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JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE MOVIE? (Part 1)
Author: Mark Hughes
May 11, 2010
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INTRODUCTION

While some fans don't have much interest in a Justice League film, especially if it involves Batman, there is almost surely a majority of comic book fans who want to see a JLA film happen. Likewise, while there may not be a lot of widespread public awareness regarding JLA -- especially the specifics of the team and its history -- there is surely a significant segment of the public who remember THE SUPER FRIENDS animated series and others who have heard of or seen the JLA animated DVDs (especially if they have kids).

Even without direct awareness of the JLA or other incarnations like THE SUPER FRIENDS, the mainstream public likely has some general awareness that the characters (at least the main ones like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman) exist in the same world together.
Considering the fact of a broad range of different levels of awareness linked to the concept of the JLA, the enormous popularity and profitability of comic book films in general and films featuring well-known characters in particular, it is very likely that a JLA film will eventually come to pass. Already, Warner Bros. attempted to get a JLA film into production, and reached the point of signing a cast and hiring a director. Suits were even made.

That attempted JLA film came amid harsh criticisms, and at a time when Chris Nolan had still not committed to a third Batman film. Nolan's opposition to any Batman appearing in films outside of the solo franchise was well known. So the fact that the initial JLA project got as far as it did should be a big clue regarding how much the studio wants a JLA film to happen.

It seems, then, that regardless of one's personal position on the desirability of a JLA film, such a film is inevitable.

The first question, then, is in regard to what options exist for making the film, and which of those options are the best way to proceed.

(The question of whether or not Batman should/will be part of a JLA film will be discussed throughout, as I examine the different options and the best ways to proceed with them.)

The second question is which route and options Warner Bros will choose to pursue.

In addition, I will finish by offering up a few specific examples of potential ways that a JLA film could be pursued.

Now, I will take each of the above questions and examine them in turn.

THE FIRST QUESTION: WHAT OPTIONS EXIST, AND WHICH OPTIONS ARE THE BEST?

There are four existing options for a JLA film: 1) live-action JLA film unconnected to the solo character franchises; 2) a live-action JLA film arising from tying the solo character franchises together into a DCU-on-film; 3) a motion-cap JLA film (a strictly animated film isn't likely, due to the existing DVD films); 4) a live-action JLA film arising from only one of the solo character franchises and spinning off new characters not yet on film.

For each of those options, there are sub-options, of course. Let's look at each one and consider the pros and cons, before asking which are most likely and which are most desirable.

OPTION 1: LIVE-ACTION JLA FILMS UNRELATED TO SOLO FRANCHISES
A live-action JLA film that exists entirely apart from the solo franchises is probably the most talked about option, and was indeed the original planned option when Warner Bros moved forward with the canceled project.

This sort of film could take several shapes: a younger cast to create a JLA franchise that has long-term viability; an older cast in a film set in the future, perhaps as a one-of or single limited trilogy; or a mixture of some older characters (for the most recognizable heroes, to help launch and establish the franchise) and some younger ones (who would serve as the main characters in future JLA films and spin-offs).

OPTION 1A: The Younger Cast Plan

The first obvious advantage of this plan are that it allows for multiple sequels. With a younger cast, an entire long-term series of JLA films can be planned, and there can be spin-offs of any number of characters who don't yet have a solo franchise.

The second advantage, and one that has primary appeal to fans who want much more direct adaptation of the comics and the inclusion of far more fantastical elements, is that it provides a platform in which Batman and other characters are allowed to interact together and face a wider variety of villains in ways that don't happen (yet) in the solo franchises.

This would let fans of the illusionary realism Batman have their stories, while fans of an alternate interpretation of the character get their desired version as well. The fact that Chris Nolan has made it clear that his Batman films will remain outside of the realm of other superheroes and fantastical elements means the JLA film would provide a potential outlet for those fans who are less enthusiastic about Nolan's approach.

Another advantage of this plan is that it fits into the tradition of relying on younger heroes in the mid-20s to 30s age range that appeals to the younger target audience. The tendency of studios to favor younger casting is specifically due to the appeal to the target demographic for this film.

While I personally feel that this is increasingly becoming an outdated concern, due to the aging film audience and the desire of Baby Boomers to see characters they personally relate to (reflected, for example, in the popularity of Robert Downey, Jr in the IRON MAN films and the success of the most recent INDIANA JONES, for two recent examples), I also realize that for now the main target audience is still the younger male filmgoer, and so the desire to have the most appeal to that demographic is understandable.

