NOTE: The following contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises.
On January 27th 1996, pretty much nobody outside of 20th Century Fox had heard of a movie called Independence Day. One day later, Fox paid an estimated $1.3 million to run an early advertisement for the movie (still unfinished at the time!) to run during Superbowl XX. 34 seconds later, the iconic shot of The White House being blown to smithereens by a massive flying saucer (an astonishing system shock to an America fifty years past Pearl Harbor and still five years away from 9-11) had immediately taken its place in the pantheon of unforgettable cinematic images, and the film was instantly the most talked-about upcoming movie event of the year.
The point is, most of the time nobody really knows which upcoming movie is suddenly going to become the next most-anticipated release … although, occasionally, those of us who do this for a living can make an educated guess.
Mine? Well, The Hobbit: Part I – An Unexpected Journey will be released to theaters in about two weeks. A prequel to the Oscar-dominating, mega-grossing Lord of The Rings trilogy, it’s expected to draw a huge audience, so studios are scrambling to have trailers for their biggest upcoming films “attached” to play in front of it. One trailer that almost all of those audiences can likely expect to see (as it comes from the same studio as Hobbit) will be The Man of Steel – the new Superman movie.
Despite being largely absent from the big screen for a few decades save for the awkwardly-received Superman Returns and frequently referred to as an out-of-touch character ill-suited to the modern world, Superman remains not only the universal symbol of the Superhero (which also happens to be the most popular movie genre in the world right now) but a cultural icon whose international recognizability is typically up there with Mickey Mouse and Christ. Footage from the film has been closely guarded outside of an understated teaser and a now legendary Comic Con sizzle reel, but the early word is that it’s an insane, massive-scale action film (Zack Snyder of 300, Watchmen and Sucker Punch directs) that aims to make Superman “kick-ass” once again.
If this first full trailer can convey that it’s a colossal movie experience that’ll also refreshes a beloved icon, I’d say that’s the stuff “next big thing” phenomenons are made of. Warner Bros. is certainly hoping so. They’ve now more or less officially confirmed that the film is intended to be the kickoff to a new wave of interconnected DC Comics films à la Disney/Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe” project that will either leap directly to or culminate in a Justice League feature set to go head-to-head with Avengers 2 in 2015.
… Please allow me a moment to reflect on the fact that I just typed that and it’s a true thing.
Unfortunately, unlike the widespread positive vibes that Marvel (now Disney) was able to ride all the way to Avengers, DC fandom is a ball of nerves about the whole project given Warner Bros.’s constant unceasing failure to make anything good out of any of these characters except for Batman. Seriously, check out a few of those links – it’s just embarrassing at this point.
Well, fear not! As has been my snarky, egomaniacal want before, I here present to you (and anyone from Warner Bros. who might be visiting) a brief list of precautions that might be taken should the studio, filmmakers, etc., wish to prevent Justice League from turning out like the last time they made a movie about a League…
No Introductions Necessary
So far, the most encouraging news for me about a Justice League movie is that Warners’ current schedule would leave them almost no room to make any other lead-in movies apart from Man of Steel (which was supposedly “converted” into an official lead-in relatively recently), meaning that League would probably have to introduce already in-the-business versions of the various members and then hopefully spin them off into series of their own depending on how they were received.
I like this idea. In fact, I love it.
If the JLA (they’re more often than not called The Justice League of America) have one advantage in adaptation over The Avengers, it’s that their three central “big guns” do not require much in the way of introduction. Outside of The Hulk (whom mainstream audiences mainly knew from the 70’s TV show) and Captain America (whose image was widely known but not much else), the stars of The Avengers really did need full movies to introduce audiences to their world and supporting casts.
Justice League, on the other hand? Not so much. Everyone knows Superman: strong, flies, Clark Kent, Daily Planet, Lois, Jimmy, Kryptonite, Truth, Justice and The American Way, etc. Everyone knows Batman: Bruce Wayne, abandonment issues, Alfred, Batmobile, Gotham City, Bat-Signal, etc. Wonder Woman is the most widely-recognized female superhero on the planet, even if her exact details (and kinky origin story) aren’t widely known outside of the magic lasso and Invisible Jet. Most of the supporting cast isn’t hard to explain. Flash runs fast, Aquaman is “Boy Little Mermaid” with attitude, and the Green Lantern … is probably gonna be on the bench for awhile because he did a bad thing.
Don’t Try To Make The Avengers
Obviously, the reason Warner Bros. is hot to make Justice League happen is because a rival studio is raking in millions off of a similar, historically less popular equivalent franchise. And while I’d call it wise to make note that The Avengers decision to aim at turning a movie into a comic book rather than the other way around is also the only way a League movie would actually work, that’s probably where the borrowing should end.
