It’s good to see Warner Bros. and DC Comics finally starting to learn from their past mistakes in bringing their classic comic book superhero stable to the big screen. Outside of Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy their future looked mighty bleak in the wake of the less-than-enthusiastic receptions given to Superman Returns and Green Lantern. Last week the long-in-the-works Man of Steel brought Superman back to the big screen to the tune of a record-smashing $128 million opening weekend despite mixed reviews. Warners/DC had been hedging their bets of Man of Steel being successful enough to begin constructing a long-running cinematic universe of multiple superhero movie franchises to rival Marvel Studios, with the end result being an all-star Justice League team-up film.
However, the Justice League movie has proved to be of even greater difficulty to get off the ground than the film adventure of any single DCU character. Gangster Squad scribe Will Beall took a crack at the project last year but his efforts were eventually discarded by the studio in favor of a fresh start overseen by David S. Goyer, the writer and hardcore comic fan who helped make Blade the first lucrative feature franchise out of a Marvel character and also co-wrote Batman Begins and wrote Man of Steel, as part of a three-picture deal that also includes a naturally inevitable Man of Steel sequel.
Warner Bros. and DC are desperately attempting to ape Marvel’s formula for franchise foundation building in the last ditch hope that it works as well for them as it did for the competition. It’s a bit sleazy, but that’s business. Plus it’s extremely amusing to watch the company that once held all of the bragging rights in making blockbuster movies out of classic comic books now taking their cues from their upstart adversaries. It reminds me of that episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Carlton got caught cheating off of Will’s pop quiz answers out of the irrational and misplaced fear that he would become a failure in life. Hilarious stuff. But at least they’re doing it the logical way this time.
Six years ago, the unrealized Justice League: Mortal was a much different story.
In the final months of 2007, The Dark Knight was still in production and Warners and DC were still smarting from the massive disappointment of the highly hyped Superman Returns. The studio decided to put a Justice League movie into their development pipeline and fast-track it into production to avoid a looming Writers Guild of America strike. Hired to write the project were Kieran and Michele Mulroney. Kieran, the brother of actor Dermot Mulroney, was himself an actor with several film and television credits (he made a guest appearance on an episode of Seinfeld where he spoke the classic phrase “You double dipped a chip!”) on his resume, and along with his wife Michele had written and directed the 2009 independent comedy-drama Paper Man. They would also later team up to write the 2011 sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Australian filmmaker George Miller was hired to direct the $200 million plus-budgeted Justice League. Early reports suggested that the movie would be a CGI-animated feature with the characters brought to life via motion capture technology a la Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf. Though Miller – a former doctor who turned to the world of cinema in the 1970’s – had been making mostly family films in recent years such as Babe: Pig in the City and the computer-animated Happy Feet, his hiring was greeted positively by fans and followers of the Justice League feature due to having proven himself an innovative and gutsy director of widescreen action with his classic Mad Max trilogy. The man who made Mel Gibson a big screen badass was taking on the legendary super-team of the DC Universe. I was more than a little excited myself when I first read the news.
Rumors that the movie would be mo-capped were dispelled once pre-production quickly got underway. With previous Superman Brandon Routh not in consideration and current Batman Christian Bale expressing serious doubts about the team picture Miller opted to recast those parts – as he was planning to do with the other members of the League – with younger, lesser-known actors the director hoped would grow into their characters over the course of a planned trilogy. Practically every performer with a modicum of talent and just barely out of puberty auditioned for the various prized parts up for grabs.
In the end the final cast roster for the cinematic League was likely going to read an awful like the following: D.J. Cotrona (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as Superman; Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger) as Batman; hip-hop artist Common (Terminator Salvation) as John Stewart/Green Lantern; Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) as Aquaman; Adam Brody (Jennifer’s Body) as Barry Allen and the Flash; Australian model and actress Megan Gale as Wonder Woman; and Hugh Keays-Byrne, who had played the villainous Toecutter in the original Mad Max for Miller, as J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter.
Conflicting reports had Anton Yelchin (Star Trek Into Darkness) also signed up to play the Flash, but as Barry Allen’s successor Wally West. Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies) was in negotiations to play Talia al Ghul, one of the League’s dangerous enemies, and she would be joined in villainy by Jay Baruchel (This is the End) as sinister billionaire business and Black King of the spy agency Checkmate Maxwell Lord. Filming was initially intended to take place at Fox Studios Australia on Miller’s home turf, but Warner Bros. insisted against the director’s wishes that the production take place in Canada instead after they failed to qualify for tax-break incentives from the Australian government that would have saved the production a great deal of funding. The studio hoped to have the tentatively titled Justice League: Mortal before the cameras later in the year so that it would help bulk up their underwhelming 2009 summer release schedule.
The Mulroneys’ script opened with Superman, wearing a silver and black costume not unlike the one he was meant to don in Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Lives, landing on the rooftop of a church for a meeting with Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter. Surrounded by a throng of citizens and journalists the assembled team enters the church, where a funeral is about to begin. Batman watches the proceedings from a distance. The plot involved Brother Eye, a surveillance satellite used by Batman to keep tabs on the activities of the other League members he doesn’t trust, being hacked by Lord – who believes that superheroes are taking over the world and changing the natural course of history – and used to exploit the weaknesses of the Dark Knight’s fellow heroes.
Files Batman kept on the League are uploaded into the cybernetic OMACs that have the ability to take over ordinary individuals via a nanovirus. J’onzz is infected with the virus and his telepathic powers are used to control Superman’s mind and manipulate him into killing Batman, forcing a confrontation between the Last Son of Krypton and a teaming of Batman and Wonder Woman. Other team members are forced to fight their own battles and conduct solo investigations into the hell that has suddenly broke loose. As the movie was meant to follow the continuity established by both Batman Begins and Superman Returns Talia al Ghul’s role in the story would closely resemble her incarnation as portrayed by Marion Cotillard in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises; as the new leader of the League of Shadows Talia would ally herself with Lord in order to take her revenge on Batman for killing her father Ra’s at the finale of Begins.
