Mad Max: Fury Road director, George Miller, was once set to helm a Justice League movie nearly a decade ago. The project was known as Justice League: Mortal and it was far more than an unproduced script. A full cast was in place, sets and costumes were in production from Weta Workshop, and filming was all set to begin in Australia before things got…complicated.
It’s a shame, too. Based on the script I read, Justice League: Mortal would have been a fairly impressive, very recognizable representation of DC’s flagship super team. It also would have beaten The Avengers to the big screen by at least a couple of years.
I took a careful look at the Justice League: Mortal script and rounded up some of the other available information out there. We even spoke with George Miller about what it was like to have the plug pulled on a $250 million superhero movie just days before shooting was scheduled to begin.
Let’s get going…
Justice League Mortal Script
Michele and Kiernan Mulroney (who went on to pen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows after this movie failed to materialize) wrote the Justice League: Mortal script, and all things considered, it’s a fun, breezy read. The script was handed over to Warner Bros. in June of 2007 and received a positive response from executives, and it’s easy to see why.
The characters are in costume and in action on virtually every single page from the get-go, and there’s plenty of opportunity for merchandising between the heroes and the endless array of robotic bad guys they square off with. Everyone (yes, even Aquaman) gets a chance to shine, and the idea of introducing a new DC cinematic universe with all of the characters together and then spinning them off into their own films certainly must have seemed attractive, even in those pre-Marvel Studios days.
While it’s refreshing to see these characters presented pretty much exactly as you would want to see them, with little in the way in deconstructionism or even soul-searching on display, it does make the proceedings feel a little lightweight. Justice League: Mortal sometimes reads more like an extended episode of the Justice League Unlimited animated series. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but things move along a little too easily considering how many characters need to be introduced.
The film is bookended with a funeral sequence for a hero, although we don’t find out who it’s for until the end. Once that shocking opening is out of the way, it’s made clear that superheroes are already well-established on Earth. In fact, they’re so well-established that Wonder Woman is addressing the UN to discuss the fact that humanity (with the help of their superpowered protectors) appears to have achieved world peace. Even Bruce Wayne’s faithful aide, Alfred, tells Bruce that crime in Gotham City has been reduced to a “nuisance.”
It’s an interesting opening gambit, almost like a far-reaching, optimistic version of Watchmen, but it’s glossed over so quickly (Wonder Woman’s speech to the UN is broadcasting on a TV in the background of a restaurant where Barry Allen and Iris West are eating), and referred to so infrequently afterwards, that it’s almost inconsequential. It makes for a nice change of pace from the origin story addiction on display in most superhero movies, and the novelty is more in how these characters get together and interact rather than how they came to be in the first place.
It’s never made quite clear how long superheroes have been operating, but I figure five years is a safe bet, especially for Batman, who has probably been operating longer than any of them. The world’s superhumans have never teamed up on a large scale, but some of them appear to have met before.
The Flash functions as the POV character of the film. Despite his great power, he’s the joking everyman, constantly in awe of the other heroes around him. It’s not necessarily the most in tune with traditional depictions of Barry Allen (although one could argue that Grant Gustin’s version of the character could slot right in here), and Barry’s sense of humor is similar to how the Flash of the Justice League animated series (although on that show, he’s Wally West) was presented. The fact that a 17 year old Wally West is also hanging around makes things a little distracting, as his personality is almost indistinguishable from that of his Uncle’s.
Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is the most “outgoing” member of the team. I mean that inasmuch as she has apparently already met/worked with Superman (they’re on a first name, not codename basis), Aquaman (who she has some romantic tension with), and possibly Martian Manhunter. She’s also the public voice of the metahuman community. When we first meet her, she’s addressing the United Nations in that television broadcast, which is a nice way to set up Diana as an ambassador, although little is made of her Amazon background. It’s safe to assume that’s all in place, though.
In short order we’re introduced to the rest of the team once the Martian Manhunter finds himself the victim of a mysterious attack that leaves him in the uncomfortable position of bursting into flames whenever he’s exposed to oxygen. As each member of the team goes to his rescue, they each find themselves compromised by nanotechnology that exploits their weaknesses.
Why is this happening? Because Batman’s been hacked, and his files on how to take out assorted superhumans if they ever got out of line are now being exploited by Bruce Wayne’s buddy Maxwell Lord, who is also playing around with the government’s super secret OMAC technology.
How did this happen? Because Talia al Ghul slipped some tracking tech into Batman’s shorts during one of their romantic interludes.
Why is that happening? Because Maxwell Lord wants revenge on the world for horrible experiments done to him as a child as part of the OMAC Project, which left him with some low-level psychic abilities. Simple, right?
