Even though the superhero genre, with its cinematic universes and CGI moustache removal, feels like a modern invention, it’s worth remembering that DC films have been around since 1978, with the release of Richard Donner’s Superman. Since then, DC has left numerous, indelible marks on comic book filmmaking — the Academy Award-winning Suicide Squad, multiple sets of Bat-nips and this scene from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, just to name a few. Oh, and The Dark Knight too. All jokes aside, DC’s filmography includes some of the best comic book adaptations of all time. Here are ten of them.
Richard Donner’s Superman defined the superhero film and its sterling illustration of optimism, idealism and sacrifice on screen has yet to be recreated in a similar comic book property, and for good reason. The genuineness with which each actor portrays their character, the reverent aura beget by Donner’s steadfast direction and John Williams’ iconically melodious score all work in cohesion to portray the quintessential cinematic take on the Man of Steel. Make no mistake, Christopher Reeve is Superman, and from the moment he exits a revolving door clad in red, blue and yellow, no one can deny that the presence he exudes is inspiring beyond belief. While Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer might think that the character needs to be deconstructed and morally-conflicted to be interesting, Donner knows that Superman is captivating in how his selflessness is innate, ingrained in his very being and staunch at the expense of a normal life. Simply put, he’s Superman because he wants to be and not solely out of a sense of duty to his adopted homeworld. It may have been released in the ‘70s, but Superman is timeless. No matter when you watch it, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
9. Superman II
What presents more of a threat to the Superman than a villainous plot revolving around the California real estate market? Three revenge-driven Kryptonians, an escaped arch-enemy and an introspective dilemma between want and responsibility — that’s what. Despite the uphill battle it was fighting after the character’s first stellar outing, Superman ll differentiates itself from its predecessor by grounding the Last Son of Krypton while upping the narrative ante. Superman’s hard to empathize with, given the, y’know, God-like powers and such, but director Richard Lester (and Richard Donner with his, arguably, better cut of the film) captures the mortality of the character by stripping him of his abilities and reminding audiences what truly makes him so super. Combine such a personally conflicted performance by Christopher Reeve as a now de-powered Clark with the mad zealotry of Terence Stamp’s Zod, and the film beautifully depicts two sides of a moralistic spectrum. Returning favorites such as Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Perry White and Eve Teschmacher round out one of the few great examples of a sequel done right.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
8. Road to Perdition
Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Jason Leigh, a young Tyler Hoechlin, director Sam Mendes and legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall? Road to Perdition is, surely, the most starry DC production ever.
Thankfully, it’s also one of the best. The film wisely uses everyman Tom Hanks against type as a ruthless mob enforcer seeking vengeance for the murder of his whole family, except for his young son played by Tyler Hoechlin. Like A History of Violence, the film asks the viewer to confront how violence becomes embedded within our families and, ultimately, creates the downfall of many people’s lives. Featuring Oscar-winning, exquisitely framed, lit and shot cinematography by Hall — this ended up being his last film prior to passing away — Road to Perdition is the most beautifully designed film on this list.
— Levi Hill
7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
As this list makes evident, there are more great Batman films than there are canonical Robins. The Nolan films are genius interpretations of classic characters, and the Burton films helped define what a cinematic Batman could be, but only one film on this list definitively represents a truly comic-accurate version of Batman; only one film here makes a deep dive into the psychology of the Dark Knight. That film, of course, is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, the cinematic extension of the classic Batman: The Animated Series. The creative team from the television show, including Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, lend their iconic art style and mature storytelling to this film, which coalesce to dramatically redefine Batman’s origin story with heaping amounts of genuine pathos. Just as he’s making his first forays into vigilantism, Bruce Wayne finds true love in Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany), and we see a Batman who is conflicted. “I didn’t count on being happy,” he says, as he crumbles in front of his parents’ graves. In this sense, the film pits past and present against each other, each vying to consume Batman. Thematically, this film is as rich as The Dark Knight, and arguably much more emotional — whereas most Batman films are content to let the Caped Crusader brood for the entire runtime, this film translates mere gloom to a nuanced, emotional sense of melancholy. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill voice Batman and the Joker, respectively, cementing their statuses as the definitive portrayals of both characters. Much has already been said about this film by more articulate fans than myself, so I’ll just link one of my favorite analyses here. Check it out, or better yet, just go watch this absolute gem of a movie.
— Harrison Tunggal
6. A History of Violence
Who would have thought that David Cronenberg’s best (arguably) and most humanistic (not as arguable) film would be an adaption of a graphic novel about the nature of violence? Yes, most of Cronenberg’s films tend to explore society’s obsession with violence, but typically with surreal trappings. For example, think of Videodrome’s satirical takedown of TV’s reliance on sex and murder to get audience’s invested, or the sex-crazed car crash survivors in Crash.
A History of Violence strips away most of the pretense, and focuses on how one small-town man who lives an upright life with his family can be haunted by violence. After a group of gangsters come to the town, threatening to hurt him or others, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) acts without hesitation with a stunning amount of brutal violence, killing the gangsters before they harm any innocent bystanders. While heralded as a hero by the local community, what happens after, though, is the quick realization that Tom was a former gangster himself, with a deep past of horrific crimes that are going to catch up to him. Using the deeper ruminations of the source material, A History of Violence is likely the most mature DC-adaption yet.
— Levi Hill
5. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film has received plenty of flack, but it’s hard, in retrospect, to feel as though the intense derision is fully warranted. We don’t view a film in a vacuum; The Dark Knight Rises followed not only arguably the greatest superhero movie of all time, but also one of the most influential films, period, of its era. The lens with which Rises has been viewed is different than most, the standards higher than most.