Barry Allen is killed by Talia and Lord and his protege Wally West must take up his mantle and assist the League in defeating the nefarious duo and the mastermind behind their plan to destroy the greatest collection of superheroes in the universe: none other than Lex Luthor. With the aid of an electromagnetic pulse generator developed by Wayne Enterprises the League defeats the OMAC army only to see Luthor escape without suffering any consequences. The ending would reveal that a fourth party was involved in the plot against the Justice League. Darkseid is planning an all-out invasion of Earth, setting up the plot of a potential sequel.
Production on Mortal was delayed two weeks before the planned commencement of filming after The Dark Knight became the summer’s biggest smash and in the process completely altered the studio’s plans for bringing the rest of the DC Universe to the screen. Miller performed his own rewrite of the script to make it a darker, Watchmen-like story, but by then the decision was already made to concentrate on more solo films in lieu of a massive team movie, leading to the limp opening of Green Lantern three summers later. With last year’s release of The Avengers a Justice League film once found its way to the top of Warner Bros’ franchise priorities, but now that Man of Steel has opened and will continue to play and add great wealth to the studio’s coffers for a long time to come those plans have changed once again to focus on a Man of Steel sequel and possibly a gestating Batman reboot.
Sets for the League’s Hall of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C. as well as the Fortress of Solitude, the Batcave, the Themyscera embassy, Barry Allen’s house, the Atlantis throne room, and Maxwell Lord’s mansion were designed and reportedly in the process of being built when production was closed down. The costume designs for the League’s uniforms (which were to be created by WETA Workshop, the company also contracted to do the visual effects) would have been an explosive mash-up of classic and modernistic motifs. Ultimately, none of it came to pass.
In 2010 Baruchel was quoted as saying of the cancelled Justice League movie, “If we had been able to make the movie that we had gone down [to Australia] to rehearse, if you had seen the production art I’d seen … it would’ve been the coolest thing ever. It would have been the neatest vision of Batman and the coolest vision of Superman you’ve ever seen. It would have been dark and fairly brutal and quite gory and just f**king epic.”
Two years later Common wrote about the disappointment he felt in not getting play Green Lantern:
“I remember a time I really struggled with showing gratitude. It was after I had been cast as the Green Lantern in the movie rendition of â€œJustice League.â€ (I know that sounds bad, but hold on, thereâ€™s more.) We were all set to go. We had even tried on our wardrobe. I was ready! I was imagining what this could not only mean for me but also for the kids who would see me as a bona fide superhero! Plus, my phone was already ringing off the hook with requests for meetings from big-time directors and producers. It was about to be onâ€¦
And then it happened â€” the writersâ€™ strike. Everything was on hold and after the strike, executives pulled the plug on the production. I was deflated. What I thought was the biggest role in my life was gone â€” just like that. I moped around for a few days when finally my mom told me to â€œget over itâ€ and go speak to an organization that helped kids with much bigger problems than mine. It was during my talk with those young people that I had to take stock in what I had and return to being thankful for everything.”
Back in March, during an interview to promote G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Cotrona expressed his own regrets about the failure of Mortal to make it before the cameras:
“That was a long slog. We were playing with that for about a year. That was during the writerâ€™s strike time and it started and it stopped. That was a big bummer. I was really, really excited to work with George Miller and the script was really, really good. The stuff that Weta was doing was amazing. Itâ€™s just a shame that we didnâ€™t get to finish that because it was going to be really, really cool […] It was a damn shame that we didnâ€™t get to finish that. I promise you that it would have been amazing. It would have been incredible. The scale of this was fantastical. It was a Lord of the Rings scale. It would have been really cool.
Everybody in this business has seen that. For every project they have that goes, they have like five skeletons in their closet. Or a bloody corpse of something that never happened. Iâ€™m just excited â€” thereâ€™s so many elements that go into making a big film and so many elements that can go wrong along the way. Iâ€™ve learned that intimately. Iâ€™m just happy to get this one [G.I. Joe: Retaliation] to the finish line. I do now have this kneejerk reaction where, until I see it, Iâ€™m not believing anything. Iâ€™m just kind of halfway expecting the plug to be pulled every day. But yeah, itâ€™s been great. I did the Justice League thing the wrong way. I read too much on the internet. You canâ€™t do that. The internet is the devil. Or the internet is not the devil, the comment boards are the devil. Believe me, Iâ€™ve been on the opposite side on there, too saying, â€œYou canâ€™t let that guy be that character!â€ But really [in the case of Justice League] it was Weta, Weta, Weta, Weta, Weta. They are amazing and they can make anybody look like anything.”
Awe-inspiring event movie classic, Kryptonite-sheathed bullet dodged, or something that fell comfortably in-between…we’ll never know for sure what Justice League: Mortal would have been. The consensus has long held that the movie would likely have been total garbage, but I digress: the director was one of the greats when it came to epic action (watch The Road Warrior if you doubt that sentiment), the cast was not without talented members in spite of some odd choices, and the plot sounded genuinely exciting with a myriad of storytelling possibilities that could have paid off handsomely in future installments. It could have really been something special. I choose to remain open-minded about these things.
Who knows? Perhaps when we finally get a legitimate Justice League motion picture experience in the coming years it will be well worth the wait and George Miller’s Mortal will be seen as a happy footnote in its development history.