The most surprising thing about Justice League happened off camera. The movie itself—if you haven’t seen it, proceed with caution—was fairly textbook. Before they could defeat Steppenwolf and his army of rabid bumblebees, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman had to learn to trust one another, and then resurrect a certain chiseled, square-jawed alien to help them close it out. The superhero dream team’s world-saving abilities were never in doubt. But after an anemic opening weekend in which the film fell well below Warner Bros.’ already modest expectations, we’re left with a single burning question: Sure, the Justice League can save the world, but who’s going to save Justice League?
We should be clear—Justice League was never going to out-perform Marvel’s first Avengers movie, which set an impossible benchmark back in 2012, when it grossed a staggering $207 million on its opening weekend. With the debacle that was Batman v. Superman still fresh in the minds of every DC fan, coupled with JL’s embattled production—which saw Joss Whedon replace director Zack Snyder midway through production—conservative estimates had Justice League making anywhere between $110 and $120 million domestically. But when the dust settled, the long-awaited big screen team-up of DC Comics’ highest-profile superheroes couldn’t even crack the $100 million mark. Its final weekend tally of $94 million is the eighth biggest opening this year, behind the second-tier Marvel franchises Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2.
It also marks the lowest opening weekend of all the big-screen entries in the DC Extended Universe, including the dismal BvS and Suicide Squad, both of which opened strongly but then plummeted thanks to toxic reviews and bad word of mouth. It looks like Justice League—which currently sits at 39 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—is doomed to meet a similar fate.
That’s very bad news for Warner Bros., which spent $300 million to make the film, and another $450 million just to market it. That means in order for the studio to recoup its investment, Justice League will have to make $750 million globally. But unlike Wonder Woman, which opened modestly and then rode a wave of positive buzz to becoming the fifth highest-grossing superhero movie ever, Justice League looks destined to remain stuck in neutral.
We could go on and on about what went wrong here. The film itself was riddled with plot holes and hamstrung by a boring, clunky villain. And unlike Marvel’s Cinematic Universe—which expanded organically before Avengers was finally unleashed—audiences were unfamiliar with Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ezra Miller as the Flash and Ray Fisher as Cyborg. Add that to the fact that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill never really galvanized moviegoers the same way Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man did, and it’s easy to see why people stayed away. In fact, Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman was the film’s only bright spot, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the DC Extended Universe.
The good news for Wonder Woman fans is that her involvement in Justice League likely won’t tarnish her Teflon brand. Gadot is by far the most charismatic performer of the bunch, which is why Justice League sagged whenever she was off screen. It’s reassuring then, that when Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 2 hits theaters in 2019, Gadot won’t have to share the screen with one of her male counterparts, after DC told Vulture that its standalone films won’t be beholden to the universe at large. If anything, Wonder Woman will be used to bolster DC’s other burgeoning franchises. She’s already been confirmed for the Flash’s first standalone movie, Flashpoint, which is slated for release in 2020.
But what about the rest of her coworkers? The fan reception to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman has been mixed at best, which doesn’t inspire confidence for his solo feature, scheduled to hit theaters in December 2018. Our brief glimpse of Atlantis was one of Justice League’s clumsiest sequences, so an entire movie set in that underwater world gives us pause. Momoa has heard all the negativity and is urging fans to take a “wait and see” approach. The good news is that James Wan—who helped launch the Saw franchise—is one of the most inventive young directors in Hollywood. If anyone can make us care about a superhero that talks to fish, it’s him.
Other movies on DC’s calendar include the Cyborg standalone and the future Justice League members Shazam and Green Lantern solo films. While all three are in the earliest stages of production, their success will be crucial in helping shape the DCEU.
That leaves DC’s two signature superheroes, Batman and Superman. Despite no official announcement, Affleck is likely out as the Caped Crusader. Neither of his outings have been successful, which means he’s probably just as eager to exit the role as Warner Bros. is to show him the door. Just last week it was reported that Matt Reeves was meeting with actors who could potentially don the cape and cowl in The Batman—the first installment in his planned trilogy. Reeves by the way, is the man behind the Planet of The Apes movies, which have quietly become one of the most successful (and provocative) modern franchises in Hollywood. Though Affleck recently said he’s looking for a “cool and graceful” way to say goodbye to the character, Reeves is said to be interested in Jake Gyllenhaal for the role. Theoretically, Affleck could play Batman one more time in the Justice League sequel while his successor fights crime in Reeves’ standalone movie, which will reportedly be a gritty take that focuses on Batman’s prowess as a detective. But Warner Bros. likely wants to avoid having concurrent big screen versions of Batman, since these expanded universes are confusing enough already. And with The Batman expected to hit theaters long before JL2, it’s safe to say we’ve seen the last of Batfleck.
Superman meanwhile, is the only member of the Justice League without an upcoming standalone movie already confirmed. While Man of Steel 2 is all but a given, Warner Bros. has yet to officially announce a follow-up to Zack Snyder’s 2013 original. The movie that launched this whole thing was criticized for its grim interpretation of Superman, which means that if (and when) another standalone Superman movie is greenlit, it’ll likely be with another director better suited for the character’s “feel-good” qualities. Cavill is under contract for at least one more movie as Supes, so expect him to return as well.
If Warner Bros. intends on transforming the DCEU, it needs to focus on making audiences care about its roster of heroes—beyond Wonder Woman, of course. That means getting its upcoming slate of standalone films right. Hiring the likes of Wan, Reeves and Jenkins is as good a start as any.