The topic inevitably came up during the Man of Steel panel at San Diego Comic Con: just what is the status of the Justice League movie? The pondering is understandable. It was barely a year ago that DC relaunched all their titles with Justice League topping the best-sellers list for a couple of months last fall. And with The Avengers being the biggest money maker of all time not made by a guy named Cameron it only sweetens the temptation.
But let’s face facts, DC’s heroes, and their studio Warner Bros., are in no position to be making a Justice League movie. At least, not yet. With any further Green Lantern movie highly dubious for the time being and the grand finale of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-opus now out in theaters, the sole cinematic ambition for DC’s heroes rest on Superman next summer. The question is what will the next step be for all parties once Man of Steel is released?
And we answer. The following are five points that producers and studio execs should consider as they move forward building the DC cinematic universe.
1) Do what Marvel did.
This time in 1998, Marvel characters in the movies were known for rubber ears, Corman-level effects, and development hell. That changed on August 21, 1998 when New Line Cinema released Blade, a film based on a third-tier Marvel character initially introduced as a supporting player in the 1970s Tomb of Dracula series. Greater direct involvement by Marvel (especially then Toy Biz executive Avi Arad), the recruitment of an up-and-coming horror screenwriter named David S. Goyer, and star Wesley Snipes’ own passion for the material, all contributed to Blade’s success.
The audacity of Blade and its accomplishment gave Marvel the ego boost to push its characters, make bold choices behind the camera, and breakthrough its streak of bad luck on the big screen. Perhaps instead of focusing on Justice League characters like Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern, Warner should look at putting that Lobo movie starring Dwayne Johnson into immediate development, or adapting James Robinson and Tony Harris’ critically-acclaimed run on Star Man, or even keep to Gotham City, but with a new spin by making a big screen Birds of Prey. If Warner is feeling especially brazen they should put Goyer’s Super Max script into production, the one where Green Arrow’s in jail with all of DC’s worst villains.
Even if every film isn’t a success (like Daredevil, Ang Lee’s Hulk, or The Punisher and Fantastic Four films on the Marvel side, for example) it will allow Warner Bros. to perfect the tools and talent necessary to create compelling films around the heroes with more name cache.
2) Don’t do what Marvel is doing.
Since the release of The Avengers, the question to Warner is when they’ll play their hand and counter with a Justice League movie. But as you may or may not recall, Warner was nearly first to the finish line with a version of the Justice League in 2008 directed by George Miller. Starring D.J. Cotrona (Superman), Armie Hammer (Batman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Adam Brody (The Flash), Common (John Stewart), Santiago Cabrera (Aquaman), and Hugh Keays (Martian Manhunter), a script was rushed to be completed before the 2007/08 Writers Strike, but delays eventually forced the production to be put in turnaround. In the meantime, Marvel released the first Iron Man, and Warner decided that copying them, doing individual films leading into a Justice League movie, was the way to go.
But Warner is now playing catch-up, and their attempt to build a Justice League flick one movie at a time has a couple of flaws. First of all, many potential members of the Justice League can (and in some cases have) carry their own movie. Which ones do you establish in solo films, and which ones do you save and introduce in the Justice League movie? After all, while Marvel talks about solo Black Widow and Hawkeye movies, they didn’t wait for them before making Avengers. It’s a tough call, but what’s even tougher is the timing.
Think of it like this: even if Warner/DC were to focus on the big three – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – only one of those is in production and scheduled for release right now. And forget Christian Bale reprising Batman from the Nolan films; he’s more or less said “thanks but no thanks” to future Bat-appearances. Another Batman film will have to be scripted, cast and produced, and coming in the wake of the immense success of Nolan’s Dark Knight series, it maybe tricky – both commercially and artistically – getting a new Batman suited up in short order. And I think we all know the issues with getting a Wonder Woman on the big screen (or any screen for that matter).
