All 30 DC movies ranked, including 'Justice League'

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Yahoo Movies
Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ezra Miller (Flash), and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) in&nbsp; <em>Justice League.</em>&nbsp;(Photo: Warner Bros.)
Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ezra Miller (Flash), and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) in  Justice League. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

While not exactly super friends yet, some of DC’s most famous heroes — including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and the Flash — have finally assembled for Justice League. Zack Snyder’s would-be blockbuster aims to be the jewel in the DC Comics cinematic crown (and a worthy rival to Marvel’s cape-and-cowl crowd). To do so, however, Justice League will have to best a wide range of DC-based films dating back to the 1950s. To get you ready for what’s sure to be one of 2017’s biggest releases, we present a ranked rundown of DC’s long movie history. We are sticking to live-actions stand-alone films only, in case you’re wondering why stellar cinematic ‘toons like The Lego Batman Movie or Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as well as the 1940s Republic serials are MIA.

30. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
Produced by legendary schlockmeisters Cannon Films, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is the definition of ill-conceived — a high-profile, effects-heavy sequel made by a company that didn’t have the money or skill to pull it off. Inspired by star Christopher Reeves’s anti-nuclear proliferation politics, the story concerns Superman’s attempts to rid the globe of atomic weapons, a mission that’s opposed by steroidal, long-locked Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) — created by Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) — who looks like a reject from American Gladiators. That inert plot is, amazingly, the least of the film’s concerns. Resembling a rough cut with unfinished effects rather than a proper theatrical release, the movie drags Superman down into the B-movie gutter, where he languished for 19 years before being resurrected by Bryan Singer in 2006’s Superman Returns.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman IV: The Quest for Peace’:

29. Batman & Robin (1997)
The Dark Knight becomes a pun-pummeled punchline in Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher’s dreadful 1997 sequel. George Clooney looks embarrassed to be wearing a nipple-adorned costume; Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone engage in “hip” teen bickering as, respectively, Robin and Batgirl; Uma Thurman slinks around like a wannabe-Jessica Rabbit as vegetative villain Poison Ivy; and Arnold Schwarzenegger — in the performance that gave birth to a hundred GIFs — partakes in endlessly embarrassing wordplay as Mr. Freeze. From fake-looking sets to garish costumes to horrible slapstick set pieces such as one in which the Dynamic Duo battle baddies on ice skates, the film is a candy-color disaster that plays like a commercial for innumerable tie-in toys and fast-food items. Until Christopher Nolan arrived, it effectively did what no supervillain could: Kill the Batman.

The 5 most cringe-worthy moments from ‘Batman & Robin’:

28. Superman and the Mole Men (1951)
Lippert Pictures released this 58-minute feature in theaters, but Superman and the Mole Men is little more than a pilot for the eventual 1950s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel — and in every respect, it plays like a midcentury small-screen program. Without a trace of humor, Reeves’s Superman travels to a nondescript small town where Mole Men —little people in pitiful furry costumes and even more pitiful bald caps — are being hounded by nasty rednecks. Rather than using his superpowers to save these oppressed creatures, however, Superman spends most of his time delivering tedious speeches about the value of tolerance. Reeves’s maiden turn as Superman is hopelessly stilted and corny, and the lack of action (aside from a single animated flying sequence and an awkward car chase, there’s no excitement to be found) leaves this as a best-left-forgotten relic.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman and the Mole Men’:

27. Jonah Hex (2010)
A mess from the moment its production got underway, at which point its original directors (Crank’s Neveldine/Taylor duo) had already been replaced by Jimmy Hayward, Jonah Hex is a scattershot assembly of scenes in desperate search of an actual story. What passes for a plot involves a Civil War soldier named Jonah (Josh Brolin) who, after being resurrected, discovers that he has the power to bring the dead back to life and sets about on a vengeful mission to murder the officer (John Malkovich) who tried to kill him. With a cast that also includes Michael Fassbender, Michael Shannon, Will Arnett, and Megan Fox, and with a score from prog-metal titans Mastodon, there’s on-hand talent to spare. Alas, almost nothing about its aimless action makes any sense. It’s no surprise that the film was an unqualified critical and commercial disaster.

