After Shazam and Aquaman, a definitive ranking of the DC Extended Universe films
Years from now, when all is said and done, the DC Extended Universe will be seen as a failure - a noble failure, but a failure nonetheless. What began as a hungry move to replicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned into a spectacular train wreck, with fans gathering around to witness it in its full, tragic glory. But times are changing.
No other film franchise in this current era - not even Universal’s laughably bad Dark Universe - has been scrutinised with such passion, and passionate hate. It is almost as if a certain section of fandom - and not necessarily Marvel fandom; there are detractors even in the DC camp - is willing the DCEU to crash and burn. It is doing just fine, even without all the ill will.
A couple of years ago, Warner Bros made the excuse that while the DC films had received a critical drubbing, the studio gauged success on the basis of how the audience received the movies - and the solid box office performance of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad was proof that critics were out of touch with the general public.
And the release of Wonder Woman seemed to reassert this notion. The film became the first in the series to receive a ‘fresh’ rating on the review aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes, and for a brief moment in time, everything was OK in the DC universe.
But around the same time as Wonder Woman was having a game changing theatrical run, news about a massively troubled Justice League began brewing. Justice League went into production a few weeks after BvS’ release - far too late in the day for any sort of major change to be made in the same dour tone that director Zack Snyder had set for his answer to Marvel’s Avengers. When Snyder turned in an assembly cut - not a director’s cut, but merely an ‘assembly’ of usable footage - it was the final straw. Warner Bros set up a committee to oversee the film, and to provide feedback.
One of the members of this committee was Joss Whedon, director of Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, who’d had his own, very public falling out with Marvel Studios. In May 2017, Snyder stepped down from the film - the reason given at the time was personal, but it has since been rumoured that he was made to leave - and Whedon was hired to finish work on the movie.
Justice League is essentially a film that was shot twice, inflating its budget like venom inflates Bane’s muscles. The final result was a hodgepodge of conflicting ideas and tones, a feeble attempt at putting together a team movie, lacking any sort of personality. Say what you will about BvS, at least it looked and felt like a Zack Snyder movie.
All this context was crucial to the story of Aquaman - the most successful DC film, and perhaps one of the last to retain the core stars, who were all cast by the long-gone Snyder. If things work out - and having seen the film, there’s no reason to believe that they won’t - then director James Wan’s Aquaman can serve as a bridge between the DCEU’s misguided past, and its refreshing future.
This march continues this week with Shazam!, which is perhaps as far removed from the dour Snyder movies as can be possible.
I have been on record as saying that I admire the ambition of the DCEU more than the well-oiled machine of the MCU - while the Marvel universe was borne out of a good idea that built a platform for future experimentation, the DC films took the risky approach right out of the gate. It didn’t work.
Here’s a ranking of the films, from worst to best.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman is not so much a superhero movie as it is a story about two mamma’s boys measuring the length of their capes, finding that they disagree, and proceeding to poke each other with threats of ‘you wanna go first?’ for a solid two-and-a-half hours. This obsession with moms is a running theme in the DCEU, and forms the emotional core of Aquaman (and if early reports are to be believed, even Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming Joker movie).
BvS is clearly a compromised vision - the ‘ultimate edition’ that was released a few months later is an infinitely better film, and were it to be ranked on this list instead, it would find itself at a much higher position.
Justice League is the sort of movie that can be excruciatingly dumb at any given moment; with forced jokes that have the hit rate of a drunk stormtrooper, jaw-droppingly inane plotting that often pales in comparison to the original DC animated series, but it can also make a houseful crowd of excited fans positively palpitate with pure joy.
It continues the DC Extended Universe’s bizarre trend of producing films that are direct reactions to their immediate predecessors. And for all its faults – an ugly third-act show down that looks like a mid-2000s PlayStation 2 video game, Danny Elfman’s instantly forgettable (and shamelessly rehashed) musical score, one of the most unimaginative (and cheap-looking) main villains in recent memory, and more than an hour spent on just build-up – Justice League isn’t as terrible as it could so easily have been.
