Long and winding and fraught with bumps and pitfalls and massive industry, cultural, commercial and familial obstacles.
Resiliently plowing through these numerous impediments, Warner Brothers has finally made good on a long-standing promise to showcase the greatest heroes of pop culture on the silver screen – the comic book visages of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, the Justice League, together for the first time.
It’s actually not technically the first time the Justice League has been together on screen. There have actually been numerous iterations of the group over the years. But the road taken for this particular Justice League, is an interesting one indeed.
To get to here, let’s take a quick look back at there, and all the previously mentioned hazards that nearly conquered the world’s greatest superheroes.
We’ve all seen the cartoons over the decades, whether they be Superman or Batman or even Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Warner Brothers has never shied away from their comic book intellectual property and kids of all ages.
It was the multiple iterations of the Super Friends cartoon series during the 1970’s and 1980’s that got me excited for the Justice League. Here were the powerful heroes and aliens we all know and love, on daily missions and adventures, saving the world from the worst kinds of evil.
But those “super friends” would see real-life action in the two-part Legends of the Superheroes television series in 1979.
Reprising their roles from the poppy 1960’s Batman TV series, Adam West (Batman), Burt Ward (Robin), Frank Gorshin (Riddler), headlined the campy ensemble cast that mimicked a television variety show. Just about every Justice League hero you could think of (and ones you couldn’t possibly imagine, especially in this day and age) make an appearance.
Featuring Batman, Robin, Flash, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Huntress, Black Canary and Captain Marvel, the first episode details a surprise birthday party at the Hall of Justice for the retired superhero, Scarlet Cyclone. The festivities are crashed in entertaining fashion, of course, by the Legion of Doom: Riddler, Weather Wizard, Sinestro, Doctor Sivana, Giganta, Mordru and Solomon Grundy.
The plot of the second episode is that of an ensemble roast of the same superheroes, this time visited by Hawkman;’s mother, the extended Captain Marvel Universe character of the villainous Aunt Minerva, who seeks out, in the superheroes, her sixth husband (her previous five had all been…killed). And, of course, there’s the just-created-for-the-show, stand-up comedian, and absolutely inappropriate by today’s standards, Ghetto Man. The roast is naturally hosted by Ed McMahon, who plays himself. Who else would you expect at a superhero roast?
Legends of the Superheroes are all characters stripped right out of the cartoons, made real, strictly for viewer’s amusement. Yes, it’s a laugh riot, a show made for a particular time, but it’s got to be said: the writers and producers sure delved deep into comic book lore to come up with some of these pop culture creations.
In 1997, a Justice League of America television pilot was ordered by NBC. It was so bad, it never got past that first stage, and never aired in North America. I was able to find a copy on videotape, at a comic book convention, a few years after the one and only episode was filmed. Based on the popular Justice League International comic book series of the time, (the series that gave us the historically legendary “one punch!?!” scene), the television version starred minor and virtually unknown heroes such as Ice, Fire, Atom, Martian Manhunter and the Guy Gardner version of Green Lantern, as well as an unemployed and depressed version of the Flash. The show couldn’t use the bigger name heroes due to licensing issues, and that’s a cautionary tale: if you can’t use the proper, pull-your-audience-in, well-known characters, why bother making a real-life Justice League show at all? It’s a recipe for abject failure.
You know how sometimes, television shows are so bad, you have to watch them anyway? Justice League of America is so, so, so bad, you can actually turn it off. You need to be a special kind of masochist to watch it all the way through, which I have.
Despite the exciting, deep-dive trivia-question of the show casting fan-favourite Miguel Ferrer as Weather Man, you can only wonder how the studio got the Justice League premise so wrong. The cartoon versions of Justice League (2001-2004) and Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006) were great – but the real-actor version was an absolute flop, killing pop culture momentum and turning the great DC Comics superheroes into laughing stocks.
Luckily, no-one was watching.
