DC once ruled the silver screen when it came to cinematic superheroics. During the last quarter of the 20th century, Superman and Batman starred in a whole bunch of big screen blockbusters, while Marvel’s movie output was mostly restricted to a few forgettable flops, including Howard the Duck, The Punisher, and The Fantastic Four – which didn’t even get a release.
But the new millennium saw a reversal of fortunes for Marvel, with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises redefining the genre on-screen. Then in 2008 Marvel really changed the game with the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, unifying all its individual heroes’ films into a shared universe.
DC still had its successes – such as the Dark Knight trilogy – but flops and disappointments like Superman Returns and Green Lantern – saw Marvel in cinematic ascendence. So in 2013 DC began its own shared universe experiment, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). Things didn’t quite go to plan, though, and the DCEU seems to have become more successful the less unified it feels.
HOW DO I WATCH THE DC movies IN ORDER?
- Man of Steel
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Suicide Squad
- Wonder Woman
- Justice League
- Joker (sort of)
- Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
- Wonder Woman 1984
- Justice League: The Snyder Cut
The prehistory of the DCEU
Cue: opening montage, accompanied by Bonnie Tyler belting out Holding Out for a Hero – a rapid run-through of DC movies pre-DCEU. First, there was Superman and the Mole Men, a theatrically released pilot for ’50s TV series Adventures of Superman. Batman was a big screen spin-off of the campy 60s TV series. Superman The Movie was a breathtaking start for Christopher Reeve’s four-movie stint as the Man of Steel, which also produced the spin-off Supergirl.
There were two Swamp Thing movies, for lovers of rubber suit monsters. Tim Burton’s Batman spawned four bat movies that Joel Schumacher killed off with Batman and Robin. Steel, starring basketball’s Shaquille O’Neal in dodgy armour, and Catwoman, which won Halle Berry a Golden Raspberry, both vied for the title of worst superhero movie ever made until Green Lantern came out – a movie that even its own star, Ryan Reynolds, poked fun at in Deadpool. Keanu Reeves as Constantine bore little semblance to his supernatural comic counterpart.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy remains one of the greatest superhero film series ever made. Unfortunately, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns failed to fly, despite a fantastic Christopher Reeves tribute act from Brandon Routh. Watchmen (2009) was an elegant, well-received adaptation of the seminal graphic novel, while supernatural western Jonah Hex was the very definition of forgettable.
In between all those were a handful of movies based on DC imprints you may not have even realised were comic adaptations, such as Road To Perdition, A History of Violence and V for Vendetta.
Man Of Steel (2013)
Following an aborted attempt early in the 2000s to bring DC superheroes together in a Justice League film, DC finally started building a full-on MCU-style shared universe with Man of Steel (2013), a reboot of the Superman origin story with Henry Cavill in the cape. The original plan was to centre the DCEU around five films directed by Watchmen helmer Zack Snyder.
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His vision for a darker, grittier, less-quippy universe than the MCU’s was embraced enthusiastically by some, but scenes such as the mass destruction of Metropolis in a fight between Zod and Superman, with little thought for human collateral damage, sat uneasily with others. However, there was no denying that Snyder had a knack for producing mythic, iconic images.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
With the announcement of Batman v Superman at San Diego Comic-Con 2013, already the DCEU appeared to be ploughing its own furrow instead of aping the MCU – its second film would be a crossover. This seemed like a sensible move, but was it just an attempt to get to Justice League as fast as possible?
Dawn introduced Ben Affleck as a Dark Knight with a real hump about Superman going about his business unchecked. It also debuted Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman in a substantial support role, and the rest of the future Leaguers in a series of glorified cameos.
The film also saw Batman and Superman stop mid-fight to chat about their mums having the same name. Which… divided opinions. The film suffered from studio interference, with scenes cut that left character motivations unclear. It seemed Warner Bros. was beginning to have artistic differences with Snyder, and unfortunately, that rift would only widen.
Suicide Squad (2016)
After Superman’s death in Dawn of Justice, the US government (rather unfeasibly) recruits a bunch of imprisoned supervillains – including Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) – to take down the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who’s threatening to wipe out humanity
It’s a crazy, free-forming, acquired taste of a film that, while still dark, feels worlds away from Snyder’s universe stylistically. But it clearly is part of the same world, with Affleck’s Batman and Ezra Miller’s The Flash making cameos.
Suicide Squad also featured Jared Leto as The Joker. There were clearly plans for this incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime to have a further role in the DCEU. However, Leto’s take on the character was not popular, and so far his only (brief) reappearance has been in the Snyder Cut of Justice League.
