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Doing Justice to the Justice League: 10 Tips For Warner Brothers in Building the Justice League…

Rumour has it that Warners has made superheroes their top priority again. I wonder why that might be. Anyway, here’s 10 tips that might help them make the perfect Justice League film.

01.) You don’t have to follow Marvel’s example

It’s no secret that the latest push from Warner Brothers to jump in the superhero bandwagon is in large part due to the financial success of The Avengers. Although they have, in theory, been developing these projects for a while, Green Lantern put the brakes on. The failure of Green Lantern didn’t indicate audiences were tired of superheroes, just that they weren’t going to be as patient with bad films. You couldn’t just slap a superhero into a bad movie and expect it to work.

So, with Marvel’s success driving this new interest, the tendency will be to follow Marvel’s model and approach. The problem is that the properties are fundamentally different, and so need to be managed in different ways. This extends to how Warners manages the characters, of course. Green Lantern is not Iron Man, although there are a few similarities.

It also extends to how they manage the properties. Warners’ big superhero successes – all the Batman films and the Richard Donner Superman films – worked because they were different from Marvel’s gigantic jigsaw puzzle approach. Attempting to emulate that style of world-building is asking for trouble – a Batman film should be more tonally distinct from a Flash movie than Thor was to Iron Man, for example.

I also suspect that any attempt to “build up” to a team-up film like Marvel did will be seen as a lame copycat move by regular film-goers. Why spend three years watching Warner Brothers put the pieces in place when Marvel already has them lined up? Whether that means doing the team-up film first and spinning out of that, or doing it separately, is a matter of debate. The important thing is that Warners need to realise that they have different properties here, and they can’t simply emulate their rival and hope for success.

02.) Give us a reason to care about the characters

In a way, this ties into the above. Marvel is lucky, because its characters are designed to be relatable. During the sixties, Stan Lee produced a bunch of superheroes that were uniquely relatable to readers – they were relatively psychologically complex, with flaws and quirks that made them easier to engage with. Those flaws and quirks have been vital in bringing the characters to the screen – because pretty much all of Stan Lee’s characters have easily-defined character arcs.

DC’s characters are, as noted above, entirely different. While Superman and Batman are among the oldest and most iconic heroes, the modern Green Lantern and Flash were created at around the same time that Stan Lee was defining his creations. However, the DC editors took a different approach to the characters. Rather than being distinct individuals, Hal Jordan and Barry Allen were created as cyphers to allow the writers to tell all manner of sci-fi superhero stories.

This isn’t to say that the characters can’t be complex, merely to observe that they require a bit more work. We saw this in Green Lantern, where Hal Jordan’s character arc was basically accepting that the ring chose him for a reason. Now, I don’t know about you, but the notion of a character whose central arc is “you must accept how awesome you are” doesn’t resonate nearly as deeply as Thor and Loki’s attempts to earn their father’s love, or Tony Stark’s attempts to overcome his personality issues.

Find writers who can develop these characteristics in the DC heroes, and be aware that it takes a bit more work than it does for Marvel.

03.) It doesn’t have to be dark and edgy

Because of the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight saga, the impulse will be imagine these characters as darker and edgier heroes. Don’t do that. If anything, characters like Green Lantern and Flash are far more idealistic than their Marvel counterparts. While the lack of angst might make plotting a character arc difficult, use it to fill a film with a sense of awe and wonder.

The Flash can do anything in a matter of seconds. He can bring his date see sunrise over the African savanna, he can rebuild a collapsing apartment building as it falls apart, he can perceive time as moving so slow that the world around him can seem to freeze. Green Lantern can build anything that his imagination will allow, he can tour the cosmos, he can literally do anything he sets his mind to.

Don’t be afraid to create a sense of wonder around what these characters can do – arguably it’s much more interesting than “can fire lightning from his hammer” or “wears a suit of armour.”

04.) If you’re looking to the comics, look to New Frontier, not to Geoff Johns and Jim Lee

It seems that studios are, increasingly, looking to the source material for ideas rather than just characters. Last week news broke that the sequel to X-Men: First Class might be based on the acclaimed Days of Future Past. Many of the more successful movie adaptations are at least aware of their four-colour roots. Batman Begins owes a debt to Batman: Year One. The Dark Knight was inspired in part by The Long Halloween. Spider-Man II was basically Spider-Man No MoreX-Men II was a combination of God Loves, Man Kills and Wolverine’s own history.