The hit television series Smallville (2001-2011) had its own, somewhat stripped-down version of the Justice League with Aquaman, Cyborg, Black Canary, Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Justice Society of America and Dr.Fate all making appearances, teaming up with the young Clark Kent in both 2006 and 2009. Fans got excited for the cross-over storytelling, even if the characters weren’t necessarily known, or dressed up in their Justice League costumes, per se.
Smallville did show that television and movie-going audiences wanted to see some form of Justice League. Demand and interest was on full display, with people (like myself) watching those particular crossover episodes even when they weren’t regular viewers of the show. And Warner Brothers, ever interested in fan enthusiasm, was hard at work, bringing those sought after Justice League seeds to the silver screen where the big money could be found.
Unfortunately, the box office disappointment of Superman Returns (2006) stalled any Justice League engine. Despite the commercial and critical success of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, Warner Brothers wanted a refresh of their Justice League heroes, ones that wouldn’t and couldn’t exit in the dark and gritty and realistic Nolan-verse. The lack of action and viewer excitement in Superman Returns shelved any hope of a sequel and the studio went back to the drawing board.
In 2007, Warner Brother tapped critically acclaimed director George Miller (Mad Max series of films, Babe, Happy Feet) on the shoulder in order to finally bring a box-office smash version of Justice League to screen. The film, titled Justice League: Mortal would be shot in Australia and feature all new actors in the roles of the world’s most well-known heroes: D.J. Cotrona was cast as Superman, along with Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Teresa Palmer as Talia Al Ghul, Common as the John Stewart Green Lantern, Adam Brody as Flash, and Jay Baruchel as the villain, Maxwell Lord. The wonky story centered on Batman, dissatisfied with earth’s superheroes, creating an AI-operated, super-powered, team. Of course, they go bad, and the true Justice League members need to correct Batman’s hubris.
Academy Award winning studio, Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings) was brought onboard for special effects and costume design. Everything was go, but a denial of Australian tax credits forced production to move to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and then the 2007 writers’ strike killed the project. Warner Brothers, instead, took a pause and allowed Christopher Nolan to finish his Dark Knight Trilogy unburdened by a competing franchise and an opposing Batman. A wise decision.
In 2011, the very first Green Lantern film willed itself into a theatre-going existence. The movie was meant to kick start the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) which would compete with the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but its green box office light quickly dimmed. Green Lantern was a critical and commercial disappointment, failing to ignite the imagination of audience goers. It was back to the drawing board for Warner Brothers. Again.
In the publishing industry, DC Comics, the home base of the Justice League characters, was hitting new highs. Their “New 52” initiative in 2011 (named for 52 distinct comic book publications as well as the 52 internal universes that comprised those stories), saw all legacy publications renumbered to first issue status. It was a booming success. DC was reinventing itself, rebooting and refreshing their characters and stories and comic books to make them more accessible to both new and old and, importantly, lapsed readers. The monthly Justice League series itself, written and illustrated by industry luminaries, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, told the story of the (new) founding of the League and how all the heroes, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Cyborg, met each other for the first time, battling back an alien invasion. The story would become important to parent company and film producer, Warner Brothers, in short order.
2013 saw the release of the middling Man of Steel film, directed by Zach Snyder who was the defacto showrunner for the burgeoning DCEU. Disregarding everything that had come before, Man of Steel was the first film from Warner Brothers that was meant to launch all of DC’s superheroes into a cohesive cinematic universe, setting the tone and direction for future installments. Financially successful, it did just that, with plans set that year for a Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice film to be released in March 2016, followed by a two-part Justice League film, released in November 2017 and in June 2019. Chris Terrio (Argo) began writing the screenplay for all of three with Snyder at the helm.
