Justice League hits theaters on Thursday. Early reviews don’t reveal a whole lot because, well, as of this writing on Tuesday afternoon, early reviews were embargoed. This isn’t exactly good news. After all, if Warner Bros. Pictures were satisfied with this franchise cornerstone, and felt critics were as well, one would think the studio would jump at the chance to get good early buzz out in the marketplace.
This is really a fitting roll-out for a DC Comics film. After all, when you look at the comic book universe, DC’s cinematic run can safely be labeled rocky. In the past decade, the DC universe produced Watchmen (convoluted and dull), Green Lantern (perhaps the worst big-budget superhero film of all time), Jonah Hex (not so much), and Suicide Squad (a hit, but a messy, disjointed hit nonetheless). No, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy doesn’t count, as those were and remain Christopher Nolan films, as opposed to comic book ones.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was expected to kickstart the whole Justice League universe, didn’t exactly succeed in that regard. Sure, the film raked in more than $800 million worldwide, but it dropped big time in its second weekend and was absolutely lambasted by critics and fans alike. Of course, that’s what happens when you put Henry Cavill’s dull Superman against a miscast Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Now, many studios have had trouble getting franchises off the ground, and DC has rallied of late. Wonder Woman was a critical and commercial smash, one that not only showed that DC could produce a box office smash, but that a superhero film anchored by a woman could please critics, audiences and cash-counting studio executives in one fell swoop. But, all in all, DC and Warner Bros. haven’t exactly gotten Justice League off on the right foot.
And this might actually end up working to Justice League’s advantage. Tempered expectations can often benefit a film, just as raised expectations or overly positive word of mouth can stunt a film. Take The Hangover, for instance. While a good film with plenty of funny moments, I waited too long to see the film in theaters during its box office-crushing run in 2009. Having heard from friends and critics that it ranked among the funniest films of all time, imagine my disappointment when The Hangover revealed itself to be a good, but not great film, a so-so screenplay bolstered by an absolutely game cast.
The adverse works as well. Often times, middling buzz can actually benefit a film in the eyes of many viewers. Take Iron Man, for instance. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a now an A-list star, and Iron Man is the centerpiece of the greatest comic book franchise in cinema history. At the time of its 2008 release, however, Iron Man was a second-rate comic book character, and Downey was an actor trying to work his way back from a series of personal setbacks that almost derailed his career entirely. My hopes were not high; turns out, Iron Man was, The Dark Knight notwithstanding, the best comic book movie I’ve ever seen, one that spawned an Avengers franchise that just keeps cranking out critically-acclaimed hit after critically-acclaimed hit.
Working against Justice League, however, is the names involved. Films from the Batman and Superman universe have already been released, and considering those are likely the two most noteworthy names in all the superhero universe, Justice League isn’t about to sneak up on anyone. Couple that with Wonder Woman’s somewhat surprising commercial run and expectations are bound to follow. And yet, there’s a feeling that Justice League couldn’t possibly be anything better than serviceable.
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Call this The Avengers corollary. The franchise’s cinematic run has been an absolute master class in how a franchise is established, built and run. Rolled out in a series of phases, The Avengers films have given each of their characters enough room to shine while continually evolving the series to feature cameos, crossovers and the like. Hell, Black Panther is just now getting his first film, and judging by trailers alone, that film is going to be a critical and commercial smash. Simply put, when the full stable of Avengers now assembles on-screen, it feels special, which is probably why next year’s Avengers: Infinity War is going to break box office records.
Justice League doesn’t have that luxury. Whereas the Avengers dedicated solo films to Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America before rolling out its first Avengers film, this recent run of DC films has essentially given us the dud that was Batman v. Superman and a quality film in Wonder Woman. But again, this might not be the worst thing.
Hopes aren’t exactly high that Justice League is going to break new ground or do anything we haven’t already seen done better by Marvel. Under those circumstances, it’s possible Justice League surprises. Perhaps it’s a good film, one that may be elevated without the burden of lofty expectations.