Eventually, everyone gets back on their feet, they make their peace with Batman despite the fact that he’s a pointy-headed, paranoid, fascist dick, and get ready to take on Maxwell Lord and the OMAC cyborgs…who unfortunately have innocent people inside them. In the course of this, Superman ends up mind-controlled and the team has to deal with a Kryptonian running amok on top of everything else.
Remember what I said about Flash getting the most screen time? Well, he also gets the most dramatic moment. See…remember how I said this is bookended with a funeral?
Barry Allen sacrifices himself to get rid of Maxwell Lord (who has become a cybernetic doomsday device) by basically running so fast he merges with the Speed Force and sucks the giant OMAC into oblivion with him. Ummmm…it actually reads a lot better than I make it sound. Wally West then takes up his Uncle’s heroic mantle and joins the team at the end. All the Flash stuff is handled really well throughout the movie, from representations of how Barry sees the world when he’s moving at full speed to his relationship with Iris West. His death definitely would have hit an unspoiled audience pretty hard, since he’s by far the most likeable character in the movie.
The Comic Book Influences
What’s remarkable about Justice League: Mortal is how utterly faithful to the source material it is. It’s not just an unashamed representation of the DC superheroes that make up the team’s roster, it’s almost slavishly devoted to the Justice League stories of the early 21st century.
The core team consists of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash (Barry Allen), Aquaman (complete with his prosthetic “water hand”), Green Lantern (John Stewart), and J’onn J’onzz (The Martian Manhunter), with an assist from Wally West. If the team sounds familiar, that’s because it’s virtually identical to the core team that made up the (still excellent and well worth your time) Justice League animated series. All you have to do is swap Wally West’s Flash for Barry Allen’s, and try and get Hawkgirl in the mix somewhere.
Comic fans who read my (admittedly kinda perfunctory) summation of the script’s events will probably recognize a bunch of story elements from Justice League comics of the era, too.
The first is JLA: Tower of Babel by Mark Waid and Howard Porter. This is the now infamous tale where the Justice League are defeated because someone gets a hold of Batman’s files on everybody’s weakness. It’s a great comic, although an early symptom of the “with enough prep time, Batman could defeat god” problem. In the hands of less talented writers it’s an irritating trope that cheapens everyone involved. Tower of Babel, incidentally, was adapted as a truly awful DC Animated Universe film called Justice League: Doomed. While many of those DCAU movies are a really good time, avoid that one.
The other is The OMAC Project by Greg Rucka and Jesus Saiz. This was another matter of Batman’s good/bad intentions backfiring, as a satellite of his (“Brother Eye”) that was built to monitor the Justice League ends up activating cybernetic sleeper agents all over the world (OMACs), at the behest of Maxwell Lord. In the comics, Wonder Woman decides that Maxwell Lord is too dangerous to live and snaps his neck as assuredly as lazy writing in a modern Superman movie, whereas in Justice League: Mortal, Superman and Wonder Woman refuse to do the deed, but Batman, ever the douchebag, is happy to.
The funeral sequence that bookends the film is reminiscent of Identity Crisis (although it wasn’t the same character taking the dirt nap in that one). And since that funeral is for the Flash (and, for real, this movie isn’t ever getting made, so please don’t yell at me about spoilers), his death sequence is quite similar to how he exited our realm in Crisis on Infinite Earths, right down to the empty costume fluttering to the ground once he vanishes.
It also packs enough DC Comics Easter eggs per page to make even a Marvel Studios exec say “you might want to take that down a notch.” In the course of its 128 pages we’re treated to references to offscreen DC supervillains like Scarecrow, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Parasite, Solomon Grundy, and Catwoman, Batman love-interests like Julie Madison, Silver St. Cloud, and Vicki Vale, plus DC landmarks like Arkham Asylum, The Slab, and Stryker’s Island prison. Even the “Planet Krypton” restaurant chain from DC’s post-Kingdom Come experiments with the continuity altering “hypertime” plot device shows up a few times, and there’s a reference to a “Hal Jordan Memorial Park” that Green Lantern John Stewart is designing in his day job as an architect.
There’s a fun closing sequence with the newly-formed team rushing off to fight Starro, the intergalactic menace that brought the original Justice League together in the first place in the Brave and the Bold #28 way the hell back in 1960.
Justice League Mortal Cast
Justice League: Mortal had an ensemble cast that would have consisted of Adam Brody (The Flash), Armie Hammer (Batman), Common (Green Lantern), DJ Cotrona (Superman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Martian Manhunter), Santiago Cabrera (Aquaman), with Zoe Kasan as Iris Allen. On the villainous side we had Jay Baruchel as Maxwell Lord and Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul.
The above cast photo by the way, is (according to the good folks at Comics Alliance who pointed it out to us) “Hammer in the back row, Cotrona directly in front of him, Cabrera, Brody, Palmer, Van Borssum and Osborne in the second row from the front, and Miller, Baruchel, and Keays-Byrne in front. The woman to the left of Cotrona may be Wonder Woman actress Megan Gale. The man to the right of Cotrona has not been identified.”
