For part 2, I will examine whether or not a Justice League film is creatively viable. Part 1 can be read here.
Don’t forget to read the disclaimer from the first article so you don’t piss off the comic gods and start an epic comments section showdown. Also, like a lot of sequels, this editorial is slightly longer and has more stuff in it. I’m such a sellout.
Would a Justice League movie even work as well as an Avengers movie did?
If we’re going to ask the question as to whether or not DC will make a Justice League movie then we have to ask the question as to whether or not a Justice League movie would even work well, much less as well as the Avengers movie did. And I think that the answer, at least at this point in time, is no, it wouldn’t.
My reasoning is as follows: for a comic book movie to succeed both critically and financially, a filmmaker must find that which is essential to a character or characters and discover the manner in which to translate that into something that is both cinematic and appealing to a wide audience. As comic book fans, we insist that the filmmaker stay true to the source material, but we must always remember that movies and comics are two different mediums. Not everything that works in one will work in the other. Therefore, a filmmaker must find the appropriate balance. Being too faithful to the source material will turn off the casual fan and straying too far will turn off the hardcore fan. Now, when you add to this formula the idea that whatever character you are adapting is already extremely well-known worldwide, all of the above gets amplified to the nth degree.
And what does this have to do with the Justice League and the Avengers? It’s the idea that the Justice League essentially contains all of DC’s biggest characters while the Avengers (at least the film version and the original team in the comics) do not contain Marvel’s biggest characters. Do a Google search on lists of the greatest comic book characters. You may not find a consensus on specific rankings, but you will consistently find that characters like Superman and Batman are almost exclusively in the top 3 while characters from the original Avengers (not counting one-time Avengers like Spider-Man and Wolverine) frequently don’t even crack the top 5. (Mind you, I’m not bashing these characters, I’m merely pointing out what I’ve found in several top 10/25/50/100 lists.) Granted, these lists are purely subjective and are by no means an end-all-be-all, but many of the lists take into consideration a character’s overall appeal to both comic fans and non-comic fans in addition to their longevity. Superman and Batman, and Wonder Woman, for that matter, have been in continuous publication for roughly 75 years. Even Captain America had a near decade-long hiatus in the 50s and 60s before being re-introduced in The Avengers in 1963. And consistently, Marvel’s highest ranking character on these lists is Spider-Man with Wolverine being their second highest (although at some point both characters have been part of the Avengers in their history, so bad on me).
To further illustrate the point, look at the most popular comic book movies of all time. As movies certainly reach a wider audience than comic books do, they would seem to be a better barometer of how wide the appeal for a character is. In the case of comic book films, it makes sense to look at a film’s gross adjusted for inflation, for the purposes of looking through a historical lens. (Please note that these statistics don’t necessarily mean that the movies referenced are critical successes but financial ones. Some of these films aren’t necessarily good movies, to put it mildly.) If you look at the all-time-adjusted-for-inflation chart (domestic grosses at 2012 ticket prices) from Box Office Mojo, you’ll see that the top 5 has two Batman films, two Spider-Man films and 1 Superman film. Furthermore, there is 1 more Spider-Man film and 1 more Batman film in the top 10 (not to mention 2 more Batman films and 2 more Superman films in the top 25). The highest ranked films from the Avengers characters are Iron Man (2008) at #8, Iron Man 2 (2010) at #10 and, with a bullet, The Avengers (2012) at #22 and likely climbing into the top 10 by the end of next weekend.
What is the point that I’m laboring to make? It’s this: with all due respect to fans of the Avengers characters, until Iron Man was a success in 2008, these were essentially B-list characters, at least in terms of wide appeal. And even the success of Iron Man did not elevate these characters on the level of wide appeal of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man. These characters are popular, but Batman, Superman and Spider-Man are the level of cultural icons that Mickey Mouse or Elvis are. The Avengers characters aren’t there. At least, until The Avengers raised the bar. Maybe.
