It’s taken 57 years, but this weekend we’re finally getting a live-action
Justice League movie, featuring fan favorite characters Wonder Woman, Batman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg together for the first time on camera. (Maybe some others show up too! But we’ll never tell…) It’s the perfect time to once again take a look back at the history of DC superhero movies, and ponder this new film’s place in the pantheon.
In no uncertain terms, it’s been a weird, wild trip for DC superhero movies, with multiple reboots of popular (and not so popular) characters over the years, and with giant shifts in storytelling ambition and tone across several generations. Their films have been funny, serious, campy and scary, and if we’re being perfectly honest they’ve been some of the best and also some of the worst movies ever made.
So where does
Justice League rank against the best and worst DC superhero movies ever released in theaters? Find out below as we take a look back through the decades, and single out the greatest and most ridiculous adaptations so far (and as we decide to let nebulously “superheroic” films like Constantine and The Losers slide into the list, if only for the sake of conversation).
Editor’s Note: This list has been updated to include Justice League.]
Let’s Rank All The DC Comics Movies!
Top Photos: Warner Bros.
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on Canceled Too Soon and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick . Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani .
Let's Rank All The DC Comics Movies!
34. Jonah Hex (2010)
Not just bad, but genuinely hard to watch.
Jonah Hex adds inexplicable superpowers and bizarre dream world fights a badly plotted, mostly badly acted nonsense western. Only Josh Brolin, who was very well cast as the title bounty hunter, acquits himself. Photo: Warner Bros.
33. Steel (1997)
A well-intentioned but shoddy attempt to turn basketball star Shaquille O'Neal into a superhero, one who builds metal armor that bends like plastic and protects kids from evil military weapons dealers and video game companies. Shaq isn't a good actor, but it's not like he had a good script to work with, and the film's action sequences and jokes are just too limp to hold the movie up on their own.
Photo: Warner Bros.
32. Swamp Thing (1982)
Wes Craven, the Master of Horror himself, tried his hand at the superhero genre. The gamble didn't pay off.
Swamp Thing is a poorly paced monster movie with some lousy makeup and a very weak plot. Worst of all, it's just a boring damned film. Photo: Warner Bros.
31. Green Lantern (2011)
Ryan Reynolds adds charisma to the live-action
Green Lantern movie, but the concept of the hero and his courage-based solid light superpowers is so strange that the movie has trouble explaining what the hell is going on. By the time the mediocre villain finally pops up the movie has long since lost focus, and by the time the protagonist says that real heroes have to be chosen, it's clear that the filmmakers have no idea what Green Lantern was supposed to be about in the first place. Photo: Warner Bros.
30. Batman & Robin (1997)
The legends are true: everything about
Batman & Robin was a bad idea, from the seasick color scheme to the tone deaf jokes to the Bat-Credit Card. It's a textbook example of how now to make a superhero movie, but Batman & Robin's unique blend of awfulness has undeniable camp value. Photo: Warner Bros.
29. Catwoman (2004)
This notorious misfire abandoned the comic book origins of Catwoman in favor of a supernatural angle, and a plotline about beauty products that give you superpowers if you use then and disfigure you if you don't. It's confusing, silly, and Halle Berry's costume is atrocious. But in the film's defense,
Catwoman is also, albeit unintentionally, extremely funny. Photo: Warner Bros.
28. The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
Sexploitation schlockmeister Jim Wynorski directed the sequel to
Swamp Thing, so it should come as no surprise that it plays like an absurd comedy. The acting is terrible, the plot is absurd, and the scene where Heather Locklear eats a phallic tuber off of Swamp Thing's body so she can hallucinate he's human again and the two of them can have sex is really, REALLY weird. It's bizarrely fascinating, but still quite bad. Photo: Warner Bros.
27. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
The first feature-length DC superhero movie is... not one of the best, but you can't judge
Superman and the Mole Men by the standards of contemporary blockbusters. It's a very moral story about Superman stopping a lynch mob from killing a race of mole people whose habitat gets invaded by oil drills. The pacing is too slow by any standard, but it's not so much "bad" as it is dated. Photo: Warner Bros.
26. Superman III (1983)
Superman trades Lex Luthor and General Zod for a computer hacker played by Richard Pryor in
Superman III, a film which isn't nearly as exciting or as funny as it's obviously trying to be. Pryor's comedy never shines through, the ending is beyond stupid, but Christopher Reeve does give one of his best performances as a Superman torn between his various identities, including a new one who is a total jerk and sleeps with one of the bad guys' girlfriends. Photo: Warner Bros.
