Who are the best DC characters? With multiple eras of stories and another on the way from James Gunn, DC movies, series, and games, span decades. When they conceived some of the most famous characters in pop culture history, writers in the early days of DC Comics changed entertainment forever.
The DCU has many iconic characters from brave heroes to wicked villains. The question is, though, who enchants us the most? To answer this question we’ve watched all the DC movies in order, been through the best TV series in the universe, and even the DC animated movies to put together our unique list of the best DC characters. There may be some surprises ahead, but we’ve got our reasons.
From the outside, lots of female characters in comics sound like gender-swapped carbon copies of their male counterparts — Batgirl, Batwoman, Harley Quinn — but the beauty of the industry’s evolution is that many of them are anything but. Enter Kara Zor-El, who might laser beam your face off at the suggestion, even if she does love her Kryptonian cousin.
On-screen, Supergirl has made appearances in classic Superman movies, The Flash, animation, and games. She even had her own CW series, Supergirl — which certainly has its laughable faults, but managed to cast a perfect Melissa Benoist and occasionally do interesting stuff with Lena Luthor.
In the source material, particularly in edgier runs that follow her in her teen to young adult years, Kara is defiant, angry, and lacks the solid sense of purpose that defines Clark. Sent in a pod after her cousin which was knocked off its course, Kara arrives on earth to take care of her infant cousin only to find him a grown man and Metropolis’ savior. Listless and alienated (literally) Kara struggles against the template he sets, and she’s all the better of a character because of it.
Barbara Gordon’s characterization over the years has ranged from a plucky crime-fighter determined to join in on the action to an expert hacker codenamed Oracle (post-The Killing Joke). And in the New 52 canon, Babs had a darker slant. But whatever the iteration, a few key things remain consistent: she’s fiercely intelligent, easily irritated, a good girl at heart, and a friend that comes in clutch.
There hasn’t been a great live-action Barbara Gordon yet (that movie was canceled, remember) and we recommend staying well clear of the DCAU’s take on The Killing Joke — female character assassination is Sam Liu’s favorite hobby. We turn, then, to the plethora of storytelling that got her right. The original iconic Birds of Prey comic run, the Arkham video games, and her up-tight, fresh-faced involvement in the Harley Quinn animated series.
Barbara at her best is a devoted daughter, an ally with many secrets, and a pillar of representation for wheelchair users during her years as Oracle.
14. Lois Lane
Lois Lane has always been just as important as Superman. As the human connection between Superman and Earth, Lois serves as a reminder of what the caped Kryptonian is fighting for.
And yeah, she can be a little nuts — flinging herself out of office windows to test her ‘Clark Kent is Superman’ theory — but who isn’t? It’s not unusual for superheroes to have human love interests, but Lois might just be the most memorable of them all on account of her wit, bravery, and spunk.
And how many young girls were inspired to pursue a career in journalism after seeing Lois in Superman movies or the comics? In both her job and her life, she had an investigative eye and never seemed phased by the antics that would come with having an alien boyfriend. Lois, we salute you.
Aquaman may not seem like the coolest DC character at first glance. Talking to fish is neat but pretty useless in most situations. But let’s clear things up: this hero primarily stays in the water, so in fact, his aquatic abilities are pretty overpowered, and when you pair that with the fact that he has to deal with hatred and mass politics as a half-human Atlantean royal, you’ve got to respect him.
Aquaman is one of the founding heroes of the Justice League and is constantly torn between the two worlds he belongs to. We often overlook this DC figure due to an unjust reputation. But hopefully, Jason Momoa will give our fish King some more fans with the upcoming Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom.
12. John Constantine
When it comes to broody magic-wielding loners, John Constantine takes the cake. He is the embodiment of DC’s darker side with his gritty personality and tragic backstory. If you haven’t seen the character in the recent TV series or Keanu Reeves’ 2000s movie, Constantine is a warlock detective who constantly deals with the melding of heaven and hell.
Originally debuting in Swamp Thing, Constantine has become one of the most beloved moody heroes. He’s the lead in the Hellblazer series (aka one of the longest-running and most successful DC comics) and has a captivating personality. A secret softy and good guy, Constantine is a diamond in the rough. We also love the fact that the 2020 movie Justice League Dark: Apokolips War confirmed that he and Shark King used to date. So, extra points! Find out more about this character’s DC return with our guide on Constantine 2.
11. Dr Manhattan
Dr Manhattan is the crux of the highly influential Watchmen graphic novel and its adaptions. We’ve seen him on screen in a Zack Snyder movie and a Damon Lindelof TV series.
Dr Mahattan is one of the most powerful characters in the DC universe after having survived a radioactive particle test that transformed him into a god-like being. His existential musings, slow decay of empathy, and inability to connect to humanity’s emotional framework make him fascinating but unreliable as an ally.
10. Amanda Waller
One of the nastiest characters in the DC canon, Amanda Waller is a ruthless girl boss who would probably press a red button to have the bomb in your neck go off if she heard you refer to her that way.
Viola Davis brought the Suicide Squad character to the DCU and did so in a way authentic to the source material. Waller ultimately is just doing her job, but although she’s not cruel just for the sake of it doesn’t mean she isn’t vicious. She’s set to get her own show; more on that in our Waller release date guide.
9. The Riddler
When it comes to the best Batman villains, everybody’s too busy talking about The Joker to acknowledge his much more flamboyant counterpart: The Riddler. Matt Reeves clearly saw potential when picking the villain for The Batman, but we’ve been obsessed with the over-the-top peacocking baddie for years. He’s a character for all the riddle-loving girlies out there and is a terrific example of when a villain’s schtick perfectly matches the hammy nature of comic books.
