Welcome back to the Geek Beat! With all of the excitement surrounding the rumors involving Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale being involved in a possible Justice League project, the level of excitement seems really high surrounding a possible film featuring the "World's Greatest Heroes." At first glance this might look like a reactionary move to the success of The Avengers on the part of Warner Bros., but if the studio had its way almost six years ago then it would have had a Justice League film out several years earlier than Marvel Studios' massively successful team-up effort.
So, for this week we'll be taking a look back at the almost-made Warner Bros. film that we know today as Justice League: Mortal. While no official details have ever been released about the film's plot, all signs point to this being a massive undertaking that would definitely have been a pretty immense blockbuster if it'd seen the light of day. If not for some different circumstances, it's possible the film would've been released, but even the might of the Justice League wasn't enough to overcome a lack of tax breaks and a writer's strike.
Development and Finding a Director
As far as we know, it looks like development on Mortal began in early 2007, when an article ran in Variety detailing that the studio had just hired Kieran and Michele Mulroney to pen a screenplay for an as-yet-untitled Justice League film. The husband/wife duo had previously written only for television, for such series as Star Trek: The Next Generation (season two's "The Outrageous Okona," actually a personal favorite), Star Trek: Enterprise, NCIS, Seinfeld, ER and a few others. Four months later, another article in Variety by the same reporter revealed that the script had been turned in, had received positive feedback from the studio, and that the film was indeed going to be produced (Variety's website is migrating several years' of articles at the moment, so links are currently unavailable).
Just over three months later, the news came out that George Miller (Mad Max, Happy Feet) had been hired to direct the film, and that the studio would assign a hefty $220 million budget. Word also came that Warner Bros. was very aware of an impending Writers Guild of America strike, and that it was hoping to get started before it began.
Apparently, both production and postproduction would be handled in Australia. Locations, including colleges were actively scouted. Barrie M. Osborne, a producer on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first Matrix film, was named as producer and it was apparently time to figure out who would fill the multicolored boots of DC's premiere superhero team.
Casting the Team and Getting Ready to Shoot
Solid news on the film's development is kind of a blur between the announcement of Miller as a director and its eventual cancelation, but there are some consistent names that were floated for the casting of the entire team. The film would've apparently featured the "original seven" lineup of the League, consisting of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter.
While reportedly hundreds of actors and actresses had tested for the coveted roles, the final picks for each character were apparently as follows: D.J. Cotrona as Superman, Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as the Flash, Common as Green Lantern (John Stewart), Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman, and Hugh Keays-Byrne as the Martian Manhunter. While the studio tried to keep a lid on the casting, and George Miller expressed confidence that the predominantly very young cast would "grow into their roles," an article from March 2008 appearing in The New York Times detailed that fan backlash was pretty heavy.
As a fan at the time the film was being "made," and upon hearing the names being floated particularly for Superman and Batman, I was a little... put off. I wasn't an angry fanboy by any means, but it seemed a little weird to my 20-year-old brain that the respective "incumbents" for the roles of Batman and Superman (Christian Bale and Brandon Routh) were apparently off the table for their characters' then-next film appearance. At the time, Smallville was still on the air as well and I also thought it strange that Tom Welling's name hadn't cropped up either. Still, I was moderately excited about a Justice League film on the horizon since a superhero team up had never been tried before, but I was a little bit sad at the fact that it would apparently be ignoring the (then-only) Batman film by Christopher Nolan and Bryan Singer's recently released Superman Returns, particularly as a fan that thought Brandon Routh should have another turn as the Man of Steel.
Although there is an old adage that says "no news is good news," this wasn't to be the case for this film. News dropped off into nothing, before final word came down that the project was dead in the water.
Death and Reflections from the Cast
From February of 2007 until about April of 2008, the film produced absolutely no news in the official trades, as well as complete silence from the studio. Rumors abounded for that entire time, until it was confirmed in Variety that Warner Bros. had indefinitely postponed the film in favor of new solo releases to lead up to the team effort. It wasn't just the studio's infinitely cold feet that seemed to kill the project, as the combination of the WGA strike as well as tax breaks the studio was unable to receive in Australia are counted among the two ultimate culprits that would kill the film pretty definitively.
While George Miller has been relatively silent about his stint on developing the film, some of the actors have come forward to express their thoughts on what might've been. The first to do so was almost-Batman Armie Hammer, who let some thoughts slip to MTV in 2010 while doing interviews for The Social Network. Hammer seems to have many fond memories of his apparent month and a half in Australia gearing up to be the Dark Knight. He said, "We had gotten a long way into preproduction... a lot of things just when wrong. It's unfortunate, because the amount of work that was already done — I mean, they had finished preproduction and they were a couple of days away from starting to shoot, so it's a shame that nobody got to see all of the work that got put into it."
Hammer did say that he actually got to wear a Batsuit, and that he was ecstatic about it. "I loved it," Hammer said, "but I didn't even get a picture of it!"