25. Supergirl (1984)
Helen Slater, Faye Dunaway and Peter O'Toole are actually very good in
Supergirl, but the movie is a mess. This bafflingly plotted film finds Supergirl traveling to Earth to save her people, then getting distracted by the unstoppable allure of going to high school(?). Then she battles a sorceress to win the heart of one of the school employees(?!). Also, she fights an invisible monster. Very strange, and no, not very good... but never, ever dull. Photo: Warner Bros.
24. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's classic, but controversial story of how The Joker went insane - and how Batgirl wound up in a wheelchair - is faithfully adapted in
Batman: The Killing Joke. Unfortunately the filmmakers also added an extended prologue from Batgirl's perspective that muddles the theme, complicates the sexual politics and distracts from the reason why this movie was made. It's beautifully animated but it completely fails to capture the significance of the material. Photo: Warner Bros.
23. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Batman and Superman meet for the first time in
Batman v Superman, but they spend most of the movie whining about each other and getting gaslighted by Lex Luthor instead. Their fight is a doozy but the plot self-destructs and the characters are both huge hypocrites. Batman v Superman might have ranked even lower were it not for the fact that Wonder Woman totally kicks ass. Photo: Warner Bros.
22. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
The infamous bomb
Superman IV killed off the once-mighty franchise (for a while), but although it's cheaply produced and has some wince-inducing moments (nobody wants to see Clark Kent do aerobics), it's not quite as bad as its reputation. In between some dumb ideas and low-budget visual effects, Superman IV has a smart central theme that challenges the very concept of Superman. If he really is trying to save us all, why doesn't Superman save us from the biggest threats in the world, like nuclear proliferation? Photo: Warner Bros.
21. Suicide Squad (2016)
Extremely likable performances from Margot Robbie and Will Smith are
Suicide Squad's saving grace. Although the concept is strong - a group of supervillains are forced to do good deeds by the government - it takes an hour to get started, the antagonists are weak, the action is sloppy and the characters barely interact with each other. But yeah, Harley Quinn and Deadshoot are cool enough to eke Suicide Squad up a few notches on the list. Photo: Warner Bros.
20. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
Adam West, Burt Ward and Julie Newmar reprise their classic 1960s roles at Batman, Robin and Catwoman in an imaginatively written, mostly enjoyable adventure that evokes the classic tv show. Unfortunately, the lead actors can't always pretend they're age appropriate, and the otherwise all-ages film falls prey to a single, solitary, distracting, wholly inappropriate joke in which Robin seems to contemplate something truly disturbing about Catwoman while she's unconscious.
Photo: Warner Bros.
19. The Losers (2010)
Black ops agents fake their deaths when they're blamed for a massacre, then go out for revenge against those who wronged them. A solid cast - Chris Evans, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Zoe Saldana - and some brisk direction make this adaptation of the Vertigo comic very watchable, but the concept is so familiar in the action genre that
The Losers never quite stands out. It's solid, somewhat forgettable entertainment. Photo: Warner Bros.
18. Batman Forever (1995)
Joel Schumacher's first foray into the world of Batman was brash, colorful, and undeniably fun. Yes, this is where all the problems started that would eventually derail the franchise - the superficiality, the commercialism, the nipples on the batsuit - but Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones are amusing villains and Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman absolutely smolder together.
Photo: Warner Bros.
17. Constantine (2005)
They took famed British antihero John Constantine and turned him into an American, played by Keanu Reeves no less, but if you can set that aside
Constantine is a solid supernatural thriller, directed with creepy flare by Francis Lawrence ( The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). It's never quite as good as the comics - if it was, it would rank much higher - but it's a solid film. Photo: Warner Bros.
16. Superman Returns (2006)
A lot of people don't like
Superman Returns, but time is being kind to this nostalgic throwback. Bryan Singer's film is a return to hopeful superhero stories. It boasts both reverence and beauty, but not - sadly - an exciting plot. Kevin Spacy is great as Lex Luthor. If only his scheme made any sense whatsoever, and given our hero more to do, Superman Returns would have ranked higher. Photo: Warner Bros.
15. Justice League (2017)
The first live-action
Justice League movie is a bit of a mess, having gone through two directors (and allegedly some behind the scenes meddling), but it's a thrilling mess. All the characters are given complete and satisfying story arcs and some of the moments are sublime. The villain is lame and the plot is mostly formulaic, but it's all in the service of the characters, who shine. Photo: Warner Bros.
14. V for Vendetta (2006)
A handsome production of the Vertigo comics series, about an anarchist who takes down a corrupt government, splendidly acted and realized. Until the ending, however, which somehow manages to confuse "anarchy" with "a new form of conformity."
