The DC Extended Universe’s latest film, Justice League, arrives in theaters this week and, once again, critics haven't been kind. While Rotten Tomatoes delayed publishing a Tomatometer score for the film, it was obvious from the first reviews that opinion skewed in a direction that can best be described as mixed-to-negative, and once the film's score was released Thursday, it stood at a measly 36 percent. Another aggregrator, Metacritic, posted a score of just over 50 percent.
So, while Justice League has earned a more positive critical reception than the likes of 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (27% on the Tomatometer) and Suicide Squad (26%), it’s nowhere close to Wonder Woman’s score of 88%.
Of course, critics have been finding some things to like about DCEU’s latest effort. The re-integration of a certain character has got particular praise, while the film’s brief length, its use of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, and its lighter and more joyful tone than that of BvS have all been happily received. That said, a lot of the remaining criticisms are familiar from anyone who remembers the ghastly reviews of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.
A second Justice League film is potentially on the way, with a script reportedly in the works even if a release date isn't set; it's one of several DCEU films of the future - along with Green Lantern Corps, Black Adam, Nightwing, the Suicide Squad sequel, and standalone films for Batman and The Flash - whose statuses remain up in the air at this point. But, assuming there is eventually a Justice League 2, what can the DCEU do to get a better critical reception in the future?
First off, the next film must commit to a consistent tone. The tonal shifts in Justice League were perhaps inevitable; Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon both directed different phases of the film (even if Snyder was ultimately credited as the only director). But, regardless, the film’s style, whether in terms of look or feel, are all over the place, leading critics to already begin speculating over which director is responsible for which individual shots and scenes. It's a result of a rushed production, something that needs to be corrected.
Above all, here, the makers of the second Justice League movie need to find a consistent through-line; if one were to be asked, "what one big thing is Justice League about?", there isn't really a satisfactory answer or an overarching big idea. The next film won't be burdened with setting up the formation of the League or (most likely) introducing new characters, so the filmmakers will be free to concentration on story.
But who will be doing the serving? While Zack Snyder is nominally still the director of Justice League 2, plans are so up in the air that it's far from certain at this point. So, assuming that movie is directed by someone who’s not Snyder or Whedon, it might be wise for the DCEU decision-makers to make an unconventional, counter-intuitive choice.
The best-received DCEU film to date, Wonder Woman, was directed by Patty Jenkins, who hadn’t directed a movie in 15 years and had never been near a blockbuster. She wasn't the first choice, sure, but she was most certainly the best one. The MCU, meanwhile, had huge success turning Thor: Ragnarok over to Taika Waititi, likewise far from the most intuitive or natural choice. The next Justice League director doesn’t necessarily need to be the indie filmmaker du jour, but someone who’s really hungry for a chance.
Changes might also be necessary to the cast. Ben Affleck’s overall tenure as Batman hasn’t been the total failure that some like to depict it as, but in the new film, especially as pointed out by many critics, it’s pretty clear that Batfleck doesn’t want to be there anymore. It’s time to find someone else for the role - and it’s not like switching Batman actors in and out at the drop of a hat is in any way without precedent. With the second Justice League movie likely several years away, it's exceedingly unlikely that Affleck will suit up alongside the rest of the team ever again.
There are other considerations with the cast that don't require outright replacement. While critics had positive things to say about Jason Momoa's performance as Aquaman in Justice League, especially the wisecracking, there's one aspect of Aquaman that stands as a good reason why, aside from on Entourage, there was never a live-action Aquaman until now: it's really, really hard to stage a believable action sequence that's underwater. There's one such scene in Justice League and it's subpar; future directors in the franchise will have to find a way to crack this, something James Wan will hopefully address next year.
Finally, though, there's one major element of Justice League that critics really, really hated: the villain. Steppenwolf, a CGI monstrosity voiced by Ciaran Hinds, is a disaster as the heavy; a character without compelling motivations or backstory, who on top of all that sort of looks ridiculous. DC Comics has a long bench of bad guys, and any one of them could serve as a more effective villain than Steppenwolf next time around. If it is Darkseid as teased, they need to adjust approach.
No, Justice League isn't a complete critical failure, and it's not likely to be looked back on as a laughingstock. After all, the critical reception is currently more mixed than outright negative, and there is enough in there to hint at a more positive future for the DCEU films. Perhaps, in the years between now and Justice League 2, some of these problems will have been solved.