Sunday, August 8, 2021

Sunday Best: Ranking the DCEU Movies (Update 2021)

 With the release of The Suicide Squad, I thought that it would be a good time to evaluate the movies in the DCEU. 

It is no secret that DC struggles to have the same success as Marvel in the film.  Success leads to greater output.  And so you can see the marked distinction between DC's 10 theatrical films (and one straight to streaming) to Marvel's 24 theatrical films (and 3 streaming series).

If I were to put my finger on the basic difference between the two it is this: 

DC is director-centered

Marvel is producer-centered

DC hires directors with strong visions like Zack Snyder, Patty Jenkins, David Ayer, Cathy Yan, and James Gunn.  They give these directors great latitude to do what they want.  The problem is that when you give creative people no restraints, you will get the extremes of greatness or awfulness.  The great movies of the DCEU are some of the best super hero films ever made.  The bad ones are some of the worst.  And you cannot try to constrain the vision after-the-fact.  This leads to the muddling of the work as in the theatrical Justice League and Suicide Squad.

Marvel, on the other hand, holds tight rein of their directors.  They give them strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be in the movie.  This is so much so that often some of the action sequences will already be determined and pre-visualized even before a director is chosen.  This is why some directors like Edgar Wright and Joss Whedon drop out of big projects.  But the result is that you have a product that has mass appeal for the largest audience.

In other words, Marvel gets on base while DC swings for the fences.

Now, this is not a hard and fast rule for both companies.  Aquaman very much followed the Marvel formula and we can see in Phase 4 some experimentation with the MCU, but generally these views apply.

With that in mind, here is an updated ranking of the 11 DCEU films:

11. Birds of Prey:  And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Harley standing on a giant clamshell, surrounded by the other characters, in a spoof of Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus.

In my Film Flash for The Suicide Squad, I said that it was the worst of the DCEU films.  But I had completely forgotten about Birds of Prey. 

As I wrote previously: "Birds of Prey is a failure on every single level of film-making.  This movie isn't so much a movie as it is a rant.  Nothing is fun, nothing is funny.  As a comic book critic I follow says, the movie is filled with 'LOL so random!' humor that it never actually approaches anything like real comedy.  All of this would be tolerable if we connected on any level to the characters, which we do not.  There is nothing enjoyable, likable, approachable, or sympathetic about any of them.  And while I know that movies tend to deviate from their comic counterparts, what they did with Cassandra Cain is a complete waste of a fantastic and interesting character.  

"What makes it worse is that the movie is completely and utterly smug in how it presents itself, right to the final frame of the film.  The only time the movie has life is during some of the action sequences, particularly in the jail breakout.  For a moment we get a glimpse of what a real Birds of Prey movie could be, but it quickly collapses under the weight of its own inanity."

10. The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad official poster.jpeg

This one is still fresh in my mind and it may get better over time, but it is so morally rancid that I don't see it getting much better.  Unlike Birds of Prey, there is some real talent in the writing and directing and there are moments that are very good.  King Shark alone was entertaining enough.  But this bright bowl of nihilism never takes off the way it could.

9. Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984.png

This is an incredibly flawed sequel, but it is one that I still enjoy.  It is bright and colorful, but often forgets that it is an action film.  I know a number of people who think this movie is awful and I really don't have an excuse for all of its mistakes.  I can say that despite its shortcoming, the movie has enough good moments for me to enjoy.

8.  Suicide Squad

This was a bold choice for this franchise's 3rd film.  And the risk almost pays off.  The premise is unlike anything in the mainstream of super hero movies beforehand.  You had charismatic performances by Will Smith and Margot Robbie.  Heck, even the perennially unwatchable Jai Courtney was amazingly fun to watch.  But the movie suffers from three things:
a. a Joker performance that, while not terrible, suffers in comparison to Nicholson and Ledger
b. a incredibly uncompelling villain
c. a moral black hole in the middle of the movie from which the film never recovers.

This movie actually improves from its original standing having watched the much worse sequel.  

Shazam uses his phone while blowing bubblegum. To his left, the words "Shazam!" and "Just Say The Word" can be seen.

As I wrote earlier: "SHAZAM! is primarily a comedy with big action set pieces.  Because of the highly subjective nature of comedy, enjoyment of the movie will probably vary a bit more than standard super hero films.  But the humor is broad and varied, with plenty of silly jokes and slapstick.  The main source of the film's humor is in the concept of a young, immature child with the powers of someone like Superman.  The comparison to the Tom Hanks movie Big are unavoidable and the filmmakers lean heavily into it, even making a funny visual reference to that movie during a scene in a toy store."

