Fans of DC Comics’s Justice League franchise saw what seems to be another setback this week, when word leaked the script that has been in development is being scrapped entirely. For those who just want to see the damn movie made already, this is obviously distressing news. But my approach is slightly different. I absolutely want to see a Justice League movie, but I want to see a great movie. So if Warner Bros recognized that the script they’re working with is crap, by all means, start over and do it right.
Earlier this week over at CXPulp, I wrote about how Disney seems to be planning to apply the lessons of Marvel Studios to their recently-acquired Star Wars franchise. (For those of you who may not follow this stuff the way I do, let me briefly explain that Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and that Marvel and DC have been the two biggest publishers – and therefore the two biggest rivals – in American comic books for decades). Marvel created films for several of their characters, brought them together in their mega-hit The Avengers, and are now breaking them off into smaller films again before the next combined go-around. Comic book fans, delighted with what Marvel is doing, are asking why the hell the movies based on DC Comics – the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and many more — can’t do the same thing. Although DC Comics, for a long time, had properties with more mainstream recognition than Marvel, in the past decade Marvel has dominated superhero movies. The only hit from the DC Universe in recent years has been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while Marvel’s X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers-related films have become legitimate powerhouses.
The reason for this, I believe, goes back to the late 90s. Marvel, at the time, was still an independent company, although one reorganizing after a bankruptcy. DC, however, has been wholly owned by Warner Bros for a very long time. That means Warner Bros is the only game in town to make a DC movie. If Warner Bros isn’t interested, it won’t happen, and if Warner Bros doesn’t understand what makes the property work, we get crap like Steel and Catwoman. Marvel, on the other hand, had the freedom to shop their properties around. Universal doesn’t have the right feel for Spider-Man? Take it to Sony. Paramount can’t give us a decent X-Men film? Bring them to Fox. Granted, this system turned out its share of clunkers too (let’s not forget that some genocidal maniac gave approval to not one, but TWO Ghost Rider movies starring Nicolas Cage), but their batting average over this period, beginning with Blade in 1998, is pretty damn good.
Things are different now, of course, since Marvel is owned by Disney. But by the time of that purchase in 2009, Marvel had already launched their own film unit to make movies with the characters other studios didn’t have – Iron Man and Incredible Hulk had both already come out and production was underway on Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. By the time Marvel was a Disney property, they’d proven that they could make great films on their own, and Disney has wisely stayed the hell back and let them do it, the way they did when they bought Pixar in 2006. (Disney seems to have a three-year cycle for buying other companies, they got Lucasfilm in 2012. That means I have until 2015 to create a franchise with lucrative enough IPs that I can sell them to Disney and retire in luxury.)
This, more than anything else, is what Warner Bros needs to learn in regards to any DC Cinematic Universe. It’s not about copying Marvel’s storytelling or casting tricks or format. It’s about letting the people who know the characters do what they do best and getting out of their way while they do it.
Marvel needed to raise the profiles of their lesser-known characters or Avengers never would have been the hit that it was. DC has a different problem. Ten years ago, nobody who wasn’t a comic book fan knew who Iron Man or Thor were. DC’s problem is that everybody knows many of their characters – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – but they fundamentally misunderstand them. Aquaman is a punchline, he’s “the guy that talks to fish.” But as writers like Geoff Johns and Peter David have shown us, he can be so much more than that – a tragic monarch, a man who struggles with the responsibility of protecting two-thirds of the surface of the Earth… not to mention the fact that the physical changes necessary to allow a person to survive on the ocean’s floor would make them pretty strong and otherwise badass on land. Putting Aquaman in a movie doesn’t necessitate that you explain who he is, it necessitates you explain what makes him awesome.
So if I was in charge of the Justice League movie, this is what I would do.
First, start with this summer’s Man of Steel. The film is generating some positive buzz and I’m excited about it. I’d work in a small reference to a larger DC Universe – have some news report about Green Lantern in the background, or a page of the Daily Planet referencing the chaos in Gotham City that happened during The Dark Knight Rises. Nothing that would really influence Superman’s story, but enough to nod at the fact that he’s not – as Nick Fury said in the first Iron Man – the only superhero in the world.
Then, I’d work on putting together a phenomenal Justice League story. I wouldn’t start with the big bad that was in the previous script, Darkseid, for two reasons. First, Marvel is already using Thanos in their movies, and although Thanos was largely a Darkseid rip-off when he was created in the comics, movie fans won’t get that and will think it’s the Justice League that’s being derivative. Second, he’s too big for the first movie. Where do you build from there? You need a threat big enough to justify bringing all of these characters together, of course, but they shouldn’t go up against the biggest threat in the universe their first time out.
Next, get the recognizable aspects from the current DC films and put them together: Henry Cavill as Superman, build off the end of The Dark Knight Rises (as a spoiler consideration I won’t be more specific than that), and yes, I’d get Ryan Reynolds back as Green Lantern. That movie had problems, but his casting really wasn’t one of them. Then I’d add the characters that the public has heard of but doesn’t understand – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash. Use this movie to showcase them the way Avengers suddenly turned everyone in America into fans of the Hulk for the first time in decades.
Don’t bother with everybody’s origin. It’s a convention of the superhero genre, true, but it’s often the least exciting part of it. You don’t need to know why John McClane became a cop to enjoy Die Hard, so why do I need to see Barry Allen get struck by lightning when I’ve already accepted a world with a man from Krypton and another guy with a magic ring? After Justice League, we’ll start spinning the other characters off into their individual movies – if necessary, work in the origins there. There’s no rule that says they have to take place after the Justice League movie just because they’re made in that order, although even then, I think a quick flashback would probably be more than sufficient in most cases.
Finally, make it clear that the Justice League isn’t the be-all and end-all of the DCU. Marvel can’t reference Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, because the rights to those characters are still tied up with other studios thanks to deals they made before they were purchased by Disney. DC doesn’t have that problem. Guillermo Del Toro is working on a movie featuring some of DC’s supernatural characters like Swamp Thing and Deadman – a Justice League movie could drop in a reference to them. Give us veiled hints or rumors about other Leaguers from the comics like Zatanna, Plastic Man, Firestorm… characters that have potential for their own films in the future, assuming of course that they’re done right. Even better – if you have some sort of huge battle for the end piece, the sort of thing that the public can’t help but notice (like the battle of New York in The Avengers, and it just shows how great that movie was structured that it keeps being the best analogy), give us glimpses of some of these other heroes fighting their own battles while the League takes on the Big Bad, whoever it happens to be.
And most importantly, make sure that the story is one that satisfies the fans but is broad enough to grab people who don’t know all of the characters. This is what Marvel has done brilliantly and what Warner Bros has prevented DC from doing for years. If you can pull off that trick, we’d have a movie that could launch not just one franchise, but an entire universe.
Of course, that’s what I would do. But what do I know? I’m just a guy who reads comics and watches movies. It’s not like I’ve got the pedigree of the man who gave the green light to Jonah Hex.
(If that line isn’t enough to convince people I should be running the show, nothing will be.)