Watch the trailer for ‘Jonah Hex’:

26. Catwoman (2004)
Fitting for a film whose villain (Sharon Stone’s makeup titan) hatches an evil plot involving beauty products, Catwoman cares about nothing more than the physical attributes of its star Halle Berry. Those are considerable, of course, yet they’re not enough to prop up this superficial spinoff, about a timid graphics designer (Berry) who dies, is resurrected by an Egyptian cat, and learns that she has all sorts of feline-esque superpowers. Sporting a costume that’s as ridiculous as it is revealing, Berry’s Catwoman purrs, hisses, and scratches with over-the-top goofiness, and director Pitof sticks her in various spastically edited centerpieces notable for their sorry one-liners and even more feeble special effects. The movie is too tame to register as sexy, and its stabs at feminism are almost as dense as its storyline is kitty-litter putrid.

Watch the trailer for ‘Catwoman’:

25. The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
There’s no way to take The Return of Swamp Thing, a Z-grade affair directed by Jim Wynorski (here replacing the first film’s helmer, Wes Craven), except as deliberate camp. In this thoroughly unnecessary follow-up, Swamp Thing (Dick Durock) — a scientist transformed into a fuzzy-green monster by one of his experimental serums — comes to the aid of the beauteous Heather Locklear, who happens to be the step-daughter of Swamp Thing’s archnemesis Dr. Arcane (Louis Jourdan), who had something to do with her mother’s death and who’s intent on creating more plant-based creatures. The effects are pathetic, the acting is even more wooden, and the story itself is so dim that it’s hard not to root for everyone to drown in a particularly deep part of the Florida swamps.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Return of Swamp Thing’:

24. Steel (1997)
Shaquille O’Neal was such a fun-loving NBA sensation that, for a time during his early-’90s heyday, Hollywood believed he might make a larger-than-life movie star. As Steel helped confirm, however, this was an incorrect assumption. Based on a character who, in DC lore, was one of four Supermanish figures to emerge after the Man of Steel’s highly publicized 1992 comic-book “death,” Steel details the crime-fighting efforts of John Henry Irons (O’Neal), who, with his wheelchair-bound sidekick (Annabeth Gish), builds a suit of armor that allows him to combat an evil weapons manufacturer (Judd Nelson). Director Kenneth Johnson’s awkward staging turns everything unintentionally hilarious, as do performances from Gish and Nelson that feel like auditions for Saturday Night Live. That said, they’re no more absurd than O’Neal, who fails miserably at being both a gentle giant and an imposing force of superheroism.

Watch the trailer for ‘Steel’:

23. Supergirl (1984)
A spinoff driven by sheer, unadulterated silliness, Supergirl recounts the origins of its heroine (Helen Slater), a native of some random Kryptonian outpost who travels to Earth in order to recover a magical item lost by Peter O’Toole’s moron. There she finds that the object has already been acquired by Faye Dunaway’s witch, who promptly uses it to create trouble of a pitiful sort, all of which is dramatized by director Jeannot Szwarc with minimal inventiveness and even less skill. Full of supernatural nonsense that the film seems to be making up on the fly and marked by desperate attempts to link itself to the Christopher Reeve Supermans, it’s a dreary fiasco.

Watch the trailer for ‘Supergirl’:

22. V for Vendetta (2006)
Alan Moore’s graphic novel may have struck a chord upon its initial 1988 release, and in the process turned its protagonist’s Guy Fawkes mask into a symbol of anti-tyranny rebellion. But in a post-9/11 world, its tale of a terrorist who strikes back against the despotic West still reeks of, shall we say, dubious politics. Just as bad, however, is that its near-future tale, about a revolutionary named V (Hugo Weaving) who spurs an uprising in fascistic England, is dramatized by director James McTeigue with an endless array of visual devices borrowed from his mentors the Wachowskis. Awash in second-rate slow-motion and bullet-time effects, it’s an action film that doesn’t exhibit a single original gesture that might help enliven its knuckleheaded ideas. As a young woman recruited to V’s cause, Natalie Portman is commanding, but there’s no salvaging this allegorical disaster.