There are still some fun superhero connections to be made here, too…
Armie Hammer (sort of) got to play a superhero in Disney’s ill-fated The Lone Ranger movie and his name did briefly resurface in connection with Batman once Christian Bale hung up the pointy cowl. DJ Cotrona never got to play Superman, but he did play Flint in GI Joe: Retaliation. Common recently spoke about the possibility of giving Green Lantern another go before taking on a mystery role in the Suicide Squad movie. Megan Gale, by the way, can be seen in Mad Max: Fury Road as the Valkyrie along with Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe.
Why Didn’t it Happen?
There are several reasons, some are creative, while others are just a question of beauracracy and economics. Timing was definitely a factor.
By some accounts, Justice League: Mortal was mere days away from filming, with Weta having built nearly everything from sets to props and costumes, with special effects pre-vis already set to go. I’ve exhausted myself trying to track down images of the costumes that Weta designed for this film, but there’s very little out there other than some concept art which you can see below. By all accounts, they were rather remarkable. There’s a fun video of Armie Hammer freaking out a little bit over how cool his Batman costume “with all the carbon fiber and mechanics and springs and pistons” on it (there’s an appropriate story purpose for that stuff, by the way, Batman is injured and is wearing high tech arm and knee braces) would have looked.
Adam Brody remembers trying on an early version of the Flash costume. He told MTV that “It was kinda what you’d think, without [certain features]; it was the first, rough-draft version…We were in Australia for some table reads and fittings and whatnot for a few weeks with George Miller and his camp, and that was a great experience. I don’t regret a second of it; I had a really good time and a lot of positive things came from that.”
Our own Don Kaye had a chance to ask George Miller about why Justice League: Mortal had its plug pulled at the last minute. “Well,” he began, “it’s weird.” We don’t doubt it.
He did clarify things, though:
“There was a writers strike. There was some legislation with a tax rebate to make it in Australia. It was the first film that came up, and there was a debate about whether it was Australian content even though I was driving it. It didn’t have to be Australian content, but Australian control. But there was a board that no longer exists that the government cobbled together from people who knew nothing about the film industry. And they voted — they struck it down by one vote. We were all ready. Once that happened and then the writers’ strike happened…it fell apart.”
(you can and should read the rest of Don’s interview with George Miller right here.)
But there’s always the lingering issue of whether Warner Bros. was comfortable having different versions of its own characters competing with each other for audience dollars. Superman Returns had opened in 2006 with Brandon Routh in the title role, and while it underperformed at the box office, a sequel had been penciled in for 2009. Smallville was in the middle of some of its most successful seasons. DJ Cotrona would have made the third live-action Superman vying for attention at the same time.
Adam Brody believed that Warner Bros. “just didn’t want to cross their streams with a whole bunch of Batmans in the universe and all the other reasons they didn’t make it.” Justice League: Mortal would have been in production while the promotional machine for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was in full gear, and with the third film in that Batman trilogy on the horizon, an “unassociated” Batman might not have been welcome. Meanwhile, the big screen Batman of the era, Christian Bale, seemed less than enthused by the whole affair, saying “It’d be better if it doesn’t tread on the toes of what we’re doing,” and “it would be better if it comes out after Batman 3.”
I also have to wonder how Christopher Nolan felt about the whole thing. By the time “Batman 3” (which we know as The Dark Knight Rises these days) was in production, Warner Bros. was already making impatient noises about competing with Marvel Studios’ shared universe model, and that was a game that Mr. Nolan wasn’t at all interested in playing with his Batman films.
So, now that the world has had a good dose of Mad Max: Fury Road, which appears antithetical to many of the traditional CGI-laden superhero movie aesthetics we’ve become accustomed to over the last few years, the question remains: would George Miller ever want to try again?
“I mean I’m a DC man,” Mr. Miller told us. “Like a lot of these things, of course, they’re deeply rooted in Greek mythology, and I’m very into mythology and so on. But I’ve got a lot of stuff on my plate and not enough time to do it. If it was something I’d be interested in…If I could do it so it felt fresh, that’s my biggest thing.”
We suspect he could. Too bad he didn’t get his chance with Justice League: Mortal.
Justice League: Mortal Concept Art
There are some folks making the documentary about George Miller’s Justice League movie (apparently called Miller’s Justice League: Mortal) and they gave fans our first taste of what they might have in store for everyone, via Twitter.
Get a look at Aquaman right here. It’s a more traditional take than what we’re seeing with Jason Momoa in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Note his “water hand.”
And then here’s one more image of Wonder Woman to close things out. If we see more, we’ll post them here!
Mike Cecchini has read more unproduced superhero scripts than your average studio executive. Make fun of him on Twitter.