Wonder Woman (2017)
One of the most well-received DCEU films so far, Wonder Woman also beat Marvel as the first female-led superhero film. An origin story set during WW1, it links to the DCEU continuity thanks to a brief, present-day framing device, with Bruce sending Diana a photograph that sparks off her war-time memories (although the main baddie, Ares, does make a brief appearance in The Snyder Cut, defeating Darkseid back in the day).
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Other than that, Wonder Woman is a marvellously entertaining stand-alone movie that treats its iconic central character with reverence and charm.
Justice League (2017)
The wheels come off, here. Snyder originally envisaged Justice League as an Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame two-movie affair. Warner Bros. wasn’t convinced though, perhaps after Batman v Superman’s less than spectacular box office.
So when Snyder left the project for personal reasons (the death of a close family member) after shooting the majority of the film, the movie was taken in a new direction. Avengers helmer Joss Whedon was brought in to film new scenes that would lighten the tone and enable the story to be told in one film.
Vast swathes of footage and subplots bit the dust, along with almost all plot coherence. The resulting cut-and-shut film was released to lukewarm reviews. It also ruined Whedon’s reputation; he made few friends among the cast, who eventually became very vocal about his alleged bullying. Was this the final nail for the DCEU?
Well, no. Because Aquaman turned out to be a fine movie, albeit one that was happy to ape the MCU film’s formula. Starring Jason Momoa as Aquaman and directed by James Wan (Saw) it was also happy to ignore established DCEU lore – it dumped the underwater air bubbles that Atlanteans had to use to talk to each other as seen in Justice League.
Shazam! is about as far away from Snyder’s grimdark vision of the DCEU as it’s possible to imagine, yet it’s been one of the shared universe’s most enthusiastically embraced films. A family friendly feel-good fantasy, it’s the story of a young boy who, after meeting an ancient wizard, is given the ability to turn into an adult superhero when he says, “Shazam!” The fun and charm (and this film oozes fun and charm) comes from Zachary Levi’s performance as the adult-sized superhero acting like a wide-eyed teenage boy.
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There are few links to the wider DCEU, and it’s difficult to imagine Levi’s Shazam! in a scene with Affleck’s Batman. At one point Henry Cavill was to have made an appearance as Superman but sadly that never panned out.
If Shazam! felt too silly to fit in the Snyderverse, Joker is the opposite extreme – it feels too emotionally raw. Unsurprisingly, the DCEU powers-that-be never considered it part of the shared universe. Its edgy portrayal of a mentally ill, social misfit, who dreams of being a stand-up comedian, and who may evolve into the murderous Joker (by the end, it’s cleverly open to interpretation) is the antithesis of what most people would imagine when they think of a comic book movie.
And yet, because it’s set in the ’70s (it’s also a homage to Scorsese films of the era) and because of that ambiguous ending, you could argue that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker inspired Jared Leto’s.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
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Birds of Prey is a quasi-sequel to Suicide Squad with Margot Robbie back in the role of Harley Quinn for a gonzo tale of female empowerment. While getting over her break-up with the Joker, she pretty much accidentally forms an all-female superteam (including Black Canary, the Huntress and cop Renee Montoya) to face off against psychopathic crime boss Black Mask. Shot in a fast-edited, ludicrous style, the film feels like the mutant offspring of Tank Girl. Not to everyone’s taste but custom-built for cultdom.
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Another standalone period piece with even less connection to Justice League films than the first Wonder Woman. A gaudy ‘80s romp involving a Dream Stone, magic wishes, and a geeky geologist becoming the supervillain Cheetah, tonally it often has echoes of Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie. Silly, sure, but a cynicism-free effort and huge fun, with some charming human stories at its heart. While it pleased critics, some fans weren’t happy with its excesses.
Justice League: The Snyder Cut (2021)
Power to the people! Incensed at what Warners and Whedon did to Snyder’s vision of Justice League, fans embarked on an internet campaign using the hashtag #releasethesnydercut. Astonishingly, the campaign worked. Sort of. Snyder was allowed to reassemble his footage as a four-hour internet streaming movie, premiering on HBO Max in the US.
The result was definitely more coherent, and a fan pleaser, with extended backstories and tons of previously excised cameos reinstated, including the Flash’s girlfriend Iris West, übervillain Darkseid, several Green Lanterns, and Martian Manhunter in his Martian guise at last.
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It played perfectly to the gallery – which was, after all, the intention – but for people not into superhero movies, it seemed to be everything that turned them off about the genre: pompous, overblown and low on wit. So, streaming was its perfect home, where those that wanted the DCEU to be like this all along (and plenty did) could embrace it.
Forthcoming (confirmed) DCEU movies include The Suicide Squad (July 30, 2021) about which there’s a lot of excitement because it’s written and directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn. Then there’s Black Adam (2022), The Flash (2022), Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2022) and Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023).
If you prefer Iron Man and Captain America to Batman and Superman, why not check out our guide on how to watch all the Marvel movies in order.