How To Make A JLA Movie

So the first full trailer for the Justice League movie dropped on Saturday:

While I’m not impressed with the overall Zack Snyderness of the trailer (Blaring rock music! Super slo-mo! Murky, desaturated orange & teal color schemes!), it got me to thinking once again about how I’d do a Justice League movie if I ever got the chance.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m setting a few ground rules. First of all, I’m going to pretend that this prospective JLA movie is the very first of its kind. In other words, I’m casting every character from scratch and rebooting the continuity. Even though I think Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, and Gal Gadot all did the best they could with the material they got, there will be no tie-ins with the deeply flawed Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman. You can’t build a house on faulty foundation. And although it’s pretty damn tempting to fire up the ol’ time machine and grab Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter from the late 70s, I’m limiting myself to present-day, currently-working actors for my JLA. And obviously, any actors with major roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be off limits.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. If you’re doing a JLA movie, you have to come to terms with the fact that Marvel’s already stolen your thunder:

No matter what DC does with their movie universe, they’re never going to be able to match that initial thrill we got from seeing Marvel’s heroes team up onscreen for the first time. We’ve gotten so spoiled by the interconnected Marvel movies in the last 10 years that I think we’re already forgetting what live-action superheroes were like before Marvel Studios came along. Every adaptation was a solo adaptation. Each character existed in isolation, and we had no expectations of that ever changing. The most we could hope for in terms of crossovers was that throwaway line in Batman Forever where Bruce Wayne mentioned Metropolis or the Shazam and Superman in-jokes in Spider-Man.

And then this happened, and suddenly it was a whole new ballgame:

Like Nick Fury said, they just became part of a bigger universe. Suddenly, tying superhero movies together wasn’t just a fun bonus. It was expected. Hell, it was required.

So the novelty of superheroes meeting and teaming up onscreen is pretty much gone. So what can you do instead? You start by asking yourself what makes the JLA unique, and doing everything you can to emphasize that stuff.

The JLA is different things to different people, and it’s largely dependent on what era you grew up on. As a kid of the 70s and 80s, I’m a Satellite era JLA fan, so this is automatically my default:

Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez JLA

These are my guys. Just like it said on the masthead of their book for years, they’re The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes. They’re DC’s elite, the best of the best. For the most part, these are the superheroes that the average man on the street has heard of: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. While the Avengers usually have some A-listers in their roster, they’ve always been more of a motley crew. This was never more apparent than during the “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” days, when most of the membership quit and Captain America was left to train three newbies who were all reformed villains.

Avengers Cap's Kooky Quartet Captain America Hawkeye Quicksilver Scarlet Witch

When the JLA tried the second stringer approach during the Detroit days, it didn’t really work, because it was going against the book’s core concept. The group that Aquaman gathered could have been an interesting supergroup on its own terms, but it wasn’t really the Justice League.

So okay, you use the big, iconic, frontline guys. That’s a good start. And for the most part, the Snyder movie is doing that. Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg as the new kid on the block, and Superman making his grand return. I really think Green Lantern should be there, too, but I suppose Warners is still waiting for the stink of the Green Lantern movie to die down.

JLA postcards George Perez

I think it could be interesting if they skipped an origin story and just presented the JLA as a fait accompli, much like the first story in The Brave and the Bold #28 did back in the day. That would automatically differentiate them from the formula the 2012 Avengers movie used and emphasize that the Justice League is group with history. If you’re worried about introducing the JLA to moviegoers, I say we discover them through the eyes of a new member. This would also give us an avenue to the “new kid on the block” dynamic that made Firestorm and Kyle Rayner so much fun.

Firestorm Green Lantern Kyle Rayner

But… I’m not going to use either of those guys in my movie. Firestorm is a bit on the obscure side and pretty special effects-intensive, so he’s out. And sorry to all the Kyle Rayner fans out there, but I’m going with Hal Jordan for my GL. I have another DC character in mind to fill the new member role, and I’ll reveal him later on, along with my reasoning.

