No one could say that DC properties have maintained a hold on superhero movie dominance for the last 40 years, but some of the most important films in the genre have been inspired by the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. 1978’s Superman: The Movie helped popularize the idea of treating seemingly silly and juvenile comic books seriously. More than a decade later, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman helped create the summer movie season. 16 years would pass between that film and the next feather in DC’s cap with Batman Begins resurrecting Batman as a bankable (and laudable) on-screen character. In 2017, Wonder Woman burst onto screens, standing out as the biggest female-led superhero story of all-time. And in 2019, Joker helped to further the idea (established by past best picture nominee Black Panther) that comic-inspired stories could, in the right hands, fit in among the very best films. In between all of these standouts are a few hits and a lot of misses. With Birds Of Prey freshly released and news dropping regularly about the next run of Batman films, we thought we’d follow our ranking of MCU movies and update our ranking of the 30 best DC-inspired movies going all the way back to 1966’s Adam West starring Batman film.
30. Steel (Amazon)
The film’s mere existence might look like hubris in hindsight, considering the abysmal box office and shared loathing that the film generated among critics and audiences upon its release in 1997 (to be fair, it still has scattered defenders), but it’s easy to see why Warner Bros. tried to launch a new franchise on the strength of NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s mega-watt energy and charisma. Obviously, it didn’t work, but worse crimes against cinema (and comic book source material) have been committed. Just none on this list.
29. Batman and Robin (Amazon)
Sometimes you have to hit bottom to go up. Joel Schumacher’s second and final Batman film so desecrated the Caped Crusader that the only direction the franchise could have gone was gritty (which it did, years later). One note: Four years after writing these anti-quotables, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman won an Oscar (for writing A Beautiful Mind).
28. The Return of Swamp Thing (Amazon)
Believe it or not, there was a time when major Hollywood studios didn’t much bother with comic book movies. That’s why there were so many cheapies, like the Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher, the Captain America starring J.D. Salinger’s son, and the Fantastic Four movie that Roger Corman made with no intention of ever releasing. So it went with Len Wein’s plant-dude. Wes Craven made his own low-ish-budget version in 1982 (see a couple notches below), but by 1989, the rights had fallen into Z-grade hell, yielding a bargain basement campfest that once haunted cable movie channels.
27. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (Amazon)
The fourth Christopher Reeve Superman is a shadow of its former self, the rights having passed to the cost-cutting exploitation mongers at Golan-Globus. The slim budget resulted in flying scenes that look like cardboard and Gene Hackman half-assedly voicing the baddie “Atomic Man.” Not even Jon Cryer, as a Valley Guy henchman, can save it.
26. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Amazon)
Zack Snyder’s attempt to craft a brooding, funereal, epic about two of the longest-lasting superhero icons wound up merely punishing. Nolan’s entries comment meaningfully on the real world, but Dawn of Justice is misery for misery’s sake. And it turns Superman, forever the symbol of what humanity could be, into kind of a dick.
25. Batman Forever (Amazon)
There is so much about Joel Schumacher’s debut Batman episode that alternates between tacky and lame, but nothing is as evil as this: Poor Billy Dee Williams, cast as Harvey Dent in Burton’s first Batman, was denied the chance to offer fans a sense of continuity or a chance to chew scenery in a bigger role, replaced by Tommy Lee Jones. That said, we miss ’90s Jim Carrey something fierce.
24. Swamp Thing (Amazon)
Like many a low-budget genre picture, Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing can never live up to its lurid poster, which looks like a Fabio book cover for freaks. That said, it has two things going for it. One is an early turn from future Twin Peaks dad Ray Wise, as a scientist turned into an avenging plant person. The other is it caused DC to relaunch the Swamp Thing comic book line, whose reins they handed to one Alan Moore, an up-and-comer who took the brand in untold inventive directions. It made Moore’s name, and the rest is history.
23. Green Lantern (Amazon)
Green Lantern reads great on the page but falls short in live-action, at least in this iteration. A hero who creates green neon weapons with a ring is always going to be a challenge to pop on-screen as a badass. Anyway, it’s all good: Ryan Reynolds went on to greener pastures, and this movie will live on as a $200 million footnote in the history of Deadpool.
22. Justice League (Amazon)
Speaking of Frankenstein monsters, the story behind this is legitimately devastating: Zack Snyder had to depart the DCEU’s own attempt at an Avengers mash-up due to the death of his daughter Autumn. He was replaced by Joss Whedon, who got the job because he directed two Avengers movies, not because his style in any way resembles Snyder’s. It doesn’t. Snyder is formally controlled, heavy; Whedon is slapdash, point-and-shoot. The footage sometimes doesn’t even cut together. Still, considering all this, the end product is almost watchable.
