It has been 10 days since the release of Justice League. I write that because, in my mind, it feels like twenty. And, sure, part of that is due to the way in which time seems to drudge forward endlessly into a river of constant, bleak despair in the year 2017, but the other part is due to the overall effect Justice League had on moviegoers…or, more accurately, lack of effect.
Because, though Justice League marks a big step in the DC Cinematic Universe, it has failed to capture the zeitgeist in the same way the films that came before it have. Say what you will about the quality of Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, or Batman v. Superman, but they are bonefide blockbuster hits (barely so with BvS, but still.) Justice League’s blockbuster status, though, is a lot more questionable. Opening at $96 million might SEEM okay on the surface, but diving deeper, It’s actually a shockingly low number for the superhero team-up. It’s the lowest opening yet for any of the DC universe films, which in and of itself is a big problem. But combined with the massive production budget (some reports claim the cost could come to over $300 million, and that’s before marketing), and that number looks far less enticing.
And though Thanksgiving weekend MIGHT have been the opportunity for the film to break out in a bigger way, the past five days very much showed that not to be the case. Grossing just $59.6 over the time frame, Justice League failed to even place second in its opening weekend, losing to Disney/Pixar’s Coco in its debut weekend. Combined with a second weekend drop of 57% and things are not looking great for Justice League. At this time, the losses could add up to over $100 million.
So, as I have done in the past when a box office bomb is unleashed upon us, the question must be asked: how did this happen? Well, Mr. Warner Bros: we gave you all the clues. You should have seen this failure coming. Here are 5 of the main five reasons Justice League bombed at the box office.
5. It ran right up against Thor: Ragnarok
Why Hollywood studios continue to do this is baffling to me, but it’s hard to deny that Justice League’s to close-for-comfort release date to Thor: Ragnarok did not help the film at all. On the one hand, I can see Warner’s confidence in placing Justice League so close to Ragnarok — looking at the other two Thor movies, Warner probably didn’t sense much of a threat. What they didn’t know at the time was that the film would prove to be A) a critical and commercial success that dwarfed its two predecessors entirely and B) something of a team-up film involving two Avengers and a fan favorite villain. It was also an effects-heavy fantasy action pic, which…yeah, is also Justice League. The film’s just both seemed too similar to orbit the same release window and, though comic fans conceivably chose to see both, general audiences? For a good portion of them, they chose the old reliable Marvel movie.
4. It didn’t feel like an “event” at the same level of The Avengers
This is where the strange building blocks of the DC Cinematic Universe really comes into play. Unlike Marvel (yes, you are going to hear this comparison a lot through this article, deal with it), DC built up its universe and the characters within it in a rather, shall we say bold way. Well Man of Steel and Wonder Woman were traditional, rather standalone origin stories, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was something…different. Initially it was aimed as a Man of Steel sequel, but ultimately morphed into a Justice League prequel of sorts, featuring the Big Three (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) in substantial roles, and awkward appearances from the other League members as well.
So, going into Justice League, we’d already seen half of its members team up to fight evil together. This wasn’t an unprecedented event, even within the universe of DC. And though the Big Three combined alongside the likes of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg…we had yet to be introduced to The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. There was no anticipation to see them fight alongside the heroes we already knew, at least not for the non-comic book fans in the audience.
And the fact that Superman is bizarrely absence from the majority of the actual film didn’t help either. A residual effect from the decision to leave him dead at the end of Batman v. Superman, killing off Superman before certainly didn’t help Justice League feel like a grander team-up film. It left him out of a huge majority of the marketing, with all the big team posters and group photos not featuring the Man of Steel at all. This was a rather boneheaded decision from the marketing department, because it wasn’t exactly like Superman’s involvement in the team and (eventual) return to it would be some big shock. But by trying to ignore the Big Blue Boy Scout in the room, Justice League felt like even less of a monumental “coming together” than it even did initially.
3. The Justice League marketing was flat all around
Leaving out Superman wasn’t the only problem with Justice League’s marketing, however. Really, the film’s ad campaign was all over the place. It was of course focused heavily on the idea of the superheroes all teaming up to fight bad guys…except we never really found out who that bad guy was, or what he was even after. Like the vague trailers for Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell before it, the trailers for Justice League showed us pretty much nothing of the story. And well that might be fine for the spoiler-phobes that are averse to plot-heavy trailers (such as me), to general audiences, it doesn’t give them much to lean on as far as what drives the film.
