Previously, we've talked about the scrapped plans for Justice League: Mortal circa 2007, an overview of DC Comics Super-Media, and thoughts on how Warner Brothers should approach their super-heroes in the age of Marvel Studios. The sum total of all this is to just say "no" to a Justice League movie anytime soon, especially one with no director, screenplay or stars but still shooting for a 2015 release date. Well, unless they got Lars von Trier on a barren stage with chalk outlines of buildings the actors would destroy by rubbing up against them furiously. That would make hardcore fans melt like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Arc, but they could follow it up with Abel Ferrara's The Dark Knight Degradation: Port of Call: Gotham City, so it would be worth it.
Alternately, there's the plan to re-team Zack Snyder and David Goyer (& Christopher Nolan?) for a second Superman film and then for Justice League, which optimistically puts the latter into 2017-2019. Also, have you seen “Man of Steel”? That's an awful lot of eggs in one basket of questionable integrity. Whatever my protestations, we're liable to have a Justice League flick on screens before the end of the decade. I'd therefore like to offer some conceptual donations to the damage control likely necessary in the event of such a thing happening. Anything I can do to make it less bad (or dare I dream even decent) would be well worth the time taken to type this stuff.
1. Must we assume the inclusion of Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman?
The one unwavering certainty in all Justice League movie coverage I've read is that the DC Trinity will be a major part of the team. That makes a certain sense in the bankability department, because there's mathematical formulae for how many asses each character is guaranteed to put in a seat. That's probably how a movie as costly and lame as Superman Returns managed to break even. However, if you launch a Justice League movie with these three headliners and it isn't up to par, you've tarnished all three brands in the public eye simultaneously. Batman could handle that, but we're still watching the long game on Man of Steel and no assumptions are safe with regard to its sequel's performance. We don't even have a Wonder Woman movie yet, so her franchise potential could be snuffed by a poor showing amidst the JLA. The other primary heroes tied into movie talk are Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Flash, all of whom have failed to perform when given opportunities (one cinematic dud, one live action season, two single animated seasons decades apart, and a failed pilot between them.) They would likely be toast if Justice League failed, and it wouldn't even necessarily be their fault, since the Trinity would surely dominate. At least a Justice League comprised of second stringers would stand or fall on its own merits.
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In the wake of The Dark Knight Rises, the next Batman film will require at the very least a new director and lead actor (even a returning Joseph Gordon-Levitt would count as such,) if not a total reboot. Viewers need a chance to get into the next creative team for the Caped Crusader before he's dumped into a team movie, especially since a major part of the fun in a film like Marvel's The Avengers is in having performers comfortable in their roles playing off one another. You don't get that if everyone is new to the job.
Wonder Woman needs and richly deserves her own standalone film, and Henry Cavill requires another film to develop a fuller personality than the iconic but embryonic Superman seen this summer. Even Robert Downey Jr. struggled for breathing room when surrounded by other heroes in Iron Man 2, and he left the first one in a stronger place than Cavill. I also believe that if Superman and Batman are to share a cinematic universe, the transition would be much smoother (and a separate revenue stream could be generated) from their meeting one-on-one for a World's Finest or (bleh) Versus movie. These are the two greatest super-heroes of all time, and their joining forces is a plenty rich vein to mine on its own. Further, I really prefer Superman and Batman already be well acquainted before entering a team movie, since that friendship would preclude the infighting that served Avengers well, but would be repetitive and forced if applied to the JLA.
2. Must Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman necessarily serve in the most obvious way possible?
We don't know what kind of deal Henry Cavill cut to play Superman, but every Batman actor to date has been a respectable star capable of throwing weight around in negotiations. The next guy to don the cape and cowl will have a mighty big costume to fill, which either means the aforementioned "breaking-in" solo movie or a star who might not necessarily jump through the Justice League's hoops. It might be smarter to have Batman in more of a cameo role. While I would personally be fine with the Trinity sitting out the entire first installment of a JLA series, how outrageous and exciting would it be to watch other heroes take on, say, Starro, only to find that they have to battle the possessed Trinity unannounced in the third reel? Audiences would be stunned and spread their enthusiasm across the land. The Trinity actors would get a reasonable payday for minimal work, since that big final battle would surely involve lots of stunt doubles and CGI. As an added bonus, you get the super-hero fisticuffs fans love while serving the higher purpose of establishing second tier heroes through direct, victorious conflict with bigger names. As an added bonus, no Darkseid, which should help against unflattering direct comparisons to Thanos (unfair as they may be.)
The Avengers got a lot of fan mileage through heroes fighting heroes because of egos, misunderstandings, and emotional instability. Justice League can cash in on this, but the best way to my mind is by raising the stakes. Superman being mind controlled by Brainiac or Hal Jordan turning up dead/possessed because of Sinestro/Parallax are scary propositions, especially when “Man of Steel” demonstrated the carnage that can come with these types of guys trying to be good. Give the secondary heroes a chance to shine and be counted amongst the biggest guns so everyone benefits.
