Both of my regular readers might have some inkling that Christopher Nolan has been one of my favorite filmmakers of the last twelve years, that on the whole I’ve loved his Batman movies, and that Batman has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was probably six or seven.
A Justice League movie is an idea that people have been circling around for several years. There was the TV pilot in 1997 that a Google Image search shows to have been pretty ridiculous looking; the animated series from Bruce Timm and Paul Dini was awesome, but I’m guessing that Cartoon Network in the long run decided it was backwards-looking and chasing after an audience made up of the wrong age group. I never watched Smallville, but the pictures that I saw made their Justice League look low-rent to say the least. After Batman Begins and Superman Returns there was talk of George Miller making a standalone film with a totally different cast (like Armie Hammer as Batman and Common as Green Lantern); obviously that never happened, and since then, non-Batman standalone films seem to have been the plan, but I can’t say that there has seemed to be an overabundance of confidence in those projects. Neither Captain Marvel (I refuse to call the character “Shazam”) nor The Flash have really gotten anywhere. Green Arrow was supposed to be the hero in a villain-centric prison-escape film called Supermax, but that went nowhere. Superman Returns showed that there was still something of an audience somewhere for Superman movies, but it wasn’t a solid enough hit to maintain confidence in Bryan Singer’s vision. I didn’t hate Green Lantern, but for a movie that had as its fundamental premise somebody with a ring that they could use to build whatever they could imagine, it seemed to be pretty unimaginative. Wonder Woman has had a infamously troubled path to the silver screen, with even Joss Whedon not being able to put together a package that could convince studio execs to pull the trigger (and then there was a TV pilot a couple of years later about which, it seems, the less said the better).
After the success of The Avengers last year, Warner Bros. predictably announced that they would be making a Justice League movie their priority after The Dark Knight Rises was done, but whatever idea that seemed to be pushing that forward fell apart a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been left with Batman being apparently done for now, Man of Steel still being something of a question mark, and a consolation prize of a version of Green Arrow presently on TV who is clearly the poor man’s Batman, but he’s still pretty scrappy and reasonably enjoyable to watch.
Then, last night, a rumor started circulating that even got picked up by Forbes: after the demise of the most recent iteration of the Justice League idea, Warner Bros. has handed the reins of the DC film universe over to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, with Christian Bale likely in the mix to come back as Batman and Zack Snyder (director of Man of Steel, 300, and Watchmen). Nolan is producing Man of Steel, and a version of the Justice League rumor was going around about a year ago, but Nolan seemed to intentionally distance himself from the concept in interviews.
Is it true? I have no idea. My guess is that nobody wants to miss out on the money that Marvel Studios is raking in with their cinematic universe, and that if Christopher Nolan plays his cards right, he’s got guaranteed budgets and creative control for all of his personal movies going forward. How do you reconcile such a move with the end of The Dark Knight Rises? I’m not overly concerned about that; surely that’s an opportunity for creative storytelling. It’s entirely possible that it’s true right now in the sense that it’s the idea they’re trying to make the deals for; a denial down the road may mean only that they couldn’t get everybody to sign on the dotted line, not that it wasn’t what they were trying to do. (My plan B: Bruce Timm produces, Christopher Nolan directs, Paul Dini writes. It’ll never happen, but that would be my dream team.)
I’m somewhat less interested in whether or not it’s true than a couple of other dimensions to the story. First, it’s evident to me reading comments on the various re-postings of the story that, bluntly, geeks have short memories. It’s no longer a novelty that an A-list auteur is directing a film based on a comic book with a big budget and an Oscar-winning cast, so it’s time to rewrite history so that the auteur in question is an overrated hack whom everybody has always hated (going all the way back to that second-rate piece of celluloid Memento) and whose contributions to the comic book genre of films have been miscast and mediocre at best, self-important trash at worst, and, really, even The Dark Knight was a second-rate Heat knockoff that mostly sold tickets because of the death of one of its stars. The Dark Knight Rises went off in a different direction than they’d hoped (tying off the arc of the cinematic character rather than opening up ways to tell more of the comic book stories), so now the guy everybody was drooling over when he was announced as the director of Batman Begins is persona non grata. Like I said, short memories, and I can’t really say that I get it.