It’s a role that has attracted many of the best comedians over the years, from Frank Gorshin to Jim Carrey (with the latter being our personal favorite take). But The Riddler works both ways. Whether he’s prancing about in a neon green bodysuit, or taking on a Zodiac-esque serial killer persona, he’s just as effective and memorable as any other Gotham criminal. He just has a lot more style.
The trouble with being a Kate Kane die-hard is that you’re always having to explain that she’s not just ‘Batman with a bob’. In actuality, she’s different from her cousin Bruce in combat style, motivation, and social life.
Kate is even more of a loner, and more protective of her identity. She wears a long, red wig to throw adversaries off of her tom-boyish real looks, and is standoffish, angry, and a hand-to-hand combat expert. She takes joy in throwing punches, sometimes looking slightly terrifying with her paper-white skin and scary cowl. Forced to leave the army because of homophobia, Kate turned to crime fighting.
We’re yet to have a great live-action Kate, with the Arrowverse shows being the only venture. She’s one of those characters you get scared of creatives getting wrong. Luckily, there are animated appearances, most recently in the Catwoman solo DCU movie.
Catwoman’s best quality is how well she catwalks the anti-hero fine line. Often providing aid when things are truly egregious while taking something for herself along the way.
We’ve had multiple actors play Catwoman on-screen, from Michelle Pfeiffer’s sexy 90s turn to Zoë Kravitz’s shot in The Batman. Catwoman historically makes glamourous theft her number one priority, but in her best origin story branched out when she decided she needed to protect sex workers the police wouldn’t.
In comics, she’s among the most radical of Batman’s lineup and has a strong ethical code, even if it only makes sense to her — you can see the influences of this in Matt Reeves’s take on her, but some folks still feel Michelle Pfeiffer is the best Catwoman yet.
6. Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy is difficult to get right, with the real expansion of her identity beginning in the Batman animated series, which positioned her as an alluring eco-terrorist who is mean even to the one person who digs her (Harley).
She has gone through different iterations on-page and on-screen but is at her best when she’s still sort of unlikeable but with an Achilles heel, as seen in the DC animated universe‘s Batman and Harley Quinn movie.
More recently, she received an alternative characterization on the HBO Max Harley Quinn series, the first piece of canonized media to fully go the distance with the obvious: they’re more than friends. Luckily, the Harley Quinn season 4 release date hit our small screens in July 2023, so there is plenty of Ivy for you to see.
5. The Joker
The best DC villain, the Clown Prince of Crime, is chaos personified. Emotionally manipulative, abusive, and with an abstract identity that allows him to move through the world with reckless abandon.
He loves a good laugh but enjoys getting under Batman’s skin in teasing (slightly homoerotic) ways even more, not wanting their conflict to end, feeling that they’re destined to be at odds.
With lots of versions to choose from (check out our guide of all the Joker actors ranked for more), Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as The Joker in one of the best movies of all time, The Dark Knight, takes the cake for us.
Boy Scout, journalist, and man of tomorrow, Superman runs the risk of being plain as bread, but at his best, evokes a feeling of being held tightly in the arms of goodwill.
Whether you enjoy the more grounded takes on him seen in the likes of Man of Steel or consume him like a bowl of comforting hot soup, there’s no denying Clark Kent’s place in pop culture. One of the first mainstream immigrant stories in fantasy entertainment, he’s popular enough that fans often shout out at each other over how he ‘should’ be portrayed. The best thing about him, though, is that (AU stories like Injustice aside), he truly doesn’t value himself over anybody else.
3. Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is a fun character because one might assume she takes after Superman’s traits because of her high power level, stature, and Greek-god-inspired mythology, but the reality is she has more of an edge to her. Often diplomatic in her stories, she is no doubt a hero, but she’s also willing to take a life if she sees it as necessary and doesn’t get held back by the mental cages Superman willingly lives in.
Hailing from the idyllic island of Themyscira, she lives by different rules but chooses to devote her time and gifts to trying to bring more peace to humanity. There’s a great Wonder Woman movie out there ready to watch and a just-OK sequel, and you’ll also find her in many DC animated flicks.
2. Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn started out as one of the most one-dimensional yet fun characters in DC. Her origin was in Batman: The Animated Series and she’s the brainchild of Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the brand’s most iconic creative talent.
Spending many decades fettering next to her deeply sadistic boyfriend, The Joker, writers began to toy with more evolved versions of her as time went on. By the time Margot Robbie stepped into her clown shoes for Birds of Prey or Kaley Cuoco into a recording booth for her Max show, Harley had become one of the most popular characters in DC’s catalog.
Harley exists in that weird and wonderful space of characters who can commit atrocities but still be entertaining and vulnerable. She has a mean streak of her own, but she’s not sociopathic in the way her ex is.
When you think of DC, you likely think of Gotham’s streets, sparkling with rain, littered with news shreds, and watched over by Batman.
Grumbly, sad, and an expert who can take on even the most absurdly powerful foes, Batman is the most prolific DC character. He’s probably over-exposed, actually, with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Robert Pattinson’s version (explore his take with our The Batman review), and the slew of other projects in various formats that spotlight him. Somehow, he’s still captivating.
DC just doesn’t quite work without him; he’s that integral. Whether you think the best Batman actors portray him as older and worn down (Tankfleck), polished and incisive (Christian Bale), or nuts (Michael Keaton), he’s the coolest.
Those are just some of the brightest stars who made the leap from page to screen, and who knows how many more we’ll get when the new movies in James Gunn’s Gods and Monsters era fire on all cylinders. Until then, check out the best superhero movies for more.
We’ve also got an eye on the Swamp Thing release date, which is coming over the horizon, and have a piece explaining five things we want to see from James Gunn’s new DCU, and one we don’t.