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Warner Bros’ long-awaited and troubled production of Justice League has finally been released in theaters and the reception has been mixed. It was also a troubled production with some speculating that it was the DCEU’s last chance and changed director during the middle of post-production. Yet this is nothing compared to what happened to Justice League: Mortal in 2008.
Justice League: Mortal was a proposed team-up film that started pre-production in 2007 and was set to be released in 2009. Husband-and-wife team Kieran and Michele Mulroney (best known as the writers of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) wrote the screenplay which executives at Warner Bros. loved and George Miller was set to direct. However, days before the film was set to start filming in Australia, Warner Bros. delayed and then eventually canceled the production.
The Mulroney’s screenplay (which you can read here) starts with a funeral for one of the heroes, presumably Batman, and uses it to bookend the film. The film moves back to two days before that event and show that the presence of the superheroes, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Aquaman and The Flash has secured world peace, most of the major supervillains are imprisoned and Wonder Woman even addresses the UN.
Barry Allen, AKA The Flash, is the everyman of the group and acts as the audience surrogate. He is happily married, makes a lot of wisecracks and acts like a fanboy when he gets to meet Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. The world set up in the screenplay is the other superheroes have been around for years and they are acquainted with each other but Justice League: Mortal marks the first that they worked together.
The plot of the screenplay was influenced by the JLA: Tower of Babel and combined it with elements from the Justice League’s first comic-book adventure. Batman had been monitoring all the other heroes on Earth with his Brother Eye satellite system and figuring out their weaknesses. However, the villain of the piece, Maxwell Lord, the first man who brought the Justice League together in the comics, hacked into the system. With his corporation’s resources and a government super-soldier program known as OMAC, Lord sets out to bring down Earth’s most powerful heroes. Lord recruits Talia al Ghul, Batman’s jilted lover and he was a complex villain because he was the victim of government testing and resented the heroes not saving him and his friends – yet he did have a stock plot of taking over the world.
The screenplay was an entertaining read and it is one of the better-unproduced superhero screenplays that are available on the web. It does share some similarities to the MCU’s The Avengers: both films would have used the same villain from their comics that brought the respective superhero teams together. Both stories also feature a huge battle in the middle of New York and have a death of a major character. It was a simple story but it would have been fine as a set up for a potential franchise and bringing these characters together.
The film would also have had some major action set pieces. The biggest would have been a fight between Wonder Woman and a mind-controlled Superman – in the screenplay it was described as a titanic battle between the two most powerful heroes in DC universe. The other action sequences would have been The Flash and Wonder Woman saving citizens during a fire at Denver International Airport, Batman fighting thugs in Gotham and the Justice League having to stop The Flash who is controlled by one of Lord’s OMAC nanobots.
The film was set to have a $220 million budget and cast of young up-and-coming actors in the roles. Armie Hammer – pre-Social Network fame – was set to play Batman, D. J. Cotrona was going to be Superman and Australian model turned actress Megan Gale was cast as the Amazonian warrior Wonder Woman. Gale eventually got to work with Miller during Mad Max: Fury Road. The O.C.‘s Adam Brody was cast as The Flash and completing the Justice League were Santiago Cabrera (Heroes) as Aquaman, rapper Common as John Stewart AKA Green Lantern and Hugh Keays-Byrne (Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road) was going to be Martian Manhunter. Comedic actor Jay Baruchel would have played Maxwell Lord and Teresa Palmer and indie-darling Zoe Kazan would have completed the cast as Talia al Ghul and Iris Allen. The reasoning for having such a young cast was to give the actors an opportunity to grow in their roles.
Weta Workshop and Weta Digital – best known for their work on Lord of the Rings Trilogy and rebooted Planet of the Apes series were set to handle the special effects – and the original idea was to make Justice League: Mortal a motion-capture film like Beowulf.
There were a number of reasons why the film was canceled. The first was the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike which affected a number of major productions like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Quantum of Solace. Warner Bros. wanted some rewrites to the screenplay but that was impossible due to the strike. The film also suffered problems regarding a despute with the Australian government over a 40% tax rebate and Warner Bros. even scouted locations in Canada as an alternative.
Finally, Warner Bros. already had two alternative franchises on the go. By the time Justice League: Mortal was scheduled to be filmed in 2008 The Dark Knight was set to be released that summer and the studio were considering making a sequel to Superman Returns for a 2009 release. If all these plans had gone ahead then it would have meant that Warner Bros. had three separate superhero franchises with two different pairs of actors playing Batman and Superman at the same time. Warner Bros. instead chose to focus on making a third film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series.
The final question is, would Justice League: Mortal have been any good? It certainly would have been an action-packed affair and it would have been made during Miller’s animation phase: his previous film at the time would have been Happy Feet. But it would have been a risk considering the young cast of unknowns leading to what would have been an expensive tentpole. Other motion capture films were met with a mixed reception and Justice League: Mortal would probably have met a similar fate. Like James Cameron’s Spider-man, Superman Lives and Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One, Justice League: Mortal is one of the great what-if superhero films.