This will contain spoilers
The DC Cinematic Universe, or the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), has had a rough time trying to establish itself as a franchise that can compete with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has only been recently that the DCEU seems to have finally gotten its act together and found its own identity. It hasn’t been easy though. For a while, it seemed like Warner Brothers was going to keep messing this up indefinitely. Now though, it seems like they’ve finally figured it out. All of these movies have been re-watched except for Aquaman, which was a first time viewing.
Man of Steel
To be fair to this movie, it had an unenviable task to achieve. Man of Steel had to escape from the shadow of the first Donner film, while also remaining true to the character of Superman. So the fact that it set out to move in a different direction was not an inherently bad idea. However, Man of Steel fails to understand what makes Superman such an iconic character.
I’ll admit, when I first saw this movie in theaters: I liked it. I was not a huge fan of Superman, so I was not up in arms over certain changes they made that other diehard fans find objectionable. Rewatching it years later however, have really shown this film’s shortcomings. Man of Steel is a shockingly poor film in terms of writing, pacing, story structure, and character development. Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer were not good fits for this character at all, as it shows a profound lack of understanding Superman. They were so concerned with setting their version apart from others, that they forgot to give their interpretation a distinctive identity. This Superman is solely defined by how different he is from the other versions, rather than being interesting on his own merits. Not helping matters is Henry Cavill giving an unmemorable, mostly flat performance. The whole cast is pretty forgettable, but most of all is Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent. He’s dry and lacks anything resembling warmth, which makes the scenes where he interacts with Clark as a child lack any emotion. It also makes his death lack any weight, though the circumstances that led to it didn’t help since it becomes unintentionally funny. Michael Shannon as General Zod was fine, and I do admire that they tried to give him depth usually not found in other comic book movie villains.
Another problem is the movie is driven to ride the coattails of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It even copies the nonlinear structure of Batman Begins, except it fails to understand why the flashbacks in that movie worked. Clark Kent is also made into a drifter trying to find himself, like Bruce Wayne was in that movie. For all its attempts at being different from previous adaptations of Superman, it has no problem blatantly ripping off from other sources when it suits it. It’s also surprising how dull the movie looks save for a few sequences. Snyder is known for making gorgeous looking films if nothing else, so seeing the movie lack that is disappointing. I can’t even really praise the action scenes. The use of shaky cam and constant zoom ins and outs make it all incoherent, and the level of destruction reaches a point where it becomes excessive. Even the prologue on Kryton has over top action scenes. The movie has no sense of restraint. It’s also concerning in how Superman does not make much of any attempt to mitigate said destruction, especially in the final battle with Zod, which has become infamous for the level of property damage and implied civilian deaths.
This movie also has some of the most ham-fisted symbolism ever. Every chance it has to compare Superman to Jesus it takes. It’s not just visual either. The characters all talk about how Clark is going to change the world and what an icon he will become. Nobody talks to him like an actual human being.
I would be here all day if I just listed off all the problems Man of Steel has, but there are other movies to get to and it wouldn’t be giving it credit where its due. Cavill shows potential to be a genuinely great Superman, and there are a few truly awe inspiring scenes: Superman learning how to fly and when he destroys a massive terraforming machine that was destroying the Earth. Hans Zimmer’s score is also awe inspiring at times. His theme for Superman especially captures the larger than life nature of the character. I will also mildly defend the decision to have him kill Zod in the final battle. It’s a truly bold choice that puts Superman’s morals to the test by forcing him into a scenario where there is no decision that he would be comfortable making, and has to pick the lesser of two evils. That being said, because the film never builds to this crucial moment and never examines it afterwards, it doesn’t really work.
A less light hearted Superman can be done right, as shown by Superman: Earth One, just so long as the character’s essence is retained. This movie didn’t do that, and what’s left is a movie that fails to be good as an adaptation of Superman or on its own merits.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice not only fails to correct any of the mistakes Man of Steel made, it doubles down on them and makes more than a few more. Before anyone accuses me of not watching the “definitive” version of the film, I will add that I am basing my thoughts off the Ultimate Cut, and I have seen the theatrical version as well. The Ultimate Cut is not better, just more coherent and longer.
Dawn of Justice is boring, bloated, pretentious, and miserable. It makes big statements about power, gods, and how power can lead to corruption, but doesn’t really do anything to explore them. Most of the movie is just spent with Superman and Batman moping around in a plot with no direction while Lois Lane pursues a subplot involving a LexCorp bullet that ends up going absolutely nowhere. Wonder Woman makes her first live action cinematic appearance in this, played by Gal Gadot. Gadot does what she can with what she’s given, and she’s easily one of the movie’s better elements. The worst performance and character by far is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. He plays Luthor as this manic, hyperactive guy who is obsessed with bringing down Superman due to some motivation involving his abusive father and a hatred for God. For a movie that tries to be serious and realistic, it is an over the top performance that is jarringly out of place. This relates to a recurring problem: the fantastical comic book elements clash with the realistic world and tone Snyder has crafted. It makes the movie too silly to be taken seriously, and too serious to have fun with.