Watch the trailer for ‘V for Vendetta’:

21. Green Lantern (2011)
An avalanche of rapid-fire Ryan Reynolds quips and a nonstop assault of CG effects conspire to make Green Lantern a clumsy, exhausting superhero spectacle. The story of a pilot (Reynolds’s Hal Jordan) who’s granted extraordinary abilities by a power ring and lantern — which make him part of an intergalactic peacekeeping force known as the Green Lantern Corps — this Martin Campbell-directed work is a compendium of bad jokes, ugly digital creations, and constant clichés, to the point that it plays like some sort of out-of-control parody of its men-in-tights genre. Stuck with subpar material, Reynolds and his castmates (Mark Strong, Peter Sarsgaard, Angela Bassett, Tim Robbins, Blake Lively) overact in one green-screened set piece after another. For a film about a ring that can produce anything its owner envisions, it’s woefully short on imagination.

Watch the trailer for ‘Green Lantern’:

 

20. Suicide Squad (2016)
Dirty Dozen-style version of the traditional superhero team-up movie sounds great on paper. In execution, unfortunately, Suicide Squad is decidedly less than the sum of its parts. The one part that does work like gangbusters is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who is parlaying her character’s major pop-culture imprint into one of two possible spinoff movies. But everything else — from the haphazard plotting to the underwhelming characterizations of classic characters like Killer Croc and the Enchantress — suggests that studio interference and/or lack of a clear vision are the villains behind Suicide Squad‘s downfall.

Watch the trailer for ‘Suicide Squad’:

19. Superman III (1983)
Superman III’s highlight comes when the Last Son of Krypton, corrupted by his contact with Kryptonite, literally splits into “good” and “evil” versions of himself, which then proceed to fight each in a junkyard. Aside from that evocative visualization of the hero’s inner struggle, however, this Richard Lester-helmed third installment in the Christopher Reeve franchise is a dreary affair rooted far too heavily in broad comedic high jinks. Much of that is due to the miscasting of Richard Pryor, who plays a computer programmer blackmailed by his nefarious boss (Robert Vaughn) into collaborating on a takeover of the global coffee industry. If that scheme weren’t underwhelming enough, Vaughn’s tycoon then tries to kill Superman by using a ridiculously fanciful supercomputer. A jokey Pryor is out of place amid these superpowered proceedings, and the story’s desire to have him play an integral role in Superman’s triumph renders the action borderline inane.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman III’:

18. Batman Forever (1995)
Disappointed by the relative box-office underperformance of Batman Returns, Warner Bros. replaced director Tim Burton with Joel Schumacher — and compelled him to chart a more kid-friendly course — for Batman Forever, in which Val Kilmer assumes the legendary cowl. Channeling the spirit of the ’60s TV show to mediocre effect, Schumacher’s first series entry derives its energy from its two villains, Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face and Jim Carrey’s Riddler, with both marquee stars seemingly engaged in a mugging-for-the-camera competition. Carrey wins that duel by a decent margin. Yet the tone is pitched to such a cartoonish level — and Kilmer and Nicole Kidman (as Bruce Wayne’s love interest) are so wooden — that the film primarily plays like a loud, screechy joke.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman Forever’:

17. Batman: The Movie (1966)
The theatrical debut of DC’s legendary hero, Batman: The Movie premiered shortly after the conclusion of the 1960s TV series’ first season. As such, it’s little more than a continuation of that show’s brand of cornball comic-booky action humor, with Adam West and Burt Ward embodying the Caped Crusader and his boy-wonder sidekick, Robin, as overenunciating do-gooders equipped with elaborate gadgets and a fire-spewing Batmobile. Bolstered by its small-screen sibling’s pow-blam-kablooey flourishes, and co-starring its most famous villains (Cesar Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman, and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler), it’s a diverting camp comedy, albeit one whose incessant jokiness is of such an eye-rolling nature that, at 105 minutes, it wears out its welcome long before its conclusion. That said, the sight of a midair-suspended Batman kicking a shark off his leg, and then causing it to explode thanks to some “shark repellent,” is worth the price of admission alone.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman: The Movie’:

16. The Losers (2010)
A serviceable riff on The A-Team, The Losers — based on the series of the same name published by DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint — is buoyed by its sterling lead foursome: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Chris Evans. Together, they’re a black-ops unit who are forced to fake their deaths and go on the run when they discover that their boss (Jason Patric) is a corrupt criminal. Director Sylvain White’s film distracts attention away from its been-here, done-that nature through the smartass camaraderie of its protagonists, a badass bunch whose penchant for violence is matched by their fondness for cracking wise. Its clichés are handled with just enough stylish attitude — from Elba and Saldana in particular — to make them, if not thrilling, at least sporadically entertaining.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Losers’:

