While DC and Marvel have been slugging it out for comic book supremacy for decades, the home of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America is the undisputed champion at the box office. As the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max has proved, however, the DC Extended Universe is still capable of dominating pop culture conversation.
Since the DCEU kicked off with Man of Steel in 2013 – at a time when Christopher Nolan’s superlative Dark Knight trilogy was still fresh in the public consciousness – its movies have been something of a mixed bag. Having started out as a darker, less fun version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – rushing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and more into a shared continuity – it’s since evolved into something different again. Rather than obsessing about emulating the MCU’s trademark interconnectivity, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam! and Birds of Prey have concentrated on telling their own standalone stories.
As a result, pinning down the exact chronology of the DC Extended Universe is a little more complicated than it is for the MCU. But as this guide to watching the DCEU movies – and an upcoming TV show – in order explains, there are plenty of clues that reveal how all the stories fit together…
- 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)
- Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
- The Suicide Squad (2021)
- The Suicide Squad (2021)
- The Batman (2022)
- The Peacemaker (HBO Max TV show) (2022)
- The Flash (2022)
- Aquaman 2 (2022)
- Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)
- Wonder Woman 3 (TBC)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t always the undisputed champion of the superhero genre. A decade ago, the so-called Distinguished Competition held the upper hand, thanks to Christopher Nolan’s 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 did the seemingly impossible 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 (2013) was 100% a Superman story, but a carefully deployed Wayne Enterprises logo revealed that Clark Kent lived in the same world as Batman.
The returning Snyder subsequently pitted the two biggest icons of DC Comics against each other 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 far from DC’s answer to The Avengers.
DC also brought its criminal element into the limelight that year in Suicide Squad, before Wonder Woman got the belated chance to headline her own movie in 2017.
Wonder Woman is arguably the most important movie in the history of the DCEU, its sense of fun and optimism proving 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. The DCEU was back on track.
Or so it seemed, until the (then) hotly anticipated Justice League brought Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Superman together to fight the extra-terrestrial threat of Steppenwolf – and misfired.
A combination of creative differences and family tragedy had prompted Snyder to quit the project months before it was due in cinemas, so Warner drafted in Joss Whedon – the writer/director of the first two Avengers movies – to complete the film. Bringing the cast back for extensive reshoots, Whedon completely reshaped the movie, massively cutting its runtime, and upping the gag count to bring it more in line with the Marvel formula his paymasters were trying to emulate. Unfortunately, he was unable to paper over the cracks and contradictions between the two versions (and visions) of the story, and Justice League flopped both commercially and critically.
Four years later, Snyder was unexpectedly given the chance to revisit his version of Justice League, and he delivered a longer, more coherent take on the superhero team-up. It landed on HBO Max in March 2021 as Zack Snyder’s Justice League – a whopping 242 minutes of it. (Anyone hoping for the disappointing Suicide Squad to get similar director's cut treatment is going to be disappointed, however, as WarnerMedia CEO Ann Sarnoff has confirmed the studio “won’t be developing [director] David Ayer’s cut” of the movie.)
Since Justice League's original cinema release, standalone movies have come back to the fore in the DCEU. Aquaman (traditionally the butt of the joke in superhero conversations, notably in Family Guy) and Shazam! both took the franchise in fun 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 in early 2020. And Wonder Woman then proved herself to be the only high-profile big-screen superhero brave enough to take on Covid-19, as Wonder Woman 1984 belatedly made it into cinemas in December 2020.
Next on the slate is Squad sequel/reboot The Suicide Squad (written and directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn) due in August 2021, which will be followed by HBO Max spin-off TV show Peacemaker, focused on a new antihero played by John Cena.
Then, Batman is getting set to begin all over again in Robert Pattinson-starring reboot The Batman (early 2022), directed by Dawn of/War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves. And a timeline-hopping Flash movie (based on the Flashpoint arc from the comics) is also on the way, while Dwayne Johnson is headlining Black Adam – the star recently teased the first page of the script on Instagram.
Unsurprisingly, there are Aquaman and Shazam! sequels in the works – the latter subtitled Fury of the Gods – along with a third instalment of the Wonder Woman saga. Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell has also been signed up to script a movie based on DC character Zatanna (reported by Variety).
