Warner Bros. celebrated their victory last week over retaining the rights to use Superman any way they see fit by accelerating their plans to produce a Justice League film that would go head to head with Marvel’s Avengers 2 in 2015. This was followed by an ear splitting squeal of delight from DC Comics fans around the globe.
So yes, if you’ve always wanted to see second and third tier DC superheroes fighting alongside big guns like Batman and Superman on the silver screen, you may finally get your wish. With the exception of Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Man of Steel, the studio has decided to do a reverse franchise build from Marvel. Instead of launching separate superhero films and having them build towards and ensemble piece, they plan to unveil them all in Justice League and have them branch out from there.
This decision calls into question a fundamental screenwriting problem known (at least here) as: The Ensemble Dilemma. This dilemma occurs when you have a) a large cast of relatively unknown characters, and b) limited screentime in which to establish them sufficiently before advancing onto the main plot. Because motion pictures are only about two hours in length, these introductions are often truncated to the point where its nearly impossible to have any emotional investment in the material whatsoever.
A good example of this paint-by-numbers approach can be found in 2003′s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Anyone remember this box office disaster from Blade director Stephen Norrington? Alan Moore’s comic series of the same name was translated into an onscreen embarrassment as Norrington and screenwriter James Dale Robinson tried to cram no less than seven major literary figures into an 110 minute running time, to say nothing of the villain and actual plot.
As a result, that film became lost to cast and crew infighting (Sean Connery reportedly retired from acting over working on LXG) and a slew of poorly produced special effects. Ocean’s 12 and 13 are another example of ensemble films with too many characters and not enough screentime. This dilemma can also be applied to the Star Wars prequels and its bloated cast of CGI characters, but they at least have preexisting movies to help them along, and this is key to making an ensemble piece work onscreen.
Joss Wheddon’s Senerity worked because it had 14 episodes from a failed TV series to firmly establish the characters and world. Mal Reynolds and the crew were fully formed and ready for action when the film began. Likewise, Marvel’s franchise building films like Iron Man and Thor helped set the stage for The Avengers. We already had an investment in these characters before the film even started. This screenwriting dynamic offers the filmmakers a wider sandbox in which to play since they don’t have to chew up valuable screentime establishing characters.
After Superman and Batman, the Justice League characters suffer from a law of diminishing awareness. Green Lantern has already left a sour taste in audience’s mouths with the abysmal 2011 film starring Ryan Reynolds. Wonder Woman is only known best for her mid 70′s TV series starring Lynda Carter, as is the Flash from his series in 1990. Aquaman has been the butt of superhero jokes for years. Face it, without water he’s essentially useless.
Martian Manhunter? Good luck trying to establish him to an unfamiliar audience in a two hour running time. These seven heroes only represent the core JLA team and the ones most likely to be featured in the film. There are many others within the DC universe, as well as a host of villains to choose from. Needless to say, Warner Bros. has their work cut out for them over the next three years.
The ensemble film is a delicate balancing act between establishing many characters and advancing the plot. When done well (Lord of the Rings, The Breakfast Club, even Mystery Men) they weave a rich tapestry of story that creates a strong emotional bond. You understand these characters, their motivations, and how they interact as group. You leave the experience wanting to know more about them.
Justice League should inspire an unfamiliar audience to seek out these characters once the film ends. They should be awed by the power of Martian Manhunter and not confused as to who the green alien was standing behind Batman. Aquaman should command your respect with his connection to the seven seas rather incite giggles because of his shortcomings on land. Wonder Woman should not be regarded as the ‘hot chick in tights’.
If Warner Bros. is going move forward on Justice League with only minimal establishing material, they need to make a bold statement that these beloved superheroes are a valued asset to the company, firmly establishing their integrity to audiences worldwide when the film opens in 2015.
Here’s hoping they do…