And, in the interests of keeping the membership to a reasonable level and avoiding redundant powers, I’m keeping both the Martian Manhunter and Captain Marvel out of the group.

Martian Manhunter Captain Marvel JLA
Sorry, guys. I love you both, but maybe in the sequel.

OK, so that’s the basics for the membership. What about the plot?

I’m not going to get into more than broad strokes here. I honestly don’t have any huge preference for the villain (a supervillain group like the Secret Society of Super-Villains or the Legion of Doom could be cool, and so could Darkseid. Heck, you could even make a cool movie with Per Degaton, Starro or the Royal Flush Gang). But there are a couple of things that I think are very important.

Number One is that the League splits up into teams to deal with elements of the menace before coming back together at the end. That’s a basic part of the Gardner Fox’s classic JLA Formula, and it dates back to Justice Society stories from the 40s. It’s one of those things that makes the Justice League the Justice League, and I think it should be preserved. It always led to those fun pages where a group of two or three Leaguers were setting off on their mission and you got to see all their logos in the first panel.

JLA 109 Black Canary Atom JLA 109 Hawkman Green Arrow Elongated Man

Another thing I think is important to remember is that the League is Cosmic with a capital “C.” They pop off to other planets, time periods, or parallel Earths the way you or I go to the grocery store. I think a JLA movie should take advantage of the fact that these characters come from all over. The core Leaguers have connections to Krypton, Metropolis, Gotham, Themyscira, Atlantis, and outer space. Let’s use that and send them far and wide. The Avengers have spent five years building up going into outer space. The JLA should go there in the first 15 minutes, if possible.

Along those lines, I think the cinematic JLA absolutely has to have either the Satellite or the Watchtower as a headquarters. It’s important to put them into space and have them watching over the planet as a whole. We need to emphasize that the JLA operates on a larger scale than the Avengers.

JLA 200 Satellite George Perez

The way I see it, a JLA movie should take the best of all the JLA incarnations over the years — The Gardner Fox formula of splitting up the League, the Len Wein/Steve Englehart/Gerry Conway characterization, some of the Keith Giffen/J.M. DeMatteis humor, the strong plotting of Dwayne McDuffie, and the mind-blowing concepts of Grant Morrison. Now that’s a movie that I’ll fork over money to see.

I wanted to get into the cast for my prospective JLA movie, but this is getting a bit long already, so I’ll break it off here and finish this up in a second part tomorrow. What’s a superhero story without a good cliffhanger, anyway?

To Be Continued!!!

52 Comments

  1. frasersherman

    I like your approach, but I disagree strongly regarding the Kookie Quartet. Up to that point the Avengers had gone with the JLA World’s Greatest Heroes approach, so it wasn’t much less drastic than the Detroit League, though I didn’t know it at the time (I had no knowledge of Marvel when I started reading them so for all I knew Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye were just as big league as Thor and Iron Man). The real difference is that Stan Lee was writing better Avenger stories than Gerry Conway was doing when he brought in the Detroiters (about a year before Detroit, Conway’s writing really took a nose dive).
    Regardless of which, I agree that the ideal JLA movie goes with the big guns.

    1. I like your approach, but I disagree strongly regarding the Kookie Quartet. Up to that point the Avengers had gone with the JLA World’s Greatest Heroes approach, so it wasn’t much less drastic than the Detroit League…

      I don’t know. I feel like if Marvel was really putting all of their big guns into the Avengers when they first put the group together, Spider-Man would have been a part of it somehow. And I don’t think that Ant-Man and the Wasp ever really burned up the sales charts outside of the initial “Man in the Ant Hill” story that introduced Henry Pym. IIRC, the Wasp was introduced to shore up interest in the Ant-Man feature, but it didn’t really take, which is why Ant-Man became Giant-Man not long after.

      You could argue that the Hulk was a big gun, but I don’t think that’s the case, since:

      A) His initial book was canceled after six issues, and Lee and Kirby were obviously trying to keep the character alive through guest shots in other books like the FF, Avengers, and Spider-Man.
      B) He left the group pretty quickly and then became more of an antagonist than anything.

