Justice League comes out this weekend, and if I were to go back in time and tell myself I would be (at best) morbidly curious about it, it would break my heart. The DC Extended Universe has been a series of lows (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad)) and one very high deserved high (Wonder Woman), but Justice League is means to be the big one. Like the Avengers was in 2012, Justice League will become the thesis statement for the entire franchise by default. So why is the general excitement for this one so low-key? It’s a combination of coming from the same creative voices as Batman v Superman, a real low point for general audiences, and a marketing campaign that has left a lot to be desired.
The Justice League marketing is fascinating to look at because it has been going on for almost three years now. It began before filming did and the focus of the marketing has shifted through changes behind the scenes. Every few months it seems like they are trying to advertise for a completely different movie.
Justice League was formally announced Justice League along with a slate of DC movies in October of 2014, not at an event like Comic-Con where they could have gauged an audience reaction, but over an investor call that news outlets could report on. Here’s the full film slate reported then.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Justice League 2
So far they’ve been on track for this but by now their route has changed. They’ve added a Batman movie, a Nightwing movie, a Gotham City Sirens movie, another Suicide Squad movie. Have you noticed this is all focusing more and more around Batman? More on that later.
Now, because this announcement was not an event of any kind, it is not part of the marketing push. Things could have died down until Justice League truly got off the ground. Things didn’t.
In February of 2015 Zack Snyder gifted us with the first image of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman under the tagline “Unite the Seven”. This was before Batman V Superman had even come out yet, but the tagline is clearly talking about the Justice League which has typically been made up of seven heroes. Why would Zack Snyder put this out there so early? Did he want to show off the new character design? Aquaman traditionally looks like this:
I’ll admit it took me a minute to accept the new look. Could it have been meant as a part of the Dawn of Justice marketing? Potentially, but the man is in under a minute of the movie. The point is, if the seven mentioned here are the seven members of the Justice League than why didn’t they put out other character posters for the other seven members to get us excited?
Oh yeah, because they killed Superman.
In March of 2016, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice came out. It left a bad taste in the mouth of fans everywhere. People agreed Ben Affleck was good, Wonder Woman was great, and the Martha thing was dumb enough to make a good meme. But the movie ended with the death of Superman after showing off the other nascent members of the Justice League in a series of quicktime videos.
If you count them, there are five surviving and potential Justice League members. No Green Lantern in sight. So “Unite the Seven” becomes a moot tagline. They would continue to use at least two more taglines before settling on one.
This led to a marketing push that revolves around the League being formed to pick up the slack Superman has left behind. After the negative backlash to Batman V Superman, WB made it clear that these movies would lighten up and even invited many entertainment news sites to visit their set. A lot of those articles came out in June of 2016, just shortly before San Diego Comic-Con of that year. Except the first thing they did was this picture of the league:
Yup. There he is. There they are.
Everyone and their mother knew that Superman was coming back to life in this movie. In the third film he would rise again, in fulfillment of the scripture. It was actually kind of refreshing for this image to throw off the pretense that he wasn’t. But what makes this image baffling is that since this they have continued to, in almost all marketing forms, suggest that Superman would remain dead for the entire movie. Why? We all know he’s coming, and wouldn’t that build more interest as to how he comes back, or what he’s like when he does?
But never mind that, within the same weekend they showed the first footage from the movie at the convention:
Using what must be most of what they had filmed by that point, they cobbled together a trailer that really does fight back against the tone of the previous movie. It’s got jokes. It’s got color. It’s got the White Stripes. But this also became the template for future trailers. They position batman at the center, bringing these people together. We get a lot of really cool shots centering on Batman, a fun Flash moment, and barely any Cyborg because what idiot decided to make him fully CG!?
WB! You made Green Lantern! You know a fully CG body doesn’t work! Even Iron Man has a partially practical frame! What machine built for combat has so many moving parts visible from the outside! Why is he just a human head if he’s supposed to be half-man and half-machine! This is money you did not have to spend! Bwaaaaaaaaaaaa!
Shortly after this Suicide Squad came out. In the movie both Batman and the Flash show up. Amanda Waller could get in contact with both of them yet still chose to form a team of murderers and psychopaths instead. Listen nobody likes this movie, but at the end Bruce Wayne tells her he’s putting together a team of heroes.
The issue for WB is they, once again, had to push against their own brand to make Justice League look more inviting. Luckily to commemorate their last day of filming in the UK they had the opportunity. Cue the, admittedly good, behind the scenes video:
It honestly looks like this movie was a blast to film. The first signs that Jason Momoa would walk away with the whole thing are there. But pause at 37 seconds. There’s Superman! He’s right there! We all know he’s in this movie what are we doing!?
Anyway they followed this up with the plot synopsis in February of 2017, doubling down on the death of Superman.
In the wake of Clark Kent/Superman’s (Cavill) death at the hands of Doomsday in BvS, vigilante Bruce Wayne/Batman (Affleck) reevaluates his extreme methods and begins reaching out to extraordinary heroes to assemble a team of crime-fighters to defend earth from all kinds of threats. Together with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot), Batman seeks out cybernetically enhanced former college football star Vic Stone/Cyborg (Fisher), speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Miller) and Atlantean warrior king Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Momoa). They face off against Steppenwolf (Hinds), the herald and second-in-command to alien warlord Darkseid, who is charged by Darkseid with hunting down three artefacts hidden on earth.
