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Justice for the JLA: Warner’s New Stand-Alone Superhero Team-Up…

News broke during the week that Warner Brothers are planning a new Justice League movie, apparently for 2013. Reportedly Ryan Reynolds has not been approached to play the Green Lantern in the film, and – based on comments from both film makers – it’s unlikely that Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot or The Dark Knight Rises will play into the film in any meaningful way. One might consider that something of a marketing faux pas, as that would represent a fairly intense lead-in into the movie (as opposed to the four-odd years Marvel has been teasing The Avengers). Indeed, it has been suggested that the proposed Justice League movie might stand entirely on its own two feet, completely distinct from the superhero movies that Warners are churning out. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this was exactly the plan with the company’s last aborted attempt at a Justice League film.

Justice for all?

I have to admit, I am more than a little skeptical at the idea of launching a superhero blockbuster with a cast of seven new characters, none of which have been introduced to an audience before and some of which have never even been on the big screen. Even the supporting players in Marvel’s 2012 superhero epic team-up (like Hawkeye and the Black Widow) have at least been teased in front of audiences, while major DC icons like Aquaman and the Flash will never have been on a cinema screen by the time the movie roles around.

In fairness, I can understand why Warner Brothers would try to avoid the approach taken by Marvel Studios. After all, the creative tampering and foreshadowing crippled Iron Man 2 from a story-telling point of view and led to Jon Favreau’s departure from the franchise – a situation that, while everyone is trying to play down the damage, is still less than ideal. This approach at least means the Nolan can produce the best possible Batman film, Snyder can produce the best possible Superman film and Martin Campbell can produce the best possible Green Lantern film – all without studio interference, or having to clog up the narrative with references to a movie that isn’t even written yet.

Does Warner Brothers see green in the future of their superhero properties?

I certainly respect that position, and it speaks to Warner Brothers’ commitment to their talent that they seem willing to stand back and let Christopher Nolan do his thing with Batman and Superman, and Geoff Johns to do his thing with Green Lantern and (possibly) Flash. Being honest, the need to tie into big superhero crossovers is one of the great shortcomings of superhero comic books, and I certainly detected traces of it in the second Iron Man movie. I’d be glad to see that it isn’t becoming the industry standard.

You might argue that audiences will have difficulty accepting a Batman who isn’t Christian Bale or a Superman who isn’t Henry Cavill. In fairness, audiences have always handled the changing casts of superhero franchises particularly gracefully – whether it’s Batman’s four different actors in live-action over twenty-or-so years (Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney and Bale) or Superman shifting from Christopher Reeves to Brandon Routh. I think that audiences are familiar enough with these characters that it won’t really be a problem.

Will Superman be a hit?

That said, it is a different kettle of fish to ask the audience to accept two actors playing the same character in different films at the same time. Although The Dark Knight Rises might represent Christian Bale’s last appearance in the cowl, I’m sure Warner Brothers plan on Henry Cavill and Ryan Reynolds sticking around for a few films as Superman and Green Lantern. It might seem a bit cheeky to have different actors playing the same roles in a distinct Justice League franchise at the same time (particularly if they overlap in scheduling – it might be jarring to have two posters of different Supermen in the same cinema coming up to release dates).

So you could possibly make the case that viewers will know all that they need to know about Batman or Superman going into this film, even if they are played by different actors. However, I’d make the point that each iteration of the character is distinct enough that the audience still needs a chance to get used to them. There is, for instance, a world of difference between Keaton’s introspective Bruce Wayne, Clooney’s billionaire playboy and Christian Bale’s badly damaged anti-hero. And this doesn’t even get into situations where, with the Flash and Green Lantern, it might actually be a completely unique character with the same powers (as there are, in the comics at the moment, four Earth-bound Green Lanterns and there have been a handful of Flashes as well).

Does Warners' plan have a wing and a prayer?

Using the same actor across multiple films (even ignoring the issue of continuity) lets the audience know that this is the same character. It’s something of a shorthand which prevents the movie from having to go into the backstory of each member of the team. It saves the film from having to define at least seven different characters in a two-hour runtime. That would be a major feat for a character drama, let alone a movie which undoubtedly needs to cram in an action-packed no-holds-barred end-of-the-world it-goes-to-eleven plot as well.

That said, audiences are smarter than film producers give them credit for. They were, for example, able to handle two different James Bonds in the year that saw Octopussy (starring Roger Moore) and Never Say Never (starring Sean Connery) released. I don’t see why two Batmen or Supermen would be a problem – particularly when multimedia properties see Superman appearing in Smallville and Superman Returns at the same time on television and in cinemas, and Batman always has at least one cartoon going alongside a movie franchise.

Emergency stop?

So I don’t thing that these will be the characters to suffer. After all, everyone knows a lot about Superman and Batman, and – after this summer – hopefully they’ll know a bit about Green Lantern too. Even if the actors and backdrop change, the core attributes will remain somewhat the same, to the point where audiences should recognise the character rather than the actor. Batman is always paranoid, Superman is always hopeful, Green Lantern is always strong-willed. This extends to other characters who haven’t been so active in recent years – Lynda Carter helped engrain Wonder Woman on our collective consciousness, so we all know about the lasso and the bracelets (and even the invisible jet).