Now, if DC opts to look to comic books for inspiration, there’s a wealth of Justice League material to draw on. However, if they are going to craft an origin – and they might be better suited to avoid a rather awkward origin – there seem to be two major choices. The first is the obvious one. Last September, DC relaunched their publishing line to great acclaim and financial success.

The top-selling comic of that line was Justice League, written by Geoff Johns and featuring the artwork of Jim Lee. The first six-parter was called Origin, and it offered the team’s first mission together. Now, I am fonder of that comic than most, but it’s a jumbled mess of a story, filled with mindless action set pieces and no clear character arc. It offers scale and spectacle, but doesn’t explain why these characters are so essential to one another. We get some character introductions, fun yet shallow interactions, and then suddenly they’re a team.

In contrast, Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier would be my origin of choice. It might just be the best Justice League story ever told. Cooke basically manages to work in an arc for each of his characters that makes sense, while also providing an arc for the team. It’s broad, impressive, cinematic and beautifully crafted. If Warners want an origin, then this is the origin of choice.

05.) Go big or go home

As I’ve already repeated countless times, DC characters are not Marvel characters. In some respects, this is limiting. However, in others, it allows for more opportunities. Shoehorning the DC characters into a movie based off the Marvel characters undervalues them, and also reduces them to lame copies. Instead, celebrate their diversity and acknowledge what they can do.

The climax to The Avengers was one of the most epic action sequences I have seen in years. It was beautifully choreographed and epic in scale. However, DC’s characters allow Warners to potentially increase the scale and scope of that epic action finale. Superman is… Superman. Green Lantern is a character who can bend the world to is will. The Flash moves faster than we can see. Give them something they can face – something bigger than an alien invasion.

In the comics, for example, the team has history of facing off against “the New Gods”, creations of Jack Kirby who are essentially a modern pantheon. (Indeed, some would argue that the Justice League are a pantheon themselves.) Give us more than some pointless brawl in the streets of Coast City and some empty space special effects.

06.) Dump anybody involved behind-the-scenes on Green Lantern

It seems like Martin Campbell is taking most of the blame for the failure of Green Lantern. I can’t comment, even though I suspect that there’s a much stronger cut of the film buried in some vault somewhere. However, the flaws with Green Lantern stem mostly from the script. Hal Jordan has no character arc. Stuff happens and it’s not quite clear why. At one point, Hal retires for like five minutes, but keeps his intergalactic weapon of mass destruction. What?

And here’s the kicker – the people responsible for that mess are now apparently scripting The Flash and Wonder Woman. Wait, what? If an employee crashes my Ferrari, I don’t give him a Bentley to play around with. If Warners is convinced that these guys can handle their superhero properties, send them down to television. Have them work on Arrow for a season and prove they have the chops. If they get ratings and critical acclaim, them promote them back up.

Instead, hire new and experienced talent to work on your films. The industry is full of comic book fans who have proven track records when it comes to either critical acclaim or box office success. Hell, Damon Lindelof has written Batman and Superman comics. While I know he has his detractors, he’s never turned anything anywhere near as bad as that Green Lantern film.

Incidentally, I didn’t have a problem with Reynolds. Laurence Olivier would have had trouble with that character and those lines. I won’t make an impassioned argument that he should stay, just that he shouldn’t be blamed for the movie’s failures.

07.) Don’t be afraid to stretch into other media

Warners have had a bit of bother with their DC brand at the cinema. It seems like they can’t get a movie off the ground properly if it doesn’t star Batman or Superman. In contrast, Marvel seems to be getting quite adept at bringing second-stringers to the big screen.

However, Warners have one advantage that Marvel don’t, at least not yet. Warners have actually done a great job bringing the characters to television. Like it or hate it, Smallville was a successful live-action superhero television show. Arrow will be arriving soon. Marvel hasn’t had anything approaching that success to date.

More than that, Warners have done a better job bringing the characters to animation and video game. Batman: The Animated Series remains the best distillation of the character’s history ever constructed. Batman: Arkham City comes pretty close. Justice League actually proved you could combine superheroes outside of comic long before Joss Whedon got his hands on The Avengers.

There should be a way to leverage this success. After all, with The Dark Tower, Warner Brothers is working on an ambitious project to span both film and television. I’m not sure what form that would take for DC. It might be using some of the same characters (maybe favouring John Stewart rather than Hal Jordan, or including Green Arrow), or drafting over some of the writers. I could imagine a lot worse than a Justice League movie written by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini.

