What if DC were level with Marvel? Scratch that, what if they were ahead? One film had the potential to make it happen nearly a decade earlier. The mastermind was George Miller; the man who made our ears and eyes explode with joy earlier this year in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s 2007 again, and let’s imagine what Justice League: Mortal could have been.
Miller is searching for a new project following his Oscar win for Happy Feet. Meanwhile Warner Bros. are unsure where to go next. Batman is alive once more thanks to Batman Begins, and now Christopher Nolan is hard at work for the sequel. Problem is, it is a beast unto itself and fails to offer Warner Bros. a multi-character franchise. On top of this, Superman Returns had been a universal disappointment. This is when the lightbulb idea pings. Add in Kal-El, Bruce Wayne and all DC’s greatest hits into one big ensemble, and you’re much more guaranteed to have a hit. The news didn’t land well with Nolan and Christian Bale. In a press interview Bale said, “It’d be better if it doesn’t tread on the toes of what our Batman series is doing”, pushing Justice League out until after the trilogy’s conclusion.
Warner Bros. did not heed these words. In fact they attempted the opposite. They hired husband-and-wife duo Michele and Kieran Mulroney to write the script in February 2007. The script was a hit, and Warner hoped for an immediate start to beat the writers’ strike. With Brandon Routh and Bale both out – they weren’t even considered – Miller was given $220 million and Justice League was a go.
The Mulroneys’ script, leaked in late 2013, is an intriguing one. Its closest twin is Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Based on several Justice League comic arcs, it takes its main pointers from Tower of Babel. In Justice League: Mortal, Batman is basically Tony Stark. Afraid of the unknown, he monitors the world through his satellite called Brother Eye. Its purpose? To spy on all the other members of the Justice League, because he fears they’ll use their powers for evil. Batman is paranoid, unsettled by the silent calm, and looking at the bigger picture.
Yet his satellite is hijacked by businessman Maxwell Lord (set to be played by Jay Baruchel), who plans to end the Justice League. He goes on to create OMACs, an army of targeting killer cyborgs that act as his leading tool for world domination. It’s up to the Justice League to team up and save the day.
The leaked script, that you can read here, is loose and in dire need of a polish. Worse still is that it’s all too much. Despite introducing the characters well, there is little emotional involvement or excitement around them. There’s a narrative reason why each superhero got their own movie. Also the villain, Lord, carries all the fears fans had for Loki ahead of his ascension in the first Avengers. Sadly there’s no Whedon-esque touch here, so the villain is wholly underwhelming.
It’s not all bad, though. The extravagant narrative description suggests that in Miller’s hands, there was definitely potential. The litany of battle scenes involving seven superheroes was ample material for the director. There’s also two strong characters. The Flash embodies the role of Captain America in The Avengers. A funny, caring, well-developed character that leads the audience through the film’s often confusing narrative. His final act of self-sacrifice to save the world is a truly moving scene. The script’s strongest asset, however, is Wonder Woman. For all DC’s complaints that Wonder Woman can’t be done, it’s clear here that she can. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman is strong, powerful, clever and engaging. Not even the villain or a hypnotised Superman can take her down. Wonder Woman kicks ass.
Despite all its flaws, Warner Bros. were understandably desperate to move forward. So what happened?
Set to shoot in Australia, the Babe: Pig in the City helmer had a talented coterie of actors. Miller wanted the actors to ‘grow’ into their roles over the course of several films, so youth was key. Few of those chosen had actually made their big break. In fact if you read through the cast, many of these name only now perk up the ears. Miller had Armie Hammer as Batman, DJ Cotrona (of G.I. Joe: Retaliation fame) as Superman, Adam Brody as The Flash and Megan Gale (Valkyrie in Mad Max: Fury Road) as Wonder Woman. The list goes on with Common (Green Lantern), Teresa Palmer (Talia al Ghul), Zoe Kazan (Iris Allen), Santiago Cabrera (Aquaman), Jay Baruchel (the villain, Maxwell Lord), and Hugh Keays-Byrne (Martian Manhunter). Justice League: Mortal had a fascinating cast – many of whom have gone onto to achieve great success. Everything was going swimmingly.
Unluckily for them, the writers’ strike came and hit the production hard. Warner Bros. had to let the options lapse for the cast, but they were not ready to give up. After the strike, they immediately tried to begin again. This is where Justice League: Mortal hit its next stumbling block: Australia.
It’s not fair to blame the whole country, but the Australian Film Commission certainly made it difficult. The Commission were unsatisfied throughout. Despite a completely Australian production crew, the commission felt there was an absence of native actors. Frustrated, the production offices moved to Canada in late 2008 but at this point, The Dark Knight had risen.
Following Nolan’s storming sequel success, the continual production troubles listed above and a spiralling budget, the project was shelved. That was it. No storyboards surfaced, no images appeared, all went quiet. The dust gathered.
After years of silence, a proposed new documentary has unearthed gold with the help of Steve Skroce. The imagery highlights how faithful Miller and his team would have been to the comics. To take the words of Jay Baruchel: “It would have been dark and fairly brutal and quite gory and just fucking epic… The rehearsal process was so strange and so unconventional and, I know it sounds hard to believe, but I assure you it would have been something fucking awesome!”
It was not to be. Collider‘s excellent What If feature suggests that if they had pulled this off, Marvel may not have dominated the last decade. On the other side of the coin, The Playlist point out that the messy script could have resulted in a devolution to 1997’s Batman & Robin. It’s a tough one. To imagine a studio having two separate Batmans operating in different worlds at the same time seems unfeasible. Yet moving free from the narrative, and mindful of the mad beauty of Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s an itching curiosity to know what could have been.