Justice League: Mortal – An extract from Holy Franchise, Batman!

Gary Collinson presents an extract from his book Holy Franchise, Batman! Bringing the Caped Crusader to the Screen, which details Warner Bros’ attempts to develop a Justice League movie under director George Miller….

Holy Franchise Batman

After relaunching their two major superhero franchises with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, Warner Bros were busy developing sequels to both films – along with a proposed Wonder Woman feature from writer-director Joss Whedon – when the decision was made to take their stable of DC Comics characters down a similar path to that of rival publisher Marvel. Establishing their own independent film production division in 2005, Marvel Studios had announced plans to produce a slate of solo movies in Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, building towards their star-studded superhero cross-over The Avengers in 2012. Having enjoyed little success outside Batman and Superman with their DC properties, Warner Bros executives were drawn towards the prospect of using a superhero team-up as a platform to launch their lesser known characters, and with the Justice League of America they already possessed an ensemble more than capable of matching up to the Avengers.

Tracing its origins back to the Bronze Age’s first superhero team, the Justice Society of America, the Justice League made their Silver Age debut in the comic book story ‘Justice League of America’ by Gardner Fox, published in The Brave and the Bold #28 (March 1960). Featuring an original line-up of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter, Justice League of America quickly became one of DC’s biggest selling titles and its success went on to influence Marvel Comics, who introduced their own team of superheroes with the release of Fantastic Four #1, kick-starting a revival in fortunes for the comic book industry. A version of the Justice League first appeared on screen in the animated series The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure in the late 1960s, while the following decade saw the team serving as the inspiration for the long-running Saturday morning cartoon series Super Friends. The producers of Super Friends, Hanna-Barbera, would also develop a live-action incarnation of the cartoon in 1979 entitled Legends of the Superheroes, although rights issues prevented Superman and Wonder Woman from joining the roster for the two-part variety show special.

In 1997 a live-action pilot was produced for a Justice League of America television series, which omitted Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman from its line-up and was ultimately rejected by the CBS network. The ensemble did arrive on the small screen four years later when Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Bruce W. Timm launched Justice League as the latest entry in the popular DC Animated Universe, and in January 2007 a version of the team appeared on Smallville in the sixth-season episode ‘Justice’. The following month, Warner Bros decided to move forward with their plans to bring the superheroes together for a cinematic adventure, hiring the screenwriting duo of Keiran and Michelle Mulroney to start work on a script for a Justice League feature.

The announcement of a Justice League movie was met with a mixed response by the fan community, raising questions as to how the studio intended to incorporate the film alongside their current projects, specifically Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which was about to commence principal photography for release the following summer. Speculation increased in June when Variety reported that both Batman and Superman were present in the Mulroneys’ script, leaving fans wondering whether Christian Bale and Brandon Routh were set to bring their respective characters together on screen. However, Bale expressed his uneasiness over the project and by the time that George Miller (Mad Max) came on board as director in September, it seemed increasingly likely that another actor would don the cape and cowl for a new interpretation of the Caped Crusader.

Following Miller’s arrival, reports emerged that Warner Bros were considering the possibility of producing Justice League using performance capture technology, an increasingly popular form of digital animation that had been pioneered by Robert Zemeckis’ ImageMovers studio on the likes of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Alleged script details soon leaked to the internet, suggesting that the Mulroneys’ script – entitled Justice League: Mortal – drew heavily from the comic book continuity, adopting a plot that centred around a spy satellite constructed by Batman in order to keep track of his fellow League members and provide him with details of their weaknesses. Falling into the hands of the corrupt businessman Maxwell Lord, the satellite would be used to turn Superman against his allies before a final showdown between the Justice League of America and Lord’s army of cyborgs. The script also tied into the continuity of Batman Begins and featured the inclusion Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia, a character first introduced in the comic book story ‘Into the Den of the Death-Dealers!’ by Denny O’Neil, published in Detective Comics #411 (May 1971).

