Tom Jolliffe on why trying to salvage a film in post production is pointless if you never had the basics right in the first place…
So Justice League came out. I’d say too much fanfare but whilst there was undoubtedly excitement, and whilst it has inevitably made a lot of money already (not as much as expected), it seemed to arrive with a fair degree of indifference. That may well be because it is one of those properties, much like Marvel, Disney etc, where the audience has readily accepted they’ll be in the theatre with an overpriced box of popcorn and vat of (insert preferred soft drink name). It’s almost like, “right… Just seen Thor: Ragnarok, what’s next?” That is of course if you discount the ardent fans of either DC or Marvel who stick ardently to their own.
Now this won’t merely be a “lets poke DC’s belly and make fun of it” kind of a piece. That wouldn’t be fair, because whilst they are certainly guilty of certain things I shall mention, they’re not alone in Hollywood. I’ve spoken previously about a lack of imagination creeping into Marvel for example (though this year has been a solid mix of unadulterated fun for them, if still lacking a little ingenuity).
However lets start with Justice League. I won’t go into detail on this one as it is being well covered here, but needless to say, the genesis of the film has been troubled. It’s well documented that they’ve re-shot scenes, shot additional footage, retouched footage, and generally added a hefty dose of Joss Whedon to paper over the cracks that Zack Snyder inevitably leaves behind in any film he makes. This wouldn’t be the first time a film has seen its first cut cause studio panic. The thing is, in normal circumstances, if a studio is hugely confident their property is a nailed on money spinner, they’ll likely come out of a mediocre first cut screening without feeling much need to change too much. Lets face it, audiences, as long as certain boxes are ticked, will often accept average. So for this level of panic to come out, and to come out so publicly, only highlights just how bad that first cut must have been. A studio which, up until Wonder Woman, had put its creative vision largely in the hands of Zack Snyder have put primary focus on the packaging and not what’s inside the box.
Ultimately, one problem Justice League has, which it has inherited in its DCEU DNA is a lack of identity. Man Of Steel wanted to be a Nolan-lite version of Superman but couldn’t flesh out any sort of character, nor find a tone that fit the legendary character. Whilst it gave up on the Nolan side for a final third of relentless, almost sadistically gleeful Snyderism’s. Subtlety, which only ever peeked inside the door, had long gone, bolting the doors and outer gates shut as it left in an Uber to return to Chris Nolan’s house. Then, as these movies tend to do as they are churned out, every subsequent release will interlink and nod to another. Characters pop up in the other films. We had already been treated to our introduction to Wonder Woman in Batman Vs Superman before she appeared in her own solo movie, which remains the only DCEU film to receive a positive critical response.
Justice League’s messy creation and post-shoot tonal shift was always going to suggest a mediocre critical reception and that proved to be the case again. Wonder Woman proved there’s not a pre-disposition toward anti-DC bias among critics. Frankly that suggestion, particularly if it comes from a film-maker involved is a bit sad. Keyboard warriors are entitled to voice their opinion on a film, or indeed on the reviewers of a film. Granted it boils down to petty insults a lot of times, without discourse (the nature of the net…well, humanity historically). Speaking as a critic, I will say that I don’t get off on savaging a film. I’ll also happily admit to having a preconception about a film that was way off what was delivered. Paddington as an example looked diabolical to me from the trailers and under the preconceived idea of how other similar titles from British literature and TV culture have turned out through big screen adaptations. I expected another Magic Roundabout but the film was a delight. As a critic it is actually the joy of being surprised or falling in love with a film which gives me the most pleasure. I would guess it’s the same for most of my kin. Granted we can’t use as much sarcasm in a good review, but swings and roundabouts.
There was this idea it seemed, with Justice League, that its disastrous first pass could be fixed by laying on a few simple changes which work in other films. None of these changes seemed to be related to characterisation or plot development (if you’ve not done that from the very beginning and set a structure in place, you can’t pull it out of the air). The most significant fixes that the studio admitted to doing seemed to be on the visual look and the humour. What works at the moment? Marvel. Good, okay…so what do they do well? Bright, colourful films, loaded with wisecracking humour. Films which are fun. That ultimately influenced Wonder Woman no doubt. Snyder’s previous two DC properties were just so dour and so devoid of fun. But this idea that a film that isn’t fun can’t be good is not true. You can turn Superman near monochrome visually and open darker character avenues than previously seen, the key is in the writing and the delivery. None of which were there. Wonder Woman wasn’t a good film because it had some jokes and it had a bit of colour. It was good because the script was, and it had direction. Proper direction. Snyder does montage well. He does pretty shots. What he doesn’t do is shot to shot, scene to scene structure and cohesion.
