With Christopher Nolan’s Bat-films ending and the seeming new beginning of the Superman franchise picking up steam, there’s been a lot of talk in recent months about Warner’s plans for a live action Justice League film. Bringing together both Superman and Batman, along with Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter, the Justice League has been DC’s premiere superhero team since its inception in the pages of The Brave and the Bold #28 back in 1960. And given the recent success of the Marvel’s Avengers, not to mention the stagnant development on solo films for each of the aforementioned teammates sans Supes and Bats, it’s safe to assume Justice League will be the company’s next foray into the superhero subgenre.
But by going for the big bucks of the team-up without familiarizing audiences with its individual characters and building a cohesive universe for them to occupy as Marvel did, does WB risk tarnishing its most beloved brands? More importantly, will they repeat the same mistakes as they did the last time they pursued a team-up film following successful Batman and Superman films? What we do know at this stage is that a script from Will Beal, writer of the studio’s upcoming Gangster Squad, is being shopped around, and was rumored to have been offered to Argo director and Daredevil actor Ben Affleck. It’s an ill-fitting choice of course, and one which I noted the director would obviously turn down. Still, it’s yet another testament to WB’s sheepish trend of seeking talent within its own doors before branching out and looking for the best man for the job.
But that’s of little consequence, considering the company’s last attempt at joining up its heroes. Back in 2007, after thrilling to the prospects of sequels to Batman Begins and Superman Returns (convinced anything would be an improvement on the latter). After a quick search, I learned that Mad Max trilogy director George Miller would be helming an ambitious Justice League film, subtitled Mortal, and would be gearing up for production in Australia very soon. Then I got a glimpse of the film’s cast list on IMDB, and saw not Christian Bale, not Brandon Routh, but a group of woefully miscast, overly young unknowns, among them a kid seemingly named after a baking soda as Batman, and one of the nerdy guys from Knocked Up playing the villainous Maxwell Lord. All hope was lost.
Worse yet, unbeknownst to me at the time, the script for Mortal by the husband-and-wife team of Michele and Kieran Mulroney (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) was reportedly abysmal. I read a breakdown of the steaming pile here, a thoroughly nauseating prospect made barely readable by the writer’s snide commentary. Described by the script holder as what “would’ve been the new Batman & Robin”, Justice League Mortal chronicles the systematic takedown of the superhero team at the hands of the evil Talia al Ghul and Maxwell Lord, using Batman’s own spy tech. Loosely based on Mark Waid’s Tower of Babel comic and borrowing the ending of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, as well as elements from the animated Justice League Unlimited cartoon (on air at the time), the script contains bizarre moments such as a surgical procedure involving a blind John Stewart using his Green Lantern constructs, in conjunction with Martian Manhunter’s telepathy, to extract nanobots from an incapacitated Flash. Later, Stewart’s blindness is cured by swallowing Aquaman’s water-based prosthetic hand, which subsequently spurts out his ears. Just to reiterate, this is a script WB was literally weeks away from commencing production on.
Chief among the script’s travesties was its horrifying misrepresentation of first Flash Barry Allen. Comparing him to Jar-Jar Binks, the script holder described the character’s demeanor as annoying, citing several inappropriately-timed wisecracks at his fellow teammates’ expense. There’s even some sort of screwy, twisted love scene involving the character and his wife, which for the life of me, I can’t bring myself to type out here. Add to that an incoherent, overblown clusterfuck of an ending I couldn’t picture anyone over the age of ten actually penning, and in short, Mortal looks to haven been nothing short of vomit-inducing. Even with some reported changes made by Miller himself, it’s hard to imagine anything worthwhile coming from such an awful, thoughtless template.
No doubt like Batman & Robin, in accordance with WB’s notorious demands, the script presented a multitude of opportunities for selling toys. Still, had this utterly trashy slap in the face to DC’s iconic characters been given the go-ahead to begin filming, again like Batman & Robin, it would’ve surely shot the the slowly reviving comic book movie in the foot. Luckily, with the 2007 writer’s strike preventing WB from commissioning further rewrites, a whopping estimated $300+ million budget, the loss of valuable tax breaks for filming in Australia, and an uproar of fan dissent, the production was mercifully shut down. Mortal stands as yet another example of WB’s cluelessness as to how its DC properties should be handled, and a huge bullet dodged for the continued credibility of comic book movies. As a fitting postscript to Mortal’s reviled history, I distinctly remember reading a rumor or posting of some sort at the time claiming Christopher Nolan had read the script and promptly threw it in the trash. I tried my damnest to find the original source to no end, but if the story’s legit, who can blame him?
Bearing all that in mind, you can understand my skepticism over WB’s next attempt to unite its heroes. Many of the missteps of Mortal can still be easily avoided at this point, so consider the following an open letter to WB on how to properly approach this beast. Objectively, what’s most important is to get the build-up right. The Avengers was such a huge box office success in part because it took its time developing its characters in solo films, giving audience plenty justification why even goofier characters like Thor could be badass. By the time the actual film rolled around, the marketing was practically in the bag. Sure, WB may want to jump straight to the team-up and, if successful, produce spin-offs with the same actors, but it’s an entirely unnecessary gamble. When the company botched last summer’s Green Lantern, the damage was limited to that one character. With JLA, they risk tarnishing multiple potentially profitable properties, and killing off any chance of further films featuring these characters.
Also, it should go without saying that Justice League demands to be part of a shared universe of characters. Creating a stand-alone film featuring different actors than the solo films as Mortal would have is not only insanely lazy, but only serves to confuse audiences. Taking time to plan out each film, its unique place in a larger universe, and being smart about continuity is a must. Thus, if Man of Steel is successful, they’ve got to sign Henry Cavill for Superman. Though I’m sure people will be happy to look the other way if the company were to let Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern contract lapse.
Still, if WB is adamant about moving straight on into Justice League, it’s important they don’t jump right into storylines like Tower of Babel that require prior knowledge of the characters. Something like JLA Year One, giving us ample backstory into who each of these guys are and how they come together would be preferable. And there’s something to be said about using the New 52 for inspiration on the new film. Namely, don’t use the New 52 for inspiration on the new film. Replacing Martian Manhunter with Cyborg, among other alterations in the new comics, is just a flat-out bad idea.
Most importantly, WB needs to get the script right. Lazy storytelling will no longer fly in today’s superhero films; it’s vital they find an accomplished writer, not some in-house brown-noser, who’s passionate enough about the DC Universe to commit him/herself to upholding its established legacy. If the company is dead-set on looking for talent within its own doors, why not turn to Bruce Timm and the animation department? Timm’s team have been creating faithful adaptations of DC comics for twenty years now, surely those guys know a thing or two about how to handle these characters, if not theatrically, then thematically.
At the end of the day, a Justice League film should be a colorful, fun movie that entertains and inspires its audience. As DC’s premiere property, the team requires the same, if not more care and attention than Marvel lent to Avengers. I’ve seen far too many people, writers even, who are convinced Justice League wouldn’t work on film, an admittedly extreme and rather ignorant opinion, given the countless comics and aforementioned Justice League Unlimited cartoon that prove otherwise. It’s up to WB to convince them they’re wrong with a fantastic adaptation that could, in fact, easily blow Iron Man and Co. out of the water. It’s a massive undertaking, WB. Don’t fuck it up. Or worse, bring about another Justice League Mortal.