Warner Brothers’ and DC Comics’ Justice League isn’t a flop, but it’s clearly the most high-profile failure in a year of Hollywood letdowns. Going into last weekend, the highly-anticipated movie was projected to hit around $120 million domestically, but according to Forbes, Justice League earned less than $95 million (the film earned $280 million worldwide). Given the high production and marketing costs, the future for Justice League — and DC’s other upcoming superhero films — is far from bright.
Notably, this is the worst domestic opening for a DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film yet: Batman v Superman ($166M), Suicide Squad ($135M), Wonder Woman ($106M), and Man of Steel ($103M). Think about that for a moment, an epic, big-budget superhero film featuring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg failed to hit expectations — pretty shocking, right?
So, what happened and what does this mean for DC’s massive slate of upcoming superhero films? Let’s consider the damage that’s been done by Justice League‘s weak opening.
According to Forbes, Justice League cost $300 million to make, and then another $150 million in marketing. Given that most films lose about 50% of their audience week-over-week, there’s slim chance that Justice League will make it’s money back, much less earn a profit. Fortunately for WB and DC, Pixar’s CoCo is their only competition over the next three weeks (The Last Jedi arrives on December 15, and it will almost certainly crush everything else in theaters).
To be fair, Justice League is a fun movie, its characters are (mostly) compelling, and the cinematography is often quite beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s also a very safe, risk-averse movie — this might actually be its biggest shortcoming. If Justice League had debuted five years ago, we might have been wowed by its costumes, action, and special effects, but given the glut of quality superhero films it doesn’t stand out enough to move the needle. However, WB and DC have so much riding on Justice League that you can almost understand their decision to play it safe, too bad it backfired.
Justice League‘s many failures can be summed up simply: the story is terrible. The big-bad in this film is a CG-created monster called Steppenwolf — a villain so obscure that even the hardest of the hardcore DC fanbase might struggle to recognize him. The basic premise of the film, an alien invasion that threatens the planet, has been done so many times that it’s become a punchline within the genre. WB execs also mandated a two-hour runtime, which surely abridged the origins of debut characters like Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. The sum of all these choices feels half-baked, at best.
Additionally, director Zack Snyder — a strong visualist — departed during production for personal reasons, and was replaced by Joss Whedon — a character specialist. The Snyder-Whedon combination should have been complementary and magical, but instead felt more like a tug-of-war between diverging voices. Consequently, the film constantly jumps around, struggles to establish believable character beats, and worst of all fails to make any of it feel important or resonant.
By contrast, last year’s Batman v Superman asked big questions regarding unchecked power, the value of heroism, and government corruption. Justice League‘s major thematic questions revolved around an eon’s long struggle to possess a trio of “Motherboxes,” which could destroy the planet. Basically, this is an overstuffed film with a weak villain, a tired plot, and dopey dialog.
Where in the world do WB and DC go from here?
The Aquaman movie has completed principal photography, Wonder Woman 2 is going to happen (it’s their only real success at this point), and Suicide Squad 2 is moving ahead (because the first one made a ton of money). Everything else is up-in-the-air, and should remain so. WB and DC must realize at this point that they’re not in the same league (forgive the pun) as Disney and Marvel — WB/DC aren’t making up this ground any time soon. Ben Affleck, is maybe-sorta on-board for the next Batman movie, but is probably leaning toward the exit. Henry Cavill (Superman) is only signed for one more movie too.
WB and DC have a lot of decisions to make (and 15 more films listed on their slate). These are truly great characters and they’re played by solid actors, but the combination clearly didn’t work in Justice League. If DC moves ahead with their current plan, they’re putting a lot of pressure on Aquaman in 2018 (Shazam and Wonder Woman 2 arrive in 2019). If Aquaman doesn’t work, and there’s no backup plan, they’re really screwed. WB and DC might be wise to pull back, wipe the slate, and start over again. I smell a reboot!