21. Suicide Squad (Amazon)
Well, it sounded like a good idea: Hire David Ayer — the guy who wrote Training Day, who loves making movies about tough-as-nails jerks — and have him make an all-villain anti-superhero opus. You can spot Ayer’s whiskey-soaked, Peckinpah-ish bummer buried deep in the finished product, which teems with obvious re-shoots and editorial Hail Marys, not the least being far too many montages set to Classic Rock behemoths, to make grungy footage look like dumb fun. It’s a Frankenstein monster. It’s also surreal that it worked, at least at the box office.
20. Supergirl (Amazon)
Supergirl is charming and modestly weird with an absurdly over-qualified supporting cast, from Peter O’Toole to Mia Farrow to Peter Cook to Brenda Vaccaro to a post-Mommie Dearest Faye Dunaway herself as the beyond-hammy baddie.
19. Superman Returns (Amazon)
The first S-Man entry in nearly 20 years tried to evoke Richard Donner’s super-mythic first Christopher Reeve picture, and it’s so reverential that it has no personality of its own. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that it comes from controversy-plagued director Bryan Singer and co-stars Kevin Spacey.
18. V for Vendetta (Netflix)
You know who hates movies based on Alan Moore comics? Alan Moore. The brainiest comics legend was burned by Hollywood enough times, thanks to From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. When the Wachowskis came for his Thatcher-era comic, about a dystopian future undone by a mysterious rogue in a Guy Fawkes mask, Moore wouldn’t even let them put his name in the credits. Too bad, sort of: This is a noble semi-failure, well-intentioned but flat and lacking the grungy fury of Moore and artist David Lloyd’s smudgy original.
17. Superman III (Amazon)
Okay, hear us out. This was the beginning of the end for Reeve’s Superman, and with good reason: It’s bloated, dumb, depressingly campy, and it’s got a depressingly ill-used Richard Pryor. That said, it has its moments. There’s that killer slapstick comedy opening. There’s the stretch where Superman turns into an evil drunk and then fights himself in a junkyard brawl. And there’s the nutty part where legendary jazz singer Annie Ross turns into a robot.
16. Watchmen (Amazon)
When making his movie of Alan Moore’s historic renegade comic — which imagined a world in which superheroes were real, where society had to grapple with costumed crime fighters who might merely be socio- or psychopathic — Zack Snyder carried around the comic on set, trying to capture artist Dave Gibbons’ panels down to the framing. That says it all: At its best (and there’s a lot to like), Snyder’s Watchmen feels like an imitation. But there are downsides to that approach. Snyder doesn’t seem to understand the comic; for one thing, he seems to think Rorschach is a hero, not a monster.
15. Man of Steel (Amazon)
We’ve ragged on Zack Snyder a lot here, so here’s a hot take: His first Superman movie isn’t bad. It climaxes obnoxiously, with an endless, city-destroying battle that’s so over-the-top and senseless that Batman v. Superman spent much of its energy apologizing for it. But if it’s the safest movie Snyder has yet made, maybe he’s best when he’s playing it safe.
14. Constantine (Netflix)
Remember Constantine? A big budget movie about the chain-smoking hell-skulker of DC’s adult-themed Vertigo line? Who in the comic was modeled after Sting but in the film is played by Keanu Reeves? That even has a reliably amazing Tilda Swinton as an evil angel? Anyway, it’s real, and it’s not spectacular, but it does have a definite personality — or at least sarcasm and a healthy anti-clerical vibe.
13. Batman (1966) (Amazon)
Believe it or not, Batman used to be fun. Adam West didn’t brood; he made stupid puns with a straight face. There was an entire TV show, which ran for three seasons, where he and his young pal Robin were gee-williker crime-fighters, battling ridiculous baddies who dressed up like penguins or cat women or ice men. The inevitable movie was nothing but an extended TV episode. But we’ll take it over the Joel Schumacher years, which tried to channel the TV show and ’66 movie, sans wit and charm.
12. Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey (In Theaters)
Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn stands out as a bright spot in Suicide Squad. Yet while this version of the character doesn’t get as many chances to prove her badassery (which is not to say that there aren’t some cool action sequences that seem aimed toward making this DC’s version of Deadpool), everything in this sorta-sequel revolves around her as she takes a wrecking ball to Gotham alongside a team of supporting characters that don’t get quite enough chances to stand out.
11. Batman Begins (Amazon)
Christopher Nolan’s debut Batman movie is like a dry run. It’s his first hugely budgeted studio picture, and he’s a touch unsure of himself, trying to be him but also give the audience what he thinks they want. What they wanted was him to be true to himself, but he didn’t know that yet. And that’s why we get a good but not great Batman movie that’s smart but hardly profound, which saves its deepest thought — that a caped crusader would inevitably cause the criminal element to step up their game, too — for the very final moment.