And if Warner has any thoughts about trying to copy what Marvel’s done with The Avengers, they need only look twice at Green Lantern, which rides so closely on the coattails of Iron Man, the movie might as well have looked like this. The hapless, and pointless, addition of Amanda Waller (as played by Angela Bassett) seemed like a cheap way of getting a “Nick Fury” type figure into the film who could then pop in future DC films like The Flash and Aquaman, but its doubtful we’ll ever see any remnant from Green Lantern in any other film at this point.
3) Don’t put it all on Christopher Nolan.
If Man of Steel enjoys the same type of critical and commercial success that Batman Begins did in 2005, Warner is going to feel compelled to give the man behind both those hits the keys to the entire DC film universe. The trouble is that Christopher Nolan has said that he doesn’t want it, and frankly, he shouldn’t have to take it either. Think back to Marvel’s early films, was Bryan Singer brought aboard to oversee the Fantastic Four? Was Sam Raimi recruited to produce Ghost Rider? Jon Favreau was originally thought to be a lock for The Avengers after his Iron Man success, but he eventually conceded that someone else would be better suited to blend the worlds of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America into one film.
Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Ang Lee, Mark Steven Johnson, Guilleromo del Toro, Jonathan Hensleigh, Tim Story, Brett Ratner, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, and, of course, Joss Whedon, were all recruited to direct different Marvel projects. True, it was to varying degrees of success, but aside from Favreau’s Avengers connection and Johnson’s directing of both Daredevil and Ghost Rider, there’s really no overlap. The benefit is that you’re feeding off the creativity and ideas of numerous filmmakers, rather than putting it all on one guy to figure out an “in” to every character. It also allows you to offer opportunity to unexpected, outside the box selections for director be they successful (Singer, Raimi, Favreau, Whedon) or not (Lee, Johnson, Story, Ratner).
The trick is to balance audaciousness with an ability to work within the material. French visual effects artist Pitof was an unusual choice for Catwoman, but even the visuals of that movie (like Catwoman’s costume) fell short. Again, look at Marvel. Singer had experience handling large ensembles with outsider sensibilities, Raimi was a lifelong Spider-Man fan, Branagh’s Shakespearean background brought gravitas to the larger than life world of Asgard, and Johnston had already tapped the pulp heroes of World War II for inspiration. Marry experienced and inspired filmmakers to the appropriate material and watch your heroes flourish on the big screen. You’ve already done it once when you plucked the filmmaker behind twin crime dramas Memento and Insomnia and dropped him into Gotham City.
4) Be confident in your material.
The fact that Marvel Studios will be rolling out The Guardians of the Galaxy on August 1, 2014 is proof that by now the production team at Marvel is pretty sure they can spin any character or team into box office gold. Forget that space movies aren’t so hot trending-wise speaking at the box office, and forget that amongst the key characters are a plant monster and tough-talking raccoon, but the entire premise of the movie is about a superhero team of space aliens. And Marvel’s making it before movies based on Dr, Strange, the Black Panther and a sequel to The Avengers. Now that’s bold.
It’s shame that DC doesn’t feel as confident in their source material. Steel became a vehicle for the aborted movie career of basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, removing all mention of Superman. Catwoman had nothing to do with Gotham City or Selina Kyle. Jonah Hex was chopped to shreds in the editing room as filmmakers tried to salvage a film that gave the character Hex “I see dead people” superpowers, wasted an impressive cast including John Malkovich, Michael Shannon and Michael Fassbender, and featured Megan Fox as the most clothed prostitute in the Old West. Even the Vertigo inspired Constantine, despite having some fans, veered far from the original source material, transplanting the English John Constantine from London to L.A. where he was played by Keanu Reeves as opposed to someone who looks more like Sting circa 1982.
What’s wrong with mentioning Superman in Steel? You don’t have to go into the whole “Death of Superman” rigmarole, but present John Henry Irons as an ordinary man that draws from Superman’s example (be it a fictional or actual representation) to fight for right and overcome his personal demons. You don’t have to have Batman in order to feature a Selina Kyle Catwoman in Gotham City; people will still get the concept. Most westerns now are prestige pictures, so why not approach Jonah Hex with John Ford (The Searchers) in mind, instead of Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild, Wild West)? And what’s wrong with a British protagonist? A lot of people love Harry Potter and James Bond despite their non-American-ness.
