In the immediate aftermath of Justice League‘s arrival on November 17th, the outlook wasn’t pretty. After an incredibly tumultuous production, seemingly everything was going to come down to the way the film would be received. Would the ends justify the means? Would all of the behind-the-scenes drama somehow result in a film that exceeded expectations? Would audiences gobble it up even if it wasn’t great, simply because it’s the Justice League?
Once Monday, November 20th came along and the dust had settled, we had our answers: No. To everything.
The critical response was only moderately better than the last two DC team-up films; The fan response, i.e. Cinema Score, was only slightly warmer than the film that started Warner Bros. down its reactionary path, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; And- worst of all- it’s opening weekend box office figures were alarmingly tepid for a film of this scale. All of those sad answers would’ve been wiped off of the table if the film had done insane business, but it hadn’t.
This was DC Entertainment at its lowest point since 1997’s Batman and Robin.
This gave way to a whole new wave of questions:
- Who’s to blame for this fiasco?
- Will they scrap the rest of their lineup and reboot the series?
- Will they discretely apologize to Zack Snyder for hijacking his movie and try to get him back on board?
- Will they end the shared universe and just make standalone films the way they used to?
Now that it’s officially February, and Justice League‘s theatrical run is really on its last legs, we’ve got solid answers to most of these questions. But before we get to those, it’s important to understand how to interpret what happened with Justice League. The only way to make sense of where they’re heading is to understand how they think they got here.
A Studio At Peace With A Dud
In the lead-up to Justice League, I was one of the reporters who was sounding the alarm and warning people about what was coming down the pike. I may have been the one who broke the story about how WB was going to extensively overhaul the film, but I also tried to warn people via the El Fanboy Podcast that the studio knew they had a problematic film on their hands and- rather than delay it into 2018, which they easily could’ve done since there isn’t another DC film until Aquaman hits in December- they were just going to dump this thing into theaters just to get it over with.
Why? Because they felt whether it was the Snyder Cut, or their cut, the film was going to be a sore spot for the DC Universe (DCU).
That’s why they allowed a film with half-baked CG to go into wide release; That’s why they didn’t bother having Ciaran Hinds return for substantial reshoots to beef up Steppenwolf’s plot, despite the fact that he really needed more substance now that he was no longer building towards Darkseid; That’s why you didn’t see Geoff Johns out their campaigning for the film the way he had with Wonder Woman; It’s also why Joss Whedon never, ever went out of his way to publicly associate himself with the film, and why the studio reciprocated by not making a bigger deal that “The director of The Avengers“ had a hand in creating the final cut- something that may have been a decent selling point to get MCU fans to cross over and check out DC’s latest.
I remember speaking to an insider in the weeks following Justice League‘s release and them saying they “expected this.” While they conceded the fallout was, perhaps, a bit worse than anticipated, they knew that this thing was going to be a bump in the road. The studio just didn’t want to spend another dime on the film, considering all the effort that had gone into it already. They wanted to simply get it out there, get it over with, and move on to the next phase of DCU films which would act as a distinct course correction.
It’s the only justification for why it wasn’t delayed. The only explanation. Because no studio that’s confident about a project trots out a film where the first thing you see is this:
Now, many of you probably already figured this out. Either that, or you’re very smart and have been listening to the El Fanboy Podcast (which will be celebrating its one year anniversary in a couple of weeks!), so you were in-the-know. But what you may not have done by now is connect this knowledge to how the studio viewed the box office returns.
That’s an incredibly important filter to look at this situation through, because it explains everything that’s to come.
They Think JUSTICE LEAGUE Stumbled Out of Gate Because of BvS, Not Because of The Movie Itself.
That may sound crazy, but it’s true. The numbers don’t lie. Had the film opened big and then dipped like crazy, then it’s the movie itself that’s to blame. Because that means that a ton of people saw it, didn’t like it, told others not to bother, and then it tumbled from that point on (which is exactly what happened with BvS). But when a movie opens poorly, it’s because of pre-existing conditions.
And what were Justice League‘s pre-existing conditions? It was a direct follow-up to Batman v Superman, it had Zack Snyder’s name on it (which isn’t a knock on him, he’s just never been someone that the mainstream has embraced), and the latter portion of its promotional campaign heavily featured a villain in Steppenwolf that reminded them of things they’d rather forget (visually, Steppenwolf looked like he was cut from the same cloth as Suicide Squad‘s Incubus and Wonder Woman‘s Ares).
So in the studio’s eyes, the film’s box office struggles had more to do with the baggage it brought with it than with the film itself. And they’ve got data on their side to back that up. Here’s what Forbes pointed out about Justice League in a mid-December report:
“To wit, the Zack Snyder/Joss Whedon film has earned $212.88 million in 25 days of domestic release, already achieving a 2.27x multiplier. That’s already larger tied with Man of Steel and larger than Dawn of Justice and the various Twilight sequels. And it should have no problem being leggier than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I (2.36x).”
And the writer of that report was correct about that final assertion, as Justice League seems to be finishing up with a multiplier of roughly 2.44x. So the film had very decent legs, which speaks to the fact that mainstream audiences actually took to the film once they gave it a chance. The only negative here is that it didn’t start higher and, as I pointed out, it didn’t start higher because its predecessors had already somewhat poisoned the well.
That’s why, all things considered, no one at Warner Bros/DC Entertainment is actually panicking about Justice League‘s performance. In an odd way, they’re fine with it! Considering the new regime (Geoff Johns/John Berg/Diane Nelson) essentially inherited this problematic film, and the newer regime (Johns/Walter Hamada/Nelson) was already intent on pushing forth in a new direction anyway, the fact that Justice League could very well break even once it arrives on home video means they kind of “got away” with it.
That’s why their future should really come as no surprise…
They Already Told You What Was Coming, And They’re Sticking To It!
So many have questioned “What’re they going to do now?” since Justice League arrived. Some have speculated that they’re just going to “blow up” the DCU; Others have made bold proclamations that we’ll “Never see Henry Cavill as Superman again!“; and others, still, think they’re going to abandon ship and start over again. And yet, to anyone paying attention, it’s actually been business as usual.
In fact, they already told us back in September what they were going to do, and they’re sticking to it. Why? Because they knew what was coming with Justice League and they were fully prepared to “take the L” and move on. If you need a reminder of where they’re heading, it all goes back to what Johns and Nelson told Vulture nearly two months before JL came out.
- They were going to loosen the connectivity of their shared universe
- Emphasize stories that can stand on their own, the same way Wonder Woman did, while still maintaining that it is a shared universe
- Go back to being filmmaker-driven, giving each director ample creative freedom to explore their legendary characters as they see fit
- Rebrand the DCU as being a place for “Heart, Humor, & Heroics“
And that’s still the plan. Don’t read so much into some of the reported “changes” at DC Entertainment. The biggest thing is the exit of Berg, but even the report that outlined his transition to a different production team mentioned that it was already in the works six months prior to Justice League‘s arrival. While there are some behind-the-scenes who didn’t appreciate that the studio was publicly acting like Geoff Johns was part of the problem, I’ve always stated that DC’s Chief Creative Officer was always destined to be more of a general advisor anyway since there’s no room for a Kevin Feige-esque “boss” in a filmmaker-driven system.
If you look at their upcoming slate of films, it’s plain to see that they’re not flinching at all after Justice League. We’re still getting Aquaman (which proceeded totally as planned while Justice League was getting reworked), Shazam! (with a Henry Cavill Superman appearance), Wonder Woman 2, Suicide Squad 2, Flashpoint, The Batman, and- eventually- Man of Steel 2 and Nightwing.
So you tell me: Does this seem like a studio that’s “licking its wounds” from Justice League?
The only real casualties here are any films that aren’t safe bets. As outlined in the last Revenge Report, Warner Bros. had around 21 DC titles in some stage of incubation. It’s safe to say that many of those are going to evaporate into thin air as the studio focuses on things they know will work. Had Justice League overcome its baggage, did insanely great numbers and showed that people will buy a ticket for anything based on a DC Comics property, then perhaps they would’ve felt emboldened to proceed with films about lesser known characters in the immediate future.
But that didn’t happen, so safe bets it is.
How Can They Be So Confident?
You’ve got to admit that there’s a defiant confidence in all of this. To some, it looks like insanity to give the current continuity this much rope to potentially hang itself with. After all, this is the same studio that pulled the plug on Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns sequel, which would’ve led towards a Batman vs Superman movie featuring Christian Bale and Brandon Routh. SR, mind you, made $280 Million domestically when adjusted for inflation. That trounces Justice League‘s $228 Million.
So where does this bravado to proceed come from? Two words: Wonder. Woman.
The Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman proved to WB/DC that all audiences need is a great movie, and they’ll show up for it. That film did amazing numbers, was loved by fans and critics alike, and became the template for all future DCU films. This was all in spite of the fact that it came directly after two films that left the franchise bruised in the eyes of the general public- BvS and Suicide Squad.
They even see it in their primary rival, Marvel Studios. Not every MCU film is received like the egg of a golden goose. Yet Marvel always bounces back by producing another film that captures everyone’s attention in a positive way and does incredible numbers. Take Ant-Man. The $513M film was sandwiched by Age of Ultron ($1.4 Billion) and Civil War ($1.1 Billion), and yet Ant-Man wasn’t considered a failure by any stretch.
Beyond Marvel Studios, even Fox has proven the “All audiences care about is good movies” mantra. You need not look farther than Deadpool for proof of that. That film, on paper, had very little reason to succeed. It was a pseudo-reboot/sequel to the horrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine by way of having Ryan Reynolds back as Wade Wilson. It was made by an unknown rookie director, with a budget that’s almost laughable by modern blockbuster standards ($69 Million), it’s loosely linked to the very hit-or-miss X-Men series, it’s based on a character that’s got more of a niche cult following, and it was rated R!
And it made history!
Yet none of that history affected X-Men: Apocalypse in a positive way when it was released mere months later. Kinda like Wonder Woman and Justice League, right?
WB/DC sees things like this and knows that audiences only care about whether or not a movie looks good to them. So they know that Aquaman could be a hit on the level of Wonder Woman, thus wiping the slate clean of Justice League‘s residue just as WW had done to BvS/SS, if they give director James Wan what he needs to make it fantastic. The same can be said of every other DC film to follow.
So this isn’t foolhardy, as my friends at Batman-On-Film would have you believe (Sorry Bill and Rick!). This is confidence, and it’s confidence based on data. They just know that “If we give them good movies, they’ll come regardless of whether or not it’s interconnected or loosely connected to the shared universe. All they want are good movies!”
Which brings us to the final part in all of this, and it’s something that’ll sting a portion of the DCU fanbase.
Nothing I’ve heard in my off-the-record conversations with people at Warner Bros., and nothing about the direction they’re obviously heading in now, reflects even a hint of regret about all of the tinkering they did on Snyder’s Justice League. As I’ve stated before, after Man of Steel was divisive and Batman v Superman underperformed, the studio simply stopped trusting in his vision. And when they saw his initial cut of Justice League in early 2017, that only cemented their belief that he was no longer the man on whose shoulders they could rest the DCU upon. That’s precisely why they called in outside help and hijacked the movie.
To paraphrase a line from Batman v Superman: “Snyder’s DC is dead. And WB is burying it.”
I know that hurts for some of you. And I truly do empathize. I’ve been in your position before, wanting them to continue with an approach I believed in, only to see the studio move on. It stinks, and- if you’re an emotional guy like me- it hurts in an irrationally personal way. So I get it. I really, truly do.
So What Did They Learn From All This?
- They learned to be mindful who you entrust these Holy Grail characters to
- Don’t announce a slate of films and then work backwards from there, since the slate they announced in 2014 really amounted to a bunch Wishful Thinking
- Give the directors/writers the time needed to create truly great films, instead of piling deadlines on top of deadlines like they did by scheduling Justice League to start filming a mere 3 weeks after BvS came out.
- The fact that Wonder Woman was made in way where none of it hinged directly on what was going on in BvS and JL gave Jenkins and her team tons of space with which to create something special
- You can’t simply mash a bunch of well-known characters together and expect Avengers dollars
- Keep the budgets reasonable (something Walter Hamada is good at, seeing as how he comes from the horror genre, where they know how to get a lot out of a little)! Wonder Woman only cost $149 Million to make and it’s their most profitable film, by far.
With all of these lessons learned, I’m- dare I say it?– optimistic about the DCU’s future. And I think you should be, too.
As Justice League‘s run now comes to its peaceful end, let’s look to the future with open arms, hearts, and minds. Filmmakers like James Wan, Patty Jenkins, Matt Reeves, and more are going to work their hardest to reward your patience and your optimism, with a studio behind them that’s just going to let them do what they do best. Who could ask for more than that?
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