These vague trailers are becoming a weird trend for the big blockbusters, and I honestly don’t think they help most movies. Well stuff like Star Wars: The Last Jedi can bank on mystery and general atmosphere to sell itself…some films need a little more help. It doesn’t help that none of the visuals in the Justice League trailer stood out very much (and looked actively bad in places), nor did the trailer present any big “moment” that would put asses in seats. Bringing up The Avengers yet again, there was no instantly iconic moment in the Justice League trailers that was nearly to the level of the spin around group shot, or even Iron Man being pursued by the giant alien monster (“bringing the party to you, etc.). When the coolest visual is Aquaman (a character audiences once again had no particular affection for) riding on top of the Batmobile, you might just have a problem. Hell, even Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had a cooler, more iconic ad campaign than Justice League. Love it or hate it, the teaser trailer for the movie INSTANTLY captures your attention, in a way Justice League never really could.
2. Mixed reviews certainly didn’t help
The film world is torn between the idea that critical reception no longer manners, and that Rotten Tomatoes is the most important thing in the world. Obviously both are pretty contradictory opinions (Rotten Tomatoes is build up off of critic reviews after all), and pretty hyperbolic too. But, if you ask me, reception IS important. Even if “reviews” aren’t the most important thing in the world anymore, social media dictates that the reactions to a movie are generally echoed to millions, and impact a film’s opening substantially. And the reactions to Justice League were, decidedly, mixed.
Not as bad as Batman v. Superman, for sure — there were actually a few positive reactions in the mix, in comparison to what seemed like a deluge of hatred for BvS. But it still wasn’t very good at all, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 41% only being a positive when you compare it to the terrible scores for BvS and Suicide Squad. And well something like Thor: Ragnarok and DC’s own Wonder Women was able to ride good buzz to a strong opening, Justice League was not. Making a movie that is received well, in this day and age, IS important. When even Transformers feels the brunt of critical response, you know that social media reaction is a huge deal. Just making a movie that people seem to like can make up dozens of millions of dollars. And if you haven’t seemed to do that, expect a lower opening from the get go.
1. WB scorched the earth when it came to building up the DC Universe
This is the most obvious, most direct, and most important factor that led to Justice League underperforming — the quality of the previous film’s turned people away. Batman v. Superman was so widely disliked that “pessimistic hesitation” became the default mode for people when it came to this follow-up. Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. just poisoned the well big time here and, though that didn’t matter as much in the franchise films of the past, when you are playing the cinematic universe game, quality MATTERS.
In a way, the response to this whole DC Cinematic Universe is the exact opposite that Marvel has built up to — when general audiences see the Marvel logo, they expect a super fun, quality time. And for that reason, the Marvel films have soared at a consistently high pace. Hell, the third Thor movie made more money in its first few weekends in release than Justice League has, and that’s not because the character of Thor is more popular than Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It’s because Marvel as a brand has installed trust in its audience. The DC movies have, for the most part, inspired bitterness.
And, yes, I get it — there are fans of the DC Movies out there, and by no means is the franchise universally hated. If that was the case, then Justice League would have opened to FAR LESS than $96 million. But with the kind of money Warner Bros is spending, and the impact they clearly wanted this film to have, they have to make movies that are universally beloved. And it’s not like they can’t do that — Wonder Woman is very well liked by audiences, and that appreciation for the movie led to a long, healthy box office run. Because it was good, and people liked it. And though Wonder Woman plays a role in Justice League, her involvement alone wasn’t enough to convince people this enterprise is worth funding. So they didn’t — simple as that.
Now will they in the future? That’s a damn good question — Justice League’s entire M.O. seems to be convincing people to like the DC Universe again, adding in better character work and splashes of fun to the previously dour experience. But, at this point, it feels like Warner is building a castle on top of a crumbling foundation. Though the film is still very much flawed, it does represent a mostly positive turning point for the DC Universe, and its characters. But, at this point, the damage has already been done, and a ton of money has been lost. It might be too little too late to save this particular branch of the DC Universe.
…But thankfully DC always has more Suicide Squad spin-offs, right? Maybe Deadshot buys a cell phone. Has Captain Boomerang ever owned a bear? The possibilities are truly endless!
Also published on Medium.