DC Movies: Unlimited Potential?
When I was a kid, I was into the typical cartoon programmes that kids of my age liked during the mid 90’s. I enjoyed watching the classic Hanna Barbera and Warner Bros Looney Tunes cartoons that Cartoon Network put on the air from 7am till 9pm (Wow, remember when TV channels used to just shut down at a certain time?!), I watched the stuff that Nickelodeon put out and I enjoyed watching some Disney content too.
But there was one other programme that I enjoyed watching and that was Batman: The Animated Series. BTAS was unlike most other shows I watched at the time. It was unmistakably more adult than the other cartoons. I was naturally into Batman at the time thanks to the Tim Burton films and Batman Forever would have recently came out. BTAS had a distinct art style that borrowed from The Tim Burton Batman films. The darker, more mature content of BTAS made it seem like it was this forbidden show that I shouldn’t be watching and that struck a chord with me. But looking back at it now, my young age meant that I couldn’t truly appreciate how good the show was.
Of course twenty years on and comic book characters are box office monsters right now and that doesn’t look to be ending any time soon. I’ve watched all of the comic book films from the since the superhero boom began (well, except for Elektra but I think I can live without that one) but my knowledge of comic books don’t really expand beyond them apart from reading a few notable comic books and doing a little bit of research on Wikipedia from time to time. So my knowledge of comic book characters who have yet to make a recent film or TV appearance are completely unknown to me. People like Hawkgirl, Aquaman, The Question and even Wonder Woman are enigmas to me but that’s where Justice League comes in.
Justice League is an animated series that ran from 2001 to 2006 (the first two seasons are referred to Justice League while the last three are titled Justice League Unlimited). I was aware of this show but I always assumed it was just a cheap cash in to capitalise on kids who had been wowed by the various films released at the box office. What I only found recently however was that this show was Executive Produced by Bruce Timm, the same guy who was one of the masterminds behind Batman: The Animated Series. Not only that, Justice League took place in the same continuity as BTAS as well as other cartoons based on DC comic book characters like Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond and Static Shock. This whole continuity is referred to by fans as the DC Animated Universe (DCAU).
Justice League’s first two seasons concentrate on seven main heroes joining forces to create the titular Justice League. They are: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash (Wally West), Green Lantern (John Stewart), Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. Obviously everyone knows about Batman and Superman. Plus there isn’t much you need to know about The Flash. He runs fast. Really really fast. But the other four characters are going to be new to a lot of casual fans, myself included. Bruce Timm does a great job of helping the audience to get to know these characters. Each one given their chance to shine in early episodes. Casual fans are likely to know who the Green Lanterns are but they may be more familiar with Hal Jordan. Rather than being cocky like Hal, John Stewart is a military man with a sense of duty and commitment to the job. He also strikes up a great partnership with Hawkgirl who is AMAZING. Hawkgirl takes the position in the team that might usually be reserved for somebody like Aquaman. I’m guessing her replacing Aquaman was to bring my diversity to the team (same goes for African American John Stewart taking over for white Hal Jordan). Hawkgirl is brilliant though. She’s a ‘hit now, ask questions later’ kind of woman. Admittedly, she gets the least amount of background in the earlier episodes of Justice League but is given a much bigger role later on as well as the aforementioned partnership with Green Lantern.
Wonder Woman’s inclusion in the team makes you wonder why it’s taken so long for a film to be put in production for her. Wonder Woman has such a great background to explore from her growing up in the distant land of Themyscira to her shock at living in a world with men (Themyscira is populated exclusively with women). There’s plenty to make a good two hour film that I can’t believe nothing has been done with it. Luckily Justice League makes the most with her.
Finally there’s Martian Manhunter who has become my favourite character. Like Superman, Manhunter is the last of his race. He is more of a talker than a fighter. Manhunter often uses diplomacy and non violent methods to solve a problem. But if push comes to shove he will be happy to resort to fighting and when he does, it’s amazing! Martian Manhunter may be the most powerful of the Justice League perhaps with the exception of Superman. I really enjoyed Manhunter because he seemed to combine the strength of Superman with the brains of Batman.