The other thing that I find intriguing is the apparent article of faith in some circles that a Justice League film can’t work, that these characters fundamentally will look silly next to each other on the silver screen, that there are too many storytelling problems introduced by having Superman and Batman in the same world, etc. etc. Somehow these concerns are a non-issue when you’re talking about Marvel characters (The Avengers, after all, includes a Norse god, a chemically-enhanced supersoldier, and a genius gajillionaire in a wearable energy source that makes a nuclear reactor look like a 9 volt battery), but when it’s Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, it’s irredeemably silly somehow. Nobody’s really been able to explain why the DC characters are different, they just are, apparently.
Thinking about it, I’d like to toss out a possible explanation, and that’s one of generation. The DC characters, as the prototypical superheroes, inevitably are first archetypes of a sort and characters second. For the Golden Age characters, the basic point of reference is the circus, a common enough cultural experience in the 1930s. The costumes are all more or less based on the strongman/acrobat model; Batman’s not wearing body armor in Detective Comics #27, he’s wearing a leotard. The types of characters are all basically that, types — Superman’s origin is all of half a page in Action Comics #1, and the point isn’t to give him a psychology, the point is to explain why he’s got super-strength. He’s a strongman; Batman’s a detective and an acrobat, a mixture of Sherlock Holmes and Zorro; Wonder Woman is a goddess, again in a circus performer’s costume; the Jay Garrick Flash is a combination scientist and and college athlete, dressed up as Mercury; the Alan Scott Green Lantern is basically a wizard-type of character. The alter-egos are also essentially types; Clark Kent is a reporter (the trappings of which very much date the character and are not easily transferrable to the popular imagery of journalism of 2013 — it’s more Matt Drudge than Cary Grant), Bruce Wayne is an aristocrat, Diana Prince a nurse — and the 1950s revamps of Flash and Green Lantern keep this going, with Barry Allen as a police scientist and Hal Jordan as the ultimate manly man of the 1950s, a test pilot.
By contrast, being a generation later, the methodology has developed somewhat, and while the Marvel characters all certainly have some basis in types — mostly the “scientist” type — from the get-go they’re made into more than types by flaws and deformity. Peter Parker is a geeky high school kid whose powers convince him just long enough that he’s better than everybody else for it to cost his Uncle Ben his life. Tony Stark is a genius weapons engineer and industrialist whose talents are turned against him. Bruce Banner set free his own inner demon. And so on. If, as William Faulkner once said, drama is the human heart in conflict with itself, then one can argue that the Marvel characters are fundamentally more dramatic.
From this perspective, the problem with the DC characters maybe becomes a bit more evident. The whole premise of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern is that he is supposed to be without fear; that rather makes inner conflict a tougher nut to crack, dramatically. (And the film was hampered by this problem — the cinematic Hal Jordan’s inner self-doubt, while perhaps more “cinematic”, completely undermined the foundations of the character. Ryan Reynolds did what he could, but the result was, rather than the human heart in conflict with itself, a movie plot in conflict with itself.) It also makes more sense why Batman has been the most successful of the various attempts, and in more than just one medium — of the Golden Age characters, he’s the one who actually has a personal internal conflict to resolve, and it’s an incredibly effective, primal one at that. Superman is much harder to make interesting in that regard; the 1978 film’s use of Jor-El and Pa Kent was a good storytelling move in terms of giving him an inner conflict, moral poles to bounce off of, and the trailers make it look as though Man of Steel will draw some of its drama from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel Gladiator, one of Siegel and Schuster’s key sources, so we’ll see how that turns out — but at the same time, there’s simply no reason for Superman to be wearing body armor.
To me, however, none of that says “won’t work on film”, it just says, “You’ve got to do it with the best filmmakers possible” — filmmakers who understand the archetypes they’re dealing with, understand what it is about those archetypes that people connect with, and not use artificial and false storytelling techniques to try to re-engineer the characters. None of it says to me “Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t all be in the same movie”, either; again, it just says to me that you need a filmmaker who knows exactly how each character fits into the story you’re telling. Zack Snyder seems to have a reasonable grasp of how ensemble casts in comic book movies need to work; again, we’ll see how things look after Man of Steel comes out.
Anyway, to me it seems like a good day when the big thing you have to complain about is that Christopher Nolan might produce a Nolan/David Goyer-written, Zack Snyder-directed Justice League movie. I guess we’ll see.