08.) Structure, structure, structure

The Justice League isn’t quite as fluid as The Avengers. With the exception of Thor, most of them are in the same sort of “power” ranking and can thus fit together quite well. So it makes no difference where the characters are at a given point in the story, because Iron Man, Captain America, the Black Widow and Hawkeye are all pretty much “normal” people.

Sure, Iron Man can fly and Captain America can jump a bit higher, but they aren’t too different from one another. As a result, plotting seems fairly straightforward. Incidentally, you can tell the movie had a bit of difficulty with Thor, as he seems to spend quite some time towards the third act waiting to pick up his hammer for some reason.

DC character’s don’t work like with Superman has a virtual encyclopedia of abilities, which – even pared down – are still intimidating. Batman is just a bloke in a silly costume. Wonder Woman is a warrior with a sharp sword. The Flash can run really fast. It’s going to be very hard to structure a movie using these characters without ending up a mess.

Any story is going to have to explain to us why Batman gets to hang out with these demi-gods, or why there’s a situation that the Flash could solve that Superman couldn’t, or why Green Lantern’s “wishing ring” can’t solve the problem by itself. The Avengers was a chaotic mess of a film – one that was clever and entertaining, but one that never had to worry about the difference between its cast members. The Justice League film, on the other hand, will.

09.) Use Batman and Superman

There are those who will complain that Batman and Superman are over-exposed. They are, after all, the only truly successful franchise players in the DC pantheon. They are iconic and recognised around the world, in a way that maybe only Spider-Man and the Hulk can compete. While some would argue a Justice League movie should focus on the other heroes, Warners would be foolish to lose sight of the fact that everybody knows Batman and Superman.

The two represent powerful archetypes, and it would be foolish to whittle away the focus on the supporting heroes. By all means, give arcs to Wonder Woman, the Flash and Green Lantern, but Batman and Superman are the only heroes in the bunch that my grandmother knows, and it would be a waste to feature them without exploring that dynamic. Superman is, after all, the quintessential “bright” superhero, and Batman is the iconic “dark” hero. Pairing the two characters off gives the movie a central dramatic conflict that most of DC’s character’s don’t have.

The Avengers went out of its way to give all its characters an equal share of the pie. This meant that we got a lot of unnecessary focus on Iron Man and the Hulk in a story that seemed geared more heavily towards Captain America (because the world needs old-fashioned heroes) and Thor (because that’s his brother). Warners shouldn’t feel obligated to divvy up screentime like that, if only because it might lose that crucial thread.

Indeed, while people might not be too excited to see a Justice League movie featuring characters they are only fleetingly familiar with, mention the possibility of Batman and Superman sharing a screen and the casual movie-goer gets a lot more interested.

10.) Don’t be afraid to be fantastic

Marvel has done a great job “grounding” its characters, even the most fantastic of the heroes, Thor. Thor has been demoted from being a god to being an alien who was confused with a god. It worked well in context, and allowed Marvel to bring all their toys together in a particular way. Thor’s existence didn’t conflict with that of Captain America or Iron Man.

On the other hand, DC’s characters are a lot tougher to ground. Green Lantern was given a ring by a dying alien. The Flash was struck by lightning in a science lab. Wonder Woman comes from a paradise where men do not exist. Batman dresses up as a bat and beats up criminals. Superman is the last surviving alien from another planet who is granted powers by our yellow sun. Those origins are, to be frank, a lot more fantastic than most of Marvel’s.

Sure, radiation doesn’t turn you into a giant green rage monster, and the Iron Man armour isn’t especially practical, but that’s a world away from all those different improbable coincidences. (Indeed, Marvel even tried to tie the Hulk to Captain America’s origin, which helps make things seem a bit more plausible.) DC’s fictional landscape seems a lot less “grounded” and a lot more surreal and ridiculous. (Although “more ridiculous” is matter of degrees in the world of superheroes.)

My advice? Run with it. Embrace the fantasy. Do Lord of the Rings, but with superheroes. Hire a director with a unique visual aesthetic and play up the stylistic aspect of it all. Tell it like one grand epic space fantasy opera, rather than treating it as just another superhero fantasy. But what do I know?

19 Responses

  1. The failure of Green Lantern didn’t indicate audiences were tired of superheroes, just that they weren’t going to be as patient with bad films. You couldn’t just slap a superhero into a bad movie and expect it to work.

