Someday there will be whole books written about Justice League. What should have been the closest to a slam dunk in terms of blockbuster cinema, a film that brings together Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, and having languished in development hell for years, on the cusp of becoming a film in 2007 only to be stalled, literally, at the last moment, instead became a colossal failure.
With Warner Bros. now pulling their full weight behind a shared cinematic universe featuring DC Comics characters, it stood to reason that a Justice League movie would be made and when their initial slate of movies was announced not only was there one Justice League movie in the works, the sequel was announced amongst it, indicating that this was to be a two-part movie, with the second part set to be released two years later in 2019.
That was not to happen. In fact, so many things would not happen with regards to Justice League, not only in terms of its sequel but in regards to what this film was originally meant to be.
Released a year and a half after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and in the same year as Wonder Woman, that year and a half had been an interesting time for Warner Bros. and their slate of DC Comics films. Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad had made money, but the former was seen to have not made enough while Suicide Squad broke even nicely despite the negative reviews.
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Earlier in 2017, Wonder Woman had been a magnificent success for everyone involved. Gal Gadot made good on the promise she had shown in Dawn of Justice, pretty much becoming an instant icon for many, Patty Jenkins had directed the film superbly, its romantic element involving Diana Prince and Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) felt legitimate and emotional in a way not seen since the days of Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, the action was well staged, giving audiences a legitimately iconic moment in the No Man’s Land sequence, and it managed the brilliant feat of retaining that touch of grit that the franchise was trying to maintain and make feel different from Marvel and yet have moments of levity and humour that felt well-earned.
It also meant that in the months leading up to Justice League, there was finally some sense of goodwill in the lead up to a new DC movie, and with Gal Gadot amongst the cast and playing a major role (rumours even abounded that some of the reshoots were being used a means to give her an even more prominent role after the positivity of her stand-alone movie) and even a gorgeous Alex Ross-inspired theatrical poster, there was the feeling that maybe, just maybe that things might work out for the film and that things were starting to turn around for Warner Bros. and their DC slate.
Then it came out and the rumours started.
The inclusion of Joss Whedon was no surprise. Tragic circumstances had meant that Zack Snyder and his wife Deborah Snyder, his producing partner, took leave from the film and with Whedon having directed Avengers Assemble and Avengers: Age of Ultron and seemingly beginning work on a script for a Batgirl feature film, the call was made for Whedon to come in and finish the film, with Whedon promising to make the film as per the style of Snyder.
When the film was released into cinemas in November of 2017, the film we were presented with appeared like some bizarro love child between a Snyder production and a Whedon one, but also a film that felt like it was a full-on knee jerk reaction to everything that was perceived as wrong about the work that Snyder had produced thus far.
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A Justice League film was always expected to be an epic experience, so when the run time of two hours was announced, it should have been the beginning of alarm bells going off. Warner Bros. had long had a reputation sometimes for cutting films down in order to ensure that they could fit in more screenings in theatres. A Justice League film really ought to have been a near three-hour event and in the weeks leading up to its release, if one were to look up the film on Google, one would have seen a run time being advertised as two hours and forty-five minutes.
One of the reasons why Dawn of Justice was released into theatres with a two and a half hour run time was in order to get more screenings, and yet that version was met with incredibly divisive reviews while the extended version, which ran to a little over three hours, was met more positively, indicating that the studio had learnt the wrong lesson.
Despite the negative reviews for both Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, they still managed to make money, and the positive reviews for Wonder Woman helped make that film a major success, on top of an eager modern audience simply wanting a female-led superhero which Patty Jenkins delivered and then some.
Everything about Justice League felt like a mess as if the film was sellotaped together after having been smashed to pieces and with a sincere hope that nobody would notice the cracks. Everyone did. Audiences stayed away once word of mouth started to spread, and while there was a time when a $657 million box office gross would have been a sign of success, the reported $300 million budget meant that the film had ended up losing money for the studio.
The CGI looks atrocious at various points, most clearly in the Russia-set finale and in the visual depiction of villain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds, doing the best he can but there’s only so much one can do with this dialogue), the movie brings Superman back from the dead in a disappointing manner, Ben Affleck’s performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman feels less interesting this time around and it feels as if even he knows that the film isn’t working.
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Of the cast, Gadot, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Jason Mamoa getting his first feature-length appearance as Aquaman stand out, with Fisher, in particular, being an engagingly brooding Victor Stone, so much so that one wishes that the Cyborg movie that was announced in that initial slate of films had ended up happening. The less said about Ezra Miller’s turn as Barry Allen the better, which feels overworked and goes for charm and humour but misses completely (it has none of the nuances that Grant Gustin brings in the television series).
