Sunday, 13 January 2013

Rise of the Justice League Movie

(or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Overpowered God People)

Last weekend, in a darkened cinema, I had a revelation. Rise of the Guardians achieved something I had thought impossible: it actually made me interested to see a Justice League movie!

I'm a Marvel guy. I'd state the usual Marvel guy reasons (more interesting characters, less stupid weaknesses, very few insanely powerful ├╝berheroes) but the simple truth is it's because Marvel got to me first (Spidey cartoons) and I'm not American (the "A" in "JLA" feels a little insulting). But even those aren't the reason I didn't care about the upcoming Justice League film. I didn't care because I didn't see how it could work.

Marvel had a five film build up to get to The Avengers, and Warner are skipping all that and going straight to the main event. Possibly this year's Man of Steel will lead into it, but even that's uncertain at this point. Assuming they follow the Marvel model of six characters (but even if they only have four or five) that's an awful lot of characters' backstory they'd need to cram into one film. The Avengers worked because we already knew all these characters intimately - the joy of the film is seeing characters you already love come together.
Despite what DC fans (particularly in America) seem to think, even if they might recognise the names and costumes, nobody knows your characters. They know Superman, they know Batman, but they don't know who Wonder Woman is - that's your third biggest character - they don't know the Flash, they don't know Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter is a step too far. Can you imagine how people would have reacted to Thor in The Avengers if they hadn't had an entire film to get used to the whole interstellar god thing first? That's Martian Manhunter.
Having to cram in all those backstories, maybe even origin stories, and still having it feel powerful when they all learn to work together seemed way too much for one film. I honestly didn't see it working.

Then I saw Rise of the Guardians.

The Guardians actually do resemble the JLA in a lot of ways. The most obvious connection is Sandman, the most powerful, who can will things into being from his sand. All he's missing is a ring and a terrible CG mask and he'd be Green Lantern. That seems to be the only link until, at a certain point in the movie, Jack Frost flies to Antarctica to find solitude. He doesn't have a fortress, and it's the wrong pole, but you suddenly realise that he's a flying, superpowered orphan - he's Superman! With that realisation the other Guardians fall quickly into place. Santa - the one with gadgets, a sweet ride, and slight sociopathic tendencies - is Batman. The Easter Bunny - quick, agile, projectile weapons - is Green Arrow. The Tooth Fairy, I guess, must be Hawkman (I know nothing about Hawkman).
So, in a way, someone already made a Justice League film - and it was great! I loved Rise of the Guardians!
Now I see it. Now I understand how DC can do this.

My mistake was to assume that they'd have to replicate the same central story of The Avengers - a group of myriad loners coming together as a unit. That's where all the emotion and power comes from in Marvel's film - and I still firmly believe that, if they do try to copy this, DC will fail.
What Rise of the Guardians does instead, and what I hope Justice League will go for, is to introduce us to the team as an already well-tuned machine, and centre the story around just one new character upsetting the balance and trying to find their place. Add a villain who detunes that machine, giving the newbie a chance to prove themself, et voilà! It's still an ensemble piece, but the thrills and emotion come from a different place - one character finding acceptance rather than six finding harmony.
Interestingly, this seems to be the approach Marvel are taking with Guardians of the Galaxy - having Star-Lord, a human, becoming a member of the already formed team of Guardians (it must be a Guardian thing). The first X-Men film also did something similar.
The trick is that, instead of making us care about the interplay of four-to-six distinct characters, we only need to care about two - the main character and the team. This is far more manageable if (unlike The Avengers) this film must also serve to introduce each character. Seeing the team through the eyes of the new recruit means we can skip the origins of each member, but still get a sense of who they are and how they fit together. In DC terms, this means that the backstories of the characters are free to expand upon in the long-mooted spin-off movies.

The only problem is that this does focus the spotlight on one character over the others - Jack Frost, Star-Lord, Wolverine - which is something The Avengers avoided. If Justice League follows the Guardians template then it will be impossible to avoid, so they must choose carefully.
It may have to be Superman because, unless he joins or, better yet, founds the League at the end of Man of Steel (which is as unlikely as it is awesome) then you'll have to show him joining in this film, making him the newbie by default. Lets pretend that's not an issue, though, and weigh up the rest. I'm assuming a fairly traditional lineup.
Batman is the other obvious choice - the loner dragged into teamwork, distrustful of all these ridiculously powerful beings around him - but really, hasn't that guy hogged all the limelight long enough? Something Batman has in common with some of the others is that he's human, making him an outsider, so Green Arrow or one of the other "normal" characters could work quite well. Martian Manhunter isn't normal by any stretch, but he's one of only two who have no experience of human civilisation whatsoever - the ultimate outsiders. So who's the other?

The other is Wonder Woman. Were it up to me, she's the one I'd most like to see them try and to (hopefully) pull off. There are a number of reasons for this:
First is that she is a true outsider - totally new to the modern world - and will struggle not just to find her place in the team, but in civilisation too. Lots of character moments; lots of empathy.
Second is that, of everyone, she's the one who requires the most explaining. Superman's an alien; Batman's rich; Green Lantern's got a magic ring; Flash goes pretty fast; Wonder Woman is an Amazon, a Greek, a princess, possibly an actual child of the actual gods, and has a random hodgepodge of mystical weapons and powers that don't really go together but seemed like a good idea at the time (an invisible WHAT?!). It's the Thor/Martian Manhunter situation again, but without the convenient hand-wave excuse of "because he's from space". This stuff will be a lot easier to cover if she's our main story focus.
The third and possibly most important reason is that DC/Warner have been trying to bring Wonder Woman to the screen for years, and utterly failing. In all likelihood this is probably a rediculous gender thing. They either don't know how to write or, likelier, don't know how to market a female hero. Either way, there have been several screenplays that never got off the ground - including one written by some guy called Joss Whedon (who later went on to make Black Widow the most interesting character in The Avengers) - and a TV show pilot which was outright hated by everyone who saw it.
Justice League is a back-door into this. A way to centre the film on a female superhero, without worrying about audiences not wanting to watch a film about a girl. They'll come for the Batman and the Superman, but stay for the (hopefully) strong, interesting central character journey. Taking another leaf from Rise of the Guardians, if your marketing department is really that scared of women, you don't really need to show her in trailers at all - Jack Frost barely appeared in the marketing! It's a perfect way to launch this character that they've consistantly struggled to launch.

This would be my ideal, but it's really only one example of what could be done. The point is that there is potential here, and that it's Rise of the Guardians that showed me that. DC have a chance to show they're not just chasing Marvel's heels - that they can do something new and exciting and maybe even risky. I am now actually interested to see the route they end up taking. I want them to pull it off, too. I want them to make this Marvel guy care.
Your move, Warner.