As an old-school Justice League fan, I’m about to severely disappoint my inner child:
Not only did I not see the Justice League movie this weekend, but I really have no interest in ever seeing it.
And let me be clear: if you liked the movie, hey, that’s great. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I wish I was even an iota as interested as you are, because the Justice League of America was my first comic book love. But even 30+ years of fandom isn’t enough to get me to spend 2 hours watching this version of a concept I grew up immersed in.
Evidently, I’m not alone. As I type this, Justice League is struggling to reach a $100M opening at the U.S. box office. This result is shocking, for several reasons.
First, Wonder Woman by herself opened to $100M earlier this year… so how can a movie featuring her plus a bunch of other heroes not top $100M?
Second, every other film in the DC Extended Universe has opened over $100M. (Ironically, Wonder Woman had the smallest opening tally before this, and she went on to have the biggest cumulative total… so maybe that’s still possible here?)
Third, Suicide Squad opened to $133M… and no one even knew who any of those characters were other than Harley Quinn. What this means is that moviegoers would rather see Harley Quinn plus a bunch of nobodies than see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman together on the same screen.
Lastly, 62 MILLION PEOPLE watched the Avengers: Infinity War trailer in its first 48 hours. Despite that trailer’s flaw, it proves that audiences have a healthy appetite for another superhero team-up movie.
Now, add in Justice League‘s 40% Rotten Tomatoes critics rating and…
Oh man, this is just bad news all around.
But this turn of events isn’t just surprising. It’s also kind of depressing.
See, I grew up reading the vintage JLA comics from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Those stories were a big reason why I started collecting comics in the first place. And if you had told 10 year-old me that I could someday see Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman in the same movie? I would have been thrilled beyond belief.
Today? I shrug and move on.
Like I said, that’s sad. But it didn’t have to be this way.
In my opinion, here’s where the marketing — and the execution — for the Justice League movie went wrong.
Eight Reasons Why the Justice League Movie’s Marketing Didn’t Work
It’s impossible to point to any one reason why the Justice League movie is underperforming. But if you add all of these issues up, you have a film with some serious stumbling blocks in terms of audience perception.
Its Tone Is Broken
IMHO, this is the movie’s biggest problem: from the trailers through the studio’s positioning, it seems like no one knows what the Justice League movie’s purpose is or how it’s supposed to make you feel.
This is partly due to DC’s reactive tendencies. Because Marvel set the pace by launching their cinematic universe first, DC and Warner Bros have been playing catch-up while trying to differentiate themselves.
Over the past 15 years, as Marvel goes for laughs, DC goes dark. With The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad, Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and David Ayer have created a pretty universally bleak, gritty, and serious DC Extended Universe.
Which, hey, if that’s your preference, go for it.
Except… now DC suddenly has jokes, too.
The problem is, the jokes in Justice League often seem to be coming either at the expense of the characters or at the expense of the audience. They may be funny, but we’re usually supposed to be laughing at someone.
Now, compare this to the sense of humor across all of Marvel’s films.
Sure, we’re often invited to laugh with the characters, or at the heroes’ comical excesses (Tony Stark’s ego, Steve Rogers’s wholesomeness, Thor’s overconfidence, Stephen Strange’s general assholishness, etc.).
But there’s a crucial difference here: Marvel’s audience is never asked to think less of their heroes for the sake of a punchline. If anything, the comedy that comes at the expense of the heroes actually endears them to us.
But Justice League‘s issue isn’t just the tone of its humor. The whole movie looks, as expected, bleak and dire. Which, again, is fine by itself. But if that’s your vibe, then go all in and make every hero majestic rather than serving up Flash and Aquaman as sacrifices to the comedy gods.
And I’ll call on those two specifically because…
We Already Saw the “Big Three” Onscreen Together Last Year
Hey, remember when Wonder Woman appears in Batman v Superman?
That’s basically half the selling point of any conceivable Justice League movie. That scene satisfied most longtime fanboys’ desires to see DC’s “big three” on the same screen. Would they still want more? Oh, sure… but when?
Well, DC doesn’t know how to build desire toward a payoff.
Whereas Marvel took four years between Iron Man and The Avengers, and then three more years between Avengers 1 and 2 — which helped build up a lot of fan anticipation to see how their favorite heroes would finally interact onscreen — DC squandered their opportunity to build much tension by releasing Justice League just 18 months after BvS…
And, oh yeah, just 6 months after Wonder Woman.
We Already Saw the Justice League’s Best Selling Point in May
I enjoyed Wonder Woman. So did most of the moviegoing public.
She earned over $400M at the domestic box office, which is a record for superhero origin films. That’s also the most money earned by any of the DCEU movies.
