Justice League hits theaters this weekend, the seeming crowning moment of the DC Cinematic Universe, or whatever we’re calling it. It comes four years after Man of Steel launched the new continuity, though that debut wasn’t without its critics. Shockingly, it was a full three years before the story continued in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which made it clear that someone didn’t know what to do with Superman on his own and needed to get Batman into the story as soon as possible. The mediocre reception continued in Suicide Squad but then things turned around when Wonder Woman finally got a solo film, showing offering audiences a bright attitude and an alternative to the brooding male stereotype could turn things around on a number of fronts.
Now there’s a whole team of heroes that have been assembled by Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to fight a growing menace to our planet. With Superman (Henry Cavill) out of the picture (sure), they recruit the Atlantean Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the speedster The Flash (Ezra Miller) and the high school student/machine Cyborg (Ray Fisher). These cast of disparate characters will need to learn to work together if they’re going to stop the forces of Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) from laying waste to the earth.
The first teaser tells us to “Unite” as it shows the logo with a bright beam of light bursting out of the middle of it. There’s not much that’s being conveyed here, it’s just about building or reinforcing awareness.
After that there was a series of character posters that featured each of the five heroes standing on a rocky outcropping and posing for the camera. The same JL logo appears in the background of each and it all culminated in a single poster that brought all five of them together and includes the “Unite” call to action as well. Still missing is Superman, which is notable.
All five of the heroes came together on a poster that shows them all in profile, facing some unseen, off-camera threat. “Unite the league” is the copy that’s laid over the image in big, bold type.
A poster was given away to attendees at San Diego Comic-Con and released online that assembled the team (still sans Superman) around the copy “You can’t save the world alone.” That copy featured the icons and symbols of each character, including Superman. It’s lit and arranged to give the impression, at least among comics fans, that it’s the artwork of Alex Ross with his hyper-realistic style. Upon closer impression, though, it seems just to be photographs of the cast. Either way, it’s a striking image.
Another series of character posters put each hero in profile against a solid background, their unique symbol interlaced with the team logo at the bottom.
More featured the character in action. All the symbols for each hero appeared in a row at the top, with the relevant one highlighted. Notably, Superman’s symbol *is* shown here but he didn’t get a poster of his own. Some of these better than others and a couple are just ridiculous. Each featured the copy “All in,” presumably conveying their commitment to the team and its cause.
Another series had each character’s face half-covered by the mask they wear.
I’m not sure what the art department was thinking with the next poster, which brings all five heroes together in action poses centered around the title treatment. The photos used show no sense of motion or energy. This looks more like the kind of awkward imagery that would be used for licensed product signage than a one-sheet for a tentpole release from a major studio.
A couple posters were created specifically to be given away to customers buying tickets through Fandango, select IMAX screenings and so on.
The first look at the movie came at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, when WB released a pseudo-trailer that centered around Bruce Wayne’s quest to assemble a team to fight the coming evil. The biggest part of that is recruiting Arthur Curry/Aquaman, for which purpose he travels to a small fishing village where he frequently pops up. Curry’s not hugely on board, but the same can’t be said for Barry Allen, who accepts Wayne’s invitation almost before he actually makes it. Wayne is working with Diana to build the team and we see some of the interplay between the two of them. Also coming along is Vic Stone, who we see both before and after his transformation into Cyborg.
It’s actually a pretty great trailer and seems to address one of the big complaints about Batman v Superman, which is that it was so super-serious. This one, in contrast, is full of humor and little jokes and funny moments. It doesn’t seem WB and Snyder are going full-on Joss Whedon’s Avengers here but it does play much more light-hearted than what has come before, showing the team dynamic may be a little more spirited than in BvS.
The first “official” trailer starts off with Wayne wandering through the frozen tundra on his trip to recruit Aquaman. After that we meet Cyborg and Flash as they’re pulled into the team alongside Batman and Wonder Woman. Aside from the team building shots, there are quite a few scenes of them fighting parademons in various ways, either hand-to-hand or, if you’re Batman, in the Batmobile or other machines. Along the way we get glimpses at Barry Allen’s imprisoned father, Mera swimming through the sea and, at the end, Commissioner Gordon giving Batman some encouragement.
