Can Warner Bros make a success of a Justice League film?

Feature James Hunt 12 Jun 2012 - 06:32

Following the staggering success of The Avengers, Warner are putting together an ensemble superhero movie of their own. But can a Justice League film work, James wonders...

It was bound to happen. The unprecedented, unexpected cinematic success of The Avengers has led Warner Bros to commission a new script for their own superhero team-up property. That's right folks! The on-again-off-again Justice League movie is back on! Again!

Writer Will Beall is the man being handed what is, at present, Hollywood's most thankless task: writing a movie that can compete with Avengers. It's only the number three grossing movie of all time, one that smashed box office records while everything around it underperformed, written and directed by a master of his craft. How hard can it be?

It's fair to say that no one's going into this expecting a Justice League movie to succeed like Avengers did - except maybe the most deluded fanboys/fangirls and a smattering of Warner Bros executives who, at initial glance, wouldn't know a quality blockbuster from Green Lantern. But the question is a reasonable one: if Avengers could be made to work, why couldn't a Justice League movie perform just as well?

Maybe there's no reason. On paper, Superman and Batman are undoubtedly the two most recognised superheroes in the world, with more films to their name than Marvel Studios has even made. On paper, a Justice League movie would feed appetites whet for an Avengers sequel that's years away. On paper, all Warner's top brass has to do is think of a way to spend their bonus cheques.

Except there's one problem with a Justice League movie, and ironically, that's actually getting it on paper.

Avengers didn't succeed simply because it plugged some of Marvel's greatest characters into a screenplay and pumped money into it. It succeeded because it was the result of a four year marketing campaign that encompassed five ‘prequels’. It succeeded because it featured some of the world's biggest movie stars in roles that made them household names. It succeeded because Joss Whedon brought his A-game to both the script and direction. And perhaps most of all, it succeeded because everyone who had ever watched a Marvel Studios film - in cinemas, on DVD or on TV - turned up to see it, and bought their friends with them.

Match those factors against the realities of Warner Bros knocking out a Justice League movie at short order, and by comparison it looks like an attempt to reach the Moon by holding onto a lit firework and praying.

But the biggest problem with a Justice League movie isn't the logistics at all. It's something far more fundamental: the characters.

Let's not bring up tired ideas about Superman being too powerful to be interesting, or Batman being outmatched because he has no superpowers. Let's talk about the really big problem: just who are these guys, really?

Justice League's cast, even at its most scant, would need to feature Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash. Iconic characters, all, but that's just it: they're icons. Cyphers. They have costumes, but not personalities.

Look at it this way: you know, just from thinking about it, what cars Tony Stark would drive, and what music Captain America would listen to, but how many of you know what Diana Prince would do with her spare time, or what sort of takeaway Barry Allen might order? And even if you think you do know, be honest: how many of your friends would?

Any Justice League movie made in the next couple of years would – will - have to introduce most of, if not all of its cast from scratch. The actors, their characters, their origins and their reasons for joining the Justice League will all have to be laid out before the story can truly start. By contrast, most of the Avengers didn't need any introduction. Just an entrance.

Even if you're relying on the most popular members of the team to carry the film, you have to stop it feeling like every moment with the B-listers is a moment you're not spending with Superman and Batman. You could probably cut the others out entirely – indeed, right now a Superman versus Batman film would be (structurally and conceptually) a much easier sell than a Justice League film – but then all you have is a snake eating its own tail. There's little to gain from simply mashing two popular properties together, and a lot to lose. Succeed, you break even: everyone still likes those two characters. But fail? That's two brands poisoned for the price of one.

A Justice League movie, produced in advance of solo ones, would only make sense if it acted as a springboard to individual success, capitalising on the public interest in superheroes by giving them a whole new set of characters to care about.

But that's the thing, isn't it? Members of the movie-going public aren't high on superheroes. They're high on Marvel superheroes. Superman has built up a spotty record, and Zack Snyder's notoriously unreliable hands leave little reason for future optimism. We're all aware of the depths to which Batman has sunk in the past, and there's no way Nolan and Bale would get involved in Justice League. The less said about Green Lantern, the better. That's not to say you can't do Avengers numbers with damaged goods – but you make it much harder for yourself. Until Warner rehabilitates those characters, it seems like a bad call to even try.

So before we see a Justice League movie, give us a Batman movie with a star who's willing to play in that world. Give us a Superman movie by someone who understands the character. Give us Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman films that tell us who they are and why we should care. Give us a villain who can match them all in presence and scope.

Most of all, though, give us some sign that this is a decision being made by people who care, rather than bean counters and suits. If there's one thing that Marvel Studios has proven time and again, it's that they care as much about superheroes as their audience – and maybe that's the key to their success. If that's what it takes, a Justice League movie is truly doomed from its inception, because making that film will ask a lot of people to care about a lot of things – budgets, scripts, marketing and contracts – but caring about the characters? That's something you can't ask anyone to do.

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