But did we need to see her again only six months later? Doubtful.
This is the equivalent of DC texting you the night of your first date to let you know they had a great time and they can’t wait to see you again.
Like… dude, chill. Let it breathe.
Even Marvel waited a full year before giving Dr. Strange a cameo in Thor: Ragnarok (which has its own problems, but overusing its leads isn’t one of them).
However, Diana isn’t the only Justice League member we’re kind of oversaturated by, because…
We Can See the Flash on TV for Free
DC’s TV universe is, by all accounts, its most critically successful media venture at the moment.
It also presents a problem.
There’s already a TV Flash. (A few of them, actually.) And he’s popular… but he’s not the Flash who’s in the Justice League movie. No, that’s yet another Flash.
Because the DC TV universe is not the same world as the DC film universe. And that’s probably DC’s dumbest move yet.
Look, we should be clear about something here: DC has a legendary habit of duplicating its own characters for no justifiable reason. Back in the ’80s, it got so bad and led to such a massive continuity clusterfuck that DC literally wrote the book on how to erase decades of its own comic book history.
So to watch them repeating these same mistakes by creating different versions of each character for each medium is more than asinine. It feels like a sad cash grab mixed with creative constipation.
There are over 50 canonical members of the Justice League of America (not even counting their European counterparts). So why keep re-using the same characters — especially when one of them can be seen on TV sets for free every week?
(Side note: Marvel also beat DC to the punch by giving filmgoers not one but two different versions of Quicksilver. So while longtime Flash fans are understandably happy to see a version of Barry Allen in theaters, your average movie fan has already seen some impressive high-speed hijinks in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron. So does including the Flash in Justice League give it a must-see vibe? Once again, I’m guessing “no.”)
Speaking of must-see misses…
The Justice League Movie’s Villain Is a Dud
As an old-school DC fan, I remember Steppenwolf. I even had his action figure from the Super Powers series.
But to call him a second or even third-tier villain is an outright lie.
It’s such a stretch, the first trailer for the film didn’t even show the villain.
That’s because Steppenwolf is basically an emissary of Darkseid, the real villain the heroes are expected to fight in the future. But, once again, DC is cribbing a page from Marvel’s playbook by having the heroes fight an underling to “prepare them” for their “ultimate test” that will happen later.
And, again, this could have worked… except…
The Plot of Justice League Is… Basically the Same as The Avengers?
Okay, so Steppenwolf is assembling Mother Boxes so he can [do something nefarious with them].
Doesn’t that sound like what all the Marvel movie villains are doing with all those tesseracts?
In fact, doesn’t DC’s Darkseid look prettttttty much just like Marvel’s Thanos?
Could these film universes get any more alike?
Well, here’s one difference… but it’s not exactly for the better.
The Justice League Cast Has Some… PR Issues
Given the wave of sexual abuse scandals being reported across Hollywood, this is not a cultural climate where you want your new blockbuster to be headlined by one of Harvey Weinstein’s closest allies… much less one with his own history of inappropriate behavior. And yet, here DC is, trotting out the headline-plagued Ben Affleck as the lynchpin of their film universe.
On top of that, Jason Momoa made a highly questionable comment on a recent panel, and Gal Gadot has attracted criticism for her politics. Individually, any one of these issues could be overlooked by your casual moviegoer… but in this news cycle, you’re basically asking people to pay to see a troupe of actors whom they may have some serious moral reservations about supporting.
As Johnny Depp has taught us, this attitude is not a recipe for positive PR.
But maybe that word, “recipe,” is really DC’s biggest problem.
We’re Reaching a Superhero Saturation Point
Our modern box office is overwhelmed by capes.
As a result, so is… pretty much every aspect of our culture.
These days, Hollywood releases half a dozen comic book movies every year. There are also a dozen Marvel or DC series available on TV and Netflix, with more to come.
From TV to movies to comic books to video games to action figures, there’s no shortage of available superhero stories to choose from. So, given how much high-quality comic-influenced content you have to choose from in 2017, if you’re not a comic book superfan, why would you spend $12 to see Justice League in theaters?
To me, that’s the biggest dropped ball in this whole mess: all the marketing for the Justice League had to do was give people a reason to get excited about seeing some of the biggest heroes in the history of comic books appear onscreen together for the first time, and it failed.
This should have been a slam dunk, but it airballed.
Will this be the moment when DC learns its lesson and rights its cinema ship?
Or will Justice League’s box office stumble be the straw that reboots the camel’s back?
If You Like This Post
… then you may also enjoy this post about how DC should have built their film universe, or this post about why every Marvel movie really tells the exact same story.