One of the pieces of news coming out of San Diego Comic-Con was the not-altogether-surprising announcement that Christopher Nolan, director of the “Dark Knight trilogy” of Batman movies would not be participating in Warner Brothers’ upcoming attempt to bring DC Comics’ Justice League of America to the big screen. That Nolan would step aside shouldn’t dismay fans too much, as realistically there wasn’t much chance of him taking it on to begin with, and the tone he set with his Batman movies would not necessarily fit Justice League anyway. Rather, fans should probably take heart in the fact that Warner Brothers is still moving forward on the project, which a few weeks ago was announced to have Will Beall assigned to write the script. Beall’s only theatrical work so far is this year’s Gangster Squad, but this doesn’t necessarily bode ill for the film; after all, on the other side of the fence, X-Men was written by three writers with a total of one writing credit to their name (and that almost ten years before).
The question that comes to mind is exactly what does Warner Brothers need to do in order to make Justice League a success? Not just what do they have to do with the movie itself, but what do they have to do beforehand? Fans have been speculating on the film since before Marvel’s The Avengers came out, and after that blockbuster success, speculation has only been heightened. Comparisons will be inevitable. Considering the Nolan Batman films have been the sole unqualified successes that DC Comics movies have had in the past decade, Warner Brothers needs to get their act together. They need to put out a stellar film in order to be considered a worthy competitor, and they need to get their franchises stable before it comes out. While they can use a successful Justice League movie as a springboard to launch some of the franchises, they need to have at least some of them in good shape on their own first, to get people interested. They don’t necessarily have to have any Nick Fury-style hints towards the future in their films, but there have to be at least a few successful DC superhero films before Justice League hits, if for no other reason than to ensure that some of the characters and their current film portrayals are established with the audience in advance.
The main reason for this is the same as what The Avengers did; if you have a lot of characters all in one movie, you aren’t going to have time for elaborate back-stories for all of them in that one movie. DC Comics have some help in the fact that the Justice League Unlimited cartoon was a success, but that ended its run six years ago. With the movie being, optimistically, not out before 2016, they can’t rely on familiarity from that. They do have the most recognizable superheroes in the business, but while a lot of people can identify the Flash, how many non-comics-fans could say what his name is (any of them), or how he got his powers? Plus, having some of the characters have existing movies prior to Justice League will allow the actors to become more comfortable in their roles; Mark Ruffalo may have been able to do a great Hulk without a prior film, but there’s no question that The Avengers benefited from Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Robert Downey Jr. all being familiar with their characters ahead of time.
Having solo superhero movies of characters that end up in Justice League may invite comparisons to how Marvel built up The Avengers, but Warner Brothers is putting together a movie about a team of superheroes. Those comparisons will happen no matter what Warner Brothers does. The only rational response is to just accept that and try to do the best job they can, and I think that involves establishing some of the characters up front. So with that in mind, what characters do I think need to be in Justice League and what needs to be done with those characters?
Batman: Let’s be honest. The only reason any of us are even remotely taking the idea of Warner Brothers getting this off the ground seriously is because of the recent success of the Batman franchise. Nothing else they’ve done since Christopher Reeve has come close to being as successful. And while Batman may not have been a founding member of the League in the comics, he’s been a major member almost since the beginning. People expect to see him there, people want to see him there. Now, there’s some question on just how well Christopher Nolan’s Batman would fit in Justice League; Nolan’s take has been fairly grounded in reality so far (there’s no room for a Kryptonian in the Nolanverse), and Christian Bale will not be reprising the role. Fortunately, this isn’t as insurmountable an obstacle as it might seem. One transition movie should be all that’s needed. One film should be enough to get another actor established, as long as he does a decent job. And to bridge the realistic Nolan films with the alien and supernatural elements of Justice League, he just needs to face a foe that has a slight touch of science-fiction to him. Not so much as to seem a complete swerve from what has come before, but enough to establish that little bit of unreality. I suggest Mr. Freeze. Cryogenic freeze rays are just plausible enough to not seem too much of a stretch, while being just high tech enough to allow Batman to move on from unpowered villains. And while I generally won’t be suggesting casting in these roles (my speculation in the past has only panned out once, with Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man), I will suggest a name for playing the role of Freeze: Patrick Stewart. I’m not wrong, am I?
Superman: Even with the success of the Batman films, it’s possible Superman is still the world’s most recognizable superhero. Pity Superman Returns wasn’t very good. With Man of Steel coming out in 2013, starring Henry Cavill, there’s really only one thing that Warner Brothers needs to do in order to prepare Superman for the Justice League movie: don’t screw up this time. If Man of Steel earns the same derision that Superman Returns did, not only will Zack Snyder’s name probably be mud, but it will seriously hobble the chances of people having positive expectations for Justice League. Superman and Batman are the characters that are going to be the big draws, they both need good outings prior to the film.
