We have a real love-hate relationship with movies based on DC Comics characters.
On the one hand, we absolutely loved the original (1978) Superman, played by Christopher Reeve. Wonder Woman (2017) reignited our passion for the character. And Heath Ledger's sinister turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), rewarded with both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, is impossible to forget.
Then, on the other hand, there's Halle Berry's Catwoman (2004), a film The Austin Chronicle called "utterly devoid of merit, fantastic or otherwise."
And as for Shaquille O'Neal's superhero film Steel (1997)... well, all we'll say is "yikes" to that one.
But as mixed as DC Comics' record at the box office has been, we still keep coming back for more. We're beyond hyped for the Todd Phillips-directed Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, due out October 4. (You can read our review of Joker here.) We're cautiously optimistic about the still-mysterious Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), starring Margot Robbie, due out in 2020. And don't even get us started about how badly we want to see Gal Gadot return in the retro-styled Wonder Woman 1984, also due in 2020.
But while we're waiting for those box-office treats, we thought it would be the perfect time to revisit DC Comics' history at the box office to see which movies are truly legendary, and which are utterly forgettable monstrosities. (There's a little wiggle room in-between, as Jason Momoa's Aquaman proved, but not much.)
Here's every live-action DC movie to be released in the last 40 years, ranked from worst to best via their Metacritic scores. (When there was no Metascore available, we used the corresponding Rotten Tomatoes ranking.)
There's not a lot to like in this 1987 film that pits the Man of Steel against the woefully forgettable villain Nuclear Man. Says Desson Thomson of The Washington Post: "More sluggish than a funeral barge, cheaper than a sale at K-mart, it's a nerd, it's a shame, it's Superman IV."
Metacritic Score: 25
Says Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal, "connoisseurs of trashy camp" will find this 2004 Halle Berry movie to be "top-grade catnip."
Otherwise, Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle writes, "a more exasperating descent into the feline world is difficult to imagine." Ouch.
Metacritic Score: 27
While we're on the subject of trashy camp, let's talk about the final Batman film of the 1990s, Batman & Robin.
"Clooney's stiff cornball delivery and tendency to smile during the most tragic moments bring this as close to the cartoonish Batman television series of the 1960s as any of the movies have come," writes Barbara Shulgasser of the SF Examiner.
Metacritic Score: 28
In this 1997 box-office bomb, weapon designer John Henry Irons (played by Shaquille O'Neal) becomes the superhero Steel to stop his former employer (Judd Nelson) from selling guns to criminals.
Says Sean Means of Film.com: "Steel isn't a movie to excite or even entertain. It exists to move merchandise -- specifically, Shaquille O'Neal's oversized physique and marketing machine."
Metacritic Score: N/A
Rotten Tomatoes: 12%
This 2010 film about a Confederate cavalryman-turned-bounty-hunter stars Josh Brolin as Hex and John Malkovich as Quentin Turnbull, his commanding officer-turned-terrorist.
Says the Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore: "Brolin is so damned good in the saddle, in the hat and in the part that a half-sober viewer could half forget how half-arsed this movie he's starring in is."
Metacritic Score: 33
Despite all its body horror, this sequel to 1982's Swamp Thing is lighter and campier than its predecessor, with plenty of (attempted) humor. It earned Heather Locklear a Razzie award for Worst Actress.
Says William Thomas of Empire: "The world can only hope The Swamp Thing's abode is now bulldozered and turned into a shopping mall."
Metacritic Score: 39
This 2011 superhero film is the story of how Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) becomes the first human Green Lantern.
"The result," says Michael Wilmington of Reader, "is a deadly disappointment, despite Ryan Reynolds's cocky, muscle-flexing charisma as the daredevil test pilot turned intergalactic peacekeeper and Peter Sargaard's movie-stealing turn as a nerdy scientist turned psycho monster."
