The DC Extended Universe was once, not so long ago, united by the Zack Snyder aesthetic: dreary tones (visually and narratively), action that looks like projectile vomit, and faux–heavy metal soundtracks that were so badass.
Now there is only one thing that unites the DCEU: the Chaotic DC Guy. The Chaotic DC Guy is, typically, played by a mid-to-late-career middle-aged or older actor who is already very famous. In fact, they are so famous that you assume they only took a role in a big DC movie to get a big, easy paycheck from Warner Bros. Except DC Guys aren’t just showing up: They’re putting in so much effort, turning unwatchable movies into rewatchable gold; taking potentially forgettable flops and making them deeply weird, oddly horny, and—according to my personal standards—undeniably Oscar-worthy.
The Chaotic DC Guy started with Chris Pine in 2017’s Wonder Woman. The most chaotic of the Chaotic DC Guys appear in films directed by women (Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984). Female directors always have known how to encourage men to lose their shit on screen. American Psycho director Mary Harron didn’t introduce the world to Christian Bale, but she did bring out the dark, wild side that defines his career today. Bill Murray’s performance in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation isn’t necessarily chaotic, but it’s at least unpredictable; the same can be said for some of Coppola’s other notable guys: Rip Torn (delightful and weird in Marie Antoinette) and Colin Farrell (titillating in The Beguiled). And more recently, Greta Gerwig turned Bob Odenkirk into a meme that will not go away with only a few lines and scarce screen time in 2019’s Little Women. And in February 2020, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey had not one, but two wild performances, from Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina.
The DCEU, perhaps by accident—at this point I assume it’s a free-for-all with no studio notes other than “Cool, but can you make this worse?”—first fell into this glorious space when it adopted a strategy from the MCU. In movies like Thor (Anthony Hopkins), Captain America: The First Avenger (Tommy Lee Jones, lol), and Captain America: Winter Soldier (Robert Redford), Marvel had cast iconic actors—not to chew scenery, per se, but so that Marvel could slap their names on a poster and make my dad consider seeing the movies. The DCEU does this now, but the results are … significantly different. For whatever reason, no one is merely taking a paycheck in the DCEU—these actors are leaning all the way in. If there’s no substance, they’ll make substance.
These chaotic performances work, firstly, because you can physically see the actors—no one is being obscured by motion capture, makeup, or masks, at least not until the final acts. But on a deeper level, they work because the performances feel like they’re jumping out of the pages of a comic book. Recent DC films like Aquaman, a movie with an original Pitbull song and an octopus playing the drums, grasp the absurdity of superhero stories, which show in the performances. In Birds of Prey, Rosie Perez wears a T-shirt that says “I shaved my balls for this?”; in another scene, McGregor wears pajamas with his own face on them. This brings me to Pedro Pascal’s explosive performance in the otherwise underwhelming brain fart that was Wonder Woman 1984.
Pascal in Wonder Woman 1984 did a lot, but most importantly, it convinced me to rewatch every post-2017 DCEU movie (minus Justice League, which I watched on mute at the Verizon store a month ago), and rank every Chaotic DC Guy.
Some basic criteria: Because Chaotic DC Guys did not start until Wonder Woman in 2017, there will not be any DC Guys in this ranking who appeared in the DCEU before that. And as much as I wanted to include Adam Brody in Shazam! or Marc Maron in Joker, they didn’t have much screen time: Brody will, presumably, have a lot of time to earn chaotic status in Shazam! 2 and Maron will, hopefully, never appear in the DCEU again. I’m not even sure he knows what the DCEU is, and I don’t want to startle him. Other performances from Joker were not considered for this ranking, because it was boring.
Let us begin, and bask in the utter chaos delivered by some of Hollywood’s most respected thespians.
Honorable Mention: Jeremy Irons, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League
Before we get to the ranking, I have to get something off my chest and into this blog: Jeremy Irons is not weird as Alfred Pennyworth in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, but he is hot and good. That’s all.
8. Mark Strong as Thaddeus Sivana, Shazam!
According to his filmography, Mark Strong is not legally allowed to play a character who is not evil. This means he is, of course, evil in Shazam! His character, Thaddeus Sivana, unleashes the Seven Deadly Sins (scaly demon guys) into the world and controls them. Strong doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking here—he’s not inventing acting like Jeremy Strong in Succession—but he does show up to a board meeting to have his demon guys murder everyone, including his dad. For this significant event in his life as a supervillain, he wears a leather jacket with a fur collar and sunglasses, and walks into the meeting very slowly. Strong manages to have sparkling chemistry with all of his demon guys, while at the same time doing the entire performance in his sleep.
7. Patrick Wilson as Orm Marius/Ocean Master, Aquaman
Patrick Wilson’s performance in Aquaman is quietly bonkers, like if Dr. Cullen from the Twilight saga swam and had more lines. Wilson knew that he was in a movie with Willem Dafoe, Jason Momoa, Julie Andrews as a sentient sea creature, and a Pitbull remix of Toto’s “Africa,” so he never overacts or does anything glaringly off the rails, even when he screams that he wants to be called “Ocean Master” now. Instead of trying to get noticed in a sea (sorry) of chaos, Wilson gave Orm tiny details that you don’t notice right away, like his swimming pose: one knee up and hands elegantly hanging at his side, which could only be based on Jane Fonda in Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982).