Oh, and if you thought Superman’s portrayal in the previous film was off, Snyder continues the trend in this one. Superman still has no personality and is only definable by how different he is from other interpretations. Yet he has it easy compared to Batman. I have to stop and give praise and condolences to Ben Affleck here. He gives the best performance in the whole movie, playing a more jaded, Frank Miller Batman. He could have been the best live action Batman if the material was better.
Batman, a hero known for his rule of never killing so he doesn’t become like the people he fights, kills indiscriminately in this movie while branding criminals so that they can be murdered in prison. Now again, this is not an inherently bad thing if explored. But again, the movie does not properly explore why Batman is like this. If you’re familiar with the Batman mythos, than you’ll be able to figure out that it’s because Joker killed Robin. If you’re not, then you’ll be stuck in the dark. This is yet again another persistent problem: an unfriendliness to non-comic readers. Snyder packs the movie full of references to aspects of the DC Universe that will fly right over the heads of people unfamiliar with comics, and these are integral to understanding scenes. Right in the middle of the movie he has a possible vision to the future/dream scene known as the “Knightmare” scene where Bruce Wayne sees the symbol of Darkseid and a ruined Earth. It serves as nothing but fanservice that doesn’t add anything to the narrative.
Dawn of Justice not only tries to tell a Batman vs Superman story, it tries to introduce Wonder Woman, introduce the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, set up the Justice League movie, and adapts elements from The Dark Knight Returns comic book and The Death of Superman storyline. There is simply too much going on here. They tried to do in one movie what takes multiple to do: flesh out a cinematic universe.
Yet all of this could have been bearable if the movie managed to do the Superman and Batman fight right. Sure the rest of it would have been awful but there would still be this memorable fight between two of the world’s most iconic superheroes. Instead, it comes about because the two of them are stupid enough to get played by Lex Luthor, so there is no real investment or conflict to be resolved. They have their ideological differences (even though they both essentially do the same thing), but the fight doesn’t happen because of that. It consists of them punching each other until Batman finally gains the upper hand and is about to kill Superman until Superman tells him to “Save Martha!” Martha Kent you see, had been kidnapped by Lex Luthor to blackmail Superman into fighting Batman. Now remember how Batman’s mom was named Martha Wayne. That’s right. The fight ends because their moms have the same name. Now the idea behind this is obvious and sound: Batman stops because he realizes that Superman has a family like he did and he’s about to take an innocent life. The execution however, is horrible. Once it happens it’s like the two of them are now best buddies. The movie had one more chance to get things right and it made them worse.
There are scenes that out of context, are pretty cool. The best action scene in the whole film is the one where Batman just demolishes a room full of thugs with moves straight out of the Arkham games. It’s well shot, has great choreography, and every punch feels like it hurts. Snyder’s frequent collaborator Larry Fong is back, and there is a visual flair to the cinematography that was lacking in Man of Steel. The score is also really good, great even. The first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie are great as well. It gives us a different perspective of the climax of Man of Steel, showing us what Bruce Wayne saw and just how much collateral damage there was. It quickly and effectively establishes the reason he hates Superman. It’s all we needed. It’s too bad the movie proceeds to meander and think it needs to keep establishing his reason.
However, for every good scene, there are several idiotic ones, or scenes that should have emotional weight but have none. Superman dies in this movie. Yes, the most iconic superhero in history dies, and I didn’t feel a thing. He had no discernable arc or personality, yet the movie expects us to care. There are so many shots that are meant to evoke awe or some kind of strong emotion, but fail because the movie never gives us reason to care. It packs on Biblical symbolism in an attempt to seem deeper than it really is, just like Man of Steel, and it matches that movie in how obnoxious and unsubtle it is.
A few more complaints are the lack of establishing shots. For example, in the Ultimate Cut Clark goes to Gotham for a story, and it looks no different from Metropolis. The movie just cuts back and forth between scenes with no sense of flow or passage of time, and making things even worse is how every location in this movie looks the same. Gotham and Metropolis might as well be the same city.