However, I worry about the characters who never had that sort of exposure. Of DC’s “big seven”, their iconic comic book pantheon, audiences know Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Come June, they’ll know Green Lantern. The Flash is perhaps a border-line case, as he had his own cult television show in the nineties that ran for about half a season, but he’s still not as widely known as Batman or Superman. That said, it will undoubtedly help that the character has a fairly simple power set (he can run really fast).

Should Warner let individual movies do the heavy lifting?

I’d be more curious to see how accepting an audience might be of Aquaman or Hawkman, the two remaining Justice League members – neither of whom has really featured too much outside of comic books. Aquaman has been the butt of a nearly infinite number of jokes in shows like Entourage and Family Guy. Of course, that sort of exposure is the kind of thing that Hawkman can only dream of – good luck trying to find a random punter in the street who recognises the character.

That’s the strength of Marvel’s approach, although it clearly suits their characters better. You might argue, for example, that Hawkman and Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter are each highly unlikely to support their own big blockbuster movies (as the three struggle to maintain their own on-going comic books). However, Marvel’s “shared universe” has been able to incorporate characters who couldn’t support their own films intto he big tentpoles. Characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow will be familiar to audiences from their supporting roles in tentpoles, even without the burden of having to carry their own films.

Are you burning with anticipation?

Of course, the approach simple doesn’t work with DC characters. Hawkeye and Black Widow fit grounded archetypes like “marksman” or “superspy” and can slot fairly easily into films like Thor and Iron Man 2. On the other hand, you can’t just slot “Superman’s close friend Hawkman” into Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot or “Batman’s best Martian buddy J’onn Jonz” in The Dark knight Rises without raising more problems than you solve. Due to the more outrageously fantastical nature of the characters, I’ll concede that DC will perhaps have a harder problem integrating their on-screen universe (Thor seems to be the only potential hiccup for Marvel).

So I wonder how audiences will react to a large and expansive ensemble like that, any of whom they’ve never met before. Of course, there’s no reason to believe that Hollywood can’t produce an ensemble action movie – there’s a whole heap of movies featuring characters that have never appeared in film or television before, and which still work as action movies. Armageddon is an example of an ensemble action film, as are The Expendables or even Heat – all films with expansive casts.

Feeling blue?

However, these films all have firmly defined leads who stand apart from the ensemble, as compared to what fans seem to expect from comic book movies, where the limelight is equally shared. While Hawkeye and Black Widow may play supporting roles, I think fans expect Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and even Nick Fury to all play major roles in Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie. After all, it seems a bit pointless to have a superhero team movie if you aren’t going to showcase each of the members.

Perhaps that was my biggest worry about the proposed Justice League movie, that it essentially focused on one member of the ensemble above all others (the somewhat suspect casting might also have played into it, though). The original plot for the movie was heavily influenced by Geoff Johns’ Infinite Crisis, exploring the paranoid mistrust of the Justice League and saw Batman’s covert observation of his fellow heroes exploited to attack the League. It really feels – much like the classic Tower of Babel arc in the Justice League comic book – more like a Batman story, particularly when one of the two adversaries behind the scheme would turn out to be Talia Al Ghul, a long-time love interest and opponent for the character.

Has Batman had enough time in the spotlight?

It’s not a bad idea – Batman does hold the public’s imagination, so it’s reasonable to focus on him – but it does undermine a movie seeking to introduce a large ensemble working as equals to make it essentially “Batman featuring the Justice League.” Without any genuine attempts to develop characters like Hawkman or Aquaman, they’d just sit in the background, sort of ignored as much as possible. There’s really no need for them to be there, and they’d undoubtedly seem like “clutter” in a story that could arguably be told in a much more efficient manner.

So I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about the way Warners are approaching the Justice League movie. I like that they are giving their creators complete freedom in their own film franchises, but I can’t help but feel that a Justice League movie might end up being “Batman and Superman and their amazing friends”, rather than an actual ensemble piece. Still,I suppose we’d better wait until the movie gets off the ground before we begin worrying too much about it.

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2 Responses

  1. Honestly, I think the Marvel model gets too much credit considering it’s largely unproven so far. I mean, in the Marvel Cinematic universe, how many good movies have been made? Iron Man? Maybe the Incredible Hulk (although who really cares about that movie anymore)? I wish Josh Wedon the best, but there’s no guarantee they’ll actually pull off something that actually works.

    That being said, it would be interesting to compare approaches. I don’t think we need multiple movies before we can do an X-men movie. Sure, some characters get more screen time, but that’s inevitable. So why do we need multiple movies for a JL movie? The characters could just be more archetypal than in their feature movies. Like you said, Batman is the paranoid master detective, Superman the big brother, the Flash is the comic relief, etc. We don’t have to go into the complexity of each character, that’s what each of their featured movies is for.

  2. I wouldn’t mind there being two different actors representing a character at the same time, but the general public is what you have to worry about.

    Developing a live action TV show would be ideal, but Hollywood thinks that everything has to be made into movies nowadays, despite the recent success (both commercially and critically) that television has had in the past three or four years.

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