However, with this plan comes the problem of having multiple screen versions of the characters at roughly the same stage in their careers. Essentially, it creates competing interpretations vying for the same audience and loyalties.

Supporters of this plan argue that audiences won't get confused so long as the films make it clear that the JLA film characters are not the same as the solo film characters. While I agree that it's possible to clarify the differences, I think the potential for confusion or at least frustration among audiences is being understated.

Consider that despite how obvious it would seem that Nolan's Batman films are not at all connected to the previous Batman films, there are still people -- including even professional film critics -- who remain confused about the link between the current Batman films and previous ones. Rex Reed, for example, notoriously complained that THE DARK KNIGHT didn't make sense because The Joker met Batman and died in the first Burton film. The belief that BATMAN BEGINS was a prequel to the Burton films remained an oft-mentioned "fact" online for quite some time, and continued even after THE DARK KNIGHT

Another problem is that it seems obvious that the success of a JLA film would likely lead to at least some people at the studio arguing in favor of transposing popular aspects of the characters from the JLA film into the solo franchises. Conversely, if the JLA film is less popular, they might instead argue for transposing aspects of the solo films into the JLA films. This already came close to happening, remember, when there was a desire to link the canceled JLA film's Batman to the Nolan films' Batman.

The potential -- and in my opinion, likelihood -- of eventual spillover from one set of films to the other is a risk to the solo franchises, since either outcome of transposition would mean tainting of the solo films through linkage (overt or vague) to the JLA film. That, in turn, will increase whatever degree of audience and critical confusion or frustration already exists, compounding both problems.

A final concern about the younger cast plan is that it seems obvious that there's a good chance the JLA film would spawn spin-off films. Indeed, that option was directly mentioned during the pre-production for the JLA film. How much confusion might be sown if a JLA film is clarified as separate from the existing solo franchises, but then spins off other solo franchise that are in fact directly linked to the JLA films? This would lead to a mixture of some solo franchises unrelated to the JLA films, some solo franchises arising right out of the JLA films, and JLA films that contain some characters who exist in the solo films' continuities and others who don't.

Once again comes the confusion aspect for audiences, which compounds existing confusion, while there is again another element of potential spillover if the spin-off franchises are successful and lead to a desire to link up the remaining unrelated franchises to the JLA films.

In short, a younger cast JLA film would almost surely lead to a mess, a lot of growing confusion, and eventual spill-over that compounds the other problems. Those potential problems seem to outweigh and in fact work directly against the advantages presented by use of a younger cast.

OPTION 1B: The Older Cast Plan

Many fans who are concerned about the problems presented in a younger cast JLA stand-alone film have championed multiple versions of the older cast stand-alone film plan. The principle idea in this plan is to create a stand-alone JLA film (or franchise) that consists of older versions of the characters, and is usually recommended as a story set in the future.

The first and most obvious advantage of this plan is that it instantly helps differentiate the JLA film characters from the solo franchises, since the use of entirely different actors who are much older and in a future setting goes a long way to establishing the film as separate from the solo franchises.

A second advantage is that the older cast plan could potentially gain traction and expanded appeal through reaching back to the old DC films, specifically the first Batman series and the Donner-Singer films. This concept, which I'll discuss at length later when I give specific examples of some ways to make a JLA film, would bring in actors from the original Superman and Batman films and combine them into a single continuity with additional characters. I'll discuss the specific advantages of this concept later when I look at detailed examples for possible JLA films.

A third advantage of the older cast plan has specific appeal to those fans worried about spill-over, since this plan would negate the opportunity and significantly decrease the chances of it happening. It also doesn't have anywhere near the same opportunity for spinning off new franchises that would add to confusion, since the use of all older versions of the characters makes it far less likely that middle-aged conceptions of characters will be used to launch solo films.

A final possible advantage, and again one that explicitly appeals to fans who are less enthusiastic about an entire JLA film franchise, is that the use of older versions of the characters makes it more difficult to continuing making multiple JLA films. With a likely turnaround of at least three years from film to film, the middle-aged actors in this plan would rapidly be unlikely to continue appearing in superhero action films for more than a decade.

The big downside of this plan, however, is that older versions of the characters limit a JLA film in a lot of ways, precisely due to the things outlined above as advantages. This is especially true if the studio wants to maintain a franchise, and is true for fans who don't want a limited number of JLA films.

An additional downside is demographic appeal. While certainly there are a lot of fans who would really appreciate and enjoy a JLA film set in the future with cool, interesting older interpretations of key characters, it's equally true that a lot of other fans would be disappointed and complain about it, especially younger fans.

