Since its inception, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has been quite a bit more troubled than its Marvel counterpart. There never seemed to be the same level of rigorous planning involved, but that also meant that, on occasion, there were flashes of total brilliance.
The easiest way to track the overall quality of a DCEU project is to look at its villains. The more aimless or uninteresting the movie’s villains are, the less interesting the movie as a whole is likely to be. Fortunately, DC Comics has a great roster of antagonists to pull from, which means that for every stinker, there are a few great villainous turns to revel in.
14. The Joker
It was always going to be tough for Jared Leto to follow in Heath Ledger’s footsteps, but he didn’t have to fall on his face this badly. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was a bit of a revelation, but Leto’s Joker was just an assemblage of stuff, from too many and too literal tattoos like “Damaged” (well, duh) to unnecessary teeth Grillz with no real take on the character. As he often does, Leto is doing entirely too much and has little support from the script.
Suicide Squad was pretty underwhelming on the villain front, and Enchantress doesn’t fair much better than Joker. Because the movie is chock full of villains, Enchantress has trouble standing out, and with so many other movie stars fighting for the spotlight, she becomes almost totally forgotten whenever she isn’t on screen. Even if you do remember her, it’s for that silly little dance she does when she’s about to attack.
Kristen Wiig was an interesting casting choice for a Wonder Woman villain, but Cheetah doesn’t really come together as anything more than a broad caricature. She’s so jealous of Diana that she wishes herself into a cat? Okay. What’s more, Diana’s final fight with Cheetah is totally underwhelming and feels like it was concocted in a single weekend entire against green screens. Wiig as Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984 had huge potential, but she was utterly let down by a subpar script and terrible CGI.
A piece of CGI goop, it’s undeniable that the version of Steppenwolf in Zack Snyder’s Justice League looks better, but that doesn’t mean he looks good. What’s more, Steppenwolf is ultimately just a scion for a bigger bad, and he doesn’t really seem to have any defined personality at all. He’s just a stooge trying to hunt down some mother boxes, and that’s all there really is to it.
10. Lex Luthor
It’s hard to argue that Jesse Eisenberg isn’t committed to his performance as Lex Luthor, but what comes of that commitment is a bit strange. Eisenberg simply has too much energy for this role, and the decision to make Luthor a tech bro makes sense in theory but feels like too much in reality. His motivations are also incredibly murky and indirect, and that ultimately just makes him feel like a lesser version of the character.
Steppenwolf’s boss doesn’t actually get much to do in the existing DCEU movies, but he does seem scary. Darkseid is obviously one of the major antagonists in the world of the DC comics, but he never got to live up to his full potential because of the catastrophe around Justice League.
8. Maxwell Lord
Of the villains in Wonder Woman 1984, Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord is certainly the more interesting one. Lord is driven by a very ’80s, capitalistic sensibility. He believes he’s entitled to anything and everything he desires, and the wishing stone he uses allows him to have exactly that. In the end, Diana convinces him that some sacrifices are worth making, and manages to talk the final villain down instead of punching them into oblivion.
7. General Zod
Zod earns his spot near the middle thanks almost entirely to Michael Shannon’s commitment to the role. Shannon’s version of Zod is an egomaniac determined to restore his planet’s power at all costs, and he also works well as a match for Superman as a Kryptonian who is also harnessing the power of the sun. Shannon goes big as Zod, and for the most part, it works. But he’s no Terence Stamp, who perfected the villain decades ago in Superman II.
6. Erich Ludendorff
The fakeout villain in Wonder Woman isn’t a good guy, but what makes Ludendorff so interesting is that he doesn’t seem to be operating under the influence of Ares. He’s just a villainous German who has developed a horrific chemical weapon not because he’s enchanted or manipulated, but because he thinks he can use it to his own advantage. He’s not your typical comic book villain since he’s based on a real person, but he’s effective nonetheless.
5. Ocean Master
Aquaman’s first major villain is also his half-brother, but Ocean Master’s naked ambition is ultimately key to his appeal. Patrick Wilson’s bombastic performance meets the role that James Wan wants him to fill, and works perfectly inside of a movie that has no time for subtlety. Ocean Master wants to rule over the seven seas, and Aquaman has to stop him, and that’s all you really need to know to love Aquaman.
4. Dr. Sivana
Mark Strong may be the most frequent villain in acting today, and his work as Dr. Sivana is exactly what Shazam needs to succeed. Sivana is a villain taking himself too seriously inside a movie that he doesn’t realize isn’t about him. There are plenty of great jokes built around Sivana’s seriousness, but perhaps none is better than the monologue he delivers, only to realize that Shazam can’t hear him because they are floating too far away from one another.
3. Starro the Conqueror
Starro the Conqueror has a frankly shocking amount of personality given the fact that he’s just a giant starfish. Thanks to James Gunn’s completely absurdist sensibilities, The Suicide Squad‘s Starro is the center of one of the better battles in the entire DCEU. He may not say a whole heck of a lot, but thanks to some wonderful character design and psychedelic colors, Starro makes a lasting impression.
2. Black Mask
Ewan McGregor is having such incredible fun in Birds of Prey that the entire gravitational center of the movie is constantly being pulled towards him. What makes Black Mask so great isn’t just McGregor’s charisma, though. It’s also the fact that he’s just a normal gangster who wants to make some money, and finds that he manages to anger a bunch of deadly women in the process.
David Thewlis’s villainous god is helping men wreak havoc on themselves, and while the final battle is ultimately full of explosions, what allows Ares to rise to the top is the philosophical question underpinning the fight. Ares believes men are corrupt fools who are destined to destroy each other. Diana, with some help from Steve Trevor, manages to prove that men can be decent and selfless, and decides that they are ultimately worth fighting for. It helps that Ares is in the DCEU’s best movie, as Wonder Woman gives him a proper setup and thrilling climactic battle that are worthy of the gods.