It’s fascinating how bad this movie is. It’s interesting how it squanders so much potential. The movie shows no respect for its characters or the intelligence of its audience. It thinks its smart when it’s dumb. It features the most iconic heroes ever on the big screen together for the first time, and it wastes them. This movie is definitive proof that Snyder was not the right fit for this material. And it’s not even the worst movie in this cinematic universe…
That dishonor goes to Suicide Squad, one of the most poorly made films I have ever seen. This is what would happen if the Guardians of the Galaxy movies were copied by someone who didn’t understand what made those movies work. The Suicide Squad are a group of convicts who go on covert suicide missions for the U.S. government in exchange for time off their prison sentences. In this movie, the squad must take down an evil ancient sorceress known as The Enchantress.
It is obvious that Suicide Squad was immediately taken back to the drawing board even after filming was finished due to the backlash the DCEU was receiving. The editing in this movie is horrific. Scenes have no flow from one to another, and it can become confusing at times. The action is extremely badly shot, being not well lit and having so many cuts it becomes difficult to tell what the characters are doing. It’s so bad it’s almost as if the movie has no screenplay to speak of, just a collection of scenes put together with something resembling a plot to connect them.
The villain, The Enchantress, is the worst villain in a comic book movie I have ever seen. No motivation or personality to speak of at all. The CGI for her is hideous as well. I hesitate to even call her a plot device. There is absolutely nothing to her.
Jared Leto’s Joker is easily the worst live action portrayal of Joker there has ever been. Aside from his appearance looking like it’s trying way too hard, there is nothing distinctive about his portrayal of the character that separates it from other, better versions. I’m struggling to figure out how we’re supposed to feel about his relationship with Harley Quinn. The film can’t seem to decide whether it’s an abusive one or twisted but genuinely loving one.
The only good things I have to say are that Will Smith as Deadshot, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller were suited for their roles and played them well. Jai Courtney was surprisingly entertaining as Captain Boomerang. He’s one of the more memorable characters.
This movie is simply horrible. It’s basically irredeemable. I cannot wait for James Gunn to reboot this property and hopefully make something decent out of it. Until then, you should just stick to Suicide Squad: Assault on Arkham. That’s how you do a proper Suicide Squad movie.
Finally! The DCEU has a genuinely good movie. Just when it was looking like all hope was lost, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot save the day.
Wonder Woman is exactly what the DCEU needed. It’s a movie whose heroine is kind, idealistic, compassionate, unambiguously good, but not unflawed. Gal Gadot proves that she can carry her own movie as Wonder Woman. Chris Pine proves to be a great Steve Trevor, and they have the first romance in the DCEU that has any real chemistry. Just about every character in this movie is memorable and likable. The three men who make up Steve Trevor and Wonder Woman’s team in the war have their own backstories and dreams of being more than what they are.
Putting Wonder Woman in a conflict as morally ambiguous as World War I was an inspired choice. Seeing a character of absolute good be placed in a setting that is anything but results in compelling interactions such as ones with shell shocked soldiers, or unable to comprehend why a German spy would commit suicide rather than accept help. The No Man’s Land sequence is one of the most memorable and breathtaking in a recent superhero movie. This has the most exciting action scenes in the entire DCEU. There are actual stakes, the choreography is very well done, and they serve as more than eye candy.
The few things that hold this movie back from true greatness is the third act and Ares. The movie’s main theme was that no single thing or person is to blame for humanity’s ills. Everyone plays a role. Yet the third act throws this completely out the window. Once Ares is killed by Diana, the fighting stops and World War I ends. Ares could’ve been a potentially intriguing villain, not being responsible for man’s evil so much as just giving them a little motivation to go down the path to war. He ends up being more of the same, and the climax is just a big CGI explosion fest like something out of Dawn of Justice.
Wonder Woman was the breath of fresh air necessary to revitalize the DCEU. It was optimistic and had its own unique identity. If it weren’t for that disappointing third act, it could have been even better.
Justice League is basically the exact opposite. While not absolutely terrible, it’s forgettable and boring. I’ve already reviewed this movie and my thoughts remain unchanged. It feels unearned, the pacing is off, the villain is horrible, and the differing styles of Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder never properly mesh. The most interesting bit is when the League has to fight an amnesiac Superman.
Just a big ball of fun. Whatever problems this movie has, its heart and energy carry it to the finish line. It’s a gorgeous movie with extremely well directed action scenes. Though its reach at times exceeds its grasp. It tries to stuff in a lot, with worldbuilding for Atlantis and the inclusion of two major Aquaman villains. King Orm is one of the DCEU’s better villains, with a sympathetic goal and layers to his character. Although the secondary villain Black Manta should have been saved for another movie.
The movie boasts a very impressive cast. In addition to Jason Mamoa being a joy as Aquaman, it has Willem Dafoe as his mentor, Amber Heard as Mera, Patrick Wilson as King Orm, and other notable actors and actresses. However there is an especially bad performance from the actor who plays Aquaman as a teenager. Mostly everyone gives it their all however.
