How to make the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie

by M.J. Hearle

I’m a geek.

Not that this should be surprising considering the sort of stuff I write, but I thought I should put it up front as we’re about to get into some particularly geeky territory. How geeky? Well, let’s just say if you know the difference between Hawkman and Hawkeye you should be okay. If you don’t, then I apologise in advance.

Now, many of you probably caught Joss Whedon’s The Avengers last year. Personally, I found the movie a little flat, save for any sequence featuring the Hulk. Sue me – I dig a big green guy beating the crap out of people. Clearly, I was in the minority with my luke warm response as The Avengers went on to become the number one box office hit of the year. Hollywood tends notice when a particular movie makes piles of money so news of a proposed similarly themed superhero team-up movie, Justice League, hit the interweb soon after.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, The Avengers was based on a pre-existing MARVEL comic book that dates back to the sixties. Justice League will feature superheroes drawn from the DC comic book series which also began in the sixties. Both DC and MARVEL publish stories about muscular men and women in tights yet the ethos behind the comics are quite different.

As personified by Superman, DC stories typically feature character-types who represent hyper-idealised notions of courage and strength. DC superheroes are more than human, unimpeachable – ‘super’ in every sense of the word. MARVEL stories, on the other hand, generally depict superheroes as all too human and having to contend with real world issues. The MARVEL mascot, Spiderman, is just a poor kid struggling to pay rent and keep his girlfriend. Fighting supervillains is just another pain in his ass. This characterisation is pretty far removed from the ‘lonely god’ archetypes of the core DC trio: Superman, Wonder Woman and (despite his mortal frailties) Batman.

When MARVEL first started making movies as a fully fledged studio (after watching Hollywood muck it up for years) they were careful to establish a real world aesthetic for their first film, Iron Man, that was in keeping with their grounded storytelling approach. Certain narrative aspects strayed into the realm of science fiction but the characters remained recognisably human. When Iron Man became such a resounding success, it set the template for the following films Thor, The Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Moreover Iron Man gave Marvel the clout to employ a production strategy never before attempted in cinema – they would produce a series of origin movies featuring characters from Marvel comics existing in a shared universe. The ‘shared universe’ aspect of their plan was the revolutionary part of their plan. While Iron Man could appear in Thor or The Incredible Hulk’s comics, nothing like that had ever been done before in the movies. What first seemed to be a cool gimmick actually turned out to be a narrative device that paved the way for  The Avengers.  

MARVEL had no way of knowing audiences would embrace characters like Thor or Captain America but charged on ahead anyway. Even when a film stumbled (cough* Incredible Hulk cough*) it still served to strengthen the Marvel cinematic universe. As The Avengers box office receipts indicate, Marvel’s gamble paid off, which brings us to the proposed Justice League movie. I can see how on paper this production makes sense. After all DC characters like Batman and Superman have arguably much more traction with the movie going public than MARVEL players like Iron Man, let alone Hawkeye or Black Widow. Who wouldn’t want to see a movie featuring the two of them plus a bunch of other beloved classic superheroes?
However, Warner Bros. (the studio that owns DC Comics) doesn’t seem to understand that the reason The Avengers succeeded was not because it featured a bunch of superheroes in the same movie but because it felt like the culmination of one gigantic overarching story. Without Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America,  The Avengers wouldn’t have been half as well received because audiences wouldn’t have cared about – or even been able to identify – the characters (Who the hell is that blonde guy with the big hammer? Why is Robert Downey Jr dressed up like a robot? Where’s Eric Bana?).
Making Justice League an even dicier proposition is the previous cinematic success of DC superheroes. Green Lantern, was a massive failure, both critically and at the box office. Superman Returns bombed. Movies featuring Wonder Woman and The Flash have never even made it past the development stage. Sure, the Batman films have always been huge moneymakers but I’d  suggest that while Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies are brilliant, his version of the character does not lend itself to a Justice League movie. It’s far too mired in it’s own complex mythology to be easily dropped into universe where a man flies around in blue leggings. No, if Warner Bros. are smart – and by announcing that they will release Justice League head to head with Avengers 2 this remains doubtful – they’ll leave Nolan’s Batman alone and start from scratch with the character.