10. Aquaman (Amazon)
Director James Wan’s effort to flesh out the superficial (but effective) Justice League version of Aquaman gets surprisingly epic, filling the screen with impressive visuals while establishing mythology that grounds this hero’s tale as it explores loss, sibling rivalry, and purpose. Jason Mamoa shines brighter thanks to a script that manages to use his charm and might in equal measure.
9. Superman: The Movie (Amazon)
Here it is: The movie that got us where we are now. In the late ’70s, comics were only for kids, and any screen versions tended to be silly camp à la the Batman TV show. Superman: The Movie changed that. It treats the origin story of Kal-El like an epic and gives Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman billing over our actual hero, Christopher Reeve. Of course, it’s a deeply flawed movie, one where every scene tends to feel like it’s in a different movie: Sometimes it’s serious, sometimes it’s campy. And Lex Luthor plot really makes no sense. But it sure got the ball rolling.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (Amazon)
Christopher Nolan’s third Batman is his most crazily ambitious, and often times, it seems to get away from him. But its best parts are peaks in Nolan’s trilogy: the destruction of Gotham’s bridges, seen from above; a broken Bruce Wayne staring up, longingly, at the exit to the underground prison; Gotham’s police successfully escaping from their own underground prison. It’s a film about helplessness and struggling to conquer your oppressors.
7. Batman (1989) (Amazon)
By the late ’80s, the Superman franchise was dead and, once again, studios tried a winning combination: a serious film with an overqualified cast. Jack Nicholson’s Joker walked away with the buzz and top billing, but it’s Michael Keaton’s subtle, tortured work as Bruce Wayne/Batman gives the film its weight.
6. Wonder Woman (Amazon)
The villain isn’t great. The final battle is a noisy, visually bland waste of time. Also, how do you introduce a character named Doctor Poison and then give her nothing much to do? Now that that’s out of the way, the big Wonder Woman movie is the kind of comic book movie that shows you how comic book movies should be done. It’s the only time the DCEU has fired on all cylinders, to the point where maybe they should ditch this franchise thing and just make dynamite solo vehicles.
5. Shazam! (Amazon)
Director David Sandberg uses a whole lot of heart to anchor this origin story about a less-than-mainstream DC superhero. The film deploys Zachary Levi’s goofy charm to evoke memories of Big and the exuberant fantasies we’ve all had about what it would be like to soar through the sky and protect our loved ones from the forces of evil.
4. Batman Returns (Amazon)
Tim Burton was always an odd choice to resurrect the comic book movie, but with his first Batman he managed to give the people what they wanted. His sequel is all him. It’s a dark, twisted fantasy where one villain (Danny DeVito’s Penguin) is a tragic outsider hellbent on destroying the society that rejects him. Meanwhile, Batman and Catwoman are really into leather. By day, they’re Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle (Michael Keaton and a never-better Michelle Pfeiffer), two shy introverts, afraid to so much as kiss. By night, they’re black and blue and loving it — two S&M freaks getting off on whips, beatings, and long, lingering licks across the face. All that, and the Christopher Walken hair to beat.
3. Superman II (Amazon)
It should’ve been a disaster. The plan was to film the first two Superman movies back-to-back as a two-parter; the story arc was even designed by The Godfather author Mario Puzo. Midway through the second, things fell apart. Original director Richard Donner was fired and replaced with the more comedically-minded Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night). There were reshoots and in-fighting. This should have been the original Justice League: A troubled production that could be barely glued together. Instead, it became arguably the most mature and deeply felt superhero movie of them all. That goes especially when it comes to Supe falling in love with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, and the Man of Steel must decide if he’s man or steel, to relinquish his powers or relinquish his humanity. And of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a massive shout-out to Terrence Stamp’s hilariously dense General Zod.
2. Joker (Amazon)
Divisive and off-putting are words that come to mind when recalling Joker, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. Sparking myriad essays about its potential to further elevate the villainous and violent character to untold heights of hero-worship, the film ultimately stands as a character study elevated by a transformative and tortured (and Oscar-winning) performance by Joaquin Phoenix as a tossed-aside man who spurs a troubling and chaotic uprising. Like or loathe the final product, Joker firmly occupies a place as an important comic book movie, potentially opening the floodgates for more adult and complex adaptations.
For all its accolades and impact, though, its disturbing message drags Joker down from claiming the number one spot on this list.
1. The Dark Knight (Amazon)
Superman: The Movie introduced the idea of taking comics seriously. The Dark Knight makes them almost real. It’s a movie about a world heading to oblivion. Here, Christian Bale’s Caped Crusader is wrestling with the Gotham he’s helped create — a dystopia of next-level villains, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, who has no motive but anarchy, no need but to watch the world burn. Batman saves the day, but he loses everything dear to him, from the woman he loves to the respect of his hometown to his own sense of dignity and self-worth. The ending has only become more devastating with age and real-world divisions. The people of Gotham decide they’d rather die than harm each other, and rather do the right thing than give in to their worst impulses.