      I don’t the Hulk became really popular until he got his feature in Tales To Astonish and Ditko revamped him a bit.

      The Avengers are kind of interesting in that it seems that Lee & Kirby put together a group of the most logical characters to team up, rather than their highest profile characters.

      1. M-Wolverine

        Morrison is out there on a lot of stuff, but I think he was generally right on what it takes to make a great team, and it’s a strong motif. There’s a reason The Defenders never really stuck is because there’s no reason for them to be together. FF is a family. X-Men students/school. JLA were the modern day pantheon of gods. The best featuring iconic aspects. And the Avengers were a football team. (He might have meant a different football). Which goes with what you’re saying; they’re parts put together for a great whole, but they’re not necessarily a team of “quarterbacks.”

        1. frasersherman

          The idea of the Defenders as a non-team that just hung together by choice worked well for most of their original run (even if the stories often didn’t). But no, it doesn’t do much as a rallying cry to revive them.

          1. M-Wolverine

            Hmmm, I wonder, wouldn’t the Champions be the team that hung out together just because they wanted to? The Defenders more seems to me like the team that hung out together because no one else wanted to hang out with them. Which might be an OK short term concept, but is hard to sustain when you (by necessity) have to start rotating members.

            Though maybe I’m getting those reversed. Because the Champions, talk about a team with a weak mission statement….

          2. frasersherman

            Well that was how the Defenders defined themselves back in the day — in contrast to the Avengers, they were together by choice, not by any formal charter. Admittedly at first it was more “look we’re all fighting the same person, let’s hit them together!” — when Valkyrie says she wants to join, Namor argues the team doesn’t really exist. But over time (particularly Len Wein’s run) they grew more convivial.
            The Champions’ mission statement — while other heroes stop the apocalypse and fight super-villains we help out the little guy! — wasn’t that bad. Except they never did anything with it. And of course it’s not that original, DC heroes helped out the little guy all the time … okay, it was pretty bad.

        2. “The Defenders never really stuck is because there’s no reason for them to be together. ”
          To me, the Defenders is that bunch of friends you’re only friends with because you all got dumped into the same classroom (or military unit or office or whatever), and gradually learned to get along and even like each other somewhat even though you really don’t have a lot in common and probably never would have chosen to hang out with in the first place if it hadn’t been for circumstance.
          The Champions are a frat. They not only want to fight the bad guys as a team, they like hanging out and partying together.

      2. frasersherman

        That’s a fair assessment but I still think it was quite a shift. It may have made a difference that Wanda, Pietro and Clint all had some stories that showed them off and established their character, where Conway was pulling Vibe, Gypsy and Steel II out of thin air (when Vixen’s your biggest gun …).

        1. M-Wolverine

          Yeah, I was thinking about that angle. They were at least established characters, and the bad guy angle makes it intriguing and creates natural conflict. JLA Detroit’s seemed to manufacture conflict, mainly by making Vibe a dick. I mean, when they started killing them off, did anyone really feel sad, or was it just “cool, they actually killed a Justice Leaguer!” They didn’t kill Gypsy because there was a bit of emotional attachment, not due to her, but because of J’onn.

          1. frasersherman

            And I never had any trouble believing the Kooks were a formidable team, despite their low level of power. The Detroit League? Never that impressive.
            Speaking of the KQ, I would love to see some retcons some time from when the Swordsman was a member. IIRC, the original story had him working with them for weeks, so there’s a lot that could have happened.

          2. M-Wolverine

            Well, I think it’s part of who you’re replacing. Sure, you’re replacing Thor, but otherwise you’re replacing Ant-Man/Giant-Man, the Wasp, and pre-walking battle tank Iron Man. The Detroit guys were taking the place of Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, etc. And fully formed later day took on gigantic threats Justice League. Not barely survived the Space Phantom Avengers.