    Nailed it. The fact is the DC animation movie, Green Lantern: First Flight, by Lauren Montgomery flew rings around Martin Campbell’s attempt with superhero. Although, I’m more inclined to believe studio execs can share plenty blame for what ended up in theaters. And that’s a real shame since this remains one of the core characters in that stable. If WB could approach anything close to another direct video release (I admit I’ve not read The New Frontier comic you cite), Justice League: The New Frontier from ’08, they’d have a more than a potential winner on their hands. DC must be wringing their hands with the lost opportunity in GL. But yes, all of this can be saved and turned into a plus for fans and the box office. Great post, Darren.

    • Thanks. I’d recommend getting ahold of the comic version of New Frontier. It’s basically just a bigger version of the same story, but with more world-building and character development. The animated adaptation is, with the exception of Mask of the Phantasm, my favourite animated DC movie.

  2. They should get the guys behind the animated wonder woman movie to do the live action version. That one was a surprisingly effective take on Wonder Woman. Either that, or perhaps a good female screenwriter..

    Anyways, i think this is some pretty good advice.

    • Thanks. And I really did like that animated feature film. Hell, hire Keri Russell and Nathan Fillon and you’re half-way home.

  3. I heartily endorse every proposal above, especially points 3,4,5, and 10. And especially point 3. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. And ‘New Frontier’ offers a particularly exciting possibility (now shown to be viable, given the success of ‘Captain America,’ which I found far more enjoyable than the Movie By Committee that was ‘The Avengers’); make it a late-1950s period piece. Romance the ‘Madmen’ audience with primo slices of Grade A Cooke Retro-Cool. And in the bargain, adapt what may well be one of the greatest works DC has ever published.

    This is my first time at this site, and if sensible, inspired commentary like this is the norm, I might just stay. Great article.

    • Thanks for the complement. Hope you stick around.

      And I think doing a period piece Kennedy-era Justice League would actually give it a very unique flavour as compared to the Avengers. The problem is that X-Men: First Class 2 might get there first. I remember reading that Matthew Vaughn wanted to make Magneto responsible for the magic bullet. If the theory they are going with The Days of Future Past is correct, I can see the Kennedy assassination maybe being the lynch-pin. If Fox will let them get away with it.

  4. OMG! Well, I am way out of this demographic although I will see Superman because of Andrew Garfield and his excellent past films. I do hope he doesn’t stay in this franchise and they seem to ruin all the actors after awhile. Brosnan came out of 007 to be amazing in new roles. A very subtle actor. Daniel Craig is losing it. I do like Batman especially since Heath Ledger outdid even Jack with his Joker.

    And I loved Beatty’s Dick Tracey. My childhood was Flash Gordon and Terry and the Pirates and Smilin Jack. What’s wrong with bringing them back? Not fantastic enough. FG is, and DT was way ahead of its time. Terry could go into the middle east.

    • I liked the visual aesthetic of Dick Tracey. Sort of like a proto-technicolour-Sin-City. Only without the relentless grim-n-grittiness of it all. Taht said, I’ll admit that I found the script a bit… suspect at times. But I have a big soft spot for Flash Gordon. Warnes are bringing proto-super-hero Mandrake the Magician to the big screen. I suspect, if that does well, we might see more of that era of pulp hero brought to the screen. Personally, I would have loved to see Brad Bird animating The Spirit.

  5. Am of the opinion that using the Justice League movie as a launchpad for the lesser known characters would be the wisest move. Anchor it with the Batman/Superman combo but if you pepper it with some stellar renditions like The Flash and Martian Manhunter it could be really cool. The script is what will make or break this. The writing of Green Lantern was one of the many things that sunk it. Choosing a director who is used to mainly shooting on-set effects was another. Just asking but are you mistaking FX’s Archer for CW’s upcoming Arrow?

    • I was indeed. Corrected. Cheers.

      I’m not sold on the idea equally distributing screentime just for the sake of equally distributing screentime. Give every character at least a moment of awesomeness, but if the story works best as Batman and Superman head-to-head (idealism-vs-cynicism, superman-vs-man, etc) then I don’t think there’s a necessity to devote too much time to the Martian Manhunter or Wonder Woman unless you (a.) have an arc that works and (b.) can cover that ground in the time alotted. Trying to give Wonder Woman an origin and story arc, for example, is too much if you have to do the same for The Martian Manhunter and Cyborg. I have no real problem with it being the two most iconic and popular characters with a supporting cast.