15. Swamp Thing (1982)
Wes Craven took a deliberate detour away from boundary-pushing horror to try his hand at more mainstream, action-oriented fantasy with Swamp Thing. Even if the results are far from consistent, his film’s blend of cheesy romanticism, slam-bang supernatural combat, and Frankenstein-inspired drama has B-movie charm to burn. Reasonably faithful to its source material, Craven’s tale concerns a scientist (Ray Wise) who’s transformed — through unintended contact with his own revolutionary concoction — into the moss-green Swamp Thing, and then battles an evil military villain (Louis Jourdan) while trying to protect his true love (Adrienne Barbeau). Though Swamp Thing’s costume and Craven’s effects haven’t aged well, their archaic quality only further underlines the way in which the project operates as not only a straightforward adaptation of DC Comics’ classic character but something of a loving tongue-in-cheek homage to old-school creature features.

Watch the trailer for ‘Swamp Thing’:

14. Superman Returns (2006)
Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman Returns is part reboot, part sequel, picking up sometime after Superman II and detailing the efforts of its hero to reintegrate himself into society after a five-year absence. Singer’s desire to pay tribute to Richard Donner’s first two Superman blockbusters gives his work its nostalgic power, but it also burdens it with too much photocopied mood, energy, and spirit. There’s a sense throughout this adventure that it’s playing an elaborate game of Donner dress-up, with Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth as bland, misbegotten stand-ins for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. Regardless, Kevin Spacey has a blast as the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor, whose lunatic plot involves creating a new continent whose real estate he can sell at a premium. And Singer’s often-gorgeous direction adequately cast the hero as a Christ-like figure caught between his earthly and cosmic homes.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman Returns’:

13. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Zack Snyder’s gargantuan superhero face-off is simply too much movie. So compelled to establish numerous points of future-franchise-players interest that it shortchanges them all, Snyder’s Man of Steel follow-up finds mankind increasingly distrustful of Superman (Henry Cavill), with megalomaniac Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, doing a psychotic speed-freak rendition of his The Social Network Mark Zuckerberg) and vengeful vigilante Batman (a glowering Ben Affleck) both looking to acquire Kryptonite in order to kill the alien god. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) also factors into the bursting-at-the-seams proceedings, which are best when building to the climactic battle. Snyder’s action choreography and direction are typically aggro-muscular and oppressively bleak, although his orgiastic CGI somewhat undercuts the sheer majesty of his larger-than-life characters. Unbalanced in Batman’s favor — and thus slipshod with regards to Superman and his moral dilemmas — the story climaxes with an ear-ringingly loud monster mash. Bombastic in every respect, its more-is-more approach is both its greatest strength and weakness.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman v Superman’:

12. Constantine (2005)
Based on the Hellblazer comic series from DC’s more mature content-skewing Vertigo imprint, Constantine concerns a supernaturally inclined exorcist named John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) with the power to see — and send back to hell — those demons intent on possessing the living. A sort of biblical comic-book noir in which its weary, jaded protagonist fights evil in a vain attempt to curry favor with heaven, Francis Lawrence’s 2005 film is a dark, creepy, personality-overloaded genre hybrid that finds a sterling Reeves pairing up with Rachel Weisz (as a cop investigating her twin’s mysterious suicide) in order to combat all manner of gods and monsters. Sporadically weighed down by tired conventions (none more aggravating than the wisecracking comic-relief sidekick, here played by a young Shia LaBeouf), it’s an undervalued DC effort that generates considerable electricity from the performances of Reeves, Tilda Swinton as the androgynous half-angel Gabriel, and Peter Stormare as hell’s Dark Lord.

Watch the trailer for ‘Constantine’:

11. Man of Steel (2013)
Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ second Superman reboot drew the ire of die-hards for depicting its hero, during his climactic showdown with genocidal Kryptonian villain General Zod (a fantastically fanatical Michael Shannon), committing a cardinal canonical no-no: murder. However, that act, as well as the near-decimation of Metropolis during Supes and Zod’s throwdown, are part and parcel of a film aiming to reposition the character as a God forced, somewhat reluctantly, to come to grips with the responsibility, and consequences, of his powers. Henry Cavill embodies Superman as a fundamentally noble figure struggling with his place in his non-native world, and Zack Snyder’s hyper-CG-ified direction — though indulging in somewhat laughable imagery, especially during its Krypton-set scenes — infuses the action with faster-than-a-speeding-bullet muscularity. An assured tonal divorce from Richard Donner’s bright, colorful Superman entries, Man of Steel stands as a bracing act of grim revisionism.