6. David Thewlis as Sir Patrick Morgan/Ares, Wonder Woman
The first time I saw Wonder Woman, I wondered what a British thespian so important that he was a professor in the Harry Potter films was doing in such a thankless role. There had to be something deeper going on there. And I was right. In the messy third act of an otherwise good movie, it is revealed that Sir Patrick Morgan has been Ares, god of war, this whole time, and he hates humans (fair enough and honestly same). For most of the movie, Thewlis plays a guy with a silly little mustache, seemingly just pretending to be an old-timey Brit on the set of a big movie for a good time and an easy paycheck. But he’s just saving all his energy for the conclusion, in which he completely pops off by showing off his swole battle body and experimenting with a few different accents. In this final battle with Wonder Woman, Ares, who has the same powers as Magneto for some reason, builds armor out of scrap metal and suddenly becomes Thanos-sized but not as hot (no offense to Mr. Thewlis, he’s just not purple in this). Even though the Ares reveal doesn’t really work and the movie probably would’ve been better without the character, Thewlis makes it something to remember—or, at least, something you remember when someone else reminds you that he was in the movie.
5. Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko, Aquaman
Willem Dafoe’s primary form of transportation in Aquaman is a hammerhead shark, and his riveting performance convinces you that this is reasonable, possible, and practical. Dafoe was known for chaotic, out-there performances for decades before Aquaman came out in 2018. But next to his performances in Spider-Man and The Florida Project (which should have won him an Oscar), Aquaman might weirdly be the best example of his versatility and style. As Vulko, Dafoe seamlessly accesses his ability to be both comforting and terrifying. In just one sentence from him—or even one word—you can go from being creeped out by this fucking menace to wanting him to hug you all night and call you “son.”
4. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984
Patty Jenkins gave us a little Chris Pine as a treat—she is the first director to take advantage of his comedic and dramatic gifts. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is a bowl of creamy tomato soup with grilled cheese on a cold, overcast day. He smiles at his own toes in a cave bath, looks down at his crotch and calls himself “above average,” freaks out about a pair of boring Nikes, thinks a trash can is art, and generally has the energy of a lost puppy with the hair of young Leonardo DiCaprio (instead of, you know, the energy of a pilot/spy in the throes of World War I). Trevor’s bubbly attitude is strange coming from a man who has seen the shit he has seen and who has come back from the dead by having his essence placed into another man’s body, but it’s fine: Pine’s absorbing, optimistic performance is one of the best parts of both Wonder Woman films and the DCEU. And perhaps most importantly, he was a catalyst for the DCEU distancing itself from the Snyder Era and fully committing to Chaotic DC Guys.
3. Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz, Birds of Prey
As you can clearly see, Chris Messina is a little freak in Birds of Prey. He did not need bleached hair or blood on his teeth to bring Victor Zsasz to life. He also did not need to go farther than any actor has gone before for such a small role. But Messina’s performance as the psychotic killer—the kind who is in distress when he is not doing any murdering—is chilling and, at times, sweet, thanks to the actor’s relentless charm and romantic chemistry with McGregor, who plays his boss, Roman Sionis. Before this, Messina was known for playing relatively harmless love interests on shows like Sharp Objects and The Mindy Project. That’s what makes it so good. The performance is shocking, overwhelming, and mystifying because Messina is weirdly very hot in it even though Victor Zsasz wears a pin-striped bowling shirt and gives himself a scar every time he kills someone. This role—under Yan’s direction—released something in Messina that we deserve to see more of. Please.
2. Pedro Pascal as Maxwell Lord, Wonder Woman 1984
After two seasons of wearing a helmet on The Mandalorian, Pedro Pascal missed his own face, and Jenkins let him do whatever he wanted with it in Wonder Woman 1984. There were no limits. I know it is my job to write blogs about movies and the performances in them, but no word arrangements or weird sounds I come up with can accurately describe Pascal’s performance as Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman 1984. All I can say is that I felt this performance throughout my entire body, and I really liked it when he said “Sears.” Pascal’s performance is also the only thing inherently 1980s about a movie that takes place in 1984, because he is the only actor in the movie who pretended that his character snorted multiple lines of cocaine right before every single scene.
1. Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, Birds of Prey
In Yan’s Birds of Prey, Ewan McGregor channels a Bravo Real Housewife (weird, indiscernible accent) crossed with a porn producer from the 1970s (velvet suit collection, tinted aviators) who happens to have a thing for peeling faces off of people. McGregor deserves, at the very least, a Golden Globe (read: Oscar) nomination for his performance as Roman Sionis. Although his career spiked in the mid-to-late ’90s due to edgy roles in films like Trainspotting and Velvet Goldmine, for the past two decades he’s more consistently played a certified good boy: Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels, Ed Bloom in Big Fish, and hot writer Christian in Moulin Rouge! Playing a narcissistic psychopath obsessed with breakfast, delicious suits, pajamas with his own face on them, and Chris Messina unearthed something that had remained dormant for too long. Sionis dies at the end of Birds of Prey, but there are going to be multiple Batmans in multiple timelines—there’s no reason DC can’t put McGregor in all of its films going forward.
Carrie Wittmer is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets at @carriesnotscary.