More recently, hip-hop artist-turned-actor Common discussed being cast as John Stewart, the third human Green Lantern from the comics who gained a great deal of popularity from his appearances on the Justice League animated series that premiered in 2001. In a column appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times in November of 2012, Common lamented the missed opportunity to play the superhero. "I remember a time I really struggled with showing gratitude," he wrote. "It was after I had been cast as the Green Lantern in the movie rendition of Justice League... We were all set to go... I was imagining what this could not only mean for me but also for the kids who would see me as a bona fide superhero!"
He then detailed when things went south. "...And then it happened — the writers’ strike. Everything was on hold and after the strike, executives pulled the plug on the production. I was deflated. What I thought was the biggest role in my life was gone — just like that. I moped around for a few days when finally my mom told me to 'get over it' and go speak to an organization that helped kids with much bigger problems than mine. It was during my talk with those young people that I had to take stock in what I had and return to being thankful for everything."
Even more recently, as in less than a week ago, actor D.J. Cotrona opened up about the time he nearly played Superman. In an article at ScreenRant, Cotrona was quoted about his casting in Mortal while doing press for the upcoming G.I. Joe: Retaliation. He said, "That was a long slog. We were playing with that for about a year. That was during the writer’s strike time and it started and it stopped. That was a big bummer. I was really, really excited to work with George Miller and the script was really, really good."
He continued, "The stuff that Weta [Digital] was doing [for the visual effects] was amazing. It’s just a shame that we didn’t get to finish that because it was going to be really, really cool [...] It was a damn shame that we didn’t get to finish that. I promise you that it would have been amazing. It would have been incredible. The scale of this was fantastical. It was a Lord of the Rings scale. It would have been really cool."
The Fans' Perspective
While the cast definitely feels like the loss of Justice League: Mortal was misfortunate for fans and movie audiences alike, many fans themselves seem to have an impression that happens to be the exact opposite. Sean Gerber, founder and editor-in-chief of Modern Myth Media, kept up with all of the news surrounding the film and had this to say about his major feeling on its demise: "[I feel] gratitude: I am forever grateful to the 2007 WGA strike and Australian tax policies for putting Justice League: Mortal down for good. This underdeveloped cash grab of a film tried to create a separate, concurrent continuity while still borrowing plot lines from Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Nolan's trilogy would never have received its conclusion if Mortal had been made. We are far better off now with Warner Bros. attempting to build on The Dark Knight Trilogy and what I believe will be a triumphant cinematic return for Superman in Man of Steel."
Other Movies.com contributors from the comics end of things also have thoughts. Jeffrey Taylor, writer of our Man of Steel Countdown, also seems pretty thankful the film never saw the light of day. "It still annoys me that studios look at material like this and say, 'yes, let's throw money at this painfully ridiculous idea that will delegitimize the comic-to-movie fad.' At least it didn't get made."
From a perspective rooted in the sensibilities of the House of Ideas, I solicited John Gholson, writer of our Marvel Studios Countdown, for his thoughts on the failed project. He seems to have a little more of a positive outlook on what might've been, saying, "It felt like a project that they cared about, in a way that recent JL announcements have not. I'd still like to see George Miller make a comic book superhero film. No idea what that would look like. I think, since Warner Bros. owns the screenplay, they should turn it into a comic - let fans experience the movie that might've been."
As for me, at the end of the day I'm probably more glad than sad that the film wasn't produced. It definitely would've been an interesting experiment, but the timing was probably off. In the next few years, Warners' would go on to create DC Entertainment (involving actual comics creators in other media exploitations), and it wouldn't have had the benefit of learning from the success of The Avengers. Given the apparent lack of interest in DC properties that has historically permeated that studio, this turn at a Justice League film would likely not have received the attention and care that it deserved. With the rumors that we're hearing now, I can't help but be pretty hopeful at where this road may lead with the likes of Christopher Nolan, David Goyer and Zack Snyder in the driver's seat, and that's a hope that was absent when it was up to Mortal to give us the first cinematic outing of the World's Greatest Heroes.
My Pick This Week at the Comic Shop (Releasing 3/20)
It's the end of an era for DC's New 52 this week, as Grant Morrison's run on Action Comics comes to an end with issue #18. Everything has been building to this moment since September 2011's issue #1, and all stands to be revealed with Superman's enemy in this story, plaguing him since his earliest days as a social crusader in jeans and a T-shirt. Morrison tends to pack a lot into his conclusions, and this one should definitely prove that as it's oversized with even more pages to finish off the arc in style.
Morrison's run with Superman has polarized a lot of fans, but as someone who's loved his writing I'll be sad to see him leave the title. Either way though, since 2013 is Superman's 75th anniversary year, there's a lot on the horizon from DC in addition to Man of Steel hitting theaters in June. Regardless, the conclusion to Morrison's run should be pretty extraordinary, and if you haven't checked out what the writer has had to say about Superman then I definitely encourage you to pick up All Star Superman and Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel.
That does it for this week, check back in seven days and get another geeky fix from the Geek Beat here at Movies.com!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his weekly piece The Geek Beat every Tuesday and the Star Trek Into Darkness Countdown every other Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.