How does a movie that makes $94 million in its first weekend feel like a failure? When it’s Justice League, the latest strained attempt by Warner Bros. to convince us that we want to see Batman, Superman and the rest of the DC heroes mope across the screen while battling CGI bad guys. On the business side, Justice League is being viewed as a commercial disappointment — but more profoundly, it’s another serious indication that audiences are tired of the DC universe, except when it involves Wonder Woman.
This is a shocking turn of events. For years, a movie with Batman or Superman was a surefire way to pack theaters. They’re two of the most famous and beloved comic-book characters in the world — icons that fathers pass down to their sons, like a favorite sports team. But Justice League—along with last year’s Batman v Superman and 2013’s Man of Steel—presents them as such joyless, uninspired ciphers that we have to struggle to remember why we liked them so much in the first place.
Now that you’ve had an opportunity to suffer through Justice League, too, it’s time to dissect the corpse. What did we all just watch? Why did Superman’s face look so weird? Who’s most responsible for this debacle? And can anything be done to save the DC extended universe? (Other than green-lighting four more Wonder Woman movies immediately, of course.) Here’s our virtual water-cooler conversation about Justice League. (And, yes, there will be spoilers.)
#1. The Only Performance Anyone Is Talking About Comes From Henry Cavill’s Digitally Removed Mustache.
Justice League brings together Ben Affleck (who plays Batman), Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Ezra Miller (the Flash), Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Ray Fisher (Cyborg), alongside Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane and Jeremy Irons. That’s a huge cast, and yet, the actor that’s drawn the most attention is none of them — everybody just wants to focus on what the hell happened to Cavill’s upper lip.
When I saw Justice League at an early press screening, something seemed off about Cavill’s performance. He came across as almost inhuman, as if he wasn’t fully awake. I shrugged it off — everybody in this movie feels a little lobotomized — and figured it was the fact that Superman had just come back from the dead, which would make anybody drowsy.
But now I know what it was: Cavill had his bushy mustache removed in post-production, making his face look super-weird. The actor had finished his work on Justice League and had moved on to the upcoming Mission: Impossible sequel, in which his character has a mustache. When Justice League required reshoots, Cavill had to come back, facial hair intact, and do his scenes.
Did the effects people do a good job making him look clean-shaven? I guess. In the film, he does indeed have no hair on his lip, but in its place is a flesh-colored digital smear that makes it look like he’s wearing a prosthetic lower face:
Nowadays, it’s fairly easy for effects teams to go in and alter images after they’ve been shot on set. But the effort that went into Cavill’s incredible vanishing ‘stache is both an indication that sometimes the workarounds actually look ridiculous and a giant red flag regarding the generally terrible creative decisions that went into Justice League.
#2. The Stuff You Like in ‘Justice League’ Is Probably Thanks to Joss Whedon.
During production, director Zack Snyder had to step aside because of a family tragedy: His daughter committed suicide. In his place came Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the director of the Avengers films. Some sites have speculated about what aspects of Justice League were Snyder’s and which were brought to the movie by Whedon, who’s credited as one of the screenwriters. I don’t pretend to have any inside scoop on what went on behind the scenes, but I think it’s easy enough to speculate: Anything that’s good in the film probably had to do with Whedon.
Why? Simply put, Justice League is at its worst when it’s a brawny, ponderous, brooding clatter. In other words, when the movie reminds you of Batman v Superman and Man of Steel — which were both directed by Snyder — it feels like the filmmaker is just following his usual garish, pseudo-dark muse. However, when Justice League tries to be a bit light on its feet — when it actually remembers to be fun — it gives off the playful feel of Whedon’s past creations. Those moments in the film are easily the strongest, and they seem beamed in from a parallel universe where not everybody sulks all the time to prove how tortured they are. (Affleck wins first place in Justice League’s Sulk Olympics.)
The rationale may be a bit simplistic, but you can understand why fans want to give Whedon all the credit for the film’s brief moments of humor or resonance — usually, when Gadot’s easy charm cuts through the hushed solemnity — since such things seem beyond Snyder’s gloomy abilities, which apparently involve sexualizing everything in sight in ways that are incredibly demeaning.
Neither Snyder nor Whedon has done any interviews about the film to discuss who contributed what to the final product. (Whedon made enough noise the other day simply by liking a random tweet that denigrated Justice League’s villain, a move that made fanboys go into full-on rage mode.) For what it’s worth, the cast has been asked, and Affleck was diplomatic, saying, “We were fortunate that when Zack was not able to continue, you know, we got really lucky in that we got a guy who’s very accomplished in his own right, particularly in this genre. And he kinda sprinkled some of his fairy dust on our movie and finished it. I don’t think there’s any way to go back [and say], ‘That’s a Joss scene. That’s a Zack scene.’ They were both working together toward a common goal.”
Maybe, but if the common goal is to make a great movie that actually excites a fan base about the prospects of more DC films, it might behoove the Warner Bros. braintrust to figure out who made the scenes that worked best in Justice League and pack their next few scripts with them.
#3. Wonder Woman Can Do Anything — Except Save the DC Extended Universe.
There’s been one good recent DC film: Wonder Woman. That’s a bright spot for the studio, but in Justice League, Gadot’s Diana is hemmed in by a film stuffed with so-so male superheroes that don’t have a tenth of her charisma. It’s depressing to watch. She’s like the Beyoncé to DC’s Destiny’s Child.
Batman v Superman ended with the death of Superman, a moment that became an unintended metaphor for the passing of the torch from an out-of-fashion superhero to Wonder Woman, who represents the future of the DC Extended Universe. Sadly, however, the Wonder Woman sequel doesn’t hit theaters until 2019.
That feels very, very far away.