How Do You Solve A Problem Like
The difficulties facing DC's super-team on their road to the screen
WE'VE BEEN HERE BEFORE. In February 2007, Warner Bros. announced that they had commissioned a Justice League Of America script from writing team Kieran and Michele Mulroney, and soon a George Miller hot off Happy Feet had joined as director. By that October, however, there were reports that the script still wasn't 100 per cent, and the strike by the Writers Guild punted the film to the following year – where that incarnation died. Outside the WB accounting department, not too many tears were shed. The fanboys had been disturbed by reports of a young Justice League, underwhelmed by the casting rumours ("Armie Hammer? What sort of a name is that?" went the refrain. It was a while ago.) and everyone was unsure how the movie would fit in next to the then-current Dark Knight series by Christopher Nolan. Fast-forward to 2012, and it's a whole new ball-game. Marvel's Avengers smashed the box-office with $1.5bn worldwide – incidentally outgrossing Nolan's Bat-finale, The Dark Knight Rises, along the way – while Warners, for the first time this millennium, found itself without a dependable, established mega-franchise. Harry Potter and Nolan's trilogy had finished and The Hobbit remained, at that point, unproven. One suspects that Warners cast envious eyes at Marvel's run of success, before turning again to its DC imprint to see if its own super-team could provide a similar result. Justice League was reborn as a project in June, with Gangster Squad's Will Beale hired to work on the script, and faces another long trek to the screen. It's happening, without a multi-picture lead in, whether you want one or not. So will it succeed?
Well, maybe. A few of the obstacles of 2008 may, on recent reports, have been overcome. Latino Review posted a video this weekend claiming that both Christopher Nolan and Man Of Steel director Zack Snyder are involved in the new Justice League along with – and this is key – their respective leading men. The word on Man Of Steel is great so far, and if the movie does indeed go ahead with Bale's Batman and Cavill's Superman we could find ourselves headed into very different territory to the route that Miller tried to map in 2007.
One suspects that Warners cast envious eyes at Marvel's run of success, before turning again to its DC imprint to see if its own super-team could provide a similar result. Assuming Latino Review's Mayimbe is right, and Nolan and Snyder do support the project with their stars along for the ride, we will at least have a cohesive DC universe. While it wouldn't have the long-building sweep of Kevin Feige's masterplan over at Marvel, at least it wouldn't clash with other incarnations. And the prospect of a Bale Batman (or perhaps some sort of Gordon-Levitt pretender if Bale says no?) meeting a Cavill Superman is a meaty prospect, offering lots of scope to bring something new to the superhero genre. If Marvel can find a tone that unites Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, Warners and Nolan should be able to get their Superman and Batman on the same screen. After all, Nolan oversaw both and if, as Latino Review reports, Nolan extends his oversight role to Justice League it should be possible to make it all cohere. IN NOLAN WE TRUST, but even the Great White Fanboy Hope has his work cut out this time. After all, Justice League (the "of America" has been quietly dropped) faces an even bigger problem than did Marvel's Avengers: how the heck do you bring this lot together?
It's something that DC itself has struggled with over the years. Since Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and arguably the Flash are essentially godlike, what possible threat could require their combined talents? Several of the Superman films have struggled to find a villain that could test Supes alone; what could possibly test him AND Wonder Woman AND the rest? And among all these invulnerable, super-fast, super-strong, super-smart beings, what use is the Batman? It's the eternal conundrum of the DC Universe, the biggest distinction from its Marvel counterpart. These guys are just too strong; undergods rather than Marvel's underdogs. It's telling that the most popular DC character, by some distance these days, is the dude with no powers at all and a vengeance complex. Perhaps Man Of Steel can change that, but we'd be surprised.
In the comics and cartoons, we've been suspending disbelief on these points for years, but the comics and cartoons have also had decades to establish big bad villains for each hero, who can also team up and develop doomsday scenarios as necessary. You can build to a Crisis On Infinite Earths in the books; you can create a Flashpoint – but it's hard to pull together that sort of build-up in the next two years. The Justice League movie, if it comes in 2015, has no such luxury – and also has to introduce Wonder Woman and the rest of the new JLA members.
Clockwise from left: The Avengers, seen here wrecking the box office; Nolan and Bale's Batman; Snyder and Cavill's Man Of Steel.