The bloated, dark, violent and serious Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was critically panned upon release, even though it made over $873 million at the box office. Including incoherent and fleeting glimpses into supposed subplots of other DC heroes and still-unmade films like the Flash, the tone and direction of the DCEU franchise under Synder was brought into question and gave Warner Brothers pause for future installments. In many ways, with scripts in the can (both of the good can and bad can variety), actors hired on multi-picture contracts, and complementary films like Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman already in production, the DCEU train was chugging down the proverbial track – even if that track ran off of a cliff.
Nervous, Warner Brothers decreed that the previously agreed 2-part Justice League film would now be written as two standalone films – a decent way to hedge their big-budget bets on fan support in the aftermath of two more DCEU scheduled films. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was critically ripped as a haphazard, bizarre and somewhat incomprehensible mess of nihilism, but there was something shiny in its tortured chaos. Garnering over $745 million of box office revenue, a DCEU film about no-name bad guys showed that there was an inherent love of the DC stable of characters. With Batman cameos and world-building plots on display, audiences were interested and would come to theatres, it seemed – but Warner Brothers couldn’t afford another misstep.
Luckily, Wonder Woman (2017) saved the day. The generally stand-alone film was the first of its comic book kind to feature a woman in the starring role. There was a lot going against the eventual success of the character on the silver screen. The casting of Wonder Woman herself was always hotly contested. It seemed that no one could wield the lasso or fill the boots, bracelets or tiara of the titular hero: her beauty, her strength, her grace – and the acting chops that would encompass all of them. Wonderfully directed by Patty Jenkins, with the inspired choice of Gal Gadot in the hot seat, Wonder Woman captured the imagination of audiences and critics, and taking all of their money at the same time. The film grossed $821 million worldwide and, more importantly, with the Justice League film, based on the alien invasion story from the “New 52” Justice League comic book, months away from release, breathed new life into the hopes and aspirations of the DCEU.
But the somewhat cursed feature film of Justice League would see more obstacles mount in front of it; it’s long road to release would still wind again and again, leaving the production in turmoil.
Rumours began to circulate that Batman himself, star Ben Affleck, the cornerstone of the Justice League film franchise, wanted to leave. That gossip-fueled talk persists to this day. Earlier this year, director Zach Snyder experienced a devastating family tragedy that forced him to abandon the project early. Joss Whedon, the man who had helped build the Avengers universe with Disney, stepped in to finish. New scenes were written and filmed, old scenes and sub-plots were cut, the tone was lightened, the budget grew, and the running time of the original 3-hour Justice League film was chopped down to 120 minutes – the shortest of any of the DCEU films to date.
Justice League, the fifth film in the DC Expanded Universe, finally ends its long and winding journey, this weekend. It will stand or fall on the merits of many, many, people – actors, directors, producers and a studio, up until now, that had no real vision of what direction their cinematic universe should head.
But that hasn’t stopped Warner Brothers from continuing the DC heroes’ journey in upcoming standalone films, handing the reigns to a number of director auteurs for Aquaman (2018), Shazam! (2019), Wonder Woman 2 (2019), and, perhaps, Cyborg (2020), and Green Lantern Corps (2020).
There’s still some, certainly winding, road to go for the dreamed-of cinematic features of Flashpoint, which has already had an obscene number of directors attached to the project, Gotham City Sirens, Justice League Dark, also with a laundry list of writers and directors attached, Nightwing, Suicide Squad 2, which lost original director David Ayer as showrunner, Black Adam, and a hoped-for Man of Steel 2. With the absence of Zach Snyder, it seems that Geoff Johns, the writer of the “New 52” version of Justice League, now has a louder say in the direction of the various film franchises.
The fact that the planned second installment of Justice League has become more and more of an industry whisper should be a warning to eager fans that the road to DCEU cinematic release continues to be ridden with rocks and potholes.
Dependent upon the current box office results for Justice League, the sequel, and indeed the actors we’ve seen portray the DC heroes thus far, might be as fleeting as a scene featuring the Flash himself.
Justice League is released in theatres across North America on November 17, 2017.