Warner’s DC Extended Universe has been struggling to escape the shadow of the MCU ever since it launched in 2013. There’s no question that this challenging game of catch-up has led to the studio making some questionable creative choices.
Luckily, however, they’ve been nimble enough to course correct along the way. Rather than locking themselves into the dark, dour tone that characterized the DCEU’s early movies – eternal boy scout Superman killing General Zod was too much for some – recent movies have had a lighter, jokier tone more reminiscent of Marvel. Meanwhile, after early efforts to fast track Supes, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the rest into an all-encompassing, MCU-style continuity floundered, the DCEU changed tack with releases that function as standalone movies.
So while the DC releases still exist in the same universe, pinning down where they fit into the chronology is a little more challenging than it is for the MCU. But there are clues that reveal how they all fit together, as we explain in this guide to watching the DCEU movies in order...
- How to watch the Marvel movies in order
- How to watch the Star Wars movies in order
- How to watch the Batman movies in order
How to watch the DCEU movies in order: release date order
- Man of Steel (2013)
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
- Suicide Squad (2016)
- Wonder Woman (2017)
- Justice League (2017)
- Aquaman (2018)
- Shazam! (2019)
- Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
- The Suicide Squad (2021)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t always the undisputed champion of the superhero genre. A decade ago, the Distinguished Competition held the upper hand, thanks to Christopher Nolan’s critically and commercially adored Dark Knight trilogy – the director’s second bat-movie was the first superhero movie to break the billion-dollar barrier at the box office.
The balance of power shifted in 2012, as The Avengers proved naysayers wrong by successfully bringing Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk together in one movie. The same year, The Dark Knight Rises brought Nolan’s sequence to a close, leaving DC in need of new vehicles for their biggest superheroes.
Man of Steel was 100% a Superman story, but a carefully introduced Wayne Enterprises logo revealed that Clark Kent lived in the same world as Batman. The two biggest icons of DC Comics subsequently came head-to-head in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), a film that bit off more than it could chew by trying to launch a shared universe in one swoop. Wonder Woman had an extended cameo and there were brief sightings of Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg, but it was hardly The Avengers.
DC’s criminal element came to the fore later that year in Suicide Squad, before Wonder Woman got the belated chance to headline her own movie in 2017. Wonder Woman was arguably the most important movie in the history of the DCEU, as its sense of fun showed that DC could play Marvel at its own game. They also beat Marvel to the crucial milestone of getting a female-led superhero movie on the big screen, with Wonder Woman landing more than 18 months ahead of Captain Marvel.
Since the inevitable-but-disappointing team-up of Justice League (2017) – where Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg joined forces to defeat the interstellar threat of Steppenwolf – standalone movies have come back to the fore in the DCEU.
Aquaman (traditionally the butt of the joke in superhero conversations) and Shazam! both took the franchise in new directions, Aquaman with its spectacular underwater world, Shazam! with its Big-style wish fulfilment. Elsewhere, the epically titled Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn finally gave Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn – by some distance the best thing in Suicide Squad – a more worthy vehicle for her talents.
But it doesn’t end there. ’80s-set sequel Wonder Woman 1984 is due in October (coronavirus permitting), followed by Suicide Squad sequel/reboot The Suicide Squad (written/directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn), and the Robert Pattinson-starring The Batman.
A timeline-hopping Flash movie, Flashpoint, is also in the works, reportedly bringing Tim Burton’s Batman star Michael Keaton back as an older incarnation of the Dark Knight, as is the Dwayne Johnson-starring Black Adam.
And in case you’re wondering, we haven't forgotten Joker. We've left it out because it exists in its own continuity, totally separate from the DCEU.
How to watch the DCEU movies in order: chronological order
- Wonder Woman (World War I sequences)
- Wonder Woman 1984
- Man of Steel
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
- Suicide Squad
- Wonder Woman (present-day bookends)
- Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
- Justice League
- The Suicide Squad
While the shared continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is cinema's most impressive example of joined-up thinking and forward planning, the DCEU timeline has a rather more ambiguous – and ad hoc – feel to it. Indeed, sometimes the best you can do is make an informed guess on how the chronology fits together.
There’s no question what comes first, however. Predominantly set in World War I, with some sequences centuries in the past, Wonder Woman is where the earliest DCEU action takes place. We also know exactly when the upcoming sequel is set – the title of Wonder Woman 1984 is a hell of a giveaway.
Next up in the DCEU chronology is Man of Steel, whose wholesale destruction of Metropolis sets the scene for Batman’s seething resentment of Superman in Dawn of Justice. If only they’d found out their mums were both called Martha sooner…
From here, things get fuzzier – though Supes’ death in Batman v Superman is a useful reference point.
In the bookends of Wonder Woman, Diana receives a photo of her World War I unit from Bruce Wayne – someone she met for the first time in Dawn of Justice. And Wayne also crops up in Suicide Squad, meeting with Amanda Waller to discuss recruiting metahumans like the Flash and Aquaman to help protect a Superman-less world. It's clear, then, that both movies slot between Batman v Superman and Justice League.
Birds of Prey could happen at any point following Suicide Squad – all we know is that the Joker rescued Harley Quinn from the government in the latter movie, and they subsequently broke up off screen. Whether the movie takes place before or after Justice League is unknown, though the events of 2021’s The Suicide Squad will take place further into Harley’s future.
Aquaman is definitely set after the DCEU’s big team-up, however. In the movie, Mera references the events of Justice League, though there’s no explanation for Arthur Curry wearing an Atlantean suit that never appears in his Aquaman wardrobe. Probably best to put that one down to a continuity error rather than some grand plan.
We also know that Shazam! follows Aquaman, seeing as Billy Batson and best friend Freddy are aware of the events of the earlier movie – they’ve even bought the t-shirt.
Right now we’re not sure whether the latest take on the Caped Crusader will exist in the wider DCEU continuity. But seeing as The Batman stars Robert Pattinson, while an older Ben Affleck incarnation already exists in the DCEU, we suspect that Matt Reeves’ movie will exist as a separate entity.
The DCEU movies ranked: from best to worst
- Wonder Woman – rating 7.4
- Shazam! – rating 7.1
- Aquaman – rating 7.0
- Man of Steel – rating 7.0
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – rating 6.5
- Justice League – rating 6.4
- Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – rating 6.1
- Suicide Squad – rating 6.0
While Marvel movies are generally popular with critics, DCEU offerings haven’t fared quite so well. That’s borne out when you rank the DCEU movies by their IMDb user ratings.
Wonder Woman, commonly regarded as the best of the DCEU films, comes out with a score of 7.4. That’s respectable enough, though it would only be enough to equal the 12th highest ranked MCU movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. In the pantheon of movies based on DC franchises, Wonder Woman is only the seventh most popular – Joker, Tim Burton’s first Batman, cartoon classic Mask of the Phantasm and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy all rank higher.
That said, we’d argue that these rankings aren’t entirely accurate. No arguments with Wonder Woman, Shazam! and Aquaman filling the top three slots, but Birds of Prey deserves a lot more love. And IMDb voters have been much too generous to the tedious Batman v Superman and Justice League. It’ll be intriguing to see where the new Zack Snyder cut of Justice League ranks when it arrives on HBO Max in 2021.