The thing is, DC Heroes are different than Marvel Heroes. If you want a simple catch-all explanation, most of the more powerful/important Avengers could be called men playing at being gods, most of the more powerful/important Leaguers are gods who pretend to be men. On The League almost everyone is Thor, while The Avengers are swarming with Batmen.
You can’t approach these characters or their worlds the same way, no matter how tempting or obvious it may be. Digging through the cast roster and trying to figure out precisely how much like Tony Stark Batman should act, or if “Thor with better legs” is all you need to do with Wonder Woman, or if you have room to write some Red Kryptonite in so Superman can go nuts and fight everyone for a little while because it was cool when The Hulk did that – that way lies ruin.
Team Movies Are Relationship Movies
Just to be helpful, here’s a quick shorthand for how the three (likely) main characters relate to one another, strictly as character sheet data: Their “job” is the only important thing that all three of them have in common, while in almost every other way they only “connect” in pairs. Two men (Batman and Superman, also both orphans), two aristocrats (Batman and Wonder Woman), and two non-humans (Wonder Woman and Superman).
Being “odd woman out,” even though she shares social status with one of the two men and “other-ness” with the, er … other – helps characterize Wonder Woman as an individual. “Bro” camaraderie with Superman, a guy he’d likely never know, much less befriend, in civilian life, is a situation we seldom see Batman navigate, as is encountering what could easily be Bruce Wayne’s ideal female companion in Diana. She’s richer than him, same basic profession, almost impossible to kill despite how much that sort of thing follows him around. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman’s fellow “alien” is a man, and not only do they not have those where she’s from, the idea of a man whose strength outclasses her own (or anyone else’s really, but still) must be alternately terrifying/fascinating for an Amazon.
There ya go. There’s some team dynamic. Study the Brodie/Hooper/Quint interplay from Jaws if you’re still not feeling it.
Get Over Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan made two and a half great Batman movies, and he deserves credit for pulling it off. Given that his trilogy represents some of the only good (and profitable) filmmaking based on DC properties to come out for a long time, it’s understandable that Warners would want to keep him around (he’s serving as producer and helped craft the story on Man of Steel), and perhaps keep some tangential links between their planned DC Universe movies and his version of Batman, hoping that some of that magic will rub off. This is a sensible, business-like approach to movie franchise production.
And they shouldn’t do it.
Let’s set aside for a moment that fact that the Nolan Batman movies were designed, specifically, to be incompatible with a genre-bending cinematic universe, which they are – Bane, Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul’s respective schemes rely on the assumption of a world where flying demigods or lightspeed-runners won’t be sweeping in to offer Batman any backup. The fact is, there’s a simple issue of long-term planning in play that deserves some attention. The DC Universe has endured for almost 80 years, while Nolan’s one vision of one corner of it has merely existed for about 7.
Why tie a set of unified movie franchises into a vision that could potentially be bordering on passé by the time you get the new projects to the big screen? Why limit Wonder Woman, or The Flash, or Aquaman, or Zatanna (hey, a boy can dream, can’t he?) with the constraints of the now concluded Dark Knight trilogy? For that matter, why lessen the trilogy by association with something it was never meant to be part of?
For example? This rumor about Joseph Gordon Levitt’s John Blake character from The Dark Knight Rises being the man under Batman’s cowl in Justice League, (Blake, whose super-secret middle name is Robin, is set up to inherit a death-faking Bruce Wayne’s cache of Bat-gear at the end of The Dark Knight Returns) thus continuing on directly from that film and placing Nolan’s Batman movies in the same universe as Man of Steel and League. Let’s not do that.
Again, this would be kneecapping the film(s) long term, along with doing a bit of minor violence to Nolan’s original vision by explicitly tying his films to a more fanciful DC universe. Bruce Wayne will always be the name associated with Batman, and aside from it being preposterous to have the first ever live-action meeting of Batman and Superman happen with a second stringer (you lose the entire Wealthy Playboy Who’s Secretly a Depressed Wreck vs. Middle Class Farmer Who’s Basically Space Jesus dichotomy!) and you’re just dating your movie. Again, Bruce Wayne has been around for almost 80 years, and its unlikely John Robin Blake will be cared about for another five. Easy math.
Resist The Darkseid
There’s a pervasive belief in fandom and elsewhere that the only good enemy with which to challenge the Justice League is Jack Kirby’s Fourth World heavy, Darkseid. Bad idea. Oh, Darkseid is cool, but the fact is WB is going to be opening this thing against Avengers 2, which is likely to feature very Darkseid-esque enemy Thanos as the enemy. And while Darkseid has the better posse to order around, JLA loses that matchup. Thanos is cooler. He just is. Darkseid’s evil motivation is to solve a math problem. Thanos’ evil motivation is to murder the Universe because he thinks The Grim Reaper is a cutie and he’s into grand displays of affection. Thanos wins.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.