Watch the trailer for ‘Man of Steel’:

10. Justice League (2017)
While DC fails to reach the mighty heights of Marvel’s Avengers with this overstuffed, over-adrenalized outing, Justice League proves a big leap forward from Batman v Superman, offering a more coherent and, dare we say, amusing take on Snyder’s oft-ponderous gods-among-us extended universe — no doubt courtesy of Joss Whedon’s 11th-hour reshoots. Look past the wooden dialogue (generally delivered by Ben Affleck’s Batman and Henry Cavill’s Superman), questionable characterizations (we’re not entirely sold on Jason Momoa’s surfer-boy Aquaman), and unconvincing CGI (the villainous Steppenwolf could’ve use a digital polish) to discover a solid popcorn-cruncher highlighted by Gal Gadot’s wondrous Wonder Woman and some visually stunning setpieces. Best of all, Justice League hints of future films that fully embrace the “hope and optimism” ethos of the comic source material.

Watch the trailer for ‘Justice League’:

9. Batman Begins (2005)
Bringing Batman back to the real world after the embarrassing cartoon ventures of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins takes an oh-so-serious return trip to the hero’s early days as a wayward billionaire who finds his crime-fighting calling via training at the hands of righteous ninja master Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). Those origin-story sequences are the highlight of Nolan’s 2005 reboot, an otherwise uneven film that’s overstuffed with plot involving Batman’s first run-in with detective Jim Gordon (a great Gary Oldman), his relationship with lawyer Rachel Dawes (an awful Katie Holmes), and clashes with mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and psycho psychologist Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Nolan’s action choreography is a helter-skelter mess, and his script’s habit of having every character talk endlessly about “fear” turns the proceedings far too monotonous. Still, with Bale as a dashing and determined Batman, it serves as a sturdy foundation for the far superior sequel The Dark Knight.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman Begins’:

8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s finale to his immensely successful trilogy doesn’t quite match its precursor’s marriage of arresting comic-book thrills and timely sociopolitical concerns, with Bane’s (Thomas Hardy) anti-corporate, anti-financial industry agenda turning the film into a somewhat muddled Occupy Wall Street parable. Nonetheless, if its themes don’t quite gel, Hardy’s bald, burly baddie proves a gripping social-unrest agitator, and his two battles with Christian Bale’s Batman, the first on a subterranean walkway and the second on the steps of a government building, are the highlights of this gem, which also finds the Dark Knight crossing paths with the proletariat-championing Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and a virtuous cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). It’s a fitting crescendo to Nolan’s ambitious series.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’:

 

7. Watchmen (2009)
Before Zack Snyder took the reins of DC’s current superhero-tag-team franchise, he assumed an equally weighty duty, at least for comic-book aficionados: adapting Alan Moore’s famed 1986 graphic novel Watchmen. Thought to be unfilmable (especially in light of numerous failed attempts, including one by Terry Gilliam), Moore’s tome is faithfully translated by Snyder, whose CGI-enhanced panoramas of costumed crusaders and scoundrels have a meticulous aesthetic precision that — like the source material — both commemorates, and comments on, the superhero genre. Snyder’s opus — about a group of retired superheroes compelled to resume their crime-fighting duties when one of their own is mysteriously assassinated — is a sprawling, messy beast. Kick-started by a masterful credit sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that nostalgically conveys 40 years of its American alterna-history, the film digs deeply into the sexual neurosis, blood lust, anxieties, and fascistic tendencies of its masked protagonists, as well as the terrible, twisted cost that true heroism sometimes requires.

