The first critic reviews of Batman vs. Superman hit the web last night and early word was…not kind. The film currently sits at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. By comparison, the divisive Man of Steel had a 56%. Even The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a 53% and that film was so bad it single-handedly killed a franchise. Our own critic, Matt Singer, called it a “a burdensome 150-minute slog” in his review. Other reviews have called it “an holy mess,” “a near-total drag” and “a deeply disappointing experience.” Perhaps most importantly though is this sentiment from GQ, which seems to be a recurring theme amongst negative reviews: “The wider problem is that [Batman vs. Superman] doesn’t make you want a Justice League film.” Studios are used to bad reviews, but if the overwhelming sentiment is that the Dawn of Justice doesn’t make you want to see Justice arrive, Warner Bros. has a supersized problem.

As of now, the planned two-part Justice League movies are set to begin filming on April 11, just three weeks from now. Batman vs. Superman director Zack Snyder is set to return with Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher all starring as their respective heroes. With a start date approaching so soon, could bad buzz force the studio to make a drastic change?

It might seem unlikely that Warner Bros. would pull the plug on (or at least drastically alter) its Justice League plans, but it would not be the first time the studio has bailed on a big superhero project weeks before filming. In 2008, the studio stopped production on Superman: Flyby (which would’ve been directed by McG with a script by J.J. Abrams) two months before it was scheduled to begin shooting. George Miller’s Justice League Mortal film (which had a full cast and was deep into rehearsals) was put on “indefinite hold” four weeks before its start date.

What’s peculiar about Justice League is that, although filming is less a month away, there is no additional cast announced yet for the film. Despite Amber Heard, who was cast as Mera in Aquaman and will make an appearance in Justice League, shouldn’t there be some word that Actor X was cast as the film’s villain (by contrast Jesse Eisenberg and Jeremy Irons were announced four months before filming began on Batman vs. Superman)? There’s a remarkable sense of radio silence surrounding the production; is there fire attached to that smoke?

While there is some precedent, canceling Justice League feels like the nuclear option. It would be both an expensive and embarrassing failure for the studio who is anxious to catch up to Marvel and their increasingly successful slate of superhero movies. What’s more likely is that the studio announces a Justice League delay. Push the Justice League films back to a later release date while maintaining that they will absolutely still happen, just after a few more standalone films. Wonder Woman is by far the best part of Batman vs. Superman and her solo movie opens next summer. That, along with James Wan’s Aquaman, could be enough to help wash the bad taste of Batman vs. Superman out of critics mouths. Then you reintroduce the Justice League with these characters we’ve come to know and love, which, to be honest, was probably the better idea from the start.

Zack Snyder discusses ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Justice League’ plans at the 2015 Comic-Con / Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Zack Snyder discusses ‘Batman v Superman’ and ‘Justice League’ plans at the 2015 Comic-Con / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

According to sources close to the production, Snyder’s future with Warner Bros. and the DC Cinematic Universe is relatively safe, only because they’ve come so far now and to abruptly redirect course with another filmmaker trying to undo what Snyder has done, would be counterproductive. This isn’t like Marvel firing Edgar Wright on Ant-Man. Snyder’s fingerprints are all over both Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, the first two movies in this new DC Cinematic Universe. He has established the tone for this world and regardless of all the talk that the solo superhero movies will be “filmmaker driven”, that’s only insomuch as the filmmaker agrees with what Snyder has already done and wants to do going forward. He is either producing or executive producing all of these movies that he isn’t directing.

The negative reception to the film will likely force Snyder’s hand to alter his tone at least slightly. There were already rumors that, following the negative reception to both Batman vs. Superman trailers, Snyder went back to the editing room to adjust the film, which he had already locked (Snyder denies those reports). Snyder and Warner Bros. will likely be far more proactive with the Justice League films, examining what worked and what people liked, and playing to those strengths. Of course, with filming just weeks away the script has already written and the die may already have been cast.

While changes may be coming, it also seems unlikely that a poor critical response to Batman vs. Superman alone is enough to force Warner Bros. to change the Justice League plans they’ve mapped out through 2020 and beyond. As of press time, IMDb lists an 8.8/10 rating from 14,744 users (though considering the film hasn’t opened yet, it’s unclear how exactly this many people have seen the film) and Fandango claims Batman vs. Superman is outselling both The Dark Knight Rises and Avengers: Age of Ultron. And that may be the ultimate decider. Critics may not matter much to Warner Bros. because critics don’t pay to see their movies, people do. If the people vote with their wallets and Batman vs. Superman opens to huge numbers, it won’t matter if critics get up and throw literal rotten tomatoes at the screen. Fifty Shades of Grey has a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and that certainly didn’t stop Universal’s plan for two more sequels.

The critical reception does put more pressure though on the film to perform. If Batman vs. Superman didn’t make a ton of money, but was a critically beloved film, there would be enough justification to continue on based solely on that love, but with no critical support, it needs the financial angle. A movie that critics hate and audiences don’t show up to is never going to get a sequel, no matter how far along they are in planning sequels. The bigger question now is how much Batman vs. Superman needs to make. Conventional wisdom is that it at least needs to beat Deadpool, which opened to $132 million earlier this year. It would also surely like to beat Furious 7, if only to claim the “Biggest Easter Weekend Opening Ever” title. Both those benchmarks seem likely, though far from a sure thing, with most predictions now have the film coming in at $150-175 million. But will that even be enough?

It will be a very interesting and tense weekend for Warner Bros. executives who can’t afford another creative misstep this late into the superhero game. They own the exclusive rights to some of the biggest superheroes in the world and need to start exploiting that now, or the Dawn of Justice may turn to dusk.

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