Metacritic Score: 39
Though we thought the character-driven fun of this 2016 anti-hero flick, starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Will Smith as Deadshot, outweighed its flaws, other critics were far harsher.
Susan Wloszczyna of RogerEbert.com says: "With a few, rare exceptions, the attempts at humor in Suicide Squad land with a thud—that is, if you can hear such a sound over the deafening din of gunfire and the bombastic score."
Metacritic Score: 40
Though there are many connections between this 1984 film and the Superman franchise -- the title character (played by the relatively unknown Helen Slater) poses as Clark Kent's cousin Linda Lee and befriends Lois's sister Lucy -- Christopher Reeve opted not to appear in Supergirl, even as a cameo.
Writes David Ansen of Newsweek: "Slater makes you believe that people wouldn't know brunette Linda Lee was actually blond Supergirl. That may not be a major cinematic achievement, but it's about the best that Supergirl has to offer."
Metacritic Score: 42
In this relatively unsuccessful-though-profitable 1983 film, beloved hero Superman turns into a total jerk due to counterfeit Kryptonite made by Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor).
"Superman III emerges as a surprisingly soft-cored disappointment," writes Variety in is review. "Putting its emphasis on broad comedy at the expense of ingenious plotting and technical wizardry, it has virtually none of the mythic or cosmic sensibility that marked its predecessors."
Metacritic Score: 44
In this 2016 film, Batman (Ben Affleck) distrusts Superman (Henry Cavill) and sees him as a future threat, while Superman seeks to expose the vigilante Batman. The end result: A disappointing movie where Superman dies.
Slate's Jonathan Fischer says, "this comics fan hated Batman v Superman with the fury of a thousand red-dwarf suns," calling the film blunt, humorless and baffling.
Metacritic Score: 44
Despite making more than $657 million at the box office, this CGI-heavy fifth installment in the DC Extended Universe that sees the resurrection of Superman actually lost money overall.
"It's better than you may expect," says Allison Shoemaker of Consequence of Sound, "a mostly tolerable movie made occasionally enjoyable by a few lively performances, one good fight sequence, and a solid punchline or two."
Metacritic Score: 45
Wes Craven's 1982 cult classic about a researcher-turned-swamp-monster drew mixed reviews. Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times says "there's beauty in this movie, if you know where to look for it."
TV Guide, meanwhile, says "the whole thing is merely silly and not much fun."
Metacritic Score: 50
Says M.E. Russell of The Oregonian, "the movie's stuffed (some might say overstuffed) with wonderfully staged moments and set pieces."
Metacritic Score: 50
This kitschy 1995 film, directed by Joel Schumacher, pits Val Kilmer's Batman and Chris O'Donnell's Robin against Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey). It's much more family-friendly than the better-reviewed Batman films that preceded it.
Rolling Stone's Peter Travers says: "Schumacher's method is to use a lighter touch, to stay closer to the cartoon that Bob Kane created for DC Comics in 1939 and to temper Burton's nightmare world with an accessible, brightly colored TV palette."
Metacritic Score: 51
This first movie in the DC Extended Universe, released in 2013, retells the origin story of Superman (Henry Cavill), who must stop General Zod (Michael Shannon) from destroying humanity and remaking Earth as a new Krypton.
"It has heft, it looks amazing, and it's businesslike to a fault," says Tim Robey of The Telegraph.
Metacritic Score: 55
Says Emily Yoshida of Vulture: "Aquaman's as formulaic, excessively thrashy, and mommy-obsessed as any other entry in the DCEU, but its visual imagination is genuinely exciting and transportive, and dare I say, fun."
Metacritic Score: 55
This 2009 film, based on the classic 1986-7 DC Comics limited series of the same name, is set in an alternate reality circa 1985 where superheroes exist and Richard Nixon serves as president.
"Watchmen is a fitting tribute to Alan Moore's fascinating graphic novel, even if he refused to let his name be used in the credits," writes Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer.