      Then again, I’d also argue that The Avengers would have worked a lot better as Captain America 2 with a strong superhero supporting cast, as I think the first two acts were all over the place – but I accept I’m in the minority here. The two Avengers least connected to the plot – Iron Man and Hulk – ended up with big character arcs, which seemed slightly surreal given that Loki and Thor didn’t get any development and Captain America set up the first twenty minutes or so only to sort of become this static figure. (There are rumours of an extended cut featuring a reunion with Peggy that I think would have made his arc much more affecting.) Of course, people were paying to see Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man as the most successful solo Avenger, and Mark Ruffalo had to be set up as the new Hulk, so I can understand why it worked like that, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem with the Flash or even Green Lantern.

  6. I agree with everything except the ‘doesn’t have to be dark’, I really think it does and most likely will be considering batman is dark and the man of steel is apparently going that way. plus to avoid being more of a light hearted avengers 🙂

    • On the contrary, it depends upon what you mean by ‘have to.’ Bear in mind that, 1) there has been no confirmation thus far as to just how ‘dark’ Nolan’s meddling will make ‘The Man of Steel,’ and 2) to assume that the tone of the Batman franchise will dictate the entire tone of a related Justice League film is to rather illogically assume, on the basis of anything other than the dictates of profit, that the particular set of circumstances governing the experiences of a single character (or even single city setting) must define the ‘tone’ that proceeds from it, radiating out (infecting?) it’s entire surrounding fictional world.

      Tone, by it’s very nature, lies upon a scale, and an apparent ‘storytelling genius’ like Nolan, could presumably see the potential for entertaining characterization inherent in the idea of multiple characters, each with differing experiences, perspectives, and dispositions, interacting upon the basis of such competing ‘tones.’ To do otherwise would be to insult the audience with the implication that a world, even a fictional construct of one, only supports the perspective of one of its characters. Why, if one has any imagination at all beyond simple commerce, privilege Batman’s perspective in an ensemble film?

      Uh oh; I may just have answered my own question…

      • Fair point. I think, though, Batman could work as an audience surrogate to the Justice League. Suddenly discovering these aliens and superbeings and mutants and gods and so forth, but from a more human perspective.

        But I agree that his moral outlook shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. His cynical disposition shouldn’t overwhelm the lighter outlooks of Superman, the Flash, Green Lantern or even the Martian Manhunter. While Wonder Woman could also be portrayed as more cynical, I think there should be a balance. (I know Aquaman has, on occasion, been portrayed as a solemn bad-ass, but “brooding fish man” might not be the best way to introduce him to modern audiences. I might seem like “trying too hard man.”)

      • You raised 12 questions and answered 30 in that comment haha ;D

        Well we will see who is right in the next few years, but I still think a darker justice league is the best way to compete with the Avengers.

        And your right we don’t know how much of the dark knight we will see in The Man of Steels plot, but I would really like to see a darker Super Man film 😀

      • I don’t know about a darker Superman plot. I think Returns were pretty dark, in that it was a very existential deconstruction of Superman and portrayed perhaps my least favourite version of the character ever. Although, if you want a “dark” Superman, I’d love to see a live adaptation of Red Son. I think it’s my favourite Superman story ever.

        Personally, I just want a measure of psychological complexity, or some notion that the writers understand the character as well as Richard Donner did. Maybe not using the same messianic overtones, but just something that understands why the character is essentially the great American myth.

    • I think we’ll wait to see Man of Steel. I think a tonally “dark” Superman movie is a very risky proposition. And I’m not a person who has issues with the recently rebooted “more hardcore street justice” sort of character, but I mean an anguished or angsty version of the character.

      • Well I think what would work about a darker superman is the same thing that works for baman, the main hero is a good guy (exceptionally good), the villain is just as equally bad (zod can do that). I think a hero like superman can only seem that nice when put next to a darker world.

  7. I agree with all the points except including Superman and Batman. I think they should come at a later point (if you include them at all.) Including them and doing a bad job could end up tainting the only two successful commodities that DC has.

    They should start using the animated films as a template or inspiration for the live action films too. I loved Superman Doomsday (the comic but specifically the cartoon) as it did Luthor brilliantly and had two different enemies for Superman to fight that could actually stand toe to toe with him. Give the fimmakers the same freedom we give the animated creators.

    • I’d actually love to see Dini and Timm asked to consult on a DC movie. They got it right for so long with multiple heroes it’s hard to believe they suddenly can’t make it work because it’s in live action. They are certainly better choices than any of the Green Lantern writers, if you ask me.

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