On a related note, Superman and Batman’s relationship in the movie should have some elements of rivalry and their different outlooks on life, but it shouldn’t be adversarial, the way it’s sometimes portrayed by comic book writers who don’t quite get the characters. They’re both good guys, they both know the other is on the right side; they may have different skills and views, but in the best Superman/Batman stories, they’re fast friends. Keep it that way for the movie. Batman doesn’t have a kryptonite ring out of distrust for Superman; he has a kryptonite ring because they live in a universe where mind control and possession exist, and because the presence of one Kryptonian implies the possibility of other Kryptonians who may not be so benevolent. In at least some of DC’s fluctuating continuities, it’s Superman who gave the ring to Batman, as a sign of trust. As long as Will Beall remembers this when writing the Justice League script, it should turn out all right as far as those two characters are concerned.
Wonder Woman: It’s important to include Wonder Woman for a couple reasons. The first is that the team will need at least one female member, and there is no bigger female superhero than Wonder Woman. The second is because of her importance to DC Comics. When the Golden Age of superhero comics ended, DC stopped publishing almost all of their superhero titles. The exceptions were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. They’re the “big three” of DC Comics, the “trinity”. It’s not a proper Justice League without the three of them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground for the better part of ten years now, and it’s still in progress, still up in the air. Hopefully it comes to fruition soon. It may not be 100% essential that her movie come out before Justice League, but it would probably help — and if nothing else, it would be nice to be able to show that the failures of Catwoman and Elektra weren’t a mark against female superhero movies, as some pundits suggested, but were rather solely because those movies were just plain terrible. Also, I’d like to comment on a casting rumor I’ve seen around the internet periodically; some people have been championing Megan Fox for the role. To this casting choice, I say, “Please, try to get an actress instead.”
Green Lantern: The 2011 Green Lantern movie was a mixed success at best, but it can, hopefully, be salvaged as a franchise. The sequel is moving forward, at any rate, and hopefully it will be an improvement over the first movie. (I liked it, but it was definitely not without its flaws). Whatever happens with the sequel, a Green Lantern needs to be in the Justice League. A Green Lantern. Depending on the approach the sequel takes, it doesn’t have to be a particular Green Lantern. Now, if the sequel maintains Hal Jordan as the only Earthling GL, then Hal will have to be the one to join the Justice League; introducing a different Green Lantern at that stage would feel awkward, and Hal will be the character that the audience has some emotional investment in. (A casting change for the character in Green Lantern 2 wouldn’t hurt, though.) But if the sequel introduces any of the other Earthling Green Lanterns, which is certainly a possibility, than it’s plausible for that character to be the one to join Justice League while Hal remains the focus of the Green Lantern film franchise. John Stewart might be a logical choice, both to add some racial diversity and because of the audience’s familiarity with him in the role from the Justice League cartoon series. Guy Gardner would be more unexpected, but his abrasive personality could provide some fun contrasts in the group dynamic. Kyle Rayner is probably the least likely, not because of anything wrong with the character, but simply because the script writers for Green Lantern lifted some of his personality traits (his acknowledgement of fear, for example) for their portrayal of Hal Jordan. A true-to-the-comics portrayal of Kyle would likely seem redundant next to the untrue-to-the-comics portrayal of Hal that’s in the film, so he’s less apt to make an appearance in Green Lantern 2, and thus less likely to be in Justice League.
Martian Manhunter: The last specific hero that I think the Justice League movie needs is J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. He was a founding member of the League in the comics and cartoon, and has been a member of every incarnation of the League (at least up until the “new 52”; I don’t know if it holds true there or not.) It’s just not the Justice League without him, and he’s the center of the team. I picture him being the one to do the recruiting and bringing the team together in the movie. I also think he’s a character that definitely shouldn’t get a movie beforehand. Not that a Martian Manhunter movie wouldn’t be cool; I just think he’d be better served by having his introduction come in the Justice League movie, and I have doubts whether the audience would go see a solo Martian Manhunter movie without having the team movie as a springboard.