All it took was one scene. One scene transformed Suicide Squad. It wasn’t necessarily the best scene – in fact, in any other movie, it would barely merit a second glance. But for Suicide Squad it was a godsend. It came nestled in the heart of the film - following an hour or so of jarring, time-hopping, clumsy storytelling – and preceding another hour of more of the same. Not only was it the first time our characters resembled real, relatable human beings, it also proved, however briefly and despite what we’d seen so far, that Suicide Squad has a heart.
It sent our characters, all dressed in their ridiculous costumes, drenched in water and blood, to a bar. No explosions, no fistfights, no Joker - just the quietest member of the Squad, El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), telling a story. It’s the scene that cements the gruffly sentimental relationship between these characters and saves it from being the second-biggest disappointment of the year.
It took me back to the days when I first discovered Batman and his twisted world – the world Bruce Timm and Paul Dini created in Batman: The Animated Series. Suicide Squad is exactly that: A live-action, feature-length version of an episode of Batman: The Animated Series in which Batman and Joker are side characters.
It’s long, it’s cluttered, it’s messy. It ends with a CGI slugfest that feels right at home in a series that includes classic CGI slugfests between Superman and Zod, Superman and Doomsday, Wonder Woman and Ares, and a bunch of pansies and a dancing witch.
James Wan’s Aquaman actively distances itself from the heavy metal take on the character that Snyder had originally envisioned. And with more time on his hands, Jason Momoa takes Arthur Curry in surprising new directions. Of course, it’s quite wonderful to watch on the big screen - Atlantis looks stunning, as do the creatures and Wan’s affectionate world-building - but it is earnestness with which the film treats its characters that is its most endearing quality.
Man of Steel
Without any doubt, my favourite single moment of any DCEU movie comes in Man of Steel. In fact, it has several. Snyder is clearly someone who understands the iconography of superheroes better than anyone else - that teaser trailer alone was a work of art; the one in which a child put his hands on his hips and the whole world suddenly realised what they were watching.
But for a brief second in Man of Steel, Snyder accomplished - in my opinion - what he was going for all this while, a deconstruction of myths, a grounding of gods. Alone and misunderstood, Clark Kent goes from town to town, taking up odd jobs, convinced that his father - Pa Kent - was right; to reveal his powers to this cruel world would only bring trouble. And so he drifts, between dive bars and oil rigs, unsure of himself.
We see him walk on a highway, his back to us, the evening sky slowly welcoming darkness. Clark turns around, sees an incoming truck, and sticks out his thumb, hoping for a stranger to show kindness. The truck doesn’t stop. And Clark keeps walking to wherever the road will take him.
I think about this moment very often. This is Superman. So vulnerable, so alone. No one to help him. And yet, he dedicates his life to helping others. This one moment perfectly captures the flawed brilliance of Snyder’s DCEU.
Shazam! is an altogether different experience - both in tone and in scope - from previous DCEU entries, and this includes the largely beloved Wonder Woman and the box office smash Aquaman. It is, at the risk of invoking the wrath of fans on both sides, to the DCEU what Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming were to the Marvel Cinematic Universe - lighter, less angry, and positively delightful.
Under the unlikely direction of Swedish filmmaker David F Sandberg, Shazam! is as magical as its title suggests; heartfelt, humorous and burdened by none of the hubris of Batman v Superman and Man of Steel.
Wonder Woman is the sort of movie that makes you forgive things it got wrong solely on the strength of everything it got right. And it got a lot of things right. It was the first film in the DC Extended Universe that was worthy of its iconic character, and it did what both Batman and Superman couldn’t do: It gave us hope for what’s to come.
It’s still crippled by the influence of Zack Snyder in its CGI slugfest of a final act - an annoying trend that for some reason James Wan chose to honour in Aquaman - but it’s so much more than just a great film. Wonder Woman is perhaps the defining superhero movie of a post-Trump era - what Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was to a post-9/11 world.
It’s an earnest film, which often feels too pure for this horrid world. And that no man’s land sequence is right up there with The Master’s ‘don’t blink’ scene as one of the greatest of the decade.