3. Might someone other than the World's Finest benefit from a "double feature?"
I can understand why Warner Brothers would want to rush out a team film, but if they want a stable central franchise that they can orbit additional movies around, a proper foundation has to be laid down. Man of Steel is establishing the Henry Cavill Superman, so he could pay it forward by propping up the next Batman should he debut in World's Finest, and their interplay could develop Superman in return. If audiences reject the World's Finest Batman, Warner Brothers still has a clear lane to reboot Batman almost immediately in a recast solo feature, or just give in to another actor debuting in Justice League.
Meanwhile, the reception to Green Lantern was tepid, but there was still talk of a sequel after all the bills had been counted. If the Galactic Guardian can't quite buoy his own follow-up, what about introducing the Flash in the next feature and teaming them up? Ryan Reynolds could take another shot at making "funny" Hal Jordan work with a straight man in Barry Allen, or in a really bold move, kill/corrupt Jordan and introduce Green Lantern John Stewart as his replacement.
Technically, you still have the familiar elements from Green Lantern, but remixed into something that should reignite interest in the property. Further, you get a Marvel-style build toward Justice League in half the time. Also, a common criticism of super-hero movies is that they lose steam going into third act, since so much time is spent on the origin that anything left over feels like excess. Since there's already been a Green Lantern movie, the Flash could dominate the origin portions while Green Lantern's b-story builds a pressing threat requiring a team-up. Instead of the rushed, inorganic, tired hero's journey of Martin Campbell's film, the Flash could establish competency within the context of a "team-up" movie.
To be honest, I question whether the Flash's powers could visually sustain a film on their own, so having a Lantern around would take some of the pressure off. Unlike the crowded Iron Man 2, no one hero is meant to dominate, and each hero supplies a needed ingredient rather than horning in on one another's action. I think it could be as refreshing as the team dynamic in Avengers, where each character brought something to the story that enhanced the whole.
4. How about foregoing the DC Trinity entirely?
Unlike Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers has access to all of the DC Comics characters, but that doesn't mean they have to use them all at once. Marvel needed to put everything they had into The Avengers, because it was their costliest, riskiest film meant to pay off all their previous features and to prove they could support themselves without the likes of Spider-Man and Wolverine. The problem for Marvel is that from here on out, they'll have to dig deeper and deeper into their catalog to pull out characters of increasing obscurity.
Meanwhile, Green Arrow has one of the most popular TV shows on its (admittedly sorry) network, and ten seasons of Smallville familiarized viewers with the likes of Cyborg, Aquaman, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna, Martian Manhunter, Blue Beetle and more. You could bundle up a pretty interesting selection of notable heroes and call them the Justice League without using any of the Magnificent Seven, although it would be safer to include many of them.
Personally, I could see the Flash being introduced as the POV hero who gets his origin story in the first act, meets other heroes in the second, and they all must work together to overcome the big threat in act three. Sounds like a swell movie that could turn people on to Flash solo adventures in a way an initial standalone probably couldn't (see: Hulk, The) and still leaves the door open for the DC Trinity in an even bigger event movie down the line. Cyborg could get the same treatment. You can't have the Avengers without Captain America, Iron Man, and/or Thor, but the Justice League didn't officially have Superman or Batman locked in until a while into their initial run, and might be sturdier if allowed to develop with lesser lights at the onset.
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5. Handicap the Roster?
Geeks are aware of how deep the bench runs for the JLA, but mainstream audiences are much more likely to be aware of its members through Super Friends, Smallville, or the eponymous Cartoon Network show. Where Robin might not work in the Batman franchise, he could play to kids turned away from the darkness of the Nolan overseen Batman and Superman movies, keeping the tone closer to the comparatively light Avengers. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman could be very useful after stealing every shared scene in The Dark Knight Rises, especially if the League forgoes introducing a new Batman. I don't see workable roles for anyone else in the Trinity's Families without redundancies.
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If Ryan Reynolds is unavailable, I'd definitely replace Hal Jordan with another Green Lantern. The Lantern brand has been built up somewhat, so there's no point in letting that go to waste, but Kyle Rayner or Guy Gardner would allow another actor to fully "own" their role. Stargirl was well received on Smallville, and would stand out better than the many female versions of male heroes that populate the DCU. Aquaman should be a safe bet if you're going for iconic and unique, plus in a team setting he can be the target of mockery without being diminished, so long as he gets a salvaging spotlight moment or two.
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Depending on how the Milestone rights weigh in, StaticShock is another known quantity with youth appeal, is arguably more useful than Robin, and recalls Black Vulcan & Black Lightning. Cyborg is problematic because while DC could use an African-American member, he'll likely be cast by critics as a War Machine knock-off, who is himself the inferior Iron Man. Zatanna's usefulness kind of pivots on how Scarlet Witch works in the transition to cinema. Martian Manhunter would offer a diverse power set and could be customized to cater to any desired minority, plus he presents an opportunity to take the offensive in the arms race by neutralizing the viability of the Vision at Marvel.
