Justice League’s underwhelming box office has led to some major changes at WB. So what does this mean for the DCEU?
I loved Justice League, but I was apparently one of the few who did.
For all intents and purposes, the film should’ve been WB’s answer to the MCU’s Avengers. It had a $300 million budget and included some of the most iconic comic book superheroes together on screen for the first time. Its opening weekend numbers were expected to be insane. For comparison, Batman vs Superman opened at $166 million, Suicide Squad at $133 million, Man of Steel at $116 million and Wonder Woman a $103 million. This movie should’ve opened to at least an easy $140 million.
Instead, it opened at a staggeringly low $94 million — making it the lowest earning opening weekend box office of all of the DCEU’s films and disappointing critics, fans and WB execs alike. Three weeks later and it’s just now crossing into $600 million territory worldwide and is expected to finish around $700 million, which means it’ll just break a little bit above even.
To call it a financial disappointment is an understatement.
Why ‘Justice League’ underperformed at the box office
I know there’s a snarky temptation to just say “because it wasn’t good” and leave it at that. However, even if I didn’t disagree with the assessment that it’s a bad film, I’d point out that there are plenty of wildly mediocre all the way to truly trash films that still go on gross an absurd amount of money.
So it has to be more to it than that. After all, Batman vs. Superman got positively ripped apart by critics and still opened to $166 million and ended up grossing $900 million worldwide.
So what happened?
First off, I will say that while these numbers and the general reaction have been disappointing, as someone who is heavily involved in the DCEU fandom, I can’t really say that I’m surprised.
The film suffered as much from poor management at an executive level as it did from legitimate filmmaking criticisms.
While I loved Snyder’s two films in this universe, it was obvious that the underperformance of Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman by the studio’s standards made it so that the studio no longer trusted Zack Snyder to deliver what they wanted. There was a level of micromanaging and studio interference — anywhere from dictating the tone of the film to the firing the first composer — that very obviously negatively impacted the final product of the film.
In fact, a recent report from The Wrap detailed the behind-the-scenes drama which highlighted the many poor choices of WB execs Kevin Tsujihara and Toby Emmerich. This included mandating that the film be under two hours, a point of contention for many fans and critics alike, as well as the fact that Tsujihara and Emmerich rushed production once Zack Snyder had to step down in order to keep the November 17 release date so that they could make sure to receive their bonuses.
Add to this the fact that we continually heard whispers and stories of mismanagement and confusion from the increasingly leaky WB offices, and it’s easy to see how the excitement of both fans and general audiences was kept low even before the release of the film.
And unlike previous installments in the DCEU which were poorly received by critics but at least had a hardcore contingent of fan support, Justice League suffered from a heavily divided fanbase.
Many die-hard Zack Snyder fans found it difficult — if not impossible — to accept the movie once Joss Whedon was brought on, while Zack Snyder critics had difficulty accepting it at all. After the film’s release, there was an outcry from Zack Snyder fans against the obvious Whedon reshoot scenes and a campaign for a “Snyder cut” of the film which, depending on who you ask, may not even exist. Meanwhile, Zack Snyder critics complained about the lingering presence of the director and were not able to fully divest themselves of their feelings from the first two Snyder films in the trilogy.
Outside of the fanbase, those who liked only Wonder Woman had difficulty accepting the film because, well, it wasn’t Wonder Woman, while critics and fans who are mainly enamored by the MCU were mainly disappointed because it wasn’t an MCU film.
Essentially, I feel like the film buckled under the weight of everything people thought it should do and ought to be; rather than sitting down and watching the film for what it was and asking if the film accomplished what it set out to do (which I think it did), people instead came away thinking only of what they thought they should’ve gotten.
A poor opening weekend could’ve been buoyed by a movie that had good “legs,” meaning that it could’ve made up ground by continuing to perform consistently well at the box office in the weeks that followed. Unfortunately, without strong fan support and with plenty of family friendly competition at the box office, Justice League has continued to disappoint box office-wise even in the weeks that have followed its release.
No matter the reason as to why the movie did so poorly at the box office, the fact that it did has already had a profound effect on WB and the decisions it’s making with regards to its DC properties.
Changes at WB offices
Last night, Variety broke the exclusive news that Jon Berg, co-chairman of DC Films, will be stepping down at from his position at DC/WB. Geoff Johns, DC Entertainment CCO and co-chairman of DC Films, is expected to remain at DC Films for now — though there are rumors that he’ll be stepping back from his co-chairman role and will take on more of advisory role.
As a fan, I expected something similar to the first news but find myself mostly troubled by the second bit. There’s a lot of discussion in the fandom as to who should shoulder the blame in the wake of Justice League’s disappointment, but to me the two biggest offenders are those at the very top — Kevin Tsujihara and Toby Emmerich, with Tsujihara in particular a target of my ire given the fact that he is now responsible for cutting down the runtime of both Batman vs. Superman and Justice League in a way that negatively impacted their storytelling and reception by general audiences.
Rather than thinking about what might be best for the directors, the film or the DCEU as a whole, both these men in top leadership seemed intent on only pursuing their own paychecks, as evidenced by the behind-the-scenes report from The Wrap mentioned above.
I think that Berg and Johns, if he does end up being moved into more of an advisory role, are being scapegoated in this case. Giving Johns less control or influence in the DC films universe in particular is a bad move. Let’s not forget that the movie which he collaborated most closely with the director — Wonder Woman — was not only one of the highest grossing films in the DCEU but likewise enjoyed the rare privilege of being well-received by both critics and the general audience.
And yes, I do think for myself and I’m not that into what the critics say — I do love Batman vs. Superman with my whole heart, after all — but there was something rather nice about loving a DC movie and not having to constantly defend myself for doing so. And whether we want it to or not, critic’s opinions and that pesky Rotten Tomatoes score matter when it comes to the success of a film.
I think that Geoff Johns track record with writing DC comics, his approach to the characters and his desire to see DC Films became a director-led universe that focuses on heart, heroics, humanity, and humor makes him absolutely the one to keep at the helm going forward. And it is only by having less interference from Kevin Tsujihara and Toby Emmerich that this director-led, hopeful approach can become a reality.
Variety likewise reports that the studio is considering moving DC’s films into the studios’s main movie operations rather than housing it in a separate building. And while I’m loath to make direct comparisons between the different movie studios, I do think that it’s important to point out the both Fox and Sony run their superhero franchises under the main arm of their movie studio while the MCU operates separately and autonomously despite being owned by Disney.
As with its potential decision to demote Geoff Johns, I think that the choice to shift DC films under the main banner of the studio is likewise the wrong one. It would again afford the studio more oversight and more control, so I can see why they would like it, but as a fan, I feel like studio interference is the main reason we have all these issues in the first place. I’d much rather see DC Films established as a separate entity, giving more control to directors and creative teams who are more likely to care about telling a good story than they are at padding their pockets or chasing a bottom line.
The news of Berg’s departure is still fresh and likely to only be the first of many changes at WB offices. I hope that the next few changes target the root of the problems — poor leadership, unnecessary studio interference — in order to get the DCEU on track for these next few years.