Yes, Iron Man’s popularity and wide appeal certainly elevated considerably after 2008 (not to mention Robert Downey, Jr’s). The level that Iron Man had risen to was just high enough to where his popularity could be a viable anchor for a team-up movie. But it was not to a level of Batman, Superman or Spider-Man. And that worked. Had Iron Man bombed at the box office, the chances of an Avengers movie would have dwindled considerably. But let’s say that Iron Man had reached the grosses of Spider-Man ($400 million domestic) or even The Dark Knight ($530 million domestic). I think an Avengers movie would have definitely been fast-tracked but I also think that it would have essentially become another Iron Man movie. In short, in that scenario, I think that Iron Man would have been too much bigger than the other characters in order for them all to fit in the same film. Make no mistake, Iron Man’s success was the primary reason The Avengers became possible. But one of the things that made The Avengers work so well was that no one character dominated the film. A legitimate argument can be made that the Hulk stole the show, but he didn’t dominate the film, and there’s a difference. In short, the stars had to align just the right way for The Avengers to even get made and then the right filmmaker had to be chosen to take on the task of making it all work. That’s a tall order for those who will tackle the development of a Justice League movie.
How does all this relate to the Justice League? In essence, it would be extremely difficult for Batman or Superman not to dominate a Justice League movie. Yes, both characters are constantly teaming up in the comics and the writers of those projects often find a way to make it work. In fact, the idea that these two characters are virtual opposites creates a natural conflict that can be easily mined. But that is in the comics, which are, as said before, an entirely different medium than film.
For a few years, there was some development of a Batman vs. Superman film prior to Christopher Nolan taking stewardship of the Batman franchise. It never came to fruition, but it makes one think of the idea of two of the most popular and iconic characters inhabiting the same feature film. It would be a daunting challenge for any filmmaker. But, while I’m not advocating a Batman vs. Superman premise, I can see how putting those two characters in the same movie would work. But what I can’t see is throwing in Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter or Cyborg (depending on if they chose to go the route of DC’s New 52 from creators Geoff Johns and Jim Lee and make Cyborg part of the team instead of Martian Manhunter). Again, I go back to the size and scope of how popular these characters really are to a wide audience. How do you put those characters in a movie with Batman and Superman without the film becoming a Batman and Superman movie with supporting nods from other characters? How does it become a team-up? With all due respect to fans of the Avengers, putting Superman and Batman in the same film is not the same as putting Captain America, the Hulk and Iron Man in the same movie.
The Avengers did prove that you could make a team-up movie with balance. Upon closer examination of The Avengers, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a film with four lead roles (Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor), two major supporting roles (Black Widow and Hawkeye), a lead villain (Loki), the sage “old” wise man (Nick Fury) and a host of other supporting roles. I classify Black Widow and Hawkeye as major supporting roles because they do not have the benefit of their backstories (as they pertain to this cinematic universe) having been fleshed out in a previous film. Captain America is the man out of his time, the fish out of water. Iron Man is his opposite, completely of his time. But both are in their element (one from the militaristic aspects of the fight, the other from the technological aspects). Thor’s stake in the fight is that it is his brother who has become the opposition (but remember, he’s adopted) and that he has vowed to become a protector of this realm due to his relationship with Jane Foster. The Hulk is the x-factor (no pun intended. Really). He is powerful enough to tip the scales in whichever direction he chooses. Fury is the man who brings them together both physically and psychologically.
Now that I’ve finished my incredibly boring analysis of the makeup of The Avengers, I can only give props to Whedon and company for somehow making it work. I am also trying to picture how one can do the same with Superman, Batman and company. And I’m drawing a complete blank. Of course, I’m not Joss Whedon or Christopher Nolan either, but I don’t think that totally disqualifies me. I mean, Joel Schumacher got to direct two Batman films, so expertise isn’t exactly a prerequisite here, is it?
Ultimately, like The Avengers, the creative viability of a Justice League film will come down to the filmmaker. But, also like The Avengers, the stars have to align just right for the world of the Justice League to be built prior to a film even being made. Then the stars have to align again.
(Here is one more sentence in parentheses just so I can prove how parentheses-happy I am, as you could probably tell.)
In part 3 of this editorial, I will examine the likelihood of a Justice League film being made and take a further look at the developmental challenges of such a film.
For further analysis on box office results, go to boxofficemojo.com.