This one is alright but it looks sooooo dark. There’s no light in the trailer, either from an actual lighting or from a tonality point of view. Sure, there are a couple jokes or funny lines here and there but overall this looks just as humorless and slightly depressing as Batman v Superman, where the tone was one of the major points of pushback from critics and audiences alike. But when you have Zack Snyder at the helm, you’re going to get a Zack Snyder movie.
A year after the first footage WB once again released a new “sneak peek” trailer at Comic-Con that opens with a scene of Wonder Woman handling a terrorist incident easily. That’s not surprising given this is the first big asset following her solo movie’s massive success. Diana and Bruce discuss the need for heroes to rise once again before we see Steppenwolf arrive on Themysciria. He narrates that there are no protectors on Earth, specifically no Kryptonians and “No Lanterns,” a nice nod to the existence of that intergalactic police force. The heroes do join forces, though, to take on the bad guy and his army and we’re shown lots of cool shots of Cyborg taking over the Batmobile, Aquaman knocking a parademon out of the sky and lots of things exploding. It all ends with Alfred meeting someone he’d been told to expect while all we see is the red shoulder of the visitor, a heavy hint that it’s Superman finally showing up.
I like this trailer a lot as it shows more of the team dynamic than earlier spots have. It’s still all very attitude-heavy, with lots of glowering and brooding, but let’s also note that it’s Wonder Woman who’s providing a lot of the inspirational uplift for the other heroes. And, again, the Amazons get quite a bit of screen time to take advantage of their popularity with audiences. Basically, the character types each hero will play to are shown clearly here, as well as how they integrate together.
The final “Heroes” trailer lives up to its name by including a slowed down version of David Bowie’s song of the same name. It opens with a scene of Lois greeting Clark in the cornfield, but we see that’s likely just a dream. Superman is dead, we hear via a news broadcast, and the world is having problems. Bruce talks about the threats that are coming, which Diana identifies as an invasion. They enlist the help of the other heroes, with Bruce convincing them they’re stronger together. That all is followed by lots of fighting between the Justice League and parademons who are looking to unleash hell on Earth.
Online and Social
The movie’s official website opens with the final trailer and once that’s over or you close it you’re greeted with a version of the painting-like key art of the team. In the upper left are links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles. You can also see it’s “wrapped” in the branding and navigation of DC Comics, bestowing the traffic to the home of the IP and encouraging any casual visitors interested in the movie to check out more of the comics and characters offered. Along the bottom are prompts to get tickets or watch the recent red carpet premiere event.
Moving to the top of the page, the content menu there starts with “Video” which surprisingly just has the same trailer that opened the site. After that, “Unite the League” gives you a couple options to either create your own superhero symbol or create a 360-degree image that you could add your friends to. The results of the first option could be downloaded either as a JPG or an MP4 video but not as a GIF, which seems like an oversight.
“First Look” just has the team image that has been used sporadically throughout the campaign, including on licensed products, and which notably includes Superman among the heroes. That’s followed by a link to “Join the League” to access exclusive material and get early updates on new merchandise.
You can find out more about the “VR Game” that lets you play as Batman as he tests his own abilities as well as those of his new teammates but you’ll need the required equipment to play. After links to get tickets and find release dates, “Partners” finishes off the site with links to the companies helping to promote the film.
A virtual reality experience came in four flavors. The first, accessible via mobile devices, allowed just small snippets of gameplay for each of the main characters. An HTV Vive version at New York Comic-Con provided for enhanced gameplay. Next, a couple IMAX locations in the country had an exclusive version that let you test your superhero abilities and learn to use your powers. Finally, a fully-featured version was available for commercial VR platforms that took players inside the actual superhero experience.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV commercials started running after the release of the final trailer, about a month prior to the movie hitting theaters. Most all took slightly different approaches to selling the same concept, which is that the team has to come together to be more than a team to defend the world. A better look at Mera was offered in another spot that was also used as a promoted post on Twitter.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
- AT&T, which created a portal for all its Justice League-themed material, including character profiles featuring cast interviews and explanations of his or her powers and role on the team. Clips and excerpts from those videos were also used in paid ads on Twitter leading the audience back to that portal.