Gadot keeps up the great work she did in her own movie, but one can definitely sense that this is a film from a male director compared to what Jenkins did. There are moments where Gadot is framed in such a way that feels like the definition of “male gaze” which is unfortunate, but thankfully she continues the good work she had done over her last two appearances and even though the action sequence that introduces here adds nothing to the film, at the very least it’s still cool to see her do her thing.
Then there’s Henry Cavill. Right from the opening moments, you could not fail to miss it. They talk about the Uncanny Valley, and from the first moment that Superman appears on-screen the first thing one cannot help but ask is; “what is wrong with Henry Cavill’s mouth?”.
It really says something about the problems, controversies and issues with Justice League that its production was greatly affected by, of all things, facial hair, a mandate placed on this film by Paramount Pictures because Cavill couldn’t shave due to his contractual commitments to Mission: Impossible-Fallout, a factor made even funnier by Cavill in Superman costume being used to advertise Gillette shaving products.
The biggest shame about all this is Cavill’s performance as Clark in this film is his most purely enjoyable to date. After being a more brooding presence in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice, here, he finally gets to play a version of Superman we all know and love; from having a charming conversation with children at the start of the film, to laughing alongside Cyborg, challenging The Flash to see who is faster, outdoing The Flash when it comes to saving civilians, to having sweetly romantic conversations with Lois (Amy Adams, doing so much with so little showing how great an actress she is), it’s the biggest disappointment with the film that while it gives us an interpretation of Superman that is wonderful in a modern setting, it does so with the fakest CGI mouth in cinema history.
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Then there’s the tone of the film. Snyder had said that they had listened to critics and weren’t going to be as deconstructive with the characters as they had been, and yet with Whedon coming in, the film has all the hallmarks of something that has been reshot quickly; the opening sequence with Batman fighting a Parademon on the rooftops of Gotham smacks of something filmed quickly in a studio complete with obviously fake backgrounds, and it even feels like it had the majority of the scene cut down to fit the running time given how the crook that Batman encounters on the roof (played by Holt McCallany) goes from being afraid of the Dark Knight and trying to kill him, to talking to him like they are the best of friends.
The humour dotted throughout feels Whedon-esque and the reincarnation of Superman involves The Flash and Cyborg digging up his grave complete with references to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary that cannot help but remind one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The conversation on who had filmed what led to many speculating that there was an alternate cut of the film that was Snyder’s, with footage that he himself had filmed being excised in favour of what Whedon had done, rumours that, nearly two years after the release of the film, have not gone away and been further fuelled by Snyder’s recent comments at a Q&A event he attended where he talked about his plans for this film and its sequel.
In the end, the film was a dud and a box office loss and one cannot help but feel despondent about that. When one watches the work of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Dwayne MacDuffie amongst others on the likes of the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, you can’t help but think about what it would be like to see that in live action.
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Even more ironically, around the time of this film’s release, the DC Television’s Arrowverse, the universe consisting of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, broadcast their yearly crossover which consisted that year of ‘Crisis on Earth-X’, a production that cost substantially less than this film, filmed on a television series budget while its cast and crews were filming their own prospective series and yet managed to be incredibly entertaining, fun and yet have legitimate dramatic stakes, all the while having a cast of DC characters that weren’t as mainstream or as A-list as this film but working so well because so much love and care had been taken to crafting that universe and thus making such a large scale crossover work as wonderfully as it did.
To see the first Justice League film come to the screen and for it to be the mess that it ended up being made it one of the most disappointing cinematic experiences in recent years. It should have had the same level of novelty that came with Avengers Assemble. Some put this down to Warner Bros trying to rush their way to a team-up film, but given Snyder’s recent comments, and regardless if one has a problem with his approach (which I sometimes have done, not least with Man of Steel) it does seem that Snyder himself, Deborah Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio had a plan for a series that would have made Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice and the two Justice League films they were planning as its own series with a larger scale story.
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The clear level of creative differences from the creative end and the studio end is something we’ll debate about for a long time. Rumours and demands from Snyder fans to have that elusive ‘Snyder Cut’ has not dissipated, the demand for it fuelled more by many who worked on the film claiming that there was more than enough filmed for Snyder to release his own version.
Whether or not, like Richard Donner’s work on his unreleased Superman II, the ‘Snyder Cutt’ is a version that will see the light of the day is something we’ll have to wait and see about. As it is, it doesn’t erase the fact that in November 2017, Justice League, a film featuring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman, and promising a team up between Lex Luthor and Deathstroke for somewhere down the line, was a major commercial and critical failure.