Batman v Superman v Justice League: which is worse? The DCEU's landmark team-up has finally come out and the results are not pretty; despite seeing Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg unite on the big screen for the first time, Justice League has emerged as yet another mar on the shared universe's already checkered scoresheet, with scathing reviews and a crushingly disappointing box office opening.
As we begin to unpack what happened, you'd be forgiven for being left with a distinct sense of deja vu; weren't we here this time 20 months ago? Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice released in March 2016 and while the constructive criticisms and defenses remain strong, there's no avoiding the general sense of the film as a failure; it too underperformed at the box office (with a record-breaking Friday-to-Friday drop), and assessments skewed heavily negative.
But it would be a mistake to dismiss Justice League as just more of the same. Its failure is really a different story. For one, Wonder Woman adjusted the series' narrative earlier this year when it won over dissenters and became one of the year's biggest financial hits, so in its wake League had been pegged as the redemption of the main Zack Snyder series. Beyond that, though, the reason it's still stumbled is wholly unique.
A Lot Changed Between Batman v Superman and Justice League
It's worth clarifying that for all the comparisons and cultural connections, we are dealing with two very different movies. This isn't like The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, where they were distinct films yet still within the same directing ballpark. What we have here is (without a lick of a qualitative statement) more the leap between Batman Returns and Batman Forever; a technical continuation of the story, yet with a tonal and character shift from being a dark product of their director to more fun archetypes.
So whereas Dawn of Justice was a two-and-a-half (or three hours in Ultimate Edition form) continuation of Man of Steel attempting to deconstruct of Batman and Superman, Justice League is a detached, under-two-hour romp following a quintet of super beings (eventually boosted to six) on a knockabout adventure to stop a space monster. Further, the new film is certainly lighter in tone, with its versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman noticeably less brooding than they were in 2016, and visually it's a tangibly brighter affair, with more daytime scenes and as a result clear color replacing hyper-saturation.
These changes are heavily in part due to the backlash against Batman v Superman; the details are mired in speculation, but after Dawn of Justice got a drubbing from critics and failed to hit that expected $1B mark (something Batman had done for himself solo twice in recent years) a decision was made to change tact. The film Zack Snyder started production on in April 2016 already had some shifts made to the initial plan, then after his assembly cut didn't land as expected, Joss Whedon was brought in to punch up the dialogue, and once Snyder stepped down under tragic circumstances The Avengers director took over completely. The sum effects of these reshoots and associated changes have already been explored at length, but what needs to be said here is that they were the final step in adjusting the feel - and are the key to the film's problems.
Batman v Superman and Justice League Are Bad In Different Ways
While we've established differences in style and construction, that doesn't really assess the resulting qualities of these films. For Batman v Superman, its position as a divisive property comes from conception, with Zack Snyder was given a great sense of free reign to tell a story with DC's trinity. His chosen route was a mash-up of The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman, with Lex Luthor as an overarching villain and Wonder Woman introduced, that attempted to examine the fundamentals of the two titular heroes in a frenemy context. The problem many have is the motivation and execution of that vision - it's confusing (due to Snyder's propensity to making extra long edits and cutting down), misses much of what makes the heroes so enduring, and is mired in a forced seriousness - yet there is no denying that it clearly has a vision underpinning it.
Justice League, on the other hand, has no such driving ideal. Those reshoots didn't just alter the tone, they pretty much crippled the film, removing any purpose and leaving behind inconsistencies galore. Aside from the obvious elements like Superman's mustache and clear green screen, there's a noticeable jar between the original Snyder ideas and light Whedon additions that only get more pronounced with each leaked deleted scene; we have a complete gulf of thematic weight and associated narrative justification. Of course, what it has in contrast to Batman v Superman is that levity and lightness, with many beats that aim to amuse, yet without clearly defined characters that's tricky to justify; it's shallow attempts at a connection that only come across as annoying.
We have no idea what Zack Snyder's original pitch for the film was - accounts vary from him making something in line with Dawn of Justice to a more consciously sanitized version - but, nevertheless, the finished film is a chopped up version of that which, plainly, doesn't have any overriding vision.