With a polarized and disaffected fan base, Justice League's job was to get existing fans to show up and convince anyone wary of the previous movies to give it a try. Unfortunately, it only succeeded in the former, which is the much smaller group. While the final movie was significantly changed from its original tone, and the tone of its predecessors, Justice League's marketing doubled down on the darker visual aesthetic Zack Snyder is famous for, essentially broadcasting a message saying "if you didn't like the last one, ignore this one, too." Sure, there were jokes in the trailer, but Batman v Superman trailers also had jokes, and most mainstream audiences found that film to ultimately be fairly humorless.
The darker tone could be overcome by a compelling story, though, as evidenced by Logan. The problem is, the Justice League trailers were focused on selling the characters (who we've already established are either disliked or unknown) instead of the story. Hardcore fans might grasp the basic plot from reading every bit of available information about the movie, but casual audiences would have no idea what's going on before seeing the film. The fact that the movie was about heroes uniting and coming together against a bad guy was fairly obvious, but there's a million movies that follow that plot, and Justice League did nothing to stand out, aside from highlighting characters and an aesthetic that has already been roundly rejected by most audiences.
The marketing also stuck with the same general tone as Batman v Superman, despite the fact that the movie underwent a significant shift away from that. There's a lot of room for debate as to whether or not that shift made it a better movie, but it is one area that seemed consistently praised by critics and audiences, suggesting that, despite the disappointment by fans of Zack Snyder's previous work, the lighter tone was ultimately favored - however disjointed it may have come across. The problem is, that tone wasn't advertised. Suicide Squad went through a similar tonal adjustment in reshoots and post-production, and while the final product was also derided, the colorful, fun, and poppy marketing campaign did a phenomenal job filling seats in theaters to the tune of almost $40 million more than Justice League's opening weekend.
Who's to say if audiences would buy a marketing campaign like Suicide Squad's again, after all, as mentioned above, Suicide Squad's disappointment could be partly to blame for Justice League's low turnout, but at the very least there's something to be said for an honest marketing campaign. The version of the movie that was marketed was clearly Zack Snyder's, whereas the final product was missing a number of shots included in trailers and significantly lightened others, altering the higher contrast photography of Fabian Wagner into a much flatter image.
A Toxic Environment
Due to a passionate built-in fanbase and a polarizing response to most of the franchise's movies where many critics didn't hold back in savaging every aspect of the movies. The environment isn't much better between releases, with some media coverage taking a much more negative and snarky bent, triggering the outrage of some more vile segments of the fandom, and creating a self perpetuating cycle that spawns a fans vs media narrative (or, in some cases, a reality), making the coverage of DC news like navigating a minefield, especially when it comes to stories fans don't want to hear, which, incidentally, are the stories that happened to be mostly true this time around.
The problem has become so pronounced that it's even recognized outside of more geeky outlets, creating a stigma surrounding the DCEU and its fans, making any news about it a generally toxic environment. While this in and of itself might not directly suppress theater turnout, it does impact the way DC news gets covered, and when Justice League already had a hard enough time generating positive press, the added toxicity did nothing to improve perceptions of the movie before release.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019