And in case you’re wondering, we haven't forgotten about 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 (both versions)
- 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. Alternatively, you can try not to worry about it and just enjoy each movie on its own merits – arguably the most sensible move DC and Warner have made with their superhero slate is to concentrate on making good movies, rather than getting hung up on how they fit into established continuity.
There’s no question what comes first in DCEU canon. Predominantly set during World War I – with some sequences taking place centuries in the past – Wonder Woman is where the earliest bits of the saga’s action take place.
Diana Prince also headlines the second instalment in DCEU chronology, returning around seven decades after events of the first movie – looking like she hasn’t aged a day – in Wonder Woman 1984.
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 slot between Batman v Superman and Justice League in the DCEU’s story arc.
But as loose and flexible as DCEU continuity now is, it’s the Whedon version of Justice League that’s now considered canon – even though some elements of his movie will exist in future instalments. (For example, Kiersey Clemons will reprise her role as Iris West in The Flash, even though her one appearance to date came in the Snyder Cut.)
“My Justice League, is not canon,” Snyder confirmed on the DC Cinematic Podcast. “Canon, for Warner Bros, is the Joss Whedon version of Justice League. That’s, in their mind, canon, and what I’m doing is not. Everything I’m doing is not. And I’m fine with it, because I feel like the only way I could’ve made this film with autonomy is because of me admitting and agreeing that it is not canon."
Justice League also the end of the road for the so-called ‘Snyder-verse’ – in other words, Snyder won’t be concluding the apocalyptic Darkseid story arc teed up by his cut of Justice League.
“I appreciate that [the fans] love Zack’s work and we are very thankful for his many contributions to DC,” said WarnerMedia CEO Ann Sarnoff. We’re just so happy that he could bring his cut of the Justice League to life because that wasn’t in the plan until about a year ago. With that comes the completion of his trilogy [started with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman].”
Birds of Prey could take place 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. The Peacemaker spin-off TV show is a prequel, set before the events of The Suicide Squad.
We do know for sure, however, that Aquaman is set after the DCEU’s big team-up. 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 underwater movie – they’ve even bought the t-shirt.
Right now we’re not sure whether The Batman, the latest take on the Caped Crusader will exist in the wider DCEU continuity. But seeing as The Batman stars Robert Pattinson as Bruce Wayne, while an older Ben Affleck incarnation already exists in the DCEU, we suspect that Matt Reeves’ movie will exist as a separate entity. Though with The Flash reportedly bringing Tim Burton’s Batman star Michael Keaton back as an older incarnation of the Dark Knight, don’t be surprised if the contradictions are explained away as part of some kind of DC multiverse.
Expect the Aquaman and Shazam! sequels to pick up after their predecessors, though Wonder Woman 3 could realistically be set at any time of returning director Patty Jenkins’ choosing.
The DCEU movies ranked: from best to worst
- Zack Snyder’s Justice League – rating 8.4
- Wonder Woman – rating 7.4
- Shazam! – rating 7.0
- Man of Steel – rating 7.0
- Aquaman – rating 6.9
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – rating 6.4
- Justice League – rating 6.2
- Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – rating 6.1
- Suicide Squad – rating 6.0
- Wonder Woman 1984 – rating 5.4
While Marvel movies are generally popular with critics, DCEU offerings haven’t fared quite so well. That’s borne out when you rank the movies by their IMDb user ratings.
Wonder Woman, commonly regarded as one of the best of the DCEU films, comes out with a score of 7.4. That’s respectable enough, though it’s only 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 eighth most popular – Joker, Tim Burton’s first Batman, cartoon classic Mask of the Phantasm, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy an all rank higher.
Wonder Woman is also outranked by Zack Snyder’s Justice League, though we suspect that once the excitement surrounding its release has died down a bit, the new cut of Justice League will end up with a slightly lower, more realistic rating.
In fact, we’d argue there are several dubious scores within these rankings. No arguments with Wonder Woman and Shazam! performing well, but Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 (as flawed as the latter is) deserve a lot more love. And IMDb voters have been much too generous to the tedious Batman v Superman and Joss Whedon’s muddled original Justice League.