Since Richard Donner first made us believe a man could fly all the way back in 1978, fans have yearned to see the Justice League together in live-action. That sentiment has only grown since then, propelled by appearances of the team in iconic media such as Superfriends and DC’s beloved Justice League animated series.
For years it seemed as if DC’s roster of characters were the most recognizable superheroes of all time, but things changed in 2008 with the release of Iron Man and the creation of the MCU, which culminated in 2012’s The Avengers; in an instant, Marvel had become King of Pop Culture and DC fans were left wondering if their team would ever make it to the silver screen.
In 2016, it seemed assured that Zack Snyder would finally deliver the first epic cinematic meeting of the Justice League, but the tragic and untimely passing of his daughter led him to step down as director while the film was in post-production. In response, Warner Bros. hired none other than Joss Whedon, the director of The Avengers, to finish the film. While some at the time noted that this might be a step in the right direction, time reveals all truths — the decision turned out to be a catastrophic failure for Warner. Five years since its release, the theatrical cut of Justice League set a new standard in box-office failure and forever cleaved the DC Extended Universe in two.
To truly understand why Justice League’s release was so disastrous, one must understand the climate surrounding the DCEU up to that point. Zack Snyder launched the franchise with 2013’s Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill in the titular role, before following it up with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, bringing Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman into the fold. Although it was clear Snyder was aiming for a different kind of team-up, critics and pockets of the general audience lambasted the films for rushing to a crossover, as well as their self-serious tone and lack of levity in comparison to their competitors at Marvel.
This cultural disconnect was reflected in the box office returns for Batman v Superman, which performed well on opening weekend and was initially projected to cross $1 billion, but experienced record-breaking drops in its successive weekends before landing at $873.6 million on a budget of nearly $300 million. Despite a lack of interest from the wider general audience and less-than-stellar reviews, Snyder’s films struck a chord with huge pockets of viewers who appreciated a more operatic and serious approach to the characters, and the absolute directorial intention he maintained over both films was a sharp contrast to the more rigid and ubiquitous projects that Marvel makes. There are many criticisms to be made about both Man of Steel and BvS, but they are wholly and entirely cohesive in terms of style.
Enter 2017’s Justice League, a movie that received nearly $25 million for reshoots to completely abandon that cohesive style. The truth of how much of Snyder’s footage made it into Whedon’s cut is still a point of heavy contention, but one thing is for certain: despite Zack Snyder’s name being on the opening credits, it is not his film. The theatrical release is a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster all its own – if you squint hard enough you can see some of the original aesthetic, but the final product is filled with Joss Whedon’s worst proclivities as a filmmaker. Immature comedy runs rampant throughout the script (which he also had a heavy hand in rewriting) and undermines the weight of the story being told, but the worst part is a lot of the comedy comes at the expense of the genuine character development originally shot, which was left on the cutting room floor.
The reshoots are painfully incongruent with Snyder’s footage, but to add insult to injury, the whole movie is color-corrected to hell and back, giving the entire affair a gaudy and garish look that’s a headache to watch. Every frame of the film is a monument to how desperate Warner Bros. was to erase Snyder’s vision for the franchise, and with Joss Whedon’s help, the result is an imitation of The Avengers that is so uncanny and pathetic it might as well have been made by an AI.
But beyond the product that was delivered to theaters, Whedon’s negative influence also soured the production as a whole. In the years since the release of the film, multiple cast members have come out and accused Whedon of unprofessional and abusive behavior on set, including Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and most notably, Ray Fisher. Both Gadot and Fisher have gone further and described the vitriol and toxicity that Whedon leveled at them after they both brought concerns about their characters to him, and Ray Fisher still maintains that Whedon’s abusive behavior was enabled by multiple DC executives including Geoff Johns. In an effort to course-correct the franchise and make money, Warner Bros. directly exposed its cast and crew to toxic work conditions, and that facet of the conversation still haunts the company to this day.
And in the face of all of this, Warner’s mad scramble was for naught. Justice League, after all was said and done, cost $300 million to make and only grossed $657.9 million at the box office – an abject bomb and an embarrassment for a superhero team that includes of three of the most recognizable fictional characters ever. Critics obliterated the movie for the mediocre storytelling and the incomprehensibly muddy third act, among other things, and general audiences couldn’t have cared less. But perhaps most ironically of all, in the process of trying to appeal to an audience that had already picked their side, Warner Bros. made the mistake of alienating an audience that was already eager for what was in store. Even if Snyder’s original plans for Justice League weren’t flipping billions of dollars, it earned him fans in droves; fans willing to put the pressure on Warner Bros. to rectify their mistake after the failure of the theatrical cut was evident.
But no matter what happens, the damage is already done. Warner Bros. and Joss Whedon not only cost the studio millions of dollars, but they also irreconcilably damaged the DC brand and the tenuous canon that was only just getting started. Since Justice League, with the exception of Aquaman, none of the DC films have landed at the box office quite the way the studio wants them to, evidenced by the reshuffling going on behind the scenes. And although James Gunn appears to be paving a new direction for the franchise with The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, the canonical timeline of the DCEU is still a total headache for audiences due to the two separate cuts of Justice League, along with other films trying to distance themselves from the aesthetics and casting of the Snyder era.
If nothing else, the Justice League is a lesson to Warner Bros. and other blockbuster studios that in this contemporary game of IP, one false move can mean the difference between cinematic greatness and a humiliating CGI mustache.