Justice League vs Avengers: My Superhero Club’s Better Than Your Superhero Club

When I was smaller than I am today, there was an advertising campaign for a range of chocolate bars featuring obnoxious stage school brats singing “IF you looooiiiiikkke a lot of chocolate on yer biscuit…Join our CLUB!!!”

If you didn’t have a Club bar in your packed lunch you weren’t worth nuffin’ in my playground.

Double negatives aside, from one playground squabble to the next: DC/Warner Bros’ Justice League movie.  The movie was green-lit approximately 30 seconds after the Avengers (Marvel/Disney) numbers started rolling in.  Oh go on then, I’ll reuse an old favourite of mine: it was Green-Lanterned.

How the long winter nights fly by.

And then it was off again, like Ross and Rachel from Friends but with more spandex and self-doubting movie executives.

But before it was quietly shelved, or at least delayed, there was more to JL than money envy.  It represented the latest skirmish in the war between DC and Marvel.  DC may own (I won’t even say ‘arguably’) the world’s most recognisable superheroes in Superman and Batman, but it’s conspicuously failed to wrangle the rest of its stable onto the silver screen with anything like the success enjoyed by its rival.

And given the near-constant fiscal uncertainty surrounding the comics industry, dis be a problem, ya dig.

But there’s also a hint of one upmanship.  Justice League of America debuted around 1960, the Avengers following in 1963.  In fact Stan Lee is said to have created Marvel’s Fantastic Four as a slightly panicked interim reaction to the JLA’s team up schtick.

And while the likes of Captain America and Iron Man are all well and good, Batman plus Superman is a hell of trump card.  At this point one wonders whether Marvel regrets flogging the rights to its bigger hitters like Spiderman to rival studios.

It’s all very exciting, anyway, for those who love this golden age of superpowered blockbusters.

Except that the alarm klaxons only ceased when the mooted JL movie was stood down.  And here’s why…

The One Where No-one Knows The Heroes

Two examples: DC’s Green Lantern and Marvel’s Thor.  Both are about a juvenile man-child given responsibility and magical accessories (a ring and a hammer respectively) and having to grow up.  Neither character was particularly famous.

And with respect to people who do know and love either character, both represented a pretty hard sell to the general public.

Green Lantern barely scraped back its budget and marketing costs.  The filmmakers didn’t appear to know what kind of film they wanted to make and consequently the film shifted tone abruptly between campy space opera, action spectacle, glib one-liners and half-assed stabs at gravitas.  It may have been available in a 3D format, but the script and characterisation remained firmly rooted in a 2D world.  Or as Roger Ebert put it in his pretty ambivalent defence “if you want a sound and light show, that’s what you get”.  By contrast The Telegraph put it on the list of its 10 worst films of 2011.

But at least Green Lantern got his flick.  Other DC characters who could qualify for the JL movie include Hawkman/girl: has wings, might fly.  Martian Manhunter: like Superman but green and Martian.  Because the last film to feature large green Martians, John Carter, was a roaring success.

Green Arrow.  If Batman had a love child with Robin Hood (s)he still wouldn’t be as derivative as this character.  But at least he has a TV show, unlike, say, Wonder Woman, the third prong in DC’s superbod troika, who couldn’t make it past a pilot a few years back and whose latest vehicle remains stalled.

Cramming a load of expository backstory for relatively unknown characters into a JL movie doesn’t sound much like entertainment, especially as the movie will likely itself be an origin story – the tale of how the JL came to be.

The One Where No-one’s Ready

But even the ones the public can probably be relied on to recognise pose their own problems.  First up, Wonder Woman.  Unlike the chaps above, people tend to remember Wonder Woman – she wears a basque and hot pants and looks like Lynda Carter.

She’s got killer accessories but is lumbered with a challenging story involving the gods of Ancient Greece.  That and varying characterisations which veer between aggressive matriarchy, vague feminism and the sexism inherent in much of comic book tradition.

Likewise The Flash – dude runs really fast, wears a red outfit.  The public might wonder when Daredevil got his sight back, stopped being Ben Affleck and learned to run really, really fast.  But even if they don’t, the name Barry Allen will mean nothing to many, let alone his character and motivations.

Both of these characters could do with being introduced in their own story before being inducted into the JL, but the next character has the opposite problem.