Watch the trailer for ‘Watchmen’:

6. Batman (1989)
Desperate to redefine Batman as a brooding, tormented loner racked by childhood traumas — and, in the process, to distance the character from Adam West’s jokey goofball — Warner Bros. enlisted Tim Burton to bring his idiosyncratic sensibilities to this 1989 franchise-starter. Burton’s sterling Gothic direction and Danny Elfman’s equally phenomenal score (aided by Prince) make Batman an ominous aesthetic knockout, while the (at-the-time controversial) casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader shows that the actor is equally capable of being dashing, wry, and glowering. Kim Basinger is a sexy damsel in distress, though Burton’s bonkers saga thrives in large part thanks to Jack Nicholson, who exudes such gonzo energy as the Joker that he turns this epic clash between his villain and the Dark Knight (modeled, in spirit if not plot, after DC’s famous The Killing Joke comics series) into a two-hour deep-dive into funhouse-mirror madness.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman’:

5. Wonder Woman (2017)
The Amazon warrior fought a long, hard battle to get to the big screen, but her overdue solo adventure was worth the wait. Despite all the fan-casting that went on over the years, it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Gal Gadot wielding Diana’s truth-telling lasso and godkilling sword. And director Patti Jenkins smartly avoids every opportunity to objectify her leading lady, instead positioning her as a commanding figure in every frame. Where Batman and Superman have struggled to find their footing in the new DCEU, Wonder Woman stands tall whether on her own or flanked by other heroes.

Watch the trailer for ‘Wonder Woman’:

4. Superman: The Movie (1978)
The original superhero blockbuster, Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman, set the template for the genre and helped define DC Comics’ most famous character for generations to come. Donner recounts both Superman’s Kryptonian origins — complete with the participation of Marlon Brando, in a cameo part that netted him a historic payday — as well as his Smallville upbringing with sweeping, nostalgia-saturated spectacle. The later action involving the hero’s early caped escapades in Metropolis, where he squares off against Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor and falls into a romance with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, are similarly memorable, including a finale in which Superman literally reverses time in order to resurrect his love. In every respect, Donner’s film captures the innocence, excitement, and iconographic majesty of the hero’s initial DC (and Action Comics) incarnations, thanks in no small part to Christopher Reeve, whose square jaw, megawatt charm, and sense of moral decency remains, nearly 40 years later, the Superman gold standard.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman’:

3. Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton compensates for the loss of Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker by focusing on the diabolical duo of Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman for 1992’s Batman Returns, a follow-up that, in every respect, amplifies the dark charms of its predecessor. Those villains’ twisted psyches make them kindred flip-side spirits to the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton), especially in the case of the feline thief, who’s torn between her dueling day and night identities. With even more lavishly demented set design, Burton’s film places its prime emphasis on its carnivalesque crooks, and with good reason — DeVito’s Penguin is a menacing freak show, and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is a vengeful sexpot decked out in what may be cinema’s all-time greatest latex outfit. Christopher Walken’s presence (as corrupt politician Max Shreck) gives the material an additional wacko kick, as does an overarching more-is-better ethos that makes it the apex of the original Batman movies.

Watch the trailer for ‘Batman Returns’:

 

2. Superman II (1980)
Christopher Reeve’s second go-round as the Man of Steel may not exhibit quite the mythic grandeur of the 1978 original film, but it makes up for that by delving more deeply into his tumultuous character — with Superman torn between being an extraterrestrial do-gooder and an average-Joe partner to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) — and pitting him against his best cinematic adversaries: merciless Kryptonian criminal General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his two sidekicks, the bruising Non (Jack O’Halloran) and ruthless Ursa (Sarah Douglas). Despite director Richard Donner’s being removed from the picture in favor of Richard Lester during the production’s home stretch, the film is an assured blend of character study and slam-bang action. It’s the most purely exciting and well-rounded of Superman’s celluloid adventures.

Watch the trailer for ‘Superman II’:

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan upped the ante — both for his own Batman trilogy, and for the superhero genre as a whole — with this peerless 2008 sequel, in which the Caped Crusader’s justice has proven so successful, it’s given birth to a new breed of crazy: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Clown Prince of Crime is the unforgettable centerpiece of Nolan’s film, which cannily reflects, and refracts, contemporary fears about anarchic terrorism and ruthless counterterrorism efforts. That it also features Christian Bale’s finest performance as the increasingly pushed-to-his-limits Batman, a sterling turn by Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent (the white-knight prosecutor destined to become Two-Face), and a series of magnificent set pieces only further cements it as the finest big-screen outing to date by DC Comics.

Watch the trailer for ‘The Dark Knight’:

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this ranking ran in 2016; Ethan Alter and Marcus Errico contributed to the revised list.

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