  2. M-Wolverine

    I don’t think using the Satellite era is being provincial. Just look at that picture. That era had pretty much everyone we associate with the JLA, at least the ones that really matters. And I LOVE the JLI era, and there are lots of other great runs, like Morrison and so on. But when I think JLA I’m not thinking Blue Beetle and Kyle Rayner first. Sorry guys. If you changed the art style, that could practically be one of the versions of the Super Friends. Just having replaced some made up heroes with 3rd stringers. However those made up heroes do have one thing going for them – even I realize that picture starkly shows how White the JLA was. They may have been from all over, but the two “people of color” were a Martian and an android. And even they pretended to be white guys.

    I love the split up idea, also something Marvel hasn’t really had a chance to do. They’ve had side missions like Cap and Black Widow in Winter Soldier and Thor and Hulk in the upcoming one, but not really going off together in the same movie.

    Though those examples….poor, damn, Aquaman.

    “Hey, we have a mission in mid-Atlantic…finally I can show you my value, and how we do things in the Seven Seas!”

    “Uh, actual Arthur, we split up the teams, and decided we’re going to send the Atom and Black Canary.”

    “Wait, not only are you going to not send the King of the Seven Seas on the water mission (Finally!) but you’re not sending someone who can hold their breath underwater like Red Tornado, or handle the pressure like Superman, or heck, even create their own dive suit/sub/containment sphere like Green Lantern…but you’re going to send the chick in fishnets to the deep ocean cold, who needs to be able to scream to be able to do anything, THROUGH a dive helmet that would shatter if she uses her power, and she’s stuck with under water martial arts? And the guy who can shrink to the size of a guppy. And neither can propel themselves underwater??”

    “Well, Green Arrow wasn’t available….”

    “The guy who would need to shoot arrows underwater?!?!?! That’s it, I quit!!!!”

    Though the next panel’s “swiftly flying forms” include two guys who can’t fly, and one who isn’t even wearing a jet pack but standing somewhere. But at least they put the guy whose whole thing is flying in there to, you know, fly.

    (I do love the transition of “transmitted by special Justice League methods we are not permitted to reveal.” What a great, hey, go with it means of no space plot contrivance.)

      1. I’d honestly have to pull JLA #109 to check to see if Aquaman was in that issue or not. Those panels were just some examples I found online, since I really didn’t want to spend half of my evening combing through back issues and scanning panels.

        M-Wolverine, that exchange was hilarious.

        1. M-Wolverine

          I’d tend to think Le Messor was right and he either wasn’t on the team or maybe since they made a point of being in the mid-Atlantic that MAYBE someone was in the Pacific too. I just find the random pairing both ridiculous and wonderful, because while it may make no sense, all the fun is in what you say the movie needs, the interesting and odd pairings that gets us creative interaction, and in places you normally would see the heroes. Seeing Batman sent to find Starro is a Gotham alley is redundant. (Though having Starro in an actual Batman comic suddenly sounds all kinds of awesome).

          1. Exactly. You’ve got to mix things up to keep it interesting. Aquaman fighting someone in the Atlantic Ocean is Been There, Done That, but Black Canary and the Atom fighting someone underwater? Wow — How the heck are they going to do THAT?

      1. Yeah, Snyder would certainly not be my choice, but I doubt I’d hire Whedon, either. He did a great job on the Avengers movies, but half of my point is that the DC movies should be different from Marvel’s where they can be. Hiring Whedon to do the JLA would likely lead to more of the same.

        Besides, I doubt he’d be interested in the gig at this point, anyway.

  3. To me, Cyborg will always be a Titan, not a JLAer. He’s not iconic, and he’s redundant; the team already has a tank (Superman).

    If I were making the movie, I would, as you said, start with the team already assembled and with a few years of history behind them. Within the current DC/WB structure, I’d merge the movie and TV worlds and use the existing version of Flash. Green Arrow could be a drop-in, but I think he’s too “street level” for a cosmic battle.

    My team would be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart, primarily to take the Reynolds stink off, but also because he’s the best-known version of the character and the one least tainted by bad stories, and he makes the team a little less lily-white), Black Lightning, and our gateway newbie character would be Zatanna. Also? Oracle is there, but we only hear her.

