Warner Bros. and Zack Snyder want you to know that it’s all going to be okay.
If you follow the film blogosphere closely, you’ll notice that there are two reactions this week to a bunch of Justice League-related news. There are the few outlets that were invited to the London set last week to do a “Zack Snyder faces the haters” damage control tour. And there are the rest of us, quietly chuckling about it from the comfort of our offices.
It’s not unusual for a studio to handpick a group of journalists and invite them to the set of a film for long-lead stories. Whether it’s magazines like Entertainment Weekly or power blogs like our friends at /Film, this straightforward coverage of the who and what of the set is traditionally held until closer to the film’s release. The interviews, conducted in a studio-controlled environment, are conducted in groups, which leads to 20 different versions of the same story. All of the information presented is relatively tame by the time it comes out and at best, each writer puts a little bit of their own spin on the same information. For the most part, set visit reports are boring. We do not exclude our own work in this space, either.
What’s interesting about this week’s Justice League set barrage is the timing. It’s very rare for a studio to invite journalists to the set, then have them immediately publish their stories. Further complicating the situation is the tenor of those stories. For Devin Faraci, it was A Hater Tours The Justice League Set. For Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, it was Zack Snyder Faces His Haters on the Set of Justice League.
The plan for Warner Bros. was clear: let’s invite some of the loudest critics of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice to the set of our new movie and tell them all about how we’ve heard the concerns of fans and will be fixing things with Justice League. This strategy is good, until it’s not.
Zack Snyder’s Troubled Relationship with Superman and Comics
As The Ringer’s Sam Donsky points out, Zack Snyder and his team said some very interesting things during the set visit. It was clearly intended to be in service of controlling the narrative around Snyder’s DC Cinematic Universe expansion. Then Snyder said this: “For me, it is a really personal movie. When Batman v Superman came out, it was like, ‘Wow, oof.’ It did catch me off guard. … Because of what fans have said and how the movie was received by some, we have really put the screws to what we thought the tone would be and I feel pressed it a little bit further.”
For those keeping score, this will be the third time that Zack Snyder has been tasked with rebooting this universe. Man of Steel was the great reboot of the Superman franchise. Its reception was lukewarm, so they added Batman to the sequel and decided to bring about the Dawn of Justice. Now that the reaction to BvS was less than a home run, they are pivoting again, saying that now (no really, seriously this time) they can begin building their universe with the first Justice League movie.
Here’s the problem: Warner Bros. is out there on an damage control tour for a movie that made $872 million worldwide. They’ve already got an in-universe follow-up movie (Suicide Squad) that looks decent. And they’re beating Marvel to the female superhero movie punch with Wonder Woman next year. Their fans have already decided that critics are against them (and most critics, myself excluded, have a predisposition to throw shade at Zack Snyder’s cinema du bro).
As you read about how Zack Snyder is going full Marvel, how Zack Snyder is saving the DC Cinematic Universe, or what Ben Affleck had to say about his solo Batman movie, remember this: Warner Bros. is deeply conflicted about the decisions they’re making within its superheroverse. Not the micro-level things like Aquaman wearing jeans, but the high level things like “should we maybe walk back our position on jokes?”
When a studio is so freaked out about the reaction to their movies and a director like Zack Snyder is out there leading the charge to convince us that he’s changed (even though Justice League was done with pre-production before BvS hit theaters, hardly enough time to pivot), it’s not a great look. It’s an unnecessary look, as Zack Snyder is gonna Zack Snyder. On this point, I’m happy to be proven wrong when Justice League hits theaters, but it’s hard not to be looking at all of this news with one raised eyebrow, especially when producer Deborah Snyder says things like this when asked what was really wrong with BvS, “We learned that people don’t like seeing their heroes deconstructed.”
Sure, that’s true. If you remove the “con” from “deconstructed.”
Is Justice League going to be any good based on this change of heart from the filmmakers? Uproxx’s Mike Ryan’s first-hand account sums it up: “How would I know? I’ve literally seen two scenes of Justice League and it would be unfair to even try to guess. I can say that what we saw seemed a lot more “fun” than what we saw in BvS and, again, everyone involved is well aware of the reaction to BvS and working hard to make something that’s good. Everyone I encountered seemed in good enough spirits, but with an undertone of, “Yes, we know we can’t fuck this one up.””
Here’s hoping they don’t fuck it up. They’ve done a lot of interesting things, including adding Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons and Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju to the cast, the latter as an Atlantian King! Let’s face it, no one sets out to make a bad movie and no movie, especially one being adapted from such a rich history of comic stories, is going to please everyone. Despite their curious comments and their strange understanding of what went wrong with Batman v Superman, it’s clear that Zack Snyder and crew are acting in earnest to attempt to make a film that is more of a crowd-pleaser than their previous two attempts. Assuming it works, I’ll be first in line to applaud their ability to make changes and deliver something great.
Until then, the damage control parade continues.