Justice League was a lot of things to a lot of people, but crucially, it wasn't the film Warner Bros needed and it wasn't the film fans wanted. The reaction from the latter was very much split into two camps: those who were plainly disappointed by what they got to see and those who are STILL invested in getting to see what Zack Snyder's original vision was supposed to be.
Whether that will happen is very much up for debate. Warner Bros would have to be convinced that there was enough money in there for them to bother compiling the movie from whatever extra and alternative material is still lying about. It's not as likely as some of the more ardent supporters would have you believe, that's for sure.
And really, you can't exactly argue with the logic of the studio changing the film. Batman V Superman didn't make the money the studio wanted it to (or that was projected) and the critical response was hardly the strongest foundation for the supposed keystone for an entirely new shared universe franchise. You can point to lots of things as the reason for that comparative "failure," but a good deal of it comes down to the film's tone and how it dealt with its main characters.
Now, we have confirmation of that second point in a round-about sort of way as it turns out that test audiences for Justice League liked Batman and Superman - Justice League's principle brands and the most established parts of it - the least out of the heroic characters. Imagine that - the actual corner-stone characters of the Justice League ensemble were the most disliked in the movie starring them. In the movie that was a direct sequel of their movie.
The news comes courtesy of Neil Daly who ran test screenings for Justice League and appeared on the Fire and Water Podcast to talk up early audience reactions:
When we did our test screenings, one of the questions on the surveys that we asked various sample audiences were rank the characters in the film. Wonder Woman stood at the top, Aquaman and Flash were roughly neck and neck down the stretch - and it was more Flash just because of his comic relief, his geeky comic relief type of thing - but women and men alike liked Aquaman, they liked Jason Momoa. ... [He] had universal appeal to both men and women as being a marketable commodity and Batman and Superman fell way at the bottom of the list.
That's huge. That deserves to be unpacked. Hell, it necessitates it, because two characters that important should never have suffered like that. They should have stuck out as the best parts of a franchise framed around them.
So how did this happen?
Well, the problem starts, as you might imagine, with Zack Snyder. Not with any problems with his film-making or his artistic vision, per se, but with his fundamental approach to "conventional" comic book movies. Man Of Steel - and to a far greater degree, Batman v Superman - presented Batman and Superman as grim, brooding figures, far removed (consciously, it felt) from the image of superheroes in Marvel movies. Supporters would call that a decision to make them "more grown-up." Detractors say it was needlessly reductive and fundamentally didn't understand the appeal of the characters in the first place.
It was both, rightly or wrongly.
The key thing here is that Zack Snyder was hired to make a comic book movie universe he never wanted to. He was asked to build a shared universe that inherently required him to do certain things - like build rapport between characters and audience with things like charm and empathy - when he had no desire to.
And how do we know this? Well, because he told us himself. Way back in 2008, Snyder gave an interview with Entertainment Weekly to discuss his time working on Watchmen and his excitement at that sort of project. His reasoning for being drawn to the property at all says everything about what he would later do to Batman and Superman. And, to be fair, his eloquence and his ability adapting an unadaptable comic into something as good as Watchmen probably helped convince Warner Bros to hire him as the DCEU's architect.
But the simple fact is that what was right for Watchmen wasn't right for building the DCEU, which was to be an extended cinematic universe designed SPECIFICALLY to work as a money-making, fan-baiting brand. The two are at completely different ends of the spectrum: Watchmen is a comment on post-superheroism, looking to consciously deconstruct comic books and superheroes and their fandom. The DCEU was supposed to dial into that, not tear it down too.
As Snyder himself acknowledged, Watchmen took established comic book tropes and existing heroes and sought to satirise them. Alan Moore's source material was cynical and destructive on purpose, he was seeking to change the genre and the medium. The movie adaptation of Watchmen did the same thing and it worked because Snyder shared some of Moore's sensibilities in his motivation for making it.
The director was never a mainstream comic book fan; by his own admission, he grew up loving Heavy Metal's sex and violence and nothing compared in terms of more mainstream comics:
"Heavy Metal magazine, so she got me a subscription. You could call it high-brow comics, but to me, that comic book was just pretty sexy! I had a buddy who tried getting me into normal comic books, but I was all like, No one is having sex or killing each other. This isnt really doing it for me. I was a little broken, that way. So when Watchmen came along, I was, This is more my scene.
