With the DC Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. tried to reverse engineer Marvel’s success. Rather than build each character that makes up the rich tapestry of that world through solo features via the Kevin Feige method, they instead opted to shortcut it through films introducing their heroes (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and a large swath of their villains (Suicide Squad).
Both movies were critically panned, though they both were strong, if not exactly runaway, financial successes. But the general reception among the public, who were ravenous to see Batman and Superman finally share the screen together (what is probably the actual Avengers moment of this franchise), and paid for the privilege last year, has been one of apathy, and in some cases, disdain, after seeing the respective finished products. And despite Wonder Woman being one of this year’s biggest box office smashes, the lack of interest among the cinema-going public in the troubled sequel to Batman v Superman was made apparent this weekend.
Currently Warner Bros. is estimating that Justice League is going to gross $96 million domestically over its opening haul (including Thursday previews), a shockingly low number for the studio that just a week ago was tracking the film at $120 million. Just compare this opening cume to Thor: Ragnarok‘s $122 million from just a few week’s earlier – and it gives you a sense of just where WB’s woes are. They were outdone by the third-tier Marvel franchise. A troubling result to say the least.
At some point soon, I’m sure there’ll be some pretty well-sourced reports on Justice League‘s production and the behind the scenes wrangling that’s sure to follow. But right now, the question is, just what went wrong and how did this film not connect with the viewing public?
The easy answer seems to be, a lot of people saw Batman v Superman, didn’t like what they saw, and didn’t want more of it. And no amount of goodwill for Wonder Woman was going to curtail that; a film, which admittedly, saw its greatest success come through word of mouth, critical acclaim, and significant legs in subsequent weeks. None of which looks likely in Justice League‘s case, despite some critical appraisals, mine included, that see it as an injection of fun into the rather dour DC on-screen offerings.
There’s also a question of whether the marketing for the film may have been a miscalculation, offering trailers which didn’t really give prospective viewers a sense of the film’s story beyond its heroes hanging out and kicking ass. Admittedly, the former is the best part of Justice League, but when the general public is only really engaged in maybe one or two (probably just one) of these characters so far, that’s a really tough selling point.
And of course, there’s widely reported troubled production itself, which saw Joss Whedon step in to reshoot scenes, and restructure the film to fit in with the Studio’s demands for a shorter cut and zippier narrative. I have my doubts as to whether that had much of an effect really, as that starts to get a little inside baseball for your average consumer who really only pays so much attention to that kind of thing. (But I must say, it’s very odd to see a press tour with absolutely no director presence whatsoever. Snyder not being available is completely understandable, but it seems as if Whedon has totally divorced himself from his work here too. It’s a film that seemingly no one wants to own.)
On the other hand, thinking about buying a ticket on Fandango with a prominent 40% Rotten Tomatoes splat? That really doesn’t help.
Sadly, Justice League, despite being an improvement on WB’s 2016 superhero offerings, faced a perfect storm of public indifference and fairly cold critical reception and the empty seats at your local cinemaplex are the aftereffect. And with Pixar’s Coco releasing next week, it’s unlikely that WB’s reported $300 million+++ budget feature will be the choice for families over the Thanksgiving holiday.
With all that said, it begs the question, what’s next?
With Wonder Woman as big of a smash as it is, and Aquaman already having completed principal photography under James Wan and crew, rebooting all of this away simply isn’t in the cards. There were reports not too long ago that WB was already bracing themselves for this eventuality by refocusing their DC Films output on solo features, but still occupying a shared universe, with their oft-mentioned emphasis on directorial vision.
Between now and Aquaman‘s release in December of next year, they have a little over 12 months to lick their wounds and plan. Between that time, we know for certain that Shazam!, which has already found its two stars, will enter into and complete production, and Patty Jenkins’ highly anticipated sequel to Wonder Woman will also start shooting. As for what will happen with Matt Reeves’ Batman film? That really depends on when/how Ben Affleck exits from his obligations in the role.
It’s very clear at this point that Affleck is looking for a way out, even basically outright stating as such on the aforementioned press tour. Rumors are that Reeves is meeting with other actors for the role, and while many a fan has floated the idea that the announced Flashpoint could be used to switch out the man under the cowl, that more or less would lock the studio in to making what is basically another Justice League feature…but a really dark one. Two things that they clearly want to avoid at this point.
For years, we’ve asked what Marvel Studios do when they have to recast Iron Man or Captain America whenever Robert Downey Jr or Chris Evans want to step away from the role, and Fox is continually skirting that issue with Hugh Jackman and Wolverine, but it looks like WB will be dealing with it first. It may very well be a matter of one day Bruce looks like Ben Affleck and the next he looks like Jake Gyllenhaal or Armie Hammer or whatever actor long-favored by the studio Reeves decides is the best fit for his trilogy of Batfilms.
There’s going to be a lot of discussion and debate over the next few weeks and months, especially regarding the future of WB CEO and Chairman Kevin Tsujihara, who was instrumental in the final product that hit screens this weekend. But one guess I’m willing to take to the bank: if production hasn’t already begun or it isn’t a sequel to Wonder Woman, its future looks a bit cloudy right now.
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for their prospects, if their next three films are well received – and for example, Aquaman‘s production went by without a hitch, much like Wonder Woman‘s, Warner Bros could find themselves back on the right track. Make good movies and you’ll get good results, especially if you make a bunch of them in a row.
Shazam! could very well be the Superman movie everyone was looking for with Man of Steel, how ironic would that be?
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.