The reason why Hollywood loves superheroes has nothing to do with why fans love superheroes. Since the advent of television, Hollywood has been in the business of providing audiences with what television can’t provide, and for the last twenty years or so that’s meant big budget spectacle. But as the technology for on-screen destruction has improved, it’s been increasingly difficult for human beings to plausibly survive the carnage on screen. How to provide the massive levels of destruction audiences now demand yet satisfy their conflicting desire to watch movies featuring actors? Superheroes (but not until Hollywood tried vampires and people living inside a computer game).
So when it's said that the reason Justice League has bombed – relatively speaking – is because it’s not faithful to the characters, it’s reasonable to raise an eyebrow. Superman and Batman have been around in comics for 75 years; they’ve been everything from grim “realistic” figures to space clowns to your Dad in a bad outfit. Meanwhile on the Marvel / Disney side of the street, almost none of their movie characters have been anything like their (equally varied) comic book versions. And who cares? These are characters so generic they have to be put in weird brightly coloured outfits so people can recognise them: so long as they solve problems with their fists, they’re good.
Likewise when people complain that Justice League is tonally all over the place. They’re not wrong, but since when has that been a problem for a superhero movie? Everybody loved the most recent Thor movie, even though that lightweight romp couldn’t have been further in tone from the dour fantasy of the character’s previous film. Batman is a character scarred for life by seeing his parents murdered in front of his eyes as a child… so he dresses up as a bat and spends millions on gadgets so he can go punch random criminals: being tonally all over the place is why people like superheroes.
Today it seems that if you can think of something you liked in a previous movie, it’s a): in Justice League and b): it’s why Justice League is no good. When did jokes and banter become a bad thing? Right about the time Justice League hit cinemas. And if having a bulky and often largely CGI bad guy with a generic evil scheme to destroy the world is now a major negative, that rules out literally every single Marvel bad guy plus all the DC ones back to The Joker in The Dark Knight.
Don’t forget, there was a stretch where every Marvel movie had the exact same ending – heroes fighting on a large object falling out of the sky – and nobody cared. The ending of Man of Steel involved a big fight where supposedly thousands died (off screen) and that was bad; Justice League has a big fight in a largely deserted small town and the heroes are shown rescuing people and that’s… also bad? People are griping that Joss Whedon took over Justice League when Zach Snyder stepped aside after a personal tragedy: Edgar Wright was all but fired from Marvel’s Ant-Man and audiences didn’t seem too fussed there.
All of which suggests that whatever it is that people are reacting to in these films, it’s not what they say they’re reacting to. They clearly don’t care about consistent characterisation, original storytelling, or anything else they say they do, because if they did they’d be a lot more picky. What they really like is what we all like: confidence.
Movies boil down to someone – or a group of someones – telling us a story. And telling a story well takes confidence. If a storyteller has a great story packed with interesting characters and exciting developments but they stumble over the order of things and mumble during the important bits, the experience is going to suck. Likewise, if the story is poor but they tell it well it’ll be a good time even if afterwards we realise it didn’t make any sense.
At the moment, Marvel movies have confidence. Even when Disney is firing directors and ordering reshoots, it’s because the executives have confidence in what they’re trying to do. They’re not brilliant guys making genius moves: Thor: Ragnarok is exactly the film you’d get from an executive saying “Guardians of the Galaxy did well, make Thor more like that”. But even when they mostly suck – hello, Doctor Strange – they feel like films the makers had confidence in.
On the whole, DC movies do not have that confidence. Wonder Woman did, largely because it felt like for once DC had the jump on Marvel with a female superhero; they knew the time was right for what they had to sell, so as long as they made a film that wasn’t complete garbage it would work out. But otherwise their line-up has been a muddled mess of brutal edits and reshoots that have resulted in films that don’t leave people feeling like they’re watching a story anyone feels confident in.
Without that confidence, it doesn’t matter if the performances are good, the jokes are decent, the fight scenes are well-handled (and compared to pretty much every other recent superhero movie, Justice League at least shows signs that someone thought about the various characters' different levels of ability and how they could be effectively used in a fight) or anything else. They’ll never come together to make a decent film.
And if you want to watch a film where a bunch of supposedly entertaining things never really come together to make a decent film, we already have Justice League.