The Other Members: The six above are the characters that I think the film has to include in the League. That’s already getting kind of crowded as it is (The Avengers had 8, counting Nick Fury and Agent Coulson), so it’s up in the air how many more even should be included. I would say two more heroes at the most, and probably only one. If they didn’t use any others, that’s probably OK as well, but I think people would appreciate having another character, and one that broke from the expected mold a bit. They could go with Hawkgirl if they wanted to completely mirror the animated series. They could go with Aquaman if they wanted the traditional choice, though this provides the challenge of making it clear he’s useful and not a joke character. Green Arrow and Black Canary would be a nice fit, but I think they are probably best left out of it; even though they predate the Marvel characters, using an archer and a black-clad martial artist that work together is going to draw too many comparisons to Hawkeye and Black Widow at this stage. Cyborg might be a popular choice; he was recruited in the Justice League in the comics a year or two ago, and he provides a different skillset than many of the heroes. However, he might seem a bit too much like “DC’s Iron Man” in the role. At the risk of bringing up memories of the failed live-action TV pilot for a Justice League of America series, I wonder if bringing in Fire and Ice might be one way they could go. Really, they could use just about any DC Comics superhero — almost all of them have been members or considered for membership at some time — and it could work. Going in an unexpected direction might yield some positive results. Whoever they choose though, they will probably be among the characters who use the Justice League movie to launch their franchises, rather than those whose franchises feed into it ahead of time.
The Villain(s): Of course, there needs to be some big threat to bring all these heroes together. And, as much as I hate to say it, it probably can’t be Darkseid. With The Avengers teasing Thanos for the sequel, if Justice League busts out Darkseid it’s going to look like they’re trying to copy The Avengers (which, given Thanos creator Jim Starlin admits he was inspired by Darkseid, would be deep irony.) So Darkseid is probably out, at least initially. But without Darkseid, it’s unlikely any one villain would be enough to pose a threat to the League — at least, without certain allowances. I suppose Eclipso could under the right conditions, though it’s hard to make a guy threatening when he can’t be out in broad daylight. Brainiac, with some augmentations, but do we really want the Justice League movie to focus solely on a Superman villain? Black Adam could take on the entire League (DC’s “World War III” event was essentially “everybody vs. Black Adam” and was a fair fight), but his story is dependent on Captain Marvel’s, and differentiating Superman and the champion of Shazam in one movie is apt to be difficult. No… I think perhaps the way to go might be to not have a single villain, but to go full-on Legion of Doom mode. Have Lex Luthor assemble several villains and just go to town with a great big brawl. It might take some work to avoid being an incoherent mess, but if they pulled it off, it could be wonderful. And why not aim high?
Naturally, my thoughts are just my own supposition. I have no doubt at all that DC and Warner Brothers are going to throw some surprises into the mix. Hopefully all of them are pleasant surprises. A Justice League movie has every bit the potential to be as good, or even better, than The Avengers. But there’s a lot of groundwork they need to lay down in order to do it and do it well. And the clock is ticking. DC Comics fans haven’t had a completely good non-Batman film in decades. It’s time for DC Comics films to start matching the quality of their competitor. Here’s hoping Man of Steel starts things off on the right foot, and that the rest of the films start coming together and being as good as they ought to be.
A “Legion of Doom” story right out of the gate would set the bar pretty high for sequels, unless they limited it to the more “realistic” supervillains and kept the action rooted on Earth. That approach would provide a contrast to Avengers, which had a single antagonist of “extraterrestrial” origin.
I’d like to see DC springboard a bit off Watchmen and use JLA to introduce a movie universe where superheroes aren’t some new thing, but rather a legacy. An aging, outgunned JSA could pass the torch to the JLA, for example. And since the JLA movie more than likely won’t have the kind of universe-building behind it that Avengers did, putting in a JSA…or JSA-equivalent…might add a layer of texture that it wouldn’t otherwise have had.
That might be an interesting approach… I know I’ve spoken against torch-passing themes in the past, but it could actually work there.
It’s true that using the Legion of Doom right off the bat might set the bar pretty high for sequels. Though I think that might be an issue whatever they do; if it’s a big enough threat to warrant bringing the League together, it’s going to be kind of hard to top no matter what.
Keep it traditional… the first Big Bad should be Starro. He doesn’t have to look like a giant starfish… a mind-controlling elder god, sending probes to cause confusion and terror in the vanguard of an invasion would be good.
Martian Manhunter could be the last of his race, come to Earth to warn us of the threat. Throw in the usual distrust issues, heroes coming together, yada, yada, yada. Just make the plot make sense, get great actors and an director that loves and understands the material and off to the races. Marvel just made it look too easy (and it wasn’t).
Starro, but not looking like the starfish… that could work. Normally I’m a bit of a purist on appearance, as I think you know, but a giant alien starfish certainly wouldn’t play well to the mainstream audience. It’s kind of goofy even to those of us who are comic book fans. But have him just be some eldritch abomination, and it could work. Although the mind-control aspect might be a little too reminiscent of Loki’s “phase one” plan in The Avengers… I do like the idea of how to bring Martian Manhunter into it, though.
You’re right that Marvel made it look easier than it really was. That came together much better than it had any realistic expectation of doing, even considering the wobbly status of the Hulk films.
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