Once upon a time, high profile comic book movies which ultimately didn’t get made were mostly relegated to footnotes on Wikipedia pages, deep dive retrospectives, and chapters in books like Tales from Development Hell and The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. Now, these notorious pre-launch failures get their own fan-funded documentaries, e.g.,The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened?, Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four. In that same vein, Australian director Ryan Unicomb just announced Milller’s Justice League Mortal, a forthcoming look back at George Miller’s abandoned 2009 movie, no doubt spurred on by a heightened interest in everything George Miller-related in the wake of Max Max: Fury Road.
But aren’t behind the scenes accounts of failed films always kind of the same? As THR said in its review of The Death of “Superman Lives”, there is a surprising “arbitrariness of so much decision-making in Hollywood” and “there have been other movies made about aborted projects, and they all tell us more than we might like to know about the grandiosity and self-delusion of so many Hollywood players.” In the case of Justice League: Mortal, the actor they’d cast to play The Flash, Adam Brody, later recalled, “How close did we come? We were in Australia for some table reads and fittings and whatnot for a few weeks with George Miller and his camp, and that was a great experience.”
As historical case studies, you can often look at these stalled projects to see if