  4. Le Messor

    “While I’m not impressed with the overall Zack Snyderness of the trailer (… Murky, desaturated orange & teal color schemes!)”

    I’m pleasantly surprised you brought up the terrible colours. Most people don’t even think about that.

    (Though I work with a guy who hates the Marvel movies because they’re ‘brightly-coloured’… what kind of movie world are we living in where that’s brightly-coloured?)

    “Every adaptation was a solo adaptation. Each character existed in isolation, and we had no expectations of that ever changing.”

    I hadn’t forgotten that. In fact, just this morning, I was thinking about how Legion feels like that to me. (I haven’t seen all of it yet, though.)

    1. I’m pleasantly surprised you brought up the terrible colours. Most people don’t even think about that.

      Oh, the colors bug me in a big way. The DC movies are SOOO desaturated, and the costumes are so dark, it seem that they’re afraid to have them look like superheroes. I want to see them bright & colorful with costumes that POP off the screen! The costumes we have right now I just want to run through a car wash.

      I’m sick of everybody fighting at night, too. At least Marvel has the sense to stage most of their action scenes during daylight where you can actually see what’s going on.

  5. fit2print

    I get that you’re probably looking to up the estrogen content of the team by including Zatanna but, to me, the ridiculous costume alone should disqualify her. Though they’re as closely associated (to me anyway) with the Teen Titans as Cyborg, I think I’d opt for someone like Raven or Starfire. The fact it’s so tough to come up with suitable female team members speaks volumes about comicdom’s enduring sexism — I mean, beyond distaff versions of the DC’s top-tier male. heroes — Supergirl, Batwoman, Hawkgirl, Mera etc — what are the options? Ummm …. Catwoman? Wait… she’s not even a “hero”. Black Canary? Yeah… no. Beyond those two, I’m pretty much drawing a blank. Maybe someone could invent a female version of Red Tornado — when I was a kid, I always thought he was the coolest looking JLA member. And who better than Lindsay Lohan to play her? You know, because she’s a redhead… and… lays waste to everything in her path (?) Yeah, I figured it was a reach…

    1. Like any superhero costume, it’s only ridiculous if the actor is self-conscious. I like the original costume, the classic stage magician outfit, especially if it’s established that she is a performing magician who actually does have magic powers, but, y’know, a girl’s gotta eat, and then she has to charge into battle in her work clothes.

      In comics of the last few years, her costume has been ridiculous because the artists don’t know what a cummerbund is, so they keep putting her in a tuxedo jacket and corset or vaguely-defined yellow wrap of some kind, and they keep trying to find some way to change a tuxedo shirt into a bustier.

      I could see reworking the classic costume to be a little less showbiz and a little more steampunkish, but it really needs to be clothes that she wears professionally, not her super-suit.

      And does it really look any more ridiculous than Flash’s armor or Cyborg’s Transformer cosplay?

      1. Like any superhero costume, it’s only ridiculous if the actor is self-conscious.

        Yes, THIS. A thousand times this. THAT’S the secret. That, and not making jokes about the costumes. I never got the feeling that Christopher Reeve or Lynda Carter were anything but 100% comfortable in their superhero costumes. Dean Cain always seemed to be dreading what his old football buddies were going to say.

        1. M-Wolverine

          Huh, I never thought about that with Dean Cain, but I can see it. And while the suit itself may not have been “comfortable” she could be comfortable because she was one of the handful of women on the planet who could pull that off. Wowza. And she still looks great.

  6. To me, Cyborg will always be a Titan, not a JLAer.

    Same here, Jim.

    My team would be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern (John Stewart, primarily to take the Reynolds stink off, but also because he’s the best-known version of the character and the one least tainted by bad stories, and he makes the team a little less lily-white), Black Lightning, and our gateway newbie character would be Zatanna. Also? Oracle is there, but we only hear her.

    Pretty cool JLA lineup there. I really considered adding John Stewart or Black Lightning to my lineup, but honestly, I couldn’t think of actors I really liked for either. But I may add another character tonight to up the diversity quotient.