The set and costume design is the best in the entire DCEU. Everything looks like it was ripped from the pages of a comic book. Both practical effects and CGI are used, and it all looks extremely convincing and alien.
The writing and screenplay of Aquaman is where this movie really, really suffers. When you get down to it, as pretty and entertaining as this movie is, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before. It’s a chosen one narrative featuring two siblings competing for the throne, and the plot is more or less an excuse for action set pieces to occur. Now the set pieces are very well done to their credit. There’s one that feels like its right out of a horror movie with clever usage of red lighting and darkness. It’s the most creative scene in the entire movie. They try to have a romance occur with Aquaman and Mera, but the two don’t have a lot of chemistry. The dialogue is also, well, hit or miss. It’s the kind of dialogue where the cast member has to really commit to selling it in order for it to get a pass, and there are many times where they don’t. As mentioned before, Mamoa gives a very fun and charismatic performance, but he does not give a convincing performance on some of the more emotional moments of the film.
Aquaman does whatever it can to make sure that its titular character is no longer a joke amongst the mainstream public, and I’d say it succeeded. It might be silly and try to do too much, but its unashamed commitment to its character and comic book trappings make it a worthwhile watch.
The most recent DCEU movie and easily the best one yet. Shazam! is from start to finish a charming and genuinely mature superhero film. It feels like a throwback to PG films of the late 80s and early 90s like Gremlins or Goonies. Shazam! shows that you do not have to be a dark movie to be a mature movie. It’s a movie that has heavy themes and shocking scenes in it. The prologue showing the origin of its villain has him being emotionally abused by his older brother and father, and then his father gets paralyzed in a car accident. It has a scene later on that feels like it came out of a horror movie, which makes sense due to director David F. Sandberg’s background in horror. Yet at its core is a movie about family and how one does not need to be perfect or pure to be a genuine hero.
Zachary Levi plays the role of a child in an adult’s body brilliantly. You always think that it’s a kid pretending to be an adult, rather than an adult pretending to be a kid. Asher Angel plays Billy Batson as a tough but vulnerable fourteen year old boy who needs guidance and has the capacity for good buried within him. He never comes off as too good to be true, nor too bad to be worthy of his powers. I can’t think of a single bad performance in this movie, from either the adults or child actors. Some of the lines delivered in just the wrong way could have been cringey, but the script is carried by the confidence of its cast and Sandberg’s direction.
Shazam! succeeds on the strength of its characters and direction. Characters who I would normally find annoying, like Freddy or Darla, are extremely endearing. The villain played by Mark Strong is the best of the DCEU so far. We can see why he became the person he is, he’s genuinely sympathetic at points, and his backstory and arc are perfect opposites of Billy Batson’s.
Unlike Wonder Woman, this movie has a fun third act that works with the message of the movie rather than against it. The stakes are relatively small but it works because they involve characters we know and care about. The solution Shazam comes up with to beat the villain is actually rather clever and not something you usually see in a superhero movie.
The only problems I have with the movie are that the lighting looks like its more appropriate for an episode of television and that it can look cheap sometimes. It’s clear this was made on a lower budget than most superhero movies, but given the smaller scale this movie’s plot and conflict, it makes sense.
Shazam! is so much fun. It has heart, intelligence, humor, and genuine maturity. It is definitive proof that you do not have to be dark and edgy to be serious. The best DCEU movie so far, and a sign that things are going to get better.
Here is my ranking of the DCEU as of right now:
- Wonder Woman
- Justice League
- Man of Steel
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Suicide Squad
Only the first three movies are worth watching. This franchise has definitely had a rocky road, but I do think we are seeing a recovery. There is no one reason why the DCEU had such a horrible start, but I can think of the most damaging ones. First of all, WB wanted to catchup to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and get the money they were making. This led them to rushing things and not taking the time to build their universe up.
Secondly, they were way too concerned with being different from Marvel rather than just being themselves. The first two films are plagued by juvenile attempts at maturity. Notice how the only three films worth watching are mature without going out of there way to be so, but letting it come naturally and not being ashamed of their characters.
Thirdly, I think it was a mistake to start the DCEU with a Superman movie, followed up by introducing Batman in the next. Those characters already have iconic cinematic film portrayals that were inevitably going to overshadow their successors. A wiser choice would’ve been to start with characters that had yet to have film adaptations, like Wonder Woman. Had they given other characters the cinematic treatment first and build up to new film versions of Superman and Batman, the public would’ve been more accepting.
That’s all I have to say on that front. I’m just glad that they finally have their act together.