Then in March we got this teaser poster:
Nobody will ever hang that poster on their wall. But it does feature the first “official” tagline for the film. “Unite”. This would later be replaced.
That same month they dropped a bunch of character posters:
And finally that month gave us the first “official” trailer for the movie:
Again, it’s a lot of Batman finding the team. There’s some rock and roll, along with a fun cover of the Beatles’s Come Together, which feels appropriate. But it also feels like they’re having a hard time putting all these characters together in one shot that feels compelling. To be honest the first trailer for The Avengers (the only precedent here) is similar, but we already knew all of those guys and the joy was just in seeing them share the same frame at all. Justice League doesn’t have that advantage.
Here’s the other struggle with Justice League. This thing looks expensive already, but consider that trailer doesn’t even have finished VFX. We haven’t seen the villain or its minions yet. We haven’t heard his voice. All we really know is that these five (six) will be there fighting something and that isn’t very exciting. We don’t even have fun moments between characters unless they include Batman.
This would change after Wonder Woman came out in June of 2017 and basically won the summer.
If there’s one thing that’s pretty clear, it’s that Zack Snyder LOVES Batman. He loves Batman so much he turned Superman into a sexy lamp* in his own sequel to inspire Batman. Everyone who watched BvS admitted Batman was good so they made him the center of Justice League.
Zack Snyder loves Batman, but EVERYONE loves Wonder Woman. Since her movie came out there has been a very conscious effort on the marketing side to give us far more shows of her now than before.
For example, the best poster for Justice League dropped at Comic-Con of 2017:
I can’t get enough of this poster. It looks like an Alex Ross drawing, and artist who’s work is so life-like it makes everyone look like they’re wearing cheap halloween costumes. This is when “All In” became the new tagline, which I appreciate because it also tells you how much WB is banking on this movie. Though, guys, you put the Superman logo right there in You Can’t Save the World Alone.
Still, I’ve also been seeing the crappy version of this poster around town:
It’s so lame, but it does put Wonder Woman front and center, something I believe was the point of it in the first place. If she is positioned as the lead, more people will be interested.
At that comic-con they also released a four minute long trailer:
Oh look who’s first! It’s Wonder Woman! There’s Themyscira and the Amazons! There’s also a line that gets by Green Lantern loving heart racing. “No protectors. No Lanterns.” This is a pretty solid trailer, finally giving us a good idea of the stakes and the characters. Except, again, Cyrborg who doesn’t really get a moment here. And clearly, once again, Aquaman will 100% be the best part of this movie.
But then there’s that tag at the end. It’s supposed to be a mystery for who it is but considering how Jeremy Irons says “hope” there it’s clearly Superman. We all know! Everyone knows! By trailer two they put Spider-Man in Civil War!
The narrative took a major shift again around late July of this year when Zack Snyder announced he was stepping away from the movie after a family tragedy. Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the movie with $25 million worth of reshoots. There was a lot to swallow with the news. It was a horrible time for the Snyder family, the movie would become cobbled together from two very different directors with very different approaches, but, you guys, Superman’s mustache.
“Justice League’s Man of Steel had expected to be able to finish shooting the sixth Mission: Impossible film before needing to don Superman’s spandex again. That has not been the case, however, as the new scenes that are being shot have required him to jump back and forth from each production. Because of this, a mustache he grew for his character in the Mission: Impossible sequel will have to be digitally removed in post-production. Paramount, which is distributing the Mission: Impossible sequel, would not allow Cavill to shave the facial hair while production was taking place.”
This is my favorite news story and makes me want to see Superman in the movie even more! The whole world needs Superman with a mustache. It was even my Halloween costume.
Anyway, we’re really starting to catch up with the present now, which is when all of the product tie in marketing happens. A lot of those feature Superman. This poster from August features Superman.
This new trailer from October features Superman, still says he’s dead, but none of them feature Superman with a mustache. I remain unsatisfied.
I will bet you money that opening bit with Supes is from the end of the movie, after they save everything and he goes home. But sure, lets keep pretending he’s not in this one. You get some Whedon-y lines in this one. But I wish there were less effects shots and more fun character moments. Though, again, Aquaman is having a blast.
That trailer was in October. Now every TV channel is showing off 30 second spots for this one. While the marketing for Justice League has been weird it seems to have found itself in the months since Wonder Woman came out, certainly sooner than BvS did, but not as easily as Man of Steel or Wonder Woman knew themselves.
Still, they are clearly holding themselves back from giving us a better sense of the movie, probably because they’re holding back a large amount of Superman footage. Is this the right decision? Who knows. Early social media buzz is mixed but leans toward the movie being good.
For a movie of this scale and importance its hard to say how much marketing really matters. A Star Wars movie doesn’t need to market itself. People would come even if they never saw a single frame of it beforehand. People showed up to the Avengers to see if the experiment would work and I suspect people will come to this for the same reason. However the experiment in this case is, can WB turn this around? I honestly don’t know. But I hope they do.
So I can get the good Green Lantern movie I need in my life.
*A sexy lamp is a character who only exists to be pretty and inspire others. They do not carry the burden of narrative decisions and could be replaced with a sexy lamp with no change to the movie.
PS – Imagine if Thor: Ragnarok hid that the Hulk would be in the movie. Yes, the twist would have been more surprising but the trailers would have been so bare that people might not have been sold on the movie. That’s how I feel about the Superman thing.