3. Birds of Prey (2020)
There was a strong sense of revolution soaked into every aspect of the first standalone Harley Quinn movie Birds of Prey. The iconic comic book and video game character’s introduction in Suicide Squad was received divisively at best, and as a result Warner Bros worked hard to get fans (and particularly women) back on side, handing more power to star (and now producer) Margot Robbie and building the project with women at the forefront.
Cathy Yan was drafted in to direct, the supporting cast made up of respected young actresses, and the very fabric of Harley’s emancipation was based in womanhood. Birds of Prey was every bit the film of the moment, embracing the previous half-decade’s worth of progressive politics and women’s rights activism to present a superhero (or supervillain, as may be the case) through the female gaze, thus ensuring a wholly original take on a genre otherwise filled with the various archetypes of masculinity and the gaze of the men hired to present them.
Quick-witted, characteristically colourful and boasting some interesting post-production touches (such as some voiceover appearing as CG neon wording across a number of scenes as if written on by Harley herself), Birds of Prey was a riotous good time; a noteworthy step forward in the pantheon of comic book cinema, and a fun and original film when considered separately to its legacy.
Never has a dirty egg sandwich looked so good.
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2. Shazam! (2019)
David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! was inspired.
This 2019 release marked a huge step away from the adult and oh-so-serious tone of much of the DCEU until this point, instead taking aim at the family market with a genuinely funny and heart-warming coming-of-age tale. Reminiscent of the family films of the 80s and 90s we each remember so fondly from our childhoods but haven’t seen on our screens for decades, Shazam! was less superhero movie and more childhood adventure, orphaned teen-turned-titan Billy Batson achieving victory over the villain, yes, but more importantly finding a family along the way.
Sandberg and company worked tremendously hard to build Shazam! around characters we could care about, adding tidbits of information and keeping small scenes of dialogue to add dimensions where there often aren’t any in superhero cinema. The result was a family unit we cared about and rooted for, something that helped to bring stakes to a generation of superhero films without any. We knew the hero would win, but what he would earn or lose along the way became the crux of Shazam’s appeal.
Here, the story didn’t fall back on the same generic end-of-world narrative that most other superhero films offer and instead took inspiration from the likes of The Goonies to offer a story of a boy invisible to so many who became the most super of superheroes.
Wish fulfilment doesn’t get any more pure, superhero films are rarely so wholesome, and the DCEU would be hardly as good if Shazam! wasn’t among its catalogue of releases.
1. Wonder Woman (2017)
Wonder Woman is not only an important film in the history of superhero cinema – being the first woman-fronted superhero studio film, and one directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) no less – but it’s an important film in the history of mainstream Hollywood cinema full stop. A woman leading a studio tentpole was virtually fantasy before Wonder Woman, and the DCEU did it with a woman who wasn’t even American.
In many ways, Wonder Woman is more a war movie than a superhero movie. Set during World War I, the villains are the Germans, the heroes a mix of American, British and European resistance fighters. We’ve seen it all before. But, within the confines of this universally understood battle of good and evil comes Diana Prince’s realisation of her full potential as an Amazonian warrior and one of superhero cinema’s most believable romances.
Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have a natural chemistry that enlivens even the most mundane of moments in Wonder Woman, and they help to bring the wider context of world-ending events, gods and monstrosities into a more grounded place, ensuring each of us find reasons to care about not only their journeys, but their destinations too.
Wonder Woman is also a movie filled with iconic comic book movie moments, something that the DCEU as a whole is sorely lacking in comparison to the likes of the Batman franchise, the Spider-Man franchise and the X-Men franchise. Comedy bits from Diana in WWI London are particularly noteworthy, as is the last act sacrifice of course, but it is impossible to overlook this movie’s most on-the-nose but earnestly fantastic moment when Diana steps out into No Man’s Land on the frontline of the war, repelling bullets in slow motion, Wonder Woman quite literally blazing a trail through the trenches of war on the screen and blazing a trail for all women in Hollywood off it.
After Wonder Woman, women were no longer afterthoughts confined to particular genres, the success of this film’s box office run writing Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins into history as the highest grossing women in their respective roles ever. Woman-fronted tentpoles and superhero films from the DCEU’s own Birds of Prey to the MCU’s Captain Marvel and beyond owe their existences at least in part to the success of Wonder Woman, and there are few movies in existence that can match a legacy quite as significant to our contemporary space as that.
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What do you think of our list? Do you agree with our order? Have you been inspired to give any of these films another try? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with new releases from The Film Magazine on superheroes, award winners, studio dramas and independent arthouse cinema alike.