Fast-tracking Justice League: Mortal through pre-production to avoid the impending Writers Guild of America strike, Warner Bros intended to commence principal photography in Australia in February 2008, hoping to fill a void in their schedule for the summer of 2009. In casting his team of superheroes, Miller auditioned over forty possible contenders, searching for actors that he felt could grow into their roles over a series of movies. While no deals were ever officially announced, several sources confirmed that Miller had found his lineup and details began to emerge as to who would fill out the roster of the Justice League in the $220m-budgeted production.

Securing the role of the Dark Knight was Armie Hammer, an up-and-coming actor whose resumé included appearances in shows such as Arrested Development, Veronica Mars and Desperate Housewives, and he was to be joined by a cast that included D.J. Cotrona (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) as Clark Kent/Superman, Megan Gale (Stealth) as Princess Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman, Adam Brody (The O.C.) as Barry Allen/The Flash, Anton Yelchin (Hearts in Atlantis) as Wally West/The Flash, Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max) as J’onn J’onzz/Martian Manhunter, Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) as Arthur Curry/Aquaman and Common (American Gangster) as John Stewart/Green Lantern. Zoe Kazan (Fracture) was also set to feature as Barry Allen’s wife Iris, and Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) and Teresa Palmer (December Boys) were chosen to portray the villainous pairing of Maxwell Lord and Talia al Ghul.

The first signs that Justice League: Mortal was running into trouble came in January 2008, when Warner Bros revealed that they were temporarily putting the project on a hold. The studio had hoped to secure tax-break incentives from the Australian government but failed to qualify for the 40 per cent rebate on expenditure offered to domestic productions, while the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike prevented script concerns from being addressed. It was rumoured that Christopher Nolan expressed displeasure over the decision to tie Justice League into his own Batman continuity and George Miller’s casting choices were also poorly received, with the studio subsequently allowing the options on the actors to expire. It came as a surprise, then, when the project was revived just six weeks later only for the studio to pull the plug once again, placing the big budget superhero team-up on indefinite hiatus.

Although George Miller remained insistent that Justice League: Mortal would come to fruition, Warner Bros decided to change their strategy in the wake of The Dark Knight’s blockbuster success. In August 2008, studio president Jeff Robinov announced a shift towards solo outings for their DC characters, stating that development was already underway on a number of potential adaptations including The Flash, Green Arrow, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, along with a sequel to The Dark Knight and reboot of Superman. With progress on Justice League: Mortal grinding to a halt, Miller eventually departed to direct a sequel to his Academy Award-winning animated hit Happy Feet. Meanwhile Warner Bros were eventually successful in bringing one member of the Justice League to the screen with the arrival of Green Lantern in the summer of 2011, although the film disappointed at the box office and received decidedly mixed reviews.

Despite the collapse of Justice League: Mortal, talk of a DC Comics superhero team-up persisted, especially when it was revealed that the studio had appointed Christopher Nolan as producer of their Superman reboot, Man of Steel in 2010. Nolan soon played down speculation, stating that he saw the worlds inhabited by both heroes as entirely distinct from one another, and the idea of bringing the Justice League together on screen seemed to have died down until March 2011 when Jeff Robinov reiterated the studio’s desire to move forward with development on The Flash and Wonder Woman, ultimately building towards a potential Justice League feature.

HOLY FRANCHISE BATMAN: BRINGING THE CAPED CRUSADER TO THE SCREEN:

Since the Caped Crusader first made the leap from comics to silver screen in the early 1940s, generations of audiences have been captivated by the screen adventures of Batman, establishing the celebrated comic book hero as a true icon of popular culture. Now, Gary Collinson traces the entire screen history of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight Detective, providing a fascinating insight into one of the most successful media franchises of all time.

Beginning with the early movie serials of the 1940s, Holy Franchise, Batman! charts the development of Batman’s many exploits across both live-action and animation, presenting a comprehensive overview of his illustrious screen career. From the classic 1960s television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward to the hugely successful blockbuster feature films from directors Tim Burton (Batman, Batman Returns), Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), as well as early Saturday morning cartoon outings through to the acclaimed ‘DC Animated Universe’, this book explores the evolution of Batman – a journey that has taken him from ‘camp’ crime-fighter to Dark Knight.

Holy Franchise, Batman! Bringing the Caped Crusader to the Screen – Available now via Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Gary Collinson

Around the Internet…

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