Claims of studio meddling during the production of DC Comics’ Justice League are emerging, in the wake of the film’s lackluster opening weekend. It’s not uncommon to hear such stories when a high-profile film struggles, but Justice League was supposed to the “can’t fail” tentpole of the year for Warner Bros. — a studio that’s already endured several big-budget flops this year, including King Arthur and Blade Runner 2049.
Business Insider estimates that Justice League could lose up to $100 million, which must have some key folks at WB and DC reeling. It’s confounding how a superhero team-up of DC’s most iconic heroes (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman), supported by a massive $300 million budget, and helmed by a pair of top-shelf creators could stumble to this degree. According to Digital Spy, studio execs were repeatedly sticking their hands into the stew before, during, and after production.
It’s been well-reported that Justice League is the product of two directors — Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon — both highly accomplished filmmakers, but with vastly different strengths and weaknesses. Typically, during a film’s pre-release press junkets, red carpets, and premiere extravaganzas the major collaborators stand in front of cameras and recorders to express their vision and enthusiasm, while also responding to critical and fan feedback. Snyder and Whedon are certainly no strangers to this promotional process, yet neither has commented — positively or negatively — in social media or elsewhere in the lead-up or aftermath. Their absence and silence is deafening.
Snyder’s son, Jett, issued these remarks via Vero:
I did enjoy the movie, although it is clearly not what it could have been due to the meddling of Warner Brothers and the forced comedy. The run time was my biggest gripe with the movie, with events that should take a long time over in a flash;$ [sic] but still definitely a fun movie to watch, and would recommend it.”
Jett is obviously in a prime position to know this information, although it’s not clear if his allegations are firsthand or only hearsay. I’ve seen the movie twice since its debut, and I definitely sensed a tug-of-war in terms of tone, dialog, and pacing. One particular scene stands out, too: Batman’s strange opening scene.
During the sequence, Batman pursues a criminal — Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany in an uncredited role — over Gotham City rooftops; he smacks McCallany around, and then hangs him over the side of a building, which attacks a lone Parademon; Batman similarly beats and captures the creature, which self-destructs and leaves behind a mysterious clue; Batman and McCallany exchange quippy words and the scene ends. The scene felt really odd to me, and now we’re learning why.
McCallany spoke with Men’s Fitness magazine and confirmed that the scene was added by Whedon after Snyder’s departure. He claims that Whedon intended the scene as “comedic,” but the studio pushed back and mandated changes:
That’s how Joss wrote it, and that’s how we shot it. I thought it came out great, but the studio felt it would be a mistake to open the film with a completely comedic scene, so it was re-edited a little bit. I was disappointed, but when I got home to New York I found a bottle of my favorite Champagne and a note from Joss that said ‘To Battles Lost. Gratefully, Joss.’ I can’t tell you how much it meant to me that he took the time to write to me. Joss Whedon is a class act. I had the letter framed.”
Jett and McCallany aren’t grinding axes, they’re merely conveying some production details in their own words. However, it seems clear that WB execs intentionally altered or otherwise suppressed the vision of both directors — more than once. It’s impossible to say whether these changes improved or harmed the film, but the lukewarm response from audiences and the crippling box office tell the ultimate story.
Justice League is certainly not the only film to endure such studio intervention, but when you consider the caliber of the screenwriters, actors, and directors involved, the lack of trust shown to these artists is kind of shocking. Granted, WB invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the production and marketing, they’ve got huge skin in the game, but they hired these folks on the strengths of their previous successes. It seems the height of arrogance and disrespect for these studio folks to step into the creative process, but it’s hardly atypical in the film industry, unfortunately.
Listen, this isn’t a particularly fun story to write, but it’s important to understand what went wrong in the making of Justice League. Such understanding won’t necessarily change the outcome of future films, but audiences vote with their feet and the studios need to realize that their fanbase is paying attention. WB and DC are now in the position — due in part to their own actions — of having to convince fans and critics that their next superhero film(s) are free of such meddling, or they risk even worse turnouts in the future. Next steps are entirely up to you, WB and DC.
Justice League is now showing in theaters.