- Mercedes, which launched a campaign involving TV, outdoor, online and print advertising to promote the movie as well as its new AMG Vision Gran Turismo, which is featured in the movie. The TV spots positioned the car as the perfect mode of transportation, even for heroes who can fly, run and more. There was also a co-branded digital comic that was created and promoted across social channels by the car company.
- Hot Topic, which created a line of clothing and apparel based on the characters and heroes of the movie.
- Google, which added “bots” based on the five heroes in the movie to Android Pay, allowing users to unlock and collect them.
- Gillette, which sponsored the above-mentioned VR game and created movie-branded packaging (conspicuously omitting Wonder Woman) that was supported by a TV campaign. It also ran something called the “League of Influencers” involving social media celebrities, but there was no information that could be found about that campaign.
- Dave & Buster’s, which offered a special Justice League Platter along with an exclusive Injustice arcade game, supporting those efforts with a TV advertising campaign and presumably in-store signage.
- Kendrick Motorsports, which, in conjunction with Great Clips, had Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. driving movie-themed cars at the Texas Motor Speedway. This is just the latest partnership between WB/DC and Hendrick.
- Orville Redenbacher’s, which offered a variety of actives and promotions, including an AR selfie tool and more.
Warner Bros. worked with IMAX on a virtual reality experience that would be available at theaters around the country. An augmented reality game was launched wherein Walmart shoppers could take pictures of themselves alongside characters from the movie when they found in-store displays and also play a game involving the Flying Fox, the team’s transport.
Both WB and DC ran social media ads on Twitter and Facebook that either included the trailers as they were released or encouraged people to visit the movie’s official website and “Join the League” for access to exclusive content and merchandise. Licensed product partner Mattel created a nifty version of the trailer involving stop-motion animation featuring action figures.
DC Comics took two additional moves to promote the movie, declaring November 18th to be “Justice League Day,” coordinating local events and giveaways and putting movie-themed variant covers on its November comics releases.
Media and Publicity
Outside of casting and other production news, the first big news cycle came as the result of a set visit by various members of the press. That brought lots of cast and crew interviews as well as details about who some actors were playing, who the villain of the story was going to be and the first official logo. It also brought with it plenty of confusion as there seemed to be conflicting stories as to whether there was going to be just one or, as originally announced, two Justice League movies.
Later on there was a new photo featuring Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman released along with some brief comments from Miller who talked about Flash’s role in the group dynamic. Another new photo came in an interview with Snyder about the story and characters. A small feature on Momoa called out his role as Aquaman as being part of the actor’s big breakout push.
Unfortunately some bad news came up back in May, when Snyder announced he was stepping away from the movie due to a family tragedy a couple months prior. WB kept things on track for the release date, though, by bringing in Joss Whedon to handle the rest of the additional filming that was planned as well as post-production. Helping make that a seamless transition was the fact that, as the story reveals, Snyder had already reached out to Whedon to help write additional scenes deemed to be missing from the initial production, so he was already in the Justice League mindset. Eventually that situation led to this movie being the latest to have its reshoot budget and schedule picked apart by the press for signs of trouble and other issues, including how much time and money was being spent digitally removing Cavill’s facial hair. No, I’m not kidding.
Costume displays, as well as consumer products, were shown at the annual Licensing Expo show. Another new still, this one featuring Flash, Batman and Wonder Woman, appeared in EW’s San Diego Comic-Con preview issue. Comic-Con also provided a venue for the studio to show off costumes from the movie as well as a full-size Batmobile.
The future of the movie was thrown into doubt with a story that appeared just the day before Warner Bros.’ big Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con. That story reported Affleck’s future as Batman was up in the air for various reasons relating to both the age of the actor, the physical demands of the role and more. It’s something Affleck had to spend no small amount of time rebutting, or at least addressing, saying he was happy to play Batman for as long as WB would let him.