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Green Arrow should be avoided because of obvious comparisons to Hawkeye, conflict with the TV show, and because he shoots arrows in the year 2013 for god's sake. Ditto Black Canary, as she's effectively blocked by her similarities (and conceptual inferiority) to Black Widow. Hawkgirl is well remembered from TV, but she's a hazard to realize without being laughable, and Falcon's introduction in Captain America: The Winter Soldier might be an issue. Vixen could assume much the same role with greater versatility in the CGI department. If Superman is on the team, Shazam is pointless, unless Mary Marvel is allowed to usurp Billy Batson as Captain Marvel. Regardless, Power Girl would be of comparable use, especially if Wonder Woman is absent. Starfire and/or Raven might be more interesting choices, given their visibility on the Teen Titans cartoons and visually striking abilities. Comedic characters like Plastic Man, Blue Beetle and Booster Gold are kind of dangerous to the team's credibility, plus they all duplicate powers seen in other movies.
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6. Secret Society of Super-Villains?
Before Thor, Loki was not much of a name, but Tom Hiddleston made all the difference in changing that. Leading with Darkseid as a villain would be a huge mistake, between recalling a Thanos fresh in the public's memory and setting the bar so high that no successive villains could compete for hype. Why waste a long build involving elements from the entire Fourth World Saga, possibly involving a New Gods movie or massive brutes to fill up a Superman flick? The New 52 reboot of Justice League made the same mistake, clowning a prime archnemesis and then parading a bunch of seconds stringers around until the only hope to raise a pulse was in pitting Leagues against one another and sending whole armies of bad guys at them all at once. It's unsustainable.
Rather than banking on a monster with a modest Q-rating, why not smartly stunt cast an adversary? Ideally, you wouldn't want to waste a foe of the DC Trinity, since they'll all be needed for solo movies. I favor Despero as a scary looking and singular creep who could pit hero against hero, armies against the group, or tackle the team on his own. Starro would be a bit more obtuse, but function the same way, while Eclipso falls somewhere in the middle. The Lord of Time would be excellent to preemptively neuter Kang, while the Key opens up pathways to any generic throng needed to overwhelm the League. Asmodel would be excellent for scale without much need for excess exposition. The Manhunter Cult are good for numbers, as is Imperiex. Starbreaker is different enough from Galactus to be employed. The Appelaxians are probably too close to the Chitauri, Felix Faust to Loki, and Vandal Savage to Ra's al Ghul. There's tons of options for disposable but formidable threats to burn through in the initial picture, so remember to start out with foresight.
7. Could we broaden the creative team, please?
The last three Marvel Studios movies (Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel's The Avengers, Iron Man 3) have profited by roughly $2½ billion after production and advertising costs since 2011 (give or take Downey's $50M payday.) The last three WB/DC movies (Green Lantern, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel) have profited by half that in the same time frame. If we reach back to 2008, DC gets to add The Dark Knight and Jonah Hex, but Marvel can counter with two Iron Man movies, Thor and The Incredible Hulk. We'll probably have a Superman sequel in 2015, by which point Marvel offers Guardians of the Galaxy and additional installments of Thor, Captain America, and the Avengers. Admittedly, Marvel feels like they're cranking out product, while Warner Brothers has a more artful approach, but the facts remain that Marvel is making a lot more money off of each comparatively inexpensive movie and their broader talent pool contributes to a better striking average with audiences by the sheer number of options. Further, every Marvel movie out of the gate is one less opportunity for DC. Whether or not Edgar Wright's Ant-Man is a hit, you can forget about an Atom movie. Dr. Strange sidelines Dr. Fate outside a JSA flick and doesn't help Zatanna's chances. Quicksilver will have figured into two major franchise releases (X-Men: Days of Future Past & Marvel's Avengers 2) before Flash even gets discussed.
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I personally do not care much for Christopher Nolan's work, but even if you think he's a genius, you have to admit that his singular vision alienates folks like me and costs DC ground through the limits on material one man can contribute to producing. If the WB/DC want to take the high road, I can think of a few directors with some prestige who have shown an ability to handle a fantastic summer tentpole with grace and aren't currently planning production on such a thing. How about Kathryn Bigelow, Brad Bird, Danny Boyle, Bill Condon, Jon Favreau, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Louis Leterrier, Justin Lin, Mike Newell, Sam Raimi, Nicolas Winding Refn, David Slade, Guillermo del Toro, Gore Verbinski, the Wachowskis, or David Yates-- and those are just the ones who are relatively "free" at present? I know you guys really have a lot of faith in David Goyer, but might some of the many hundreds of equally competent or superior screenwriters out there deserve a shot? I understand that the grandiose tone of The Dark Knight trilogy has earned accolades and set DC apart from the more formulaic Marvel movies, but this auteur theory you've gone with so far just means you have one proprietary flavor of super-hero. Do continue to spend serious bank on bigger, more "important" super-hero movies than Marvel, but don't paint yourselves into a corner and fail to utilize the full spectrum of high grade talent and concepts at your disposal.