With “Shazam!” – the superhero answer to “Big,” starring Zachary Levi – hitting theaters April 5 and “Aquaman” available for rental March 26, it’s a good time to look back at the DC Extended Universe as it stands so far. While I admit the DCEU can’t hold a candle to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which again owns the superhero calendar with three 2019 films, or even the in-flux X-Men Universe, I’m probably in the role of DCEU apologist in most conversations about superhero movies.
One thing that’s hard to argue against is the casting of the members of the Justice League: the universally loved Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as the first cool Aquaman, Henry Cavill as a respectful follow-up to Christopher Reaves’ iconic Superman, and the bowing-out-too-soon Ben Affleck as a grizzled mid-career Batman. I also think the Suicide Squad is a colorful bunch with some potentially great movies in them.
Here are my rankings of the six DCEU films so far, from worst to first, plus a look at what’s next for each of the key heroes:
6. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) – Exhibit A in the case that superhero blockbusters tend toward bloat, “BvS’s” extended cut is three hours long and requires about three sittings. No matter the length, it can’t be escaped that Batman and Superman get into a fight over a misunderstanding engineered by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and their conflict is resolved when they realize their mother has the same name. Compare this to the hefty themes of something like “The Dark Knight Returns” and one gets the impressions that these Zack Snyder-directed epics are more interested in grand spectacle than weighty philosophical conflicts. To be fair, the spectacle is pretty good, including the first appearance of Wonder Woman, who gets an awesome theme song reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” (Full review)
What’s next for Batman: “The Batman” is scheduled for 2021, and it sounds promising. It’s supposed to be the first detective-style big-screen entry for the World’s supposedly Greatest Detective, and “Planet of the Apes” series veteran Matt Reaves is slated to direct. The downside is that Affleck has bowed out of the role.
5. “Man of Steel” (2013) – Nearly as exhausting to watch as “BvS,” Snyder’s “Man of Steel” at least boasts a tighter story, focusing on the origin of Superman. It slightly reinvents the title character as less of a pure savior and more of a being weighed down by his past and future. The movie is so big in scope it almost makes us overlook its frustrating, inexplicable elements, such as Clark’s dad (Kevin Costner) giving his life so the public doesn’t learn about Superman. (Why? The public inevitably is going to learn about Superman anyway, right?) Amy Adams is a controversial choice as Lois Lane, but Adams is good in everything, and surprisingly, not many people rebelled against this Lois immediately recognizing that Clark and Supes are the same person. Throw in Michael Shannon as a deliciously scenery-chewing Zod, and “Man of Steel” is at least an interesting, darker spin on the saga. It’s still exhausting, though. (Full review)
What’s next for Superman: Surprisingly, Superman isn’t slated to lead any upcoming DCEU films. It’s weird to think we’ve seen the last of Cavill as Supes, but with this franchise, I suppose equally weird things have happened.
4. “Justice League” (2017) – I’m doomed to the apologist role for this one, which is super-easy to make fun of, starting with the bizarre fact that Cavill was filmed with a mustache (due to a “Mission: Impossible” role), which was to be removed in post-production, but wasn’t removed all that well. Indeed, “Justice League” feels like Joss Whedon salvaging a film started by Snyder – because that’s precisely what happened. It’s easy to tell what lines come from Whedon’s pen as the JL members – Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, along with newcomers Aquaman, the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – trade barbs like a team starting to jell. Some have convincingly complained that this is the “Avengers” template applied to “JL,” and that character nuances established in the comics get subsumed. Another valid critique: Steppenwolf is a better band than villain. It’s nice that the DCEU has some light and some life in it, but this is still a messy production, and as far as messy productions go, I prefer “Suicide Squad.” (Full review)
What’s next for the Justice League: With the DCEU moving away from team-up movies following “Justice League’s” overwhelmingly negative reception, there is no sequel on the docket.
3. “Suicide Squad” (2016) – Now I’m really in the apologist role. I like this movie, although the reason is entirely the cast and not at all the plot, which includes something like 11 helicopter crashes where everyone survives. Margot Robbie is perfect as Harley Quinn, and I enjoy the relationship between criminal Deadshot (Will Smith) and special-ops agent Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) – two men who respect each others’ decency despite having been pushed into different lots in life. The rest of the Suicide Squad adds some color, and – I know I’m very much in the minority here – I find June Moone (Cara Delevingne) to be better than most DCEU villains because of her tragic romance with Flag and the way she is subsumed by Enchantress; it’s like a B-grade take on Fred/Illyria from “Angel.” Director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” tries something new with the Joker (Jared Leto) — as we sense he might actually like Harley, rather than simply using her – and it doesn’t ring true. Still, by clocking in at a “mere” two hours, “Suicide Squad” is more fun than overwrought. (Full review)
What’s next for the Suicide Squad: The MCU’s (temporary) loss is the DCEU’s gain as “Guardians of the Galaxy” veteran James Gunn will take the helm of this group of misfits for the 2021 sequel – lazily titled “The Suicide Squad” for now. And Robbie will return even sooner, in 2020, in the insanely titled “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn).”
2. “Aquaman” (2018) – Ah, now we move into the territory of films that don’t have to be salvaged in the editing bay after messy productions. Granted, director James Wan’s “Aquaman” flirts with the “bloated epic” style again, but I think we’ll grow to enjoy this one – watched in chunks in our living rooms – more than the Supes and Bats entries. This seems to be a split decision among the fandom, but I think gregarious muscleman Momoa is a consistently entertaining presence as Aquaman. The story is typical of the format wherein a reluctant king reclaims the throne because letting the challenger (in this case a brother played by Patrick Wilson) take over would be horrible for his people. But there are good supporting players, including Amber Heard as a love interest and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the vengeance-blinded Black Manta. The production design is outstanding, although a lot of us are too jaded to appreciate how remarkable the creation of a complete underwater society is. (Full review)
What’s next for Aquaman: For all the talk about the DCEU’s struggles, people flocked to theaters in droves (or should that be “schools?”) to see “Aquaman,” and a sequel has been greenlit for 2022.
1. “Wonder Woman” (2017) – No apology is needed for this one, which is far and away the best DCEU movie, even flirting with perfection until the awkwardly grafted-on final CGI battle against Ares (David Thewlis). Gadot and Chris Pine – as a World War I American soldier – showcase sparkling chemistry and funny banter, and the rest of the group of heroes isn’t bad either. Whereas the origin stories of Superman and Batman can seem “been there, done that,” “Wonder Woman’s” brings us to an ancient island society we hadn’t seen before, as this marks the titular heroine’s first starring role in a movie. Writer Allan Heinberg and director Patty Jenkins don’t portray Wonder Woman as a larger-than-life figure tasked with saving the world; rather, our heroine makes her own choice to be a hero, and – even the stakes are sufficiently high – the result is a freer and more enjoyable entertainment experience. (Full review)
What’s next for Wonder Woman: Two of pop culture’s favorite things at the moment – Gal Gadot and 1980s nostalgia – will come together in “Wonder Woman 1984,” scheduled for 2020.