At the same time though, trying something new isn’t all bad. The reaction to the Man of Steel teaser’s been interesting as online fans seem to lament the lack of connectivity to the past Superman work of Richard Donner and John Williams, but when Superman Returns came out many remarked that Bryan Singer leaned too hard on that crutch. The trick, as Nolan discovered, is to find that fine line between faithfulness and interpretation. Fell free to make the character your own, but don’t be afraid to let the characters be themselves either.
5) Know thy concept.
Green Lantern is Training Day in Space. That’s your elevator pitch; that’s how you get the uninitiated into theater seats to see a movie called “Green Lantern.” Would you describe Martin Campbell’s movie Green Lantern as “Training Day in Space?” No. Instead there was a lot about Hal Jordan’s anxiety about growing up fatherless, his rivalry with Hector Hammond, girl trouble with Carol Ferris, and Hector’s difficult relationship with his Senator father who separates the world into thinkers (Hector) and doers (Hal). Hal spends a total of about 20 minutes on Oa with the Lantern Corp learning the ropes.
Could how Green Lantern turned out be an indication as to why the studio is having such a hard time developing their characters? “Training Day in Space.” There it is. So why gum up the works with all that other stuff? Are screenwriters and filmmakers trying too hard to turn these characters, these heroes, into big screen icons?
Let’s consider The Flash, the story of a forensic scientist who gains the ability of superhuman speed after being bathed in chemicals and struck by lightening, an accident. It’s Spider-Man meets CSI. If I brought you a story and pitched it as “Spider-Man meets CSI,” wouldn’t you eat that up? Wonder Woman? It’s feminist Thor with Greek mythology. Want proof? Check out the Wonder Woman animated movie, which, while not being perfect, does a damn decent job of telling Wonder Woman’s origin story and making it compelling at the same time. Aquaman? Isn’t he kind of an Aragorn figure? A man of two worlds, destined to be king but trying to do it his way. It’s Lord of the Rings under the sea.
What about other DC titles? L.E.G.I.O.N.? Blackwater in Space. Shazam? Big meets Superman. Suicide Squad? The Dirty Dozen with super powers. Plastic Man? It’s Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four with the sensibilities of The Mask. You see how easy this can be?
If there’s a single flaw to DC’s strategy it’s that they’re over-thinking it. Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane is important, but would he give up his powers for her (like in Superman II) or creepily stalk her (like in Superman Returns). Of course Green Lantern can have a love interest, but in the movie Hal seems to spend more time using his power ring to seduce Carol (or save her) than learning to use it as a member of a galactic police force. The less said about Green Lantern’s daddy issues the better, but I will say that when the climax of your film involves a jilted stalker taking the cop’s girlfriend hostage, you’re not watch a superhero movie, you’re watching a typical episode of Law & Order.
Remember when J.J. Abrams wrote a Superman script where Krypton wasn’t destroyed, but instead was a Naboo like paradise planet under civil war and Lex Luthor was a Kryptonian sent to Earth to reclaim Krypton’s prince, AKA: Superman? The nerd rage nearly blotted out the sun. Why because Superman is the Last Son of Krypton, and if he isn’t then it robs him of the rational to adopt the Earth and its people as their protector. It’s like what If Uncle Ben slipped on a bar of soap instead of getting killed in a robbery?
Abrams’ Superman is an extreme example, and considering his treatment of the material in both his Mission: Impossible films and the Star Trek reboot, it seems clear that Abrams has learned his lesson. Now if DC can come to the same place, they might finally be able to turn their heroes into fun, insightful and successful film realities. After all, the animation studio does it three times a year, there are several successful animated series based on DC characters, and they’ve even had successes in live-action TV with the 90s Flash, the 70s Wonder Woman, and more recently with the 10-year run of Smallville. Marvel’s thrown down the gauntlet DC, and it seems that the only impediment to playing on their level, at this point, is you.