Metacritic Score: 56
This 1992 sequel to 1989's Batman, directed by Tim Burton, pits the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) against Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito), who wishes to kill all of Gotham City's first-born sons.
Writes Variety of the film: "Burton has once again managed to pursue his quirky personal concerns in the context of broadly commercial entertainment, although the idiosyncrasies of the villains clearly interest him far more than the programmable heroics of the title character and the related mandatory action sequences."
Metacritic Score: 68
"Batman is perfect summertime fare," says Hal Lipper of Tampa Bay Times. "Its secret is levity hidden in a dark and troubled soul."
Metacritic Score: 69
The first Batman film of the 2000s reboots the franchise with Christian Bale in the lead. It pits him against Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson), whom plan to destroy Gotham City using a specially engineered hallucinogen that causes fear.
Says Rene Rodriguez of The Miami Herald, "Batman Begins is a mature take on material often relegated to the kiddie file, and it's simply the latest proof that, when treated properly, comic books are a viable art form for all ages. Bring on the sequel."
Metacritic Score: 70
This 2019 film tells the incredibly fun story of a "pure of heart" teenage boy (played by Asher Angel) who, after meeting an ancient wizard, is granted the power to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi).
In Brandon Davis's review of Shazam! here on Comicbook.com, he says, "all things considered, Shazam! shapes up to be the best movie based on a DC Comics character since The Dark Knight changed the comic book movie game in 2008."
Metacritic Score: 70
In this 2006 film directed by Bryan Singer, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns to Earth after a 5-year absence, only to learn that Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has moved on and nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has been released from jail.
"The new Superman has its visionary charms," says Peter Rainer of The Christian Science Monitor, "but there's only so far you can go without great characters."
Metacritic Score: 72
The first ever Batman-franchise film to earn an R-rating for violence, this flick stars Joaquin Phoenix (with Todd Phillips directing). This disturbing tale of a failed stand-up comedian who becomes the most infamous Gotham City criminal of all time, the Joker.
Raves Terri White of Empire: "Bold, devastating and utterly beautiful, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix have not just reimagined one of the most iconic villains in cinema history, but reimagined the comic book movie itself."
You can read our own review of Joker here.
Metacritic Score: 72
In this movie, largely set in the year 1918, an immortal Amazon warrior (Gal Gadot) learns of the existence of World War I from a stranded pilot and sets out to stop the god she believes to be responsible for it.
"In the recent flood of superhero movies, several have managed to be quite good," explains Alonso Duralde of The Wrap, "but Wonder Woman ranks as one of the few great ones."
Metacritic Score: 76
In this final Christian Bale Batman film, the Caped Crusader is forced out of retirement by terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy), who seeks to complete the work of Ra's al Ghul and destroy Gotham City.
Says Lou Lumenick of the New York Post: "Christopher Nolan's dramatically and emotionally satisfying wrap-up to the Dark Knight trilogy adroitly avoids clichés and gleefully subverts your expectations at every turn."
Metacritic Score: 78
This is it: The superhero origin film that started a movie empire. Superman (Christopher Reeve) battles Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his plan to sink California into the Pacific and nuke Hackensack, New Jersey.
"Superman is a pure delight," says Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times, "a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects, and -- you know what else? Wit."
Metacritic Score: 80
Though Heath Ledger would not live to see the release of this 2008 blockbuster, his turn as Joker is absolutely unforgettable, winning almost every award for best supporting actor that Hollywood has to offer.
"Twisted, tortured, terrifying -- and terrific," raves Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News.
Metacritic Score: 84
A sequel that's better than the original? Believe it. In fact, Superman II (1981) is the best-reviewed DC Comics movie of all time. Reeve's Superman gives up his powers to spend the rest of his life with Lois, only to find that a trio of villains from Krypton have invaded Earth.2comments
Says Variety: "Superman II emerges as a solid, classy, cannily constructed piece of entertainment which gets down to action almost immediately."
Metacritic Score: 87