"But Avengers managed it!" we hear you cry. "They gave Thor and Hawkeye something to do!". True, but here were their advantages: Joss Whedon's film only had to establish a small handful of characters from scratch – Hawkeye (pretty much), Maria Hill, the new Hulk (arguably), the Chitauri – having done the heavy lifting on Iron Man, Thor, Loki, Captain America, Black Widow and Nick Fury in previous films. Marvel's godlike being, Thor, comes with all the limitations of the out-of-towner, finding himself baffled by humanity and needing a hand. He wasn't raised on Earth, he's a johnny-come-lately, and as such parallels (maybe) Wonder Woman or Martian Manhunter but not Supes, not Green Lantern, not Flash. Of the other "big guns", Hulk has a teensy anger-management issue and Iron Man has some authority problems. The Avengers were sufficiently screwed up to need one another. And even they had to get ensemble-juggler-par-excellence Joss Whedon to put it all together and make it work.
The Justice League? Not so screwed up. While there are shades to Superman's heroism, they are not deep, dark shades – although we look forward to seeing how much grit Man Of Steel manages to add. Batman has more going on, which is why he has to be at the heart of the League, but he's dwarfed by the abilities of his colleagues. Oh yes, those colleagues. There's the challenge of resurrecting Green Lantern – or just bringing back Reynolds and pretending the film didn't fail (see, arguably, The Incredible Hulk and Avengers). His cockiness could contrast nicely with Superman's idealism (assuming Nolan and Snyder's Man Of Steel is still a burnished sort of do-gooder), but he's no Tony Stark.
Then they have to make Wonder Woman work; something the comics have struggled with over the years, leaving her eternally a great character in search of a great story. They have to make Flash more than a grown-up Dash Incredible. And who else to use? Aquaman's too limited, and probably tainted by the Entourage spoof. Martian Manhunter? How do you fit that guy in Nolan's universe? Green Arrow? The ongoing TV series might discourage his recruitment. You could add a Black Canary to the roster, maybe, but too many of the rest of the line-up are either tonally wrong (Captain Marvel? In a Chris Nolan world?) or too similarly powered to other heroes already onscreen (Elongated Man, anyone?)
Do something no one has done: have these characters exclusively tackling real-world problems. No super-powered baddies. These problems aren't insoluble, and we're by no means ruling out a kick-ass Justice League movie – particularly if Nolan and co. come aboard but even if they do not. It's just that there are reasons why few of DC's line-up have made it to the screen, and this has to succeed despite those reasons. It's expensive to put these characters' extreme powers onscreen, it's difficult to find a crisis sufficiently enormous to require them, and it's harder to scale the film so that you have appropriately strong and intimate character moments and appropriately huge scale to test your hero's godlike skills. Superman Returns couldn't strike the balance, nor could Green Lantern (nor, in fairness, could Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer or Incredible Hulk). THERE ARE POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS. Certainly don't bother giving everyone an origin story – Hawkeye and Black Widow don't suffer particularly from being under-explained, not all the X-Men needed their own movie-length intro and the obsession with superhero origins is a bit played out in any case. If people like Wonder Woman, or Flash, or whoever prove popular in this movie, you can go back and explain where they came from later. We'll take it on trust that Batman can ferret out any superpowered beings out there and Superman can recruit them to the cause and leave it at that. And why would those two be working together, recruiting a team? Well, the end of The Dark Knight Rises left us with a Batman starting a new phase of life, and it seems probable that Superman will take a few knocks in Man Of Steel, which might leave both of them looking for new friends to share the burden. Should something threaten the world while they're hanging out, knocking back a few brews, what could be more natural than putting a team together?
And as for the villain, the Avengers offered one solution: go for numerous identikit baddies. Or do something no one has done: have these characters tackle real-world problems exclusively. No super-powered baddies, just godlike people in capes trying to do something positive; not just catching a plunging woman but effecting real change. The big second-act downer is that they don't manage to fix global warming overnight; the third-act triumph is when they save hundreds of thousands of people from a tsunami or an earthquake. And then get back to the lab to discover that Bruce has used his tinkering productively for once, and come up with a formula for cold fusion instead of a new Bat shark-repellent, so there's hope for the global warming thing after all. Forget Superman IV: The Quest For Peace and think more Rising Stars; surely that would be relatable worldwide and provide sufficient wish-fulfilment. Who doesn't want to set Batman on Kony? Who wouldn't like Superman to fly over Tahrir Square any time that violence threatens? (Well, maybe the Egyptian military)
Let's be clear: we're excited at the prospect of seeing DC's heroes together onscreen. It could be a big, beautiful thing – very different in tone and character from Avengers or X-Men but at least as enjoyable. But there are structural problems to be overcome first, problems even bigger than Marvel's "How do you link Iron Man and Thor?" dilemma, and the sheer fire power of DC's line-up means that those structural problems are proportionately bigger. While any involvement by Nolan, Bale, Snyder and Cavill would be an encouraging sign that the studio is taking this very seriously and bringing its A-game to the table, even that won't see us out of the woods. Colour us optimistic, but still waiting to be sold on it.
WORDS HELEN O'HARA