DC films have been getting a bad reputation lately, or the common joke or meme is that Marvel tends to make better movies than DC. Over the past two years, however, Warner Bros have put out a run of good movies from Wonder Woman to Aquaman, Shazam, and Joker. Movies such as those previously mentioned are no longer bound by a particular continuity or have to spearhead a bigger movie on the horizon. Some have argued that DC’s lack of continuity in the film makes for better movies than Marvel. While I am of the camp that Marvel has more consistent quality control than DC movies, I will say that I admire that DC likes to make changes and typically let the directors and writers tell any story they want. Back when the Superhero genre was new to the film medium, Warner Bros were taking chances with many DC Comics’ properties. Some of these movies have been great at setting themselves apart from the typical Superhero movie formula. I want to display my top 5 of these DC comics movies. Not only will I list the best of the best, but also examine a scene that shows the best qualities of that film.
5. Watchmen (2009)
Can I tell you something that is incredibly nerdy? Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen is my Bible. At least once a year, I will always flip through it, read it from beginning to end or watch some of its many adaptations. I love the world-building, the realistic and relatable characters, and the maturity of the adult themes that I had read when I was 12. However, I wouldn’t have read Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen without seeing Zack Synder’s 2009 film adaptation of Watchmen. The movie and the graphic novel introduced me to many mature themes about sex, politics, morality, philosophy, and violence. Something that had gone over my head even having seen the movie, and read the graphic novel several times was its message about the superhero genre and how dangerously juvenile it could be. Having viewed Zack Synder’s Watchmen recently, some of Alan Moore’s intended thesis on the Superhero genre was lost in translation. The mixed messages of whether or not the film believing superheroes to be good or bad are due to Synder making the heroes look heroic and badass during their fight scenes. Despite its flaws, however, Synder’s faithful adaptation is ultimately introduced to the work (as it was initially intended to do according to the director), and I believe it stands as one of his best films.
The scene that I believe best illustrates how gripping this film can be seen in the opening credits:
The world of Watchmen is set in an alternate history of the United States. Superheroes have existed since the 1930s and have influenced the political landscape and culture. The Watchmen movie is full of world-building documents, images, interviews, and visual motifs telling the reader about the world these “heroes” inhabit and how they’ve changed their lives. As a two-hour or even three-hour film, Zack Synder was not going to be able to capture all of the intricate little pieces of visual information that set the mythology of Watchmen’s world. However, to briefly show the audience that Watchmen was, in fact, an alternate history film Synder created an opening credits sequence that displays costumed heroes amongst the major events of U.S. history from World War II to the Nixon era of office. Through montage, we learn how superheroes grew in popularity, how the first and only superhuman won the Vietnam war, how superhero costumes influenced the art world, and that these events have all led to Nixon being re-elected three times. While it’s not exactly the best writing, it is damn good visual story-telling set to Bob Dylan’s The Times they are a Changing. Watchmen’s opening sequence is a beautifully crafted way of world-building, showing the audience immediately; this isn’t going to be your typical fun superhero movie.
4. Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins is the first Batman media that made me care about the Dark Knight himself. Although this may be controversial, I’ve never loved the Tim Burton Batman movies; even as children, they always seemed hollow to me. While Michael Keaton looked great in the costume, his Bruce Wayne seemed somewhat bland to me, and I was just waiting for him to become Batman again for the action scenes. On the other hand, Batman Begins makes me feel for the character of Bruce Wayne and, in turn, makes me care about Batman even more. The film explores themes of fear, loss, and what it means to be a symbol of justice. We follow Bruce Wayne from the moment his parents are killed, to his college years seeking revenge, and to his training with the League of Shadows that eventually leads him to become Batman. The specifics of Batman’s practice have never been the sole topic of past comic book stories. Christopher Nolan took the opportunity to depict on film what that training specifically was, giving us something that even comic book fans have never seen before. The discipline of Bruce Wayne makes for compelling character-development and seeds in the philosophical and moral beliefs of Batman for the audience to understand him entirely going forward.
Batman Begins is a movie about fear. It’s fear that leads Bruce Wayne’s parents’ into the alley where they got shot, its fear of being poor that led the mugger into killing the Wayne couple, and it’s Bruce’s fear of bats sprang from all of this. In adult life, Bruce uses his fear of bats to “share his dread” with the rest of the criminal underworld of Gotham. He took the negative aspects of his fears and the tragedy that came from it and used it as a force of good; that has always been Batman’s character in the comics. Naturally, since the movie’s theme is fear, the secondary villain of the film is Scarecrow. The scene that displays some of the best qualities of Batman Begins is the scene where Batman gets sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin. The fear toxin makes the victim experience and hallucinates their fears. The scene is visually creepy with Bats coming out of scarecrow’s mouth, physical and shaky camera movements, and Batman being set on fire, but it also shows Batman being vulnerable. Once Batman gets the fire off of him, he calls his butler/step-father Alfred for help. While Alfred is driving the hallucinating Batman home, Bruce is also suffering from flashbacks to his parents’ death. The scene ends with a recovering Bruce Wayne waking up on his bed, and Alfred bringing him some tea. If I were a movie executive, I would’ve greenlighted the project by the strength of that scene alone. It masterfully illustrates Batman’s motives and fears as a character and illustrates the theme of fear in general as a theme.
