We already knew that critics hated the big superhero team-up, but that was to be expected; Gal Gadot's “Wonder Woman” is the only movie in the new DC Cinematic Universe that received a positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, with an impressive 92%. But hey, even though “Man of Steel” (55%), “Batman V Superman” (27%), and “Suicide Squad” (26%) all got pummeled by critics, they each had huge opening weekends, so it seemed like a movie this anticipated would at least make big bucks in its first go-round.
Turns out, though, audiences were not willing to be fooled yet again by a cynically conceived, poorly designed, cobbled together blockbuster. “Justice League” made even less than its modest projections, taking in just $96 million in its opening weekend. And while that may sound like a lot, it's actually painfully low for a movie of this size and corporate import.
In fact, it's $20 million less than “Man of Steel,” $37 million less than “Suicide Squad,” and a whopping $70 million less than “Batman V Superman,” which wound up being a long-term disappointment. And while it's only $7 million behind “Wonder Woman,” that movie shattered expectations, and went on to gross $412 million in the US, which “Justice League” won't come close to approaching. This, despite being the first full adventure of the iconic superhero team, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.
So, what happened? Well, it's in large on Zack Snyder, the “Man of Steel” and “Batman V Superman” director whose dark, joyless, story-free vision of the DC universe was thoroughly rejected by critics and moviegoers. And yet, he got to make “Justice League,” in large part because his aesthetic had set the course for the franchise (he and his wife produce these movies, as well).
The thinking went that it's hard to change pilots mid-flight, so he got another chance… at least until DC decided to indeed change pilots, a decision borne of both necessity and tragedy.
Even before the success of the far more hopeful and fun “Wonder Woman” this summer, Joss Whedon came aboard to do some rewrites and direct some sequences, a clear sign that Warner Bros. wanted to lighten the film up a bit. Whedon took over full-time after Snyder left the film to deal with the tragic suicide of his daughter, and word came that the second director — who had shaped the Marvel Cinematic Universe's massively successful first leg and set its tone onward — was doing A LOT of reworking. “Wonder Woman,” a far lighter and fun movie than the other DC entries, becoming a major hit fortified that Whedon's style was the right direction.
But Whedon wasn't starting from scratch, and had to try to retrofit all the stuff Snyder shot into what was becoming a very different movie. Sometimes that works, but often it either makes a movie bad in different ways, or even worse. Whedon could not pull off the miracle, and when the bad reviews came out, they explicitly said that all the production changes made for a disjointed, dissatisfying movie.
It has a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, but has been lambasted hard on social media, with complaints about CGI and photos mocking the terrible job the VFX people did trying to remove Superman star Henry Cavill's mustache, which he had during reshoots.
So after seeing three bad DC movies, following all that drama for six months, and having their worst fears confirmed, why would anyone who wasn't a hardcore fan, or had kids, go see it? In a way, the $96 million is a surprisingly strong number, and likely a product of endless marketing and ticket pre-sales.
Plus, people had another option this weekend: “Wonder,” the feel-good adaptation of the hit book about a sweet kid with a deformed face who goes to school with other children for the first time. Starring Jacob Tremblay (remember the adorable kid from “Room” last year?), Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson, the movie far overperformed expectations, taking in a whopping $27.5 million.
The moral of the story? People want to see good movies, with actual stories.