How exactly does that sound like someone you'd want to handle a movie franchise whose key demographic would always be younger and family audiences? At least in terms of competing with the MCU, which Warner Bros DEFINITELY intended to, no matter how much fan-sponsored revisionism has gone on since.
Now, admittedly, Warner Bros would not have wanted to simply ape the MCU, so difference was always important - particularly as they also needed to do something different with Superman after Superman Returns failed to inspire. The problem is, instead of moving some furniture around, they burned the house down. And standing in the middle of the ash pile with a match and a smile was Zack Snyder.
That's not saying he accidentally, unwittingly burned it down. He did it on purpose. His EW interview proves it and also shows the line he clearly spun Warner Bros to get the job:
The average movie audience has seen well, I cant even count the amount of superhero movies. Fantastic Four, X-Men, Superman, Spider-Man. The Marvel universe has gone nuts; were going to have a fricking Captain America movie if we're not careful. Thor, too! Were on our second Hulk movie. And Iron Man $300 million domestic box office on a second tier superhero! And not to demean Iron Man my point is that we all know about superheroes now.
He clearly didn't want to follow the MCU model. He didn't even understand why it worked, by the sound of it and his comments on Captain America should speak volumes. To Snyder, the idea of a movie for Marvel's jingoistic action man was anathema. He had no desire to make those movies and it was baffling to him that ANYONE would want to make them, let alone see them.
Smash cut to 2019 and Captain America movies have grossed multiple billion dollars and Snyder's vision for the DCEU lies mostly in tatters.
Snyder seemed to believe the lie spun for years that the comic book movie bubble was always on the verge of popping, which his success with Watchmen wouldn't have helped. He thought the success of a post-superhero film meant we were heading to a post-superhero moment and that he good guide it in the DCEU by doing something challenging and destructive with established tropes. He wanted to swim against the tide and he took everything that made Batman and Superman appealing and threw it out.
That EW interview again suggested what he wanted to do with Batman in particular and it should have turned Warner Bros off immediately. When Snyder was led to talk about Christopher Nolan's take on a darker Dark Knight, Snyder seems to have "cool story, Bro"ed it and suggested his own credentials would mean a much darker vision:
Everyone says that about Batman Begins. Batman's dark. I'm like, okay, No, Batman's cool. He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn't, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that's how that would go.
Imagine giving the man who said he'd have Batman sexually assaulted in prison the keys to make his own dark Batman movie. He literally showed you all what would happen. And it's not like he sneaked the darkness in. Warner Bros film chief Greg Silverman explained in an interview that the DCEU's darkness was actually co-opted by Warner Bros, and there was an actual reason for it:
There is intensity and a seriousness of purpose to some of these characters. The filmmakers who are tackling these properties are making great movies about superheroes; they aren't making superhero movies. And when you are trying to make a good movie, you tackle interesting philosophies and character development.
They signed off on the darkness. It was down to them as much as it was Snyder. They should have known he wasn't a fan of the characters as they appeared on the page (no matter how many Easter Eggs he put in his movies) and they shouldn't have allowed him to run with his ideas.
The ultimate result was Batman v Superman, whose dark, serious takes on Batman and Superman weren't widely well-received by tis audience. Don't believe the vocal minority, believe the box office and the reactions of mainstream audience members. You know, the people who the hardcore element of fans would say nobody should be making movies for, but who the studios know are the key to making a billion dollars.
When it came to making Justice League, Snyder apparently always intended to make his versions of the heroes lighter - or at least the story around them was going to be - but it didn't change enough and the damage was already done. Those characters were already built to a certain spec sheet and that's why Joss Whedon's reshoots were so jarring in the end. He was trying to make a movie in the image that the studio wanted from day one, but most of the material he has was Snyder's darker stuff.
He was on a fool's errand, in other words.
By the time the film got to test audiences (not the ones who apparently called Snyder's older cut "unwatchable" but the ones Neil Daly oversaw), there simply wasn't enough done to rescue the characters. They ranked lower than Aquaman, who had been established as a curiously non-Snyder-like character with his good guy surf-dude attitude and Wonder Woman, who wasn't really Snyder's to begin with and had her own movie to cast off any of the unwelcome influence on her from Batman v Superman.
That's fundamentally why Wonder Woman and Aquaman are now the two most well-established characters in what remains of the DCEU and why Superman's actor has left and Batman's future feels weirdly uncertain for one of the most important movie characters of the past three decades.
You can blame that on Snyder's failed vision and you can blame THAT on the fact that he should never have had the job in the first place.