Justice League is a film which has seemingly split the film fan community right down the middle; the fifth entry into Warner Bros’ DC Extended Universe, and the series’ second release this year, following on from the huge success of Wonder Woman this past May. Sadly, Justice League has not managed to win over critics and audiences like Wonder Woman (the film currently holds a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 5.3/10 from a total of 275 reviews), and while not only opening to the lowest domestic total in the DCEU, an underwhelming $93.6m, a 45% drop from last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the lowest opening weekend for a film based on DC Comics properties since 2011’s Green Lantern.
While I personally did enjoy Justice League, and appreciated what it brought to the DC Universe, both in its spectacle and its development of key characters, it’s hard to dispute that the film hasn’t quite hit the heights that it either could or, quite frankly, should. This could partly be attributed to the film’s messy production, which saw original director Zack Snyder leave the film early on, due to a family tragedy, and replaced by Joss Whedon, who oversaw extensive reshoots to lighten the film’s tone and feel; reshoots which became increasingly noticeable throughout the film, and not just because of Henry Cavill’s uncanny-valley mustache removal. As a result, however, the film, at times, feels like the end product of two distinctly unique filmmakers, both fighting for their vision to shine over the other. And while I enjoy and appreciate the previous works of both Snyder and Whedon, it’s clear that is hardly the recipe for a successful film.
However, I think there’s a lot more to examine here than just the film’s troubled production, as to why it failed to match expectations. At the risk of using hyperbole, bad films can make lots of money, and while I don’t think Justice League is anywhere near the level of calamity of a recent Transformers Pirates of the Caribbean film, it’s clear that there is a lot more to Justice League’s failure than it appears.
Firstly, the impact of the mixed receptions to 2016’s Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad cannot be understated; BVS in particular. Despite a huge opening weekend, the film failed to hit a $1 billion gross worldwide, and only managed to double its opening weekend total internationally. This, coupled with the critical panning of the movie, and a measly 27% Rotten Tomatoes rating, may have killed much of the excitement towards the future of the DC Universe. On the contrary, this year’s Wonder Woman represented a huge achievement for the series, becoming the highest grossing superhero origin film and a huge hit with critics (demonstrated by its monstrous 92% score on Rotten Tomatoes), but even with this success, it appeared that many people still felt apprehensive with a film immediately following on from Batman v Superman, and by the same director. Whereas Wonder Woman enjoyed the luxury of very much being its own self-contained film, due to its setting, Justice League picks up immediately where BVS left off, and had to pick up the meandering audience support, also.
I’ve mentioned Rotten Tomatoes a number of times so far in this video, and there’s a good reason for that. In the current age we live in, Rotten Tomatoes appears to be the hill many movie fans choose to die on, an aggregate site which collects the reviews of hundreds of different film critics, rates their review as either ‘Positive’ or ‘Negative’, and creates an overall percentage of this from their selected critics. However, Rotten Tomatoes has its fair share of problems, at least in the way in which audiences attempt to use it. For instance, while Wonder Woman did receive a 92% positive score (meaning that 92% of the selected critics gave the film a ‘thumbs up’), the film’s average rating is 7.5/10. Compare this to Batman v Superman, which, despite its rotten 27% score, actually has an average rating of 4.9/10. Suddenly, the margins become a lot closer than they first appear, and I think that this frequent misunderstanding of how Rotten Tomatoes exactly works can be damaging for film fans, and how they themselves perceive a movie’s critical success or failure.
At the time of writing, Justice League holds an average rating of 5.1/10, with a 41% score on the ‘Tomatometer’, but it could be argued that Rotten Tomatoes themselves hindered the film’s success, from a financial standpoint. Normally, once a film’s review embargo is released, Rotten Tomatoes will begin to collate the reviews of its selected critics, and begin to present its Tomatometer score, which will then fluctuate depending on the reactions of more critics after a film’s wide release.
In the case of Justice League, however, the site deliberately chose to withhold the official score until a day after the film’s worldwide release, to coincide with their new Facebook Live series ‘See It/Skip It’. With the influence that Rotten Tomatoes has on movie audiences, as a trusted source of information as to whether a film is worth going to see, pulling such a publicity stunt on one of the most anticipated films of the year could very well have affected the opening weekend box for Justice League. It has been argued that this was done either to ‘protect’ the film (due to Time Warner owning a 30% stake in Rotten Tomatoes, via Fandango), or simply to drive up interest and ratings for their new show, it’s likely that, in either sense, audiences were simply put off seeing the film, and while not being the singular reason for Justice League's failure, is definitely worth considering.
Regardless of these factors, the real problem with Justice League isn’t so much about the film’s messy production, the poor handling by Rotten Tomatoes, or the wavering support from previous lackluster films, the real problem, in my opinion, is a lack of clear identity within the actual film. As I stated earlier, I enjoyed the film, and while admiring the bodies of work created by both Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, it appears that maybe Justice League just had too much up against it, for the film to truly succeed.
With the film starting principal photography so soon after BVS’ release, any real attempts of ‘course correction’ became impossible, bar minor script rewrites and an emphasis on light-hearted jokes, and this created an almost tug-of-war nature of the film’s struggling identity. Despite being credited as sole director, Justice League does not feel like a Zack Snyder film, for better or for worse, and while there’s definitely plenty of Joss Whedon’s hallmark style, it doesn’t exactly feel like a completely-Whedon film either. While I do definitely believe that Justice League leaves the DC Extended Universe in a much stronger position than it was prior to its release, that only really works when Justice League itself is good enough to stand as not only part of a larger universe, but stand as its own film first. And honestly, maybe Justice League just had too much riding on its success, and failed to manage the near-crippling expectations of which it had to meet. The secret to any successful series of films is making films which resonate well with audiences as films first, and entries into a universe second, and in the case of Justice League, it seems that it couldn’t quite save a cinematic universe alone.
Watch the full video here: