Picture the scene, dear reader. It is 2003, and my good self, an avid Comic Book fan is browsing the shelves of my local comic book store. I'm tired of the constant stream of big comic events that pit entire casts of A-list heroes against a cataclysmic threat that is on the brink of consuming existence as they know it, rebooting the universe and, once it’s all over, they all get reset back to issue #1. Or the age-old tale of one top-selling hero battling against another in a crossover event that, for some reason, needs to be collected across multiple comic titles that aren’t usually on your pull list, but you have to buy them all in order to get the full story.
The growing need to break from the norm of superhero comic books is strong and, so far, going unsated. I'm just about to give up when, like a shining beacon of curious hope, two brightly coloured covers leap out from one of the lower shelves where the graphic novels live. The books in question are Formerly Known as the Justice League and I Can’t Believe it’s not the Justice League. Take it from me, dear reader, these are two of, if not the best, books about C-list Superheroes that have hit hard times. From writers Keith Giffen & J.M Dematteis and artist Kevin Maguire, this is a comic series about an unlikely and sometimes unwilling bunch of would-be heroes that are just trying to be relevant in a world inhabited with more powerful and successful superheroes.
The stories contained within, while being a call back to the JLA International era, are also full of chaotic, over-the-top scenarios with some suspense and a lot of humor thrown in for good measure. And because they are so well written, there are even some subtext and plot points that build toward a big event that comes home to roost down the line in a future, much bigger book. Heavily impacting on the lives of the entire DC universe.
This is world-building at its finest, and it's done with characters that even a seasoned comic book reader wouldn’t expect.
I mean, seriously, who would’ve thought I’d care about Blue Beetle? Never mind how his storyline would impact an entire universe and do what it did to Wonder Woman? See, I bet you’re intrigued after reading that right? These books are fantastic and surprisingly, despite their more comedic tone, lead into one of DC Comics' most lauded and dramatic stories, Infinite Crisis.
So, this begs the question: if these stories can be told so well in comic book form, why can’t they be translated to the big screen? They are ripe for adaptation, and I think they would truly solidify the DC Cinematic Universe in the same way that the story arcs in the Marvel Universe have done.
DC's TV outings have been a big success. The CW's Arrowverse showed that a plethora of heroes could be mined for small-screen stardom. The Arrowverse went so far as to have big crossover events taken straight out of the comic books that inspired them, pulling these off to great fanfare given their limited budgets. And, for the most part, they showed their big-screen counterparts how to actually handle the heroes living through these events. Also, Titans and Doom Patrol showed that show creators could cater to an older audience of comic book fans to great success without making them brooding affairs of despair.
It is on the big screen that Warner Bros and DC have had mixed results, at least critically if not financially. Unlike Marvel’s offerings and their ability to tie both motion pictures and TV shows together in one big universe, DC has faltered along the way. And while their more recent offerings are showing some cohesion, they have yet to build a foundation that isn’t plagued by cracks.
There is a definite divide in the fanbase, with the more extreme fans decrying any negativity towards the overly dour and somber world these heroes inhabit, a world in a perpetual state of infighting and self-doubt.
It is a world without hope, something that a universe that Superman inhabits should never be without in its darkest hour. Yet in the movies of this DC universe, much-needed hope is as rare as color in a palette of browns and greys.
For the less venomous within the fanbase, the seemingly rushed attempt to create a world that all these heroes inhabited together has been viewed as being forced and built on a lack of understanding of the core elements of the heroes and also the villains themselves. Now, don’t get me wrong, I will be the first to admit that some of the casting has been fantastic. Margot Robbie’s turn as Harley Quinn is a bright spot, first in the critically panned but financially successful Suicide Squad, and then in Birds of Prey (which I really enjoyed). Warner Bros definitely seem to be giving more thought and effort to Harley’s place in the world than any of the main trinity going so far as to hire director James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame to helm the Suicide Squad sequel. With Gunn bringing his own flavor to the impressively cast follow-up, I have hope in the DC’s cinematic universe that I was so very much lacking until very recently.
Now, I don’t know if the creative teams behind these movies have met in boardrooms, or (more than likely in recent times) over a Zoom call, but since the release of Wonder Woman 1984, they now have a key element in adapting the Formerly Known as the Justice League titles to the screen in the form of none other than Max Lord, as played by Pedro Pascal. (Pascal is so hot right now.) Albeit his portrayal leans heavily on Lord’s used car salesman aspect of the character. If Warner Bros and DC were to expand his story past WW84, maybe to atone for his deeds in the movie, which would be an interesting way to move him forward and allow him to bring the other characters along for the ride.
The premise in the comic book is that Lord wants to create a team of superheroes for hire, made up of lesser-known heroes who have either retired or are at the lower rung of the hero ladder. A group is formed, and misunderstandings and hijinks ensue. But the beautiful thing about the stories contained within are the relationships between the characters as they find their feet and try to make their way through the chaotic world they live in. We get to see Blue Beetle and Booster Gold’s bromance. We learn about the innocence of Mary Marvel (who can easily tie the Shazam movie into the rest of the world) as she tries to find her place among the more seasoned heroes in the group. We see the marriage of Sue and Ralph Digby, which also leads into a truly heart-breaking storyline in the event Identity Crisis. These books even contain a dry-witted cameo of Batman, whose jokes are unnerving for those around him.
These two books are the root of some truly brilliant pieces of storytelling that would give Warner Bros and DC a really solid foundation on which to build a world of intertwining events. They would add substance, stability, and a much-needed sense of humor and self-awareness to a currently disjointed collection of movies that continue to divide fans. DC superhero movies have long been a victim of needing to be a serious affair.
From Christopher Nolan’s crime drama Batman movies to Zack Snyder’s bombastically dour Dawn of Justice, but given recent releases like Shazam and Birds of Prey, it seems that some things might be changing. I mean the Snyder Cut of Justice League is on the way, and the precedent of its reworking and subsequent release is a worrying one given it as essentially the studio giving in to the social media mob and collective throwing of toys from the pram. But if Warner Bros and DC really want to try and build a sustainable and expandable cinematic world to rival that of Marvel’s, they need not look far. The inspiration or countless pieces of storytelling are right at their fingertips, simply waiting for someone to actually read them.
DC fans, what do you think of bringing these C-list heroes and stories into the cinematic universe? Let's discuss in the comments.