The story format of Justice League consists of a series of two parter and three parter episodes. Which means that each story is like a mini movie where the Justice League will confront various villains from the DC universe. Not every Justice League member appears in every episode which is good because it means that it gives each character a chance to be focused on as well as giving the writers a chance to try out different pairings of Justice League members. There is some serialisation between episodes with recurring villains such as Vandal Savage, Lex Luthor and Gorilla Grodd making multiple appearances. It’s fun to see a villain most often associated with Batman go head to head with somebody like Hawkgirl or The Flash. Not only that, but the action unfolds across the universe from Earth to the far reaches of the galaxy and even across time and other dimensions, the scope of Justice League reached epic heights.
After two seasons of Justice League, we had the beginning of Justice League Unlimited. What was the reason behind this renaming and rebranding? I don’t know. But Justice League Unlimited marked the beginning of expanding the Justice League in terms of it’s membership base and way the show operated.
Justice League Unlimited (JLU) offered up more heroes from the DC universe as well as it’s core seven members. There were loads of heroes here that I had never even heard of such as Booster Gold, Vigilante, The Question and Wildcat. These smaller characters were often paired up with one or more of the seven core members.
JLU also marked a different approach to storytelling. The format of two parters or three parters was dropped in favour of telling single episode stories. But these stories were often tied together with story strands and thematic ideas. For example, the first season of JLU drops seeds together that pay dividends in the second season when the ‘Cadmus’ storyline begins to flourish. The Cadmus project is a secret government programme to create another group of superheroes who can be controlled by the government rather than exist as a separate entity like the Justice League have been doing. This storyline not only flourishes in JLU but picks up on storyline elements that occurred in the first two seasons of Justice League and even in Superman: The Animated Series. It helps to make the consistency and strength of the DCAU much much stronger and the final four episodes of JLU’s second season are absolutely fantastic!
Vigilante and Sir Justin. The unsung heroes of JLU!
Bruce Timm’s DCAU certainly achieved great success in it’s time. Various actors lent their voices to the DCAU. Some examples include Nathan Fillion as Vigilante, Powers Boothe as Gorilla Grodd, CCH Pounder as Amanda Waller (amazing!), and Michael Rosenbaum as The Flash. The DCAU received praise from notables such as Alan Moore, a man who’s famous for his dislike for any adaptation of his works, called the episode ‘For the man who has everything’ the best adaptation of any of of his comics he’s ever seen (admittedly I read that on Wikipedia).
My greatest pleasure out of watching Justice League and Justice League Unlimited was revelling in how mature the show was. It wasn’t afraid to tackle subjects that may have gone over the heads of it’s younger viewers like Nazism, feminism, civil war and government corruption. The show wasn’t allowed to swear and or make crude jokes but it did manage to get in a few great little moments.
Flash: I’m the fastest man alive!
Hawkgirl: Which might explain why you can’t get a date.
Flash: Yeah, I…HEY!
Despite the serious subjects that Justice League tackled. That didn’t mean the tone was always serious. The show happily took on something a little more wacky and joyous too. Take for example the episode ‘Kid’s Stuff’ which had Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern turned into kids. Or the episode ‘This Little Piggy’ which featured one character singing a jazz number to save Wonder Woman. I won’t spoil which character but it‘s REALLY worth checking out. Justice League even had some emotional moments with the death of one villain managing to make me a bit misty eyed not once but twice!
One of the great things about the DCAU, was that it gave viewers a shared universe before Marvel came along and make a shed load of money out of it. Of course with DC Comics attempting their own live action shared universe, fans are likely to make the comparison between the live action and DCAU. So what could the live action DC films learn from the DCAU?
