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DC superhero movies: Our critic ranks the best and worst

Christopher Reeve in 1978's "Superman."

Christopher Reeve in 1978's "Superman." Credit: Alamy Pictorial Press

If you thought politics was a good way to start an argument on the internet, try bringing up a DC Comics movie.

For years, DC has been overshadowed by rival comics company Marvel at the movies. With “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and many others, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved a magical combination of critical praise, widespread appeal and box-office success. The DC Extended Universe, meanwhile, has also been massively profitable, but the movies have been hard to love. “Man of Steel,” for example, the 2013 Superman story that launched the Extended Universe, earned an impressive $668 million worldwide, but critics gave it a soggy 56 percent rating at RottenTomatoes. Audience ratings for DC movies can get fairly low, too. “Man of Steel” earned a healthy 75 percent score, but 2016’s “Justice League” got an unimpressive 60 percent.

Fans who really, really love DC movies seem frustrated by the negativity surrounding the franchise. On the internet, these fans can get a little, let’s say, testy. Reactions to negative reviews can range from hostile emails to, in the case of Clarke Wolfe at Nerdist, outright death-threats. One fan recently took to Twitter to warn David F. Sandberg, the director of the upcoming “Shazam!” that there was little place for humor in the DC Extended Universe: “If you make DCEU funny like Marvel,” he wrote, “you die.”

Perhaps fortunately for everyone, DC movies have been improving lately, thanks to the rapturously received “Wonder Woman” — the first superhero film directed by a woman — and the enjoyably silly “Aquaman.” Add a few older titles to those recent triumphs, and you’ve got enough DC movies to round out a decent Top Ten list. Though it may mean dodging a speeding bullet or two, here is that list:

10. SHAZAM! (2019) DC’s cheesiest superhero, a teenage boy (Asher Angel) who can turn himself into a red-clad crusader (Zachary Levi) by uttering a silly word, gets exactly the movie he needs: A lighthearted, kid-friendly romp that’s as much about friendship and family as it is about punching villains.

9. AQUAMAN (2018) This extremely unpromising superhero — he controls fish? — turns out to be a very good hang, a grunge-rock bar-brawler who likes a tall beer after a night of submarine rescues. Director James Wan (of the “Saw” franchise!) digs into this pulp with gusto and humor, and comes up with pure multiplex entertainment.

8. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) Too low on the list, you say? The capper to Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking Batman trilogy suffers from an inaudible villain (Tom Hardy’s masked Bane) and too many themes (everything from economics to ecology). Still, it thinks big, aims high and looks great.

7. BATMAN BEGINS (2005) The opening salvo of Nolan’s trilogy introduced Christian Bale in the title role and set the stage for a new kind of grown-up superhero film. Critics were impressed by the intelligent dialogue and sophisticated visuals, which most comic-book movies lacked at the time. Though not the best in its series, it has the excitement of being the first.

6. BATMAN (1989) Tim Burton, high off the success of “Beetlejuice,” went Goth wild when he took the reins of this one. With an unexpectedly intense Michael Keaton in the title role, Jack Nicholson as a freaky Joker and a visual style lifted straight from the comic-pages, “Batman” sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t. It’s still impressive, though, as an early example of a now-ubiquitous genre.

5. BATMAN RETURNS (1992) Nicholson is out as the Joker, but Danny DeVito might go him one better as the repulsive Penguin. That particular villain sets the tone for Burton’s darker, weirder follow-up to his 1989 film. This time, Batman feels as badly damaged as his villains — the very point of the character, of course. And don’t forget Michelle Pfeiffer, still the sexiest Catwoman to slink across a screen.

4. WONDER WOMAN (2017) DC notched a gender milestone with this female superhero movie, the very first to be directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, of “Monster”). In addition to its smooth role reversal, the movie is quite simply a triumph, with a majestic Gal Godot in the lead, a swooningly romantic subplot (Chris Pine is the brave mortal Steve Trevor) and just the right touch of humor.

3. SUPERMAN II (1980) Richard Lester’s film is very nearly the equal of the 1978 original; each was filmed by different directors simultaneously, a rarity then and now. This one pushes our hero into new territory, turning him briefly mortal, and tastefully answers a question we had: Could Christopher Reeve’s Superman sleep with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane? Terence Stamp, as the arrogant General Zod, remains an iconic villain, still reigning on T-shirts and skateboard stickers everywhere.

2. SUPERMAN (1978) There’s a magic to Richard Donner’s 40-year-old film that hasn’t dimmed. Part of it is the unknown and ever-so-earnest Reeve in the title role. Part of it is Kidder as the tough-talking reporter who gets literally swept off her feet. The romance blends seamlessly with the action, and the effects, though dated, still have charm. Irresistible, even today.

1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) It wasn’t just the Batman trilogy but the entire superhero genre that hit a peak with this film. Heath Ledger’s frightening performance as the Joker, which earned him a posthumous Oscar, will always be the headline here, but the movie’s overall conceit — a dystopian parallel to our own troubled world — hit hard at the time and still packs a punch. “The Dark Knight” broke the mold and opened the floodgates, but has yet to be equaled.  

FIVE WORST

5. GREEN LANTERN (2011) You have to hand it to star Ryan Reynolds: This jade-colored turkey would have killed most careers, but he bounced back nicely in the $1.5 billion franchise “Deadpool.”

4. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987) Even worse than the Richard Pryor comedy “Superman III?” Yes, though at least the bargain-basement effects are worth a giggle.

3. SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) The shtick: Villains become heroes. The cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto. The look: Goth-rock circa 1995. The verdict: Just shoot me.

2. JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) The most irritating superhero (Ezra Miller’s Flash) and the most boring (Ray Fisher’s Cyborg) join the big boys, with exceptionally dismal results. Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman gets manspreaded to the sidelines.

1. BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) In their race to be the gloomiest and doomiest, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman basically have a staring contest for two hours and 31 minutes. It’s the opposite of superherodom: Slow and weak.

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