6. Justice League (Theatrical)
Justice League film poster.jpg

I was never someone who hated Joss Whedon's Justice League.  In fact, I saw it multiple times in the theater because I like it so much.  Whedon was given a terrible task of trying to completely change and already completed film.  As a result, the movie is very uneven.  Still, the movie is not nearly as bad as everyone claimed it to be.  But the film does suffer in comparison to Zack Snyder's original vision which we can now all see.  Of the two, this is the inferior one.

5. Aquaman
Aquaman poster.jpg

As I wrote earlier, there are two things that make this film so enjoyable:
"The first is Jason Momoa.  This man is a bonafide action movie star.  He is a charisma machine.  Like Dwayne Johnson, he connects to the audience in a simple way by letting you feel like you are in the good guy's corner and are part of his team.  His effortless charm is horribly disarming.  If that was the extent of his ability, however, Momoa would be another interchangeable movie tough guy.  But this man act.  ...

"The second is director James Wan visual direction.  Aquaman is a great action movie.  Wan knows how to film the up-close-and-personal fighting as in the movies sub rescue.  He also knows how to film a thrilling chase, as we see in the Black Manta sequence.  And he knows how to create the epic scope of an full-scale battle.  In a movie like this, the visuals must not only be dynamic, they must also be cool.  This is essential to get us to buy into these mer-men battles.  The over-the-top nature of the sequences makes it easy for the film to collapse under its own ridiculousness.  But Wan hooks you in and makes you want to see what new visual feat he has planned next.  The scope is like something out of a Peter Jackson fantasy."

4. Wonder Woman

As super hero origin stories, this is one that was done right.  While it has familiar story beats to other films that have come before it, it feels epic and iconic.  I have seen so many comic book movies, but the No Man's Land scene might be one of my favorites of all time.  Wonder Woman is a fantastic hero whose strength and femininity, courage and innocence, are all wrapped together to make a great movie.

The third act villain falls apart a bit, but the movie still holds up.  When you compare it to the sequel, you can feel how this one holds up better.  All of this is held up by Gal Gadot's charisma.

3.  Zack Snyder's Justice League
Grayscale poster with the ensemble characters

This is one of the most satisfying super hero film experiences I have had.  After years, we finally were able to see Zack Snyder complete his vision, of which we only received glimpses before.  The result is a much improved story that fills out the characters, their relationships, and the performances, and this includes what we find with the villains.  This would be higher on the list if it felt like a finale.  Instead, Snyder ended his movie with an epilogue that looks too much into an uncertain cinematic future rather than into a "Happily Ever After."

2.  Man of Steel

There are so many moments in this movie that still give me chills.  People knock on the movie for Superman not being the pillar of optimism and hope that he normally is.  But that was one of the things I loved about the movie.  Superman has to rise above the cynicism of the age that he was also raised in.  He is called to be more, to rise above.  And he does.  Even though he stumbles, he rises.

1.  Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

My love for this movie only grows and grows.  Zack Snyder fully committed to make a movie that used these iconic characters to explore deeper questions about life while still being focused on that iconography.  The movie, to my mind, is unappreciated genius.  And I am more convinced of this with each viewing.  One of the best things about Zack Snyder's Justice League is that you can see the trajectory of the characters, particularly Batman, over the course of the series.  With that, knowing that Batman v. Superman is the Dark Knight at his moral lowest, it is a pleasure to see him rise again to the hero he should be.


1 comment:

  1. I too really like Batman v Superman. My only complaint (outside of the Martha scene) is that Batman wasn't depicted as loosing his grip on morality, whether because of anger or jealousy. Unlike Marvel's Civil War movie where the heroes weren't trying to kill each other, Batman was literally trying to murder Superman. If you have one hero trying to murder another hero, at least one of them needs to clearly be in the wrong. If Snyder had shown, not a properly functioning Bruce Wayne/Batman, but one obsessed by and corrupted by anger and/or jealousy, that would have made the story more cohesive. Have Batman blinded by rage/jealousy and then in the Martha scene, have him view Superman, for the 1st time, as a person. My two cents. But I still very much enjoyed the movie.