Studio’s too often seem to look at other films which do well and try to pilfer elements which work for them. The trouble is, if you see these beautiful nuggets of truffle that you want to take to garnish your own dish, what you’re not considering is just the time and care that went into the recipe for that dish. If for arguments sake, Guardian’s Of The Galaxy storms the box office, the critics and the fans all in perfect unison, you have to look at its construction. Do we care about the story? Yes. The characters? Yes. Do the characters work well together? Yes. Okay, it’s not by any stretch a great film, merely a very good one (lack of a strong villain and finale clubs it back down to Earth but this is true of 99% of studio blockbusters these days). DC, or any number of other studios look at superficial aspects that “work” in another film. So in the end they’re shaving expensive truffle over a plate of turd. The dish you deliver may have pig foraged truffle shaved on top, but it’s still a plate of shit.
Groundwork is where all too many studios don’t begin. I’ve often been frustrated with Marvel as a whole, and how the films had begun resting on their laurels a bit but I do see a consistency and a plan. It seems to me that they’ve considered just how each property ties with the others and how everything will gel together as one long arc when it comes to the bigger get togethers. It’s not clumsy. Yes they’ve taken their sweet time establishing and re-establishing Thanos, but they’ve combined everything into a nice patchwork that you could quite easily sell in Oxfam to a blue-haired old dear. Whereas you look at DC, or other attempted universe builders (The Mummy recently) and they look cobbled (as single entries and pieces of a bigger whole) together with all the skill of a frenzied gorilla let loose with a staple gun.
Audiences are indeed becoming more discerning with these films too. It’s not as easy now as it used to be. You can’t just release any old shit and expect it to strike box office nirvana now. A slightly underwhelming domestic opening for Justice League proves that, whilst the modest predictions for Wonder Woman, which were obliterated with a great opening also prove one thing. Audiences have seen all of this. They’ve ingested all the truffle. What they now require, more than the last 10 or so years, is the dish. Justice League can’t even blame Rotten Tomatoes on this, given they only released the score right before the film’s opening. What they can blame is the much publicised production problems and some utterly abysmal trailers if we’re being frank. Bloody awful. Highlighting murky visuals, inconsistent tones, dreary characters and something that looked inherently messy. If the trailer looks like that, the film is unlikely to be any different. Saying that a near 100 million dollar domestic opening is underwhelming seems a bit daft, but given they spent a gargantuan amount on shooting and “fixing” this, we’re talking about massive figures required just to break even. Of course they will and they’ll turn enough profit not to worry about Aquaman, Wonder Woman 2 or the next Justice League, but it’s a warning. Make a better film.
Looking at Tom Cruise’s dreadful universe launcher with The Mummy, which has put the kibosh on a new franchise before it’s even begun it shows that audiences aren’t that forgiving. Then with so much promo and marketing done before the film and so many teasers, trailers and scenes released, they’re given enough and are savvy enough to identify a turkey long before they’ve got near enough their local cinema to park their backside for two and a half hours. It happened too with Terminator: Genisys. If blockbusters are beginning to follow distinctly similar (“winning”) formulas then it would seem most likely that the ones with the most coherence, engaging characters and enjoyment levels will likely have the most impact at the box office. When you get the basics right and lay those solid foundations you’re on the right path and it’ll then be unlikely that thing like extensive re-shoots will be needed to try and salvage something that was never there. If the choices Marvel have made for their directors has proved anything, in comparison to not just DC but a host of other studios, it’s that interesting and inventive choices pay off. I for one paid attention when Taika Waititi was picked for the latest Thor instalment. It shows something braver, more interesting and potentially exciting to think that way rather than go for a Zack Snyder. There are certainly nuggets in Justice League that could transfer well to the solo films. There are positives traits for of course Wonder Woman but also Aquaman (James Wan is a decent choice for his solo outing) and The Flash. Likewise Matt Reeves is a potentially excellent choice for a solo Batman project but what will be absolutely key is the scripts and having a careful and consistent approach to what you want to deliver from the get go.