I have recently given this proposed Justice League movie significant thought (see first sentence of this post). Probably, too much thought considering I have absolutely no power whatsoever in effecting its outcome. Fan wanking I believe it’s called. Nevertheless, I offer my suggestions here on the off chance that these words will find their way onto a Warner Bros executive’s BlackBerry and help avert not only a financial disaster but a storytelling one.

First of all, don’t release Justice League against Avengers 2. That’s just a colossally stupid move. At best you’ll be the year’s Deep Impact, to The Avengers Armageddon. Why not wait a year to have that summer spot all to yourself? Or hell, why not wait six years and spend the interim time following the Marvel model by crafting a series of origin pictures featuring the revamped Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman existing in a shared universe. Oh that’s right, you want to make your cash quickly before this whole superhero thing goes the way of the Western, which lets face it, is only a matter of time. Just like denim cut-offs, movie trends fall in and out of fashion with frightening abruptness.

Okay, so you’re locked into the Justice League movie – the first thing I’d do is hire the guys and gals behind the Justice League cartoons of the early naughties to oversee the script. Folks like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini who were also responsible for arguably the greatest Batman movie, Mask of the Phantasm. Clearly they know the DC characters inside and out, and more to the point understand good storytelling. I’ve been re-watching episodes of Batman Beyond recently and am constantly struck at just how well written these episodes are. It baffles me that Warner Bros. animation consistently outshines the live-action division yet goes unrewarded. Green Lantern would not have happened under Paul Dini or Bruce Timm’s watch.

Now as for the movie’s story, internet rumours suggest it involves the Justice League facing off against Darkseid, an intergalactic superbeing. This sounds pretty interesting and nothing at at all like The Avengers 2 which has Iron Man and co facing off against Thanos, an intergalactic superbeing…oh wait! It’s the same story! I dearly hope this rumour turns out to be false because while releasing a superhero team film against another superhero team film is bad strategy, releasing a film with the same basic storyline as your competitor is borderline retarded.

Don’t use Darkseid. DC has a roster of fantastic villains including the ever-charismatic Lex Luthor. Get Gene Hackman out of retirement or even bring back Kevin Spacey and his kryptonite shiv. I sincerely believe audiences would rather watch superheroes facing off against human foe rather than a CGI monster. It’s an empathy thing. Monsters made of pixels will never be as compelling as a human character portrayed by a charismatic performer. If you use Die Hard as your model and create a villain worthy of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, then you’re already ahead of The Avengers in my book.

Finally, my big suggestion for the Justice League movie is an aesthetic one – make it a period piece. Superman and Batman first appeared in the late nineteen thirties. By setting your story in this decade not only do you immediately imbue the film with a timeless quality, but it’s also befitting the characters. Superman’s old fashioned boyscout persona will certainly play more comfortably in this decade (I dread to think of the studio notes suggesting the character be made *ahem ‘edgy’ to better suit these cynical post-modern times. See Man of Steel trailer for evidence of this. Or don’t.) Also, who wouldn’t want to see an art deco Batman? We’ve already had the gothic Batman (Burton), disco Batman (Schumacher), and techno Batman (Nolan).

Perhaps most importantly, from a marketing position a 1930’s aesthetic will also allow you to visually differentiate the film in audience’s minds from the inevitable brushed steel, lens-flare heavy look of The Avengers 2. It doesn’t have to be sepia toned, hire a talented production designer to create something stylish and beautiful. Continuing this aesthetic, think of the poster/banner/billboard campaign you could run – classic character portraits of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman painted in the art deco style. As for multimedia, how about this – instead of derivative Inception BWAMM! scored teaser trailers, you could release period appropriate black and white newsreels featuring Batman/Superman’s/Wonder Woman’s exploits. It would be a great way to introduce audiences to this particular cinematic re-imagining of these properties. Hell, put them on YouTube and watch them go viral. Don’t worry about chasing The Avengers – let them worry about being hip. Hipness is temporary. Justice League can be classic.