Batman & Robin (1997) forced a change in the genre, as its poor reception demonstrated the need for a more serious and grounded approach in big-budget superhero movies.
Joker (2019) broke the mold by demonstrating that comic book movies can explore deeper themes and win critical acclaim, transforming the genre in a new and exciting way.
Both within and without the DC Universe, there have been many influential DC films that have helped to shape and change modern superhero movies. DC Comics boasts some of the most iconic heroes of all time, and with the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman in their ranks, it’s hardly surprising that there have been many films made to adapt some of DC’s stories to the big screen. The resulting movies are often incredibly influential in one way or another, especially as the early years of bringing such important heroes to life offered the opportunity to learn what makes superhero movies succeed at the box office.
Of course, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for DC films. The movies of the DCEU, for example, proved divisive for the duration of the franchise, seemingly as a result of having learned all the wrong lessons from the movies that came before. However, there are DC films throughout history that are rightfully revered – 1978’s Superman stands out as a shining example of an early prototype for modern superhero blockbusters. With such a successful host of heroes at their disposal, it should be no surprise that DC movies often become either trendsetters or cautionary tales, prompting lasting changes to the superhero genre.
10 Superman (1978)
Richard Donner’s 1978 film did more than just adapt DC’s most iconic hero – it ushered in an era of superhero movies that have seen the genre become one of cinema’s most popular. Superman‘s movie legacy cannot be understated: practically every superhero movie that came after was influenced in some way by the 1978 classic. It offers up a solid adaptation of the source material while also delivering a compelling standalone story, walking a line between loyalty to the source material and originality. Superman set a template that superhero movies have been following for decades, and its influential status is practically legendary.
9 Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
Christopher Reeve’s fourth and final outing as the Man of Steel was not a good one, and it prompted a change in the genre for all the wrong reasons. The 1987 sequel was heavily criticized for its weak plot, laughable writing, and abysmal production values, particularly when compared to its predecessors. The Quest For Peace highlighted the need for a substantial budget and care in superhero adaptations, standing as a clear example that cutting corners with regard to visual effects is likely to undermine the entire film, and that consistent writing is key when creating a superhero franchise.
8 Batman & Robin (1997)
Joel Schumacher’s second attempt at a Batman movie is widely regarded as one of the worst superhero movies ever made. Batman & Robin is considered too wacky, campy, and poorly written, and to have thoroughly misunderstood the appeal of the Dark Knight and his supporting characters. The film’s poor reception forced a wait of almost a decade for a new Batman movie, which came in the form of the much grittier and darker Batman Begins in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. No director has since dared to incorporate campiness into a big budget superhero movie since, demonstrating the change that Batman & Robin inspired with its shortcomings.
7 Superman Returns (2006)
2006’s Superman Returns saw Brandon Routh join the ranks of live-action Superman actors, but despite being a passable adaptation, it failed to leave an impression on audiences or critics. The reason was that it was something of a safe bet: it rehashed the same stories about the same characters and didn’t dare to add anything to mythos or examine any of its deeper elements. Superhero movies have since become more innovative, exploring previously untapped story veins rather than repeatedly revisiting the same tropes and ideas.
6 The Dark Knight (2008)
Widely considered the best superhero movie ever made, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight reshaped the genre in a handful of subtle ways. It reshaped expectations of what superhero movies should be from a creative and filmmaking perspective, but this actually caused a rather divisive shift within the genre itself. The grittier and more grounded nature of Nolan’s film was later employed in numerous other superhero movies in the DCEU to mixed results. Though Nolan’s more realistic take on the hero earned itself the adulation of critics, its success pushed superhero movies toward an oddly specific niche for a period of time.
5 Green Lantern (2011)
2011’s Green Lantern is not a film that is remembered fondly, as critics and audiences alike despised Ryan Reynolds’ turn as Hal Jordan. The film was something of a disaster, failing to adequately adapt its source material even while burning through a $200 million budget. The film’s status as one of DC’s most hated movies proved that even big-name stars and impressive CGI can’t save a poorly written film, with subsequent comic book movies being made either to directly adapt a specific narrative arc or with a particular vision in mind.
On paper, Suicide Squad should have been a much better film than it ultimately was. Despite the talents of director David Ayer and a cast that featured Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, and Jai Courtney, Suicide Squad couldn’t make its excellent premise come to life. After its failure to impress, DC’s approach changed significantly: character design, consistent visual effects, and coherent plot have all been a much greater priority since Suicide Squad thoroughly wasted its franchise potential.
3 Justice League (2017)
Justice League was a wake-up call for superhero movies. The DCEU’s movie timeline was still in its infancy when the franchise’s first team-up movie released, and the film simply failed to do justice to the iconic team, partly owing to the narrative state of the franchise at that time. It was a clear attempt to cash in on an established comic book property, but with excessive studio tampering and too much story being crammed into the franchise at too early a juncture, the film was a disappointment. In the years since, even Marvel has been more careful with setting up team-up movies, and the DCEU has since been dismantled altogether.
2 Joker (2019)
Much like The Dark Knight before it, Joker clearly demonstrated that breaking the mold can work even when adapting truly iconic characters. With an irreverent approach to the source material, Joker establishes a new backstory of Batman’s infamous nemesis, laden with artistic depth and deeper themes. It proved that comic book movies don’t need excessive action, and that Oscar-winning stories can readily be found within the pages of comic books. Joker‘s critical success combined with its unique spin on the comics was practically unprecedented, and transformed the genre in a new and exciting way.
Though DC’s early attempts to get its own shared universe off the ground were considered divisive (at best), 2021’s The Suicide Squad marked an important change. James Gunn’s work on the film delivered comedy and brutality in equal measure, and its success ultimately led to Gunn being appointed co-head of DC Studios. This in turn has contributed to a wholesale reboot of the franchise, with Gunn’s vision shaping the studio’s cinematic future, which will likely have ramifications for Marvel’s MCU, too. In that regard, The Suicide Squad changed superhero movies forever, as it set the wheels in motion for Gunn’s DC Universe reboot.
Key Release Dates
Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom
Joker: Folie a Deux
The Batman – Part II
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