V for Vendetta is just barely misses the point, making it almost, but not quite, great. Photo: Warner Bros.
13. Man of Steel (2013)
Zack Snyder finally gave a Superman movie the scale it so desperately needed, filling
Man of Steel with incredible action and visceral thrills. Unfortunately his storyline needed work: Superman is trapped in pre-hero mode, and spends a lot of the movie behaving in ways that don't speak well of the character. He just doesn't seem all that concerned with saving people, and that means he doesn't seem all that much like Superman, and that keeps Man of Steel one important step away from being as amazing as it could have been. Photo: Warner Bros.
12. Watchmen (2009)
Zack Snyder's (mostly) faithful version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic comic brings some of the most important scenes in comic book history to life. Only a controversial change to the ending, and a complete absence of subtlety, keep
Watchmen from being the ideal adaptation. Photo: Warner Bros.
11. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan's most daring Batman movie challenges the very concept of the caped crusader, arguing that dressing up as Batman might have always been a mistake in the first place.
The Dark Knight Rises has a story that doesn't entirely work, and too many characters to focus on, but at its core it's one of the most interesting films ever adapted from a DC comic book, rich with ideas and consequence. Photo: Warner Bros.
10. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
It may not be the best Batman movie, but
The LEGO Batman Movie is easily the best Bruce Wayne movie. This spry animated farce highlights the hero's transition from a man afraid of emotional connections to a man who builds himself a large surrogate family. The jokes are ridiculous, the plot is wacky, but the movie's heart is very, very real. Photo: Warner Bros.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
A few weird flourishes - like, yes, those penguins with rocket launchers - sometimes distract from the fact that
Batman Returns is a powerful examination of the duality of men and women, with each character dueling themselves as much as they are their bitter rivals. Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer are perfect villains, and Danny Elfman's score is undeniably brilliant. Photo: Warner Bros.
8. Batman: The Movie (1966)
Back before Hollywood took Batman seriously, they put him in one of the funniest superhero comedies ever produced.
Batman: The Movie stars Adam West as he wages playful battle with his greatest adversaries, and features multiple scenes of drop dead hilarity. ("Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb.") It might not have any deeper meaning, but when a movie works this well, it doesn't really need any. Photo: 20th Century Fox
7. Superman II (1980)
A grand superhero fight and an even grander villain - General Zod, played with superb theatricality by Terence Stamp - make
Superman II one of the better superhero movies, even though Superman sits most of the movie out so he can finally get some alone time with Lois Lane. The film's wonkier moments - like a memory-stealing kiss and that weird wraparound Superman shield - are mostly fixed by Richard Donner's director's cut, which would rank even higher on our list than the theatrical version. Photo: Warner Bros.
6. Batman (1989)
A masterpiece of style and operatic gravitas, bringing Batman to tortured life without sapping him of his sense of humor. Tim Burton's first
Batman movie is an outlandish production about outlandish people, and Jack Nicholson's scene-stealing performance as The Joker makes for one of cinema's greatest villains. Photo: Warner Bros.
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Batman: The Animated Series came to theaters with this rich and dramatic offering, which reveals how close Bruce Wayne once came to giving up his quest for justice. Few of Batman's antagonists ever had a more emotional connection to the hero than The Phantasm. Photo: Warner Bros.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan took the idea of a man in a bat costume beating up criminals and suddenly, for perhaps the first time, made it seem plausible.
Batman Begins legitimized the caped crusader - and by extension, all superheroes - like no other movie before it (and arguably any movie since). Photo: Warner Bros.
3. Superman: The Movie (1978)
"You will believe a man can fly," they promised us, and audiences really believed. Richard Donner brought the wonder of superheroism to life in
Superman: The Movie, with great performances by Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. The plot may not be as intense as audiences are used to today, but it perfectly captures the golly gee-whiz nature of the original, classic comics. Photo: Warner Bros.
2. Wonder Woman (2017)
Wonder Woman's first live-action movie is an inspiring sensation, topical yet timeless, exciting and romantic, funny and powerful. Gal Gadot walks the thin line between a fish out of water and the sole voice of reason, and Patty Jenkins' dynamic direction is a joy from start to finish.
Wonder Woman is one of the greats. Photo: Warner Bros.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight deserves all the praise it can get, using Batman as the jumping off point for a disturbing and impossibly thrilling battle between the forces of optimism and cynicism, of order and chaos. Christopher Nolan's cinematic prowess and Heath Ledger's instantly classic performance are a double-threat like audiences have rarely seen. It's not just the best DC comics movie ever made, The Dark Knight is one of the best MOVIES ever made. Photo: Warner Bros.