Having a little think, I came up with these five ideas based on what the DCAU did well:
Don’t shy away from the unorthodox/less popular characters
That goes for both heroes and villains. Justice League’s television format allowed them to explore a whole wide range of characters and went beyond the typical A-list heroes and villains. I think the greatest triumph of JLU in this department was pushing The Question up to leading status for an arc in the second season. The Question is a conspiracy theorist with no real powers. At first shown to be a a bit of a crazy nut job (“Properly applied fluoride doesn’t prevent tooth decay. It renders teeth detectable by spy satellites!”), he is eventually shown to be one of the most committed members of the team against the big bad of season two and even confronts two of the most powerful individuals in DC comics to help the cause. I guess in the near future, this guideline is going to mostly apply to somebody like Martian Manhunter. Will the average audience engage with a green martian? I can’t say for sure but I sure hope DC/Warner Bros give it a damn good try.
Don’t be afraid to leave Earth
Even Marvel, in their films, have kept their forays into space to a minimum up until Guardians of the Galaxy. Justice League waited until the second story to make the trip to space and introduced the Green Lantern Corps to the DCAU. The cinematic Warner Bros’ Justice League shouldn’t be afraid to make that plunge either. After all, Superman and Martian Manhunter are from another planet, Green Lantern spends a lot of his time in outer space and Hawkgirl has her roots in the planet of Thanagar (although apparently, that differs between various iterations of the comics). It would make sense for the cinematic universe to delve into space, there’s a whole universe (literally, ahem) of stories to be told. Warner Bros have a huge playground to play in and it would be silly to base all of the Justice League’s adventures on Earth. Although speaking of Earth, it would be nice if Wonder Woman’s Themyscira and Aquaman’s Atantis are utilised.
Build relationships between the team members
This doesn’t need to extend to the point of full on romance. But it would be nice to see some friendly interaction between the team members. As much as I liked The Avengers, there wasn’t really a great deal of camaraderie between them outside of fighting. With the exception of Tony Stark/Bruce Banner and Black Widow/Hawkeye (which are fairly underdeveloped as of now), there wasn’t much between the characters. Justice League and JLU happily mixed and matched characters together. The friendship and respect between Batman and Superman is well known in comics and that is likely to be translated to screen. But it was always interesting when Batman was put alongside somebody else. For example, the sexual chemistry between Batman and Wonder Woman or when the moody dour faced Batman was put alongside the upbeat comic relief Flash, it was quite amusing. Or how about Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman? Both were the two females in the team and both had differing views on ‘sisterhood’ and what it means to be a woman as well as how to deal with a situation (Hawkgirl’s typical response was “I’ll just smash it!”). The Justice League have their own little clubhouse in The Watchtower so it would be nice to see them mixing up there. JLU occasionally had scenes set in the Justice League Dining hall. It’s kind of bizarre at first but it’s great!
Show the personal lives of the team members
This kind of ties in to the decision to introduce Wonder Woman, Cyborg (and maybe Aquaman) in Dawn of Justice in 2016 as well as a new Batman iteration. With all these heroes filling the screen, it feels like there won’t be a lot of time for character growth. Instead it looks like it’s going to be two hours of punchy punchy, smashy smash. Justice League happily explored the character moments and internal issues of their main characters. Take Wonder Woman. She was from a distant land filled with women. So coming to mainland America is a big shock to her. It’s a society she doesn’t understand and has problems getting to grips with it. Martian Manhunter, as already stated, is the last of his race. He comes to Earth a loner and again, struggles to understand human society. Superman is the most powerful person on Earth and yet he is equally met with acclaim and suspicion by the Earth’s population. Again, there’s so much to explore here. It would be a shame if it was ignored in favour of pretty visuals of people getting punched in the face.
Have a sense of fun
I think the audience’s perception of both DC and Marvel through their films is that DC is the serious one and Marvel are the ones who like to joke around and eat shawarma. Justice League and JLU shows that the DC characters can be fun too. As well as what I mentioned earlier in this article, Justice League happily engaged with humour. Mostly through the character of The Flash who was the designated comic relief for the show. Entire plots can revolve around bizarre concepts. For example, one of the last episodes of the show involves The Flash and Lex Luthor accidentally swapping brains. So Lex Luthor finds himself in The Watchtower in The Flash’s body surrounded by Justice League members and The Flash is in Luthor’s body surrounded by various enemies. If you only ever watch one clip from Justice League, make it this one from that episode: