*Warning* This article contains spoilers for all five DCEU films, Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and Justice League *Warning*
Justice League, the culmination of all Warner Bros and DC’s hard work, has finally hit cinemas, taking us into an amazing world with Zack Snyder’s epic vision, a blend of spectacular action and thoughtful storytelling that finally brings all these characters together on the big screen.
That’s not even slightly true. It’s what I wanted to be able to say. I really wanted to like this film, or at least have fun with it.
There’s a strange disillusion that critics and reviewers hate comic book movies. Absolutely not so, check out the reviews for Wonder Woman, Thor Ragnarok and Logan, and that was just 2017. This strange belief strengthens under the guise of, “Critics hate DC movies”. Pretty sure that isn’t true either, the aforementioned Wonder Woman was a massive critical and financial success, and for good reason. But otherwise, DC have struggled to get a coherent vision out into the world, maybe it doesn’t help that these newer films come on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (another comic book trilogy that critics loved), and more than that, a crushing weight of expectations.
Justice League, with its ‘Unite The League’ and ‘All In’ taglines we’ve been seeing for the last year, is the first live action film to feature all of these characters, to have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (even though they already did that in Batman V Superman, more on that film later), Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg on screen together. That’s a huge thing, there’s no pretending it isn’t, these characters have been around for 80 years, they are basically the equivalent American mythology, a part of legend and folklore, at this point. To see the whole League, fighting together, sometimes fighting each other, but coming together for a common goal, it should have been massive.
Trailers came thick and fast, for well over a year, and much to people’s surprise, it didn’t look terrible. The failure of the film, much of it out of DC/WB’s control, mixed with tragic circumstances and clearly fumbled reshoots, resulted in a tone that jarred from scene to scene, a nonsensical smorgasbord of cheap looking (although I’m sure it wasn’t, $300 million is the rumoured price tag, not to mention the cash flashed on moustache removal, something else we will get to later) special effects, a heartless, free from stakes and drama, film that felt like it had no direction.
The film itself is an unqualified mess from start to finish. Early estimates put Snyder’s original cut and 180 minutes, and that sounds reasonable given the intended scope, but after a personal tragedy, Synder stepped away from the film and Joss Whedon was brought on to finish the reshoots. Along with a mandate from the studio that the film come in at under two hours, the two directors delivered two very different films and then an editor smashed them together. We ended up with a quipping Batman, Superman forced back into the world by story necessity instead of anything close to common sense, several literal ‘deus ex machinas’, an incredibly choppy story that failed to establish a villain or the future to come. Only the post credits sequence really set anything up for further films, giving us our first look at Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke, and Lex Luthor threatening to set up a ‘League of his own’.
The problems with Justice League are many, but to fully understand them, and how we got to this point, a point where the flagship film in this ever expanding franchise ended up with the lowest opening weekend of the DCEU, and is beginning, in Hollywood terms at least, to be on its way to financial failure, we need to take a step back.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, to give the film its full title, was meant to be the big, bold start for the shared universe. Man of Steel had come a few years earlier but existed mostly in isolation with few references to the larger DC Expanded Universe, but BvS was the big one. It needed to be a hit, and financially it was, but still it never quite hit the heady billion dollar mark they wanted. It gave us a new Batman, fairly comic book accurate, amidst controversial casting of Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne. Affleck turned out to be excellent in the role but the film was a mess, too short and too long simultaneously, stuffed with characters it didn’t need and actors (Jessie Eisenberg, I’m looking at you) who failed to fit their roles. It insisted on telling the story of The Death of Superman, at the hands of Doomsday, one of the most famous comics of all time, but the story wasn’t earned, this Superman did not deserve his godlike status amongst humanity, it all came too soon and it felt like we’d missed a few films in between.
Looking back now, BvS doesn’t seem quite so bad. That film had a clear vision, it might have aligned with long term fans but it stuck to its guns and managed to gather quite a following, with new fans stepping up to defend it. The Ultimate cut that surfaces on home release was indeed a huge improvement and actually ended up perfectly illustrating that they should perhaps have trusted Zack Snyder to complete his vision, rather than putting out the clearly damaged theatrical release. BvS gave the world more good than bad in the end, a near pitch perfect screen version of the Dark Knight, and more importantly it gave us the gift that keeps giving, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman came out earlier this year, and it really, really needed to be a hit for a number of very important reasons. It was the first female led superhero film in a very long time, directed by Patty Jenkins, and most important of all, DC needed a critical and financial hit. Luckily it was both. The film took less than BvS, that is true, but this was a superhero origin movie, a story that hadn’t been told, it wasn’t seen as a sure thing by most, and this film connected with fans and critics unlike anything else DC have put out so far. But there’s a very good reason for its success, they crafted a wonderful film full of joy and wonder, mixed with the usual superhero antics (including a final CGI boss battle the film didn’t really need), yet, it worked through a charming story and a fantastic performance from Gadot, who managed to be everything we needed Diana to be.
The other big DC film was Suicide Squad, a film butchered in its edit, apparently without the directors approval, leaving entire subplots on the cutting room floor along with most of Jared Leto’s new take on the Joker. It begins to form a picture of interference, almost all of these films have had huge reshoots and were edited to death. Despite being crammed full of brilliant actors (when they most interesting and enjoyable performance ends up being Jai Courteny, you know you have a serious problem), Suicide Squad was narrative mess on a level rarely seen these days, a film that genuinely doesn’t sense. However, the film did make money, and a sequel and spin offs were greenlit. Which leads us to another problem.
It’s clear WB/DC don’t have much of a plan in terms of going forward, every film announced has felt random, with no cohesive whole on the horizon. And they keep announcing new films. In various stages of production are;
- Aquaman – 2018
- Wonder Woman 2 – 2019
- Shazam – 2019
- Suicide Squad 2
- The Batman
- Green Lantern Corps
- The Joker and Harley Quinn
- A Joker Origin Story
- Justice League Dark
- Gotham City Sirens
- Man of Steel 2
- Deathstroke solo movie
- Black Adam
- And one would have to assume, Justice League 2
That’s a lot of films. And it is ever changing. Notice only three of them even have confirmed release dates. Most of these films have directors attached, and actor rumoured/cast for many parts. But how many will even get made? Aquaman is out next year, Wonder Woman 2 and Shazam are going into production shortly. Flashpoint and Suicide Squad 2 are pretty much a given, but all the others feel like they’re cancellations waiting to happen. Maybe there is a chance they could refine their vision along the way, and let Wonder Woman lead that charge.
Is Justice League a complete and total failure? Probably not. A low opening weekend won’t stop it doing well worldwide, and it does have a few positives, mainly Henry Cavill’s Superman finally feeling like a real version of the character we know and love, we get a few good laughs, and of course, Wonder Woman truly steals the show, becoming the heart and leader of the team, her scenes are some of the few with real charged emotion and weight behind them, but that largely comes off her solo film being so close to this one’s release. One of the biggest talking points, quite ridiculously, ended up being about moustache removal. Cavill’s facial hair for another film (Mission Impossible 6) couldn’t be shaved so WB spent millions of dollars using CGI to digitally remove it for the numerous rehoots required for Superman. To say that’s it’s noticeable would be an understatement, and in the end a poorly edited out moustache feels like a bizarre metaphor for the film in general.
People ask, what should they do next, how do DC/WB fix this? Judging from Justice League, and the majority of people’s reaction to it, it might not be possible to fix the larger problems. Justice League represented a tonal shift, an attempt to appeal to those they had previously alienated/upset.
It hasn’t worked, if anything the issues have been compounded and made worse. These films don’t work as a shared universe, and normally that would be fine, they don’t have to, but equally, they don’t work on their own either. A course correction is needed but one so severe that it changes almost everything, there’s every chance Flashpoint will be used to hit the reset button, giving us new actors (Ben Affleck is basically out of the door already, with a replacement being lined up) in roles and a different DC Expanded Universe.
One great film out of five, with the big team up movie being a commercial and critical failure, does not a franchise make. After all, Diana of Themyscira can’t save it all. Can she?