In addition to their presence as part of Warner Bros. Hall H presentation, where the official trailer was shown, the cast showed up to sign autographs at the DC Comics booth on the show floor. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, though, as the movie’s big San Diego stage was preceded by a story that cast Affleck’s future as Batman in doubt for various reasons. It’s something he wound up addressing and which took up some of the space that would ideally have been used on more positive angles.
EW’s fall movie preview issue showed off the first look at Batman’s big team transport The Flying Fox, which was also the subject of a later LA Times feature. It also had Affleck talking about how the film reflected the work of both directors and that the movie would show DC’s universe was really hitting its stride and more, as well as promising a more traditionally heroic version of The Dark Knight, not the rage-fueled character of BvS.
Later on an Empire Magazine cover story contained more first looks and other stories. More new photos and comments from the actors like this one focusing on Momoa continued to trickle out. There was also the fact that the movie introduced so many characters the general audience may not be completely familiar with.
In the last week or so before release, Affleck made the media rounds to talk about what both Snyder and Whedon brought to the project, his early near-brush with the world of Batman and more. Gadot also did her share, though in light of the conversations currently dominating Hollywood many of those appearances turned to her thoughts on sexual harassment. The rest of the cast put in the miles and time as well.
The theme of sexism, in general, came back up in a big way when Melissa Silverstein, among others, noticed the drastic difference in the warrior garb donned by the Amazons in this movie compared to what they wore in Wonder Woman. The addition of more bare mid-riffs and other exposed skin was quickly called out as being indicative of how women view women and how men view women.
More late-breaking controversy when, despite the fact that reviews had been posted already, it was announced the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score would not be revealed until the day before it hit theaters. While that news was couched as being an incentive for people to tune into the first episode of the site’s new Facebook Live show, it raised the spectre of corporate control over information. That wasn’t a huge leap given how studios have stepped up their fight against Rotten Tomatoes, saying it’s poisoning fans against certain movies. Oh, and it’s owned by Warner Bros. So…yeah.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a campaign in recent memory that’s had so many unexpected twists and turns to it. To name a few:
- Snyder’s replacement by Whedon for the final phases of production. While it’s understandable, it’s also very odd and unusual.
- The continuing will he/won’t he conversations about Affleck’s future as Batman, a situation that’s changed with each new publicity cycle.
- The impact Wonder Woman’s success had, which likely resulted in her becoming a much bigger part of a campaign that started well before that movie was released.
All that has made is kind of hard for the campaign, particularly the publicity element, to remain focused and on track. While Fisher, Miller and Momoa have kept up the theme of just having a good time and living the dream playing superheroes for a living, Affleck’s attempts at that same tone have come off as stilted and been undermined by the ever-changing narrative about his future. And let’s be honest, there hasn’t been a whole lot of Gadot here, which is surprising. So it’s been hard, at least from an outside observer’s point of view, for the publicity to get its footing for any length of time.
In the marketing components things have been a bit more consistent, but whether or not that’s a good thing is going to be in the eye of the beholder. All the trailers, while they sell different plot points, have been very similar in terms of tone and style, presenting a dark and violent action movie. Yes, there are certainly more laughs on display than in the marketing of BvS, but that’s not a high bar to clear. It seems as if no matter how much the studio may have wanted to change perceptions in the wake of Wonder Woman it was limited by the material available to work with.
In short it looks like another Zack Snyder movie, for good or ill. Lots of heavily-stylized characters and a story that’s only hinted at from time to time lest it take the focus off the special effects and action sequences.
It also can’t go without saying that the inconsistent approach to Superman’s presence in the story is somewhat laughable and almost amateurish. 95% of the official marketing materials keep him off-camera, but then he’s just standing there like it’s no big deal in the other 5%, as well as in all the imagery for the licensed products on store shelves. Adding to the disconnect is that the character’s absence is only mentioned once or twice in the campaign, so it’s not as if him being gone is clearly what’s motivated Batman and the others to rise up and join together. If you’re going to hide a character from the marketing, do so for a reason.
I can’t say I don’t like the campaign. I’m still a comics nerd, after all. But there are some real issues that weren’t addressed at all or, if they were, only made the message to the audience that much more muddled and somewhat confusing.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.