For those of you who have not watched Justice League, be warned – spoilers ahead!
Justice League came and went with a worldwide box office of USD$658 million. Compared to their budget of $300 million, this isn’t bad. However, when you compare that to the recent Avengers: Infinity War, which raked in $647 million in the US alone and $1.970 billion worldwide, it starts to look like a bit of a flop. Compare their Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% and 83% respectively, and you really start to notice the difference.
However, these are both very similar movies. Justice League is the first movie from the DC Extended Universe to feature Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and Superman in one film. Avengers: Infinity War is the first movie to collide all the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as The Guardians of The Galaxy, Black Panther, Spiderman and The Avengers, into one feature length film. So, how did their results differ so drastically?
The answer lies in the stakes, literally. Sayre’s law states that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issue at stake”.
This can be broken down into two easy-to-understand points:
One – When the stakes are too high, nothing matters.
Justice League is the perfect example, though this is not the only reason the movie failed.
This is the first time viewers get to see the Justice League formed, but it’s also the first time we see many of these characters at all. Cyborg and Aquaman make their debuts into the DCEU with Justice League. The Flash has his own TV Show, although not everyone who watched Justice League will watch his TV Show before for the character development. There’s only four movies in the DCEU (including Suicide Squad, which is more of a stand-alone and doesn’t impact Justice League) that were released before Justice League.
However, in the MCU, there’s sixteen movies (minus Ant-Man, since his story line does not affect Infinity War) that you need to watch before Infinity War. Sixteen. The thing is the MCU took sixteen movies to make it to ‘the world is going to be destroyed’ whereas it only took Justice League four.
Justice League is based around the main characters fighting off an alien invasion which will eliminate all human life. I mean, come on!
The stakes in Justice League are so high that there’s nothing to fear – no one will die. You can tell no one will die, but if you want the facts as to why we knew no one will die: Superman was resurrected in Justice League, Flash and Aquaman only just debuted in Justice League (not to mention their individual movies already in pre-production), Wonder Woman just released a successful movie (with a second already planned) and the team will be nothing if Batman died in their first movie.
As a viewer, knowing all this, the whole movie becomes… flat. There’s no real combat, there’s nothing to gain or lose.
Two – When stakes are low, things matter.
Take the first Iron Man movie, for example.
Throughout Iron Man, viewers feel their first real connection to Tony Stark via a man called Yinsen. When escaping from their captors, Tony only has two things to lose – his life, and Yinsen.
Yinsen’s sacrifice for Tony hits the viewer because they cared about him, much like Tony did. He wasn’t a random man we had one scene with, we spent a good thirty minutes learning about the character and growing attached to him. The stakes were low, but they meant more because what we had to lose was believable.
We knew, as a viewer, that Yinsen could die, but in Justice League we knew that the world would not be destroyed. DC wouldn’t destroy the world and therefore end all further installments to the DCEU.
Sayre’s law is an important yet easily forgotten rule when creating a story. Keep your eye out for it when watching a movie and see how it has affected your investment into the movie!
Sayre’s law is one of many reasons why Justice League flopped. Directors and story writers need to remember that when the stakes are too high, we lose our emotional connection and don’t invest into the story emotionally – because who really believes the heroes will lose when the whole planet is at stake?