a delight, but it's no secret that the character has evolved past some of these trite characterizations with more original and engaging imaginings of the iconic hero. It's worth checking out as an interesting moment-in-time piece, but it hardly stands out as one of the better DC films.
True, Red never really extends itself outside of the pure joy gained from seeing seasoned actors perform ruthlessly violent acts as retired CIA operatives. If anything, the movie's biggest annoyance is how overly competent the core cast is in their roles, to the point where it's pretty obvious they're going to steamroll every villain in sight.
Constantine is truly a mixed bag, mainly because it makes only one unforgivable mistake: casting Keanu Reeves. But the totality of the film (aside from Reeve's wooden performance so far removed from the comic counterpart it borders on parody) is actually a thrill to watch and immensely satisfying in spite of the lead performance. That alone is quite the feat.
#15 Man of Steel
Zack Snyder's opening DCEU act is an aggressively average film, building most of its merits upon an intriguing first half with beautiful production value and consistent visual imagery...only to be undercut by a bombastic second half that forgets all filmmaking rules of pacing, restraint, and actual character work.
#14 V for Vendetta
David Lloyd and Alan Moore's graphic novel-turned-Wachowski movie falls in the intriguing realm of crowd pleasers, as it is mostly loved for what it's about more than the nuts and bolts of the actual film, which include a subdued Natalie Portman performance against Hugo Weaving's quiet charm. Its sincerity in the message, though, is why Vendetta firmly holds a captivating power over its fans.
#13 Suicide Squad
It's no improvement over Batman v Superman's editing and postproduction woes, but at least Suicide Squad gives its reigning characters something entertaining to do. Granted, this mostly consists of an appealing Will Smith as Deadshot and an unforgettable Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn having a good bit of fun as they blaze through a middling action movie.
The graphic novel helped define a more interesting world shaped by the dark effects of costumed heroes, and the adaptation under Snyder's hand did its darnedest to properly translate that message to an even larger audience (over the years, at least). Not every beat of Watchmen works as well as it needs to, but its faithfulness to the characters and deft work paying off its source material is highly commendable and beautiful to watch.
#11 Superman Returns
At times, Returns is frustrating in Bryan Singer's unwillingness to push the character past its late 70s roots, but the film works overall for being so obviously different from the superhero films of the mid-2000s, and even the ones today. It took some interesting talent to ground Superman in such an old-fashioned atmosphere without any irony, even if it was just a bit too familiar.
#10 The Dark Knight Rises
By design, this final entry in Nolan's Batman trilogy feels less like a standalone than its predecessors, but for good reason. While somewhat long and cluttered, the movie is ultimately satisfying in how it ties up Nolan's visionary loose ends in a wonderfully absorbing package. It's just a shame the movie doubles down on some of the unfortunate errors of the last two films.
#9 Batman (1989)
Tim Burton's first attempt to bring a more contemporary Batman to the big screen was actually criticized during its time for being too dark, something today's fans certainly take for granted. To be fair, a better criticism is that the film typically prioritizes its style over any real substance pertaining to the plot, as well as Nicholson's Joker over the somewhat less intriguing Bruce Wayne, despite Keaton's revelatory take on the role that was done far better in the sequel.
#8 A History of Violence
John Wagner's graphic novel through DC imprints Paradox Press and Vertigo might seem somewhat out of place for a list like this. It's a well-made crime thriller praised for its well-realized characters, especially Viggo Mortensen's performance as Tom Stall. But what actually makes it a movie so believably inclusive of the DC brand power is its focus on how small events can have massive consequences, and its deceptively pulpy story is a looker as well.
#7 Batman Returns
What makes Batman Returns such a clear transcendence of the 1989 original comes down to a few key words: Catwoman, atmosphere, and imagination. Virtually everything of value in Batman literally returns, but through a better executed script that does well to supplant Michael Keaton as one of the definitive versions of Batman.
#6 Road to Perdition
Max Collins' 1998 graphic novel came to incredible life in Sam Mendes' Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig. The mobster revenge film is a marvelous experience quite on its own, but t's also elevated by the type of focused drama frequently utilized by DC writers. Specifically, this is a father and son movie, through and through, but paired with the provocative and engrossing implications of violent vengeance.
#5 Superman II
Often, superhero sequels are adept at surpassing their predecessors due to the studios allowing for more creative freedom after a successful "first effort." In the case of Superman II, that's mostly still true, but the film can't help but feel more like a continuation than a refinement of what already worked in the classic Richard Donner tale. Of course, that's certainly not to speak ill of what is still one of the most important superhero sequels of all time.
#4 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Hardcore fans of Bruce Wayne's psychology have had the quintessential Batman film for decades in the form of this animated theatrical release. Though not a financial success when released in 1993, the film has garnered a lasting legacy for its chilling narrative, subversive set design, and of course, Mark Hamill as the Joker.
#3 Batman Begins
The success of Begins has less to do with "gritty realism" and more to do with logic within the context of such an outrageous premise for a story. Christopher Nolan's first entry in the trilogy fully explores the how and why of Batman in ways that feel both plausible and interesting, turning legions of comic book movie naysayers into fans clamoring for more films that treat DC characters with much-deserved respect.
#2 Superman: The Movie
Superman (1978) deserves a lot of credit it doesn't usually get for being a landmark film in the superhero genre. It influenced the growing trend of better comic book movies (though it took a while) by being essentially the first one to center the spectacle around the visual effects just as much as the actual story. It's a true testament to how good movies become classics when they allow for that kind of masterful balance, and there's a reason you still remember John Williams legendary score for the film.
#1 The Dark Knight
No amount of nitpicks, contrarian hot takes, or thinly veiled naysaying will change the simple fact that The Dark Knight is one of the best American movies of the 21st century. Not just in terms of DC films or even superhero films. This is for many of the reasons you already know: a thought-provoking script that evolves current attitudes of the character, glorious visual design in every set piece, unpredictable plot turns perfectly stitched into the message, the unprecedented cultural impact that is still felt today, and a legendary performance through the unlikely casting of Heath Ledger that will overcome the snark of unpopular opinion for a very long time.
And that's everything! Thanks for reading, and if you're itching for more superhero movie rankings, check out Sam Flynn's heroic rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies here.