The use of older versions of the character, portrayed by older actors, means there will be a limited number of JLA films. It means there are unlikely to be spin-off franchises. It means possibly lower target demographic appeal. And of course, it means the JLA film will be very unlikely to eventually influence and become connected to the solo franchises.

So anyone -- studio or fans -- who wants a JLA franchise, spin-offs, and any eventual link to the solo franchises will of course be opposed to the older cast stand-alone JLA film plan.

OPTION 1C: The Younger and Older Cast Mixture Plan

With an entirely younger cast presenting problems for existing solo franchises, and with an entirely older cast presenting problems for a continued JLA franchise and spin-off films, the ideal middle-ground for a stand-alone JLA film seems to be the mixture of both a younger cast for some characters and older cast for other characters.

The advantages for this plan are immediately obvious. The older cast would consist of the characters who currently already have solo film franchises, and thus would clearly establish that these versions of the characters are unrelated to the solo franchises. This also removes the problem of spill-over. But the inclusion of younger cast members for those heroes who currently lack their own solo franchises would establish a second slate of less well known characters who would benefit from introduction alongside familiar characters, and who could then get the attention and name recognition needed to act as the main characters in future JLA films, and to spin off into their own solo films as well.

A film under this plan would use middle-aged versions of Superman, Batman, and probably Wonder Woman. In addition, it might also bring in Green Lantern (there are a few options as to which one) and perhaps a couple of other older characters as well (such as the Flash, but they could also have a younger version who takes up the mantle as well). Those older characters would act as either inspiration for and teachers of the younger characters, or possibly as the protagonists who initially fight against the younger characters, but ultimately the two sides join forces against some primary antagonists.

The younger characters might consist of (for example) Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, the Flash (who takes up the mantle of the older Flash), Hawkman, and maybe Aquaman. Among this group, there are several who seem to have strong potential for spin-off films, and who also would be strong enough to take over as the main characters in future JLA films. Of course, there might still be cameos by the older heroes after the first JLA film, so that they provide backup or advice and assistance in a limited fashion.

It's also possible that a film like this could include the death -- or apparent death -- of certain of the older characters, to remove them from future films, while also letting a couple of younger characters take over in place of older versions of the characters (the Flash being the main one in this category).

Another advantage of this plan is that there are a few higher profile and higher quality JLA comics and graphic novels from which to draw inspiration. Most notably, "Kingdom Come", perhaps the most often referenced potential influence for a JLA film that includes older characters. I will discuss this particular influence, and how it could mix with another key storyline, later when I discuss specific examples for a JLA film.

Lastly, a mixed age range would mean the film has appeal both to the traditional target demographic of younger viewers, and to the older emerging demographic of older viewers. In this way, the film actually has the potential to capitalize on two main demographics, and could increase its overall appeal.

One disadvantage of this plan, however, is that it would soon come to rely primarily on the lesser-known characters to carry the films into the future, so there's a gamble involved if the series were intended as a long-term franchise. It's much easier to see where the use of Superman and Batman in main roles would provide a lot more safety and more guarantee of sustainability for future films.

Another disadvantage is that there remains the problem related to spin-offs that exist as part of the JLA continuity, but which are unrelated to the solo films that already exist and are unrelated to the JLA films. So once again there is the potential confusion and messiness of having some solo franchises unrelated to the JLA, some solo franchise directly linked to the JLA, and future JLA films that have some characters directly from the solo films and others entirely apart from the solo films.

But again, the biggest problems of "dueling character interpretations" for the biggest characters is gone, the danger of spillover is removed, and the future setting would make it easier to avoid confusion about which solo film franchises are linked to the JLA films and which are not, since the spin-off films will be set in the same "universe" as the JLA films and thus part of a very different future world than exists in the currently existing solo franchises.

So of those three plans (younger cast, older cast, and mixture of older and younger cast) for a stand-alone live-action JLA film that is total separated from the existing solo franchises, it seems that the plan with the least potential to threaten the solo films or to cause confusion and other problems would be the mixture of ages.

The best elements from the younger and older plans can be combined, while mitigating or totally avoiding the most troublesome problems of each of those plans. It would have the best potential to expand demographic appeal into two target audiences, and thus could potentially have a much wider audience

NEXT: "A live-action JLA film arising from
the solo character franchises creating a DCU-on-film
"

Longtime BOF'er and site contributor Mark Hughes is a screenwriter living in Maryland.
He is an avid film fan and a longtime collector and reader of comics.

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