With that said, The Dark Knight Rises is an undoubtedly epic finale, expanding the scope and scale immensely while maintaining a firm grasp on the gritty realism that is thematically central to Nolan’s take. While The Dark Knight was more about Batman/the Bruce that’s behind the mask, this final installment places a raw Bruce front and center — and Christian Bale embraces the vulnerability and pain. This Bruce wants death; we can see the weight of his life on his tired face, and, when he finally can let go of the anger, it’s an immeasurably joyous feeling to see him at peace.
On top of all of that, The Dark Knight Rises deftly avoids the pitfall of bigger-but-emptier. The thematic idea behind Bane, a sort of re-emergence of the League of Shadows, but also a slight shift in its principles, is consistently engaging, and a layered look at the political manipulations that would allow for Bane to take over Gotham as he does. And while many complain about Tom Hardy’s voice, Bane is one of the better comic book villains of recent memory. Due mostly to Hardy, he’s physically intimidating unlike most antagonists we’ve seen, and his strange, almost Eastern European accent lends an aura of gravitas to the character too.
The detractors likely won’t sway too far from their positions, and that’s their right. But, no matter how flawed, The Dark Knight Rises still succeeds in capping the arc of the trilogy and of Bruce in a thematic and emotionally satisfying way, an absolutely massive and underappreciated accomplishment that few comic book trilogies, let alone trilogies in general, have accomplished.
— Kyle Kizu
When it was first announced, 1989’s Batman received its fair share of skepticism from fans and general audiences alike. Can you blame them? The director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the lead of Mr. Mom (what a decade the ‘80’s was) aren’t the first duo to come to mind when bringing Batman to cinematic life. However, with a certain teaser trailer, Warner Bros. was able to bide time and assuage moviegoers that this was going to be a dark, epic take on the Caped Crusader: how right they were. From its visually resplendent gothic aesthetic to Danny Elfman’s classic, rousing yet somber score, Batman ‘89 established a filmic experience for the character like never before. Tim Burton’s sets a simultaneously adventurous and tragic environment, anchored with committed character work by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, which infuses the film with a larger-than-life attitude that’s both entertaining and narratively fulfilling. Burton and company don’t shy away from their comic book roots, but, at the same time, don’t simply execute fan service scene after scene. This is a movie where the Joker realizes his appearance is both an extension of his own subconscious identity and a tool with which he can shift the status quo in Gotham City. This is also a movie where the Batwing flies in front of and recreates the Bat Signal against the moonlight. This is Batman ‘89.
— Sanjay Nimmagudda
3. Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film quickly became the landmark superhero origin story, and for good reason. Grounding Bruce Wayne in our world and committing to an intertwined idea of story, character, setting and theme — all living and breathing as one — Batman Begins is a gripping drama about grief, fear and justice. Applying his trademark sense of nonlinear structure to the beginning of the film, Nolan thoroughly impresses upon us one of the most three-dimensional characters the genre has seen, and proceeds to surround Wayne with nearly as equally defined supporting characters in Fox, Gordon and Alfred.
Batman Begins has influenced countless films after it, with many directly citing the film and Nolan in their approach. But what so many fail to understand is that the brooding darkness and gritty realism alone are not what make this film so special. It’s that both of those aspects are informed for what the story holds intrinsically. Bruce Wayne is just a man with no real powers, so of course his equipment would come from the military. He’s just a man with no real powers, so of course he would get bruised and beaten quite easily and extensively.
We’ve yet to get another origin story like it and it might be a while before we do.
— Kyle Kizu
2. Wonder Woman
Just as Wonder Woman saved Batman from becoming bat-toast in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, her first solo film saved the DCEU (for the time being, at least) when it needed it most. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman gives us a hero that kicks as much ass as Batman, and still embodies the sense of hope that defines Superman — a combination that made Wonder Woman the commercial and critical hit that the DCEU needed.
Essentially, Wonder Woman is a film about empowerment, and it’s downright inspirational, which, ironically, isn’t an adjective that’s often bandied about when speaking of superhero films. The immense impact of the film on younger viewers is already evident — you can click here to have your heart warmed, or just rewatch the film, or do both.
— Harrison Tunggal
1. The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight is not only the best DC film of all time, but it’s also arguably the best superhero film of all time and one of the best films, in general, of all time.
On a craft level, the film is masterful. So often do all of the elements coalesce — the score, the editing, the sound design, the cinematography and more — to create astounding action sequences that leave us absolutely breathless, like the opening bank heist and the underground police chase.
But where The Dark Knight steps to the next level is in how its craft executes its story. The film has four main characters — Bruce Wayne/Batman, Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and the Joker — and works them all into an immensely profound narrative of morality and sacrifice, especially in our post-9/11 society. We see our heroes manipulated by the Joker, and forced to bend their rules to stop him, but we also see that something is lost every time a rule is broken. The film has no hardline stance on morality, what’s just and what’s worth it, which ends up being for the better as it truly dimensionalizes these characters in ways that other films don’t. It also ends up making the Joker such an terrifying, effective and memorable villain.
Heath Ledger’s turn is one for the ages. It is the definition of transformation; every aspect of physical, verbal and mental performance is taken advantage of to leave us with a being that feels so abrasive, tangible and real — something made all the more stunning considering that the character is offered no backstory. Ledger’s Joker is the face of terror in the 21st century, and it’s one we won’t soon forget.
The Dark Knight is one of the great films of our time. It’s a film about a guy who dresses up as a bat, but it’s also a city crime drama as epic as The Godfather. It’s a superhero film that embraces the best of its genre, but also transcends it in every way imaginable.
— Kyle Kizu
Featured image via New Line Cinema/Warner Bros.