3. Wonder Woman
Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman took the world by storm. After all the previous DCEU movies suffered critically due to under-written characters, dark and moody aesthetics, and jamming way too many story-lines and characters into one story, the Wonder Woman movie was a breath of fresh air. Wonder Woman is a beautiful character piece that fun, bright and follows a fascinating story about how Diana learns to be a true hero in a patriarchal society. Besides being the first female-led superhero movie to get critical praise, Wonder Woman presents audiences with a strong role-model for little girls and even boys as Charles Marston had initially created her to be. Much like Richard Donner’s Superman, Wonder Woman isn’t afraid to be fun and a little cheesy sometimes, and it’s much-needed energy in the sea of dark and edgy films that the DCEU has been presenting.
Such an enjoyable movie as Wonder Woman, it’s hard to pick which scenes encapsulate what’s great about it. More than likely, however, I will go for the scene that everyone has talked about and for a good reason: the No man’s land scene:
In this scene, Wonder Woman, despite protests from her friend/lover Steve Trevor, rises from the trenches into the battlefield and takes over the fight. As she does, Wonder Woman sheds off her brown coat and reveals her colorful armor in a sea of grey men; she shines as a symbol of hope in a war of hopelessness. Although on the surface, this is merely a well-shot and well-paced action scene, understanding the reasoning behind why people love this scene requires some subtext. Wonder Woman rising from the trenches symbolizes that women are rising in the superhero genre or even just in the world in general, taking control of the world they inhabit, and leading a prosperous future for all women behind them. It’s not the most original take on this scene, but it is significant for women in the film’s superhero genre. It’s a powerful move of acceptance and equality, much like the Black Panther movie after it, and it displays everything great about Wonder Woman.
2. The Dark Knight
What is there to say?
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Nolan takes the mythos of the Batman comics, the dynamics of Batman and Joker’s relationship, and turns it into a crime epic. Enough has been said about Heath Ledger’s performance as the best onscreen joker, but I don’t think enough credit goes to Christian Bale as Batman. It’s a cliché to make fun of his Batman’s voice, but to me, it makes sense as to why he would do it; he’s playing two distinct sides of Bruce Wayne, and he’s hiding his voice. It adds something more to the performance, unlike the other three actors that have played Batman in live-action films. Christian Bale can go from being a self-absorbed and ignorant billionaire playboy to grueling and brutal vigilante, morally contemplative, and calculating when he’s alone in the cave with Alfred. The scene where Bruce breaks down crying in his Batman costume after losing Rachel Dawes hits me to the core; no other portrayal of a live-action Batman before Bale has ever allowed the character to be so vulnerable.
Like Wonder Woman, many scenes show why The Dark Knight is so great, but my favorite (and yours too probably) is the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker:
When I had first seen this in theaters, I, like many others, thought this would be the end of the movie, but with a whole other act ahead of it, this scene stands as the real challenge for Batman in the film. The joker isn’t stopped but is only going through motions due to his carefully thought out plan. The interrogation scene also showcases the two dueling philosophies of Batman and the joker. Batman believes that Gotham’s people can be saved from their corruption because of the good people working within the system. The joker believes that the people of Gotham and people, in general, are inherently evil and that they are just one bad day away from being just homicidal and crazy as he is. The scene also displays how the Joker and Batman need each other and relate: they’re both mentally ill people formed from tragedy and use that tragedy to shape the world in their image. The difference is that Batman uses his tragedy to save and protect, and the joker uses whatever tragedy he endured to torture and mock people. Alan Moore wrote a better thesis paper on the relationship between Batman and the joker in 1988, but the point is this scene shows why the Dark Knight is a great film. The Dark Knight isn’t just a movie about a superhero fighting a super-villain; it’s a morality play about how far can we be pushed before we’re all killing each other and showing no sympathy.
- Superman 1 and 2
Richard Donner’s Superman 1 and 2 are superhero movie classics. Both films are just as responsible for creating superheroes as a movie genre as the superman character was responsible for creating the superhero as a genre in general. I count both Superman 1 and 2 because they were initially supposed to be seen as two films just split into parts like comic book issues. The movies tell Superman’s story, from his descent from the dying planet Krypton, to his teenage years, to his teachings in the Fortress of Solitude, to his first meeting of the woman he loves, and to his climactic battle with his father’s enemies. The first two Superman movies are sci-fi epics on par with George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, and a monumental moment in movie history.
If there’s anything that anchors all the silliness and grand ideas of the first two Superman movies, it has to be the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane. Writer Mario Puzo knew that if people were going to be emotionally invested in Superman, they had to understand why Lois was so enchanted with him. The love story between Clark and Lois is the center of a story about an alien boy learning to be human and protect the world, and that is not shown any better than in the “Can you read my mind” scene:
If you want a more elegant analysis of this scene, I highly recommend HiTop production’s video essay on the scene. Still, I will say that it is the most romantic and sexy scene in any superhero movie.
In the comments section let me know your thoughts on my list, and also list off some of your favorite DC movies. They have to be theatrical releases too.
A writer/teacher who is a big comic book geek and wants to share his thoughts on geek culture.