    I get that you’re probably looking to up the estrogen content of the team by including Zatanna but, to me, the ridiculous costume alone should disqualify her.

    Which one? She’s had a few.

    I was discussing Zatanna with some of my FB friends today. I think she doesn’t work as well in live action as she does in a printed medium, where you can actually read her backwards spells to see what she’s saying. Spoken aloud, it just sounds like gibberish. And like Firestorm, her powers are also of the “point at stuff and weird shit happens” variety.

    Raven I could see working in the JLA, I think. Especially if you put her in a role like the Phantom Stranger used to have, where he’d warn the JLA about stuff and disappear as mysteriously as he appeared. That could be very neat.

    But yeah, it’s tough to find really good heroines in comics still. Especially ones that aren’t just female spinoffs of male heroes.

    1. Her lines should actually be recorded backwards. Phonetically speaking backwards sounds like gibberish, but dialog actually played backward would sound pretty weird.

      I know a musical group that actually learned a song backward, recorded it, and then reversed the recording. It sounded super-weird.

        1. That IS a great idea. I could see that working. And giving the group’s magician some extra weirdness is always a good idea.

          One of my friends was telling me today that Zatanna’s incantations actually appeared as floating words when she was featured on Justice League Action recently. That sounds cool, too.

    2. M-Wolverine

      Cyborg in the JLA smacks of the worst kind of affirmative action. He’s in the second string but we’re going to bump him up because we’re too lilly white. And because hey, he was in the cartoon, so people might recognize him. Admittedly the JLA is kind of behind the 8-ball because they never had their Black Panther join.

      But really, if they’re going to take from the cartoon they should be looking to the Super Friends, and Black Vulcan. Because they have a perfectly good mature hero in Black Lightning, who is primarily associated with the Outsiders, but has those SF ties to make it fit better. And unlike the Titans, a once strong group, the Outsiders fall into that above group of “why do they need to exist?” So who really cares if they get messed with. They’ve never really had much of a point without “Batman and…”

      And he has a visual power that has aspects that would compliment the other Leaguers. Sure Superman and Martian Manhunter has eye beams, but how often do they use them? And any time Green Lantern is reduced to just doing energy blasts is bad writing. BL is like the good guy Electro. Really powerful cool looking power with a range attack. Somebody who doesn’t just punch someone (that has been one of the Avengers movie problems.)

      But I’m guessing the on again off again creator’s rights issues with BL probably keep him off the table.

      And yes, I still can only imagine a Snyder round table being a place where they say “so this guy’s powers are he runs really fast and moves around a lot.” “You know what I’m thinking for his costume? Armor.” “Brilliant!” W…T…F?!?! Marvel may not always get it right, but they’re not ashamed of their characters, and keep adjusting when it’s not just right. Minor – Daredevil; or big – Captain America.* But at least when they produce something it doesn’t look worse for $200 million dollars than it does on a CW budget. Heck, they can get Batman and Superman in tights like material, but screw up the Flash??

      *(Who I still say the major problem is no wings on the head. Full feathers may look silly, but making the painted on ones base relief so it’s at least Daredevil horn like prevents the egg head look. That the comics haven’t realized this and follows the movies is perplexing.)

  7. fit2print

    Before someone far more attuned to superheroes than me points out that Red Tornado (original male version) already exists in the Supergirl TV series “universe”, yes, I just discovered that fact. That’ll teach me not to Google before offering my “helpful” character and casting suggestions… well, I suppose there’s always — with apologies to Neil Gaiman — Death (of The Sandman fame) to consider for membership…. What Hollywood actress wouldn’t want to tackle a character named “Death”, right? As movie roles go, t’s the be all and … ahem… end all.

    1. That’ll teach me not to Google before offering my “helpful” character and casting suggestions…

      It’s all good. We honestly have so many comic book adaptations now that it’s nigh-impossible to keep up with everything.

      Your female Red Tornado idea reminds me of the version that Alex Ross used in Kingdom Come. She had long red hair that whirled in the winds she raised. Ross later introduced her in the JSA book before the New 52. She was related to Ma Hunkle, I think.

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