The One Where Batman Needs A Lie Down

There was a rumour that Joseph Gordon-Levitt cameos in Man Of Steel, and ‘maybe’ someone else from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  At the time it felt like a transparent attempt to tie Nolan’s name to Zack Snyder’s sombre Superman, landing soon at a multiplex near you.  To be fair to Sad Supes, Russell Crowe’s his dad, and that’s probably a fairly challenging shadow from which to emerge.

The temptation to big up the Nolan connection is understandable for two reasons.  First because his Batman trilogy was hugely successful critically and commercially and second because unlike everyone else linked to it, he’s ready for a JL movie.  Batman needs no introduction and poses no commercial risk – even Joel Schumacher’s films-that-shan’t-be-named couldn’t kill the franchise.

Except that he’s not really ready for a JL movie.

The Nolan trilogy is self-contained – even Zorro doesn’t exist (same as zombie movies tend not to exist in zombie movies).  Going from an ‘almost real’ setting to an almost real setting that says by the way here’s flying alien Jesus, Zeus’ little girl and a couple others, now let’s smack down an equally credibility-stretching mega threat….well it’s a toughie.  There’s also the small, potentially a spoiler matter that Nolan resolved the Batman story in The Dark Knight Rises.

Last but not least, the character’s been in 7 live action movies since 1989.  Dude needs a holiday.

The One Where We Get To The Actual Insurmountable Problem

But maybe I’m wrong on all this.  MAYBE recognition is the same thing as affection, obviating the need for standalone movies for The Flash, Wonder Woman und zo weiter.

But back to Green Lantern and Thor.  Thor benefitted from the in-house approach Marvel took to its characters pre-Avengers.  It tied into a wider fictional universe.  But more importantly for our purposes it tied into a wider cinematic universe – when Thor shares a screen with Iron Man there’s no need to reconcile wild differences in tone, colour palette and cinematography. Their movies aren’t identical of course, but they’re recognisably similar – brightly lit, more primary coloured than muted hues.

On the other hand taking a day-glo, wisecracking Green Lantern out of a CGI-fantastical reality and plonking him next to growly Batman in shades of brown and light rain does seem like a serious problem.

In blackest night picked out by the unnatural glow of streetlights if you will.

What is needed, and what Warner Bros appear to have belatedly accepted, is a consistency of approach.  Marvel may have begun its ascent to the top of the tentpole with Iron Man because it lacked the movie rights to X Men etc, but it wasn’t until the sequel started setting up a wider universe that it publicly announced an Avengers movie.  Thereafter it was able to tailor each new release to match a particular style.

The One Where We Finally Get To The End And Even Say Something Nice

A JL movie isn’t an inherently bad idea but Warner Bros probably do need to lay the groundwork – establish the look, feel and tone of the DC universe.  All of which depends on the Man of Steel, but then if he’s miserable and Batman’s moody, well a film about grumpy introverts might not be that much fun.

And it would already have been done in Watchmen, ironically enough directed by Zack Snyder.  There’s the gritty, psychotic one, the one with all the gadgets who can’t get it up unless he’s fighting crime because Freud.  Superman’s alienated (yes I did); the good guys are actually the bad guys and vice versa.

But as a take on the superhero club it might be good to make it as different from the Avengers as possible.

There are some interesting dynamics to explore – for all the character’s faults, Green Lantern belongs to a sort of police force and thus has authority where the others have power.  His area of responsibility is considerably wider than anyone else’s.  Both give room for his character to affect a supercilious attitude to the rest of the team barring possibly Wonder Woman.

Batman and Superman are often played for tension.  In fact compared to the others Batman is totally out of his depth physically (unless he’s wearing a yellow suit with a kryptonite brass knuckle of course), which could be tricky for his character to cope with.  Especially if fear-hating space cop Green Lantern gets all uppity.

Wonder Woman is, of course, female.  This provides a fantastic opportunity to play with precisely the sort of casual sexism that permeates both Hollywood films and comic books.  If it were up to me I’d have another superhero express undue concern for her safety because she’s, y’know, a chick, and have her lay the guy out with one punch.  I imagine it’s the sort of thing Joss Whedon might do.

Finally there is one more character who could/should be up for consideration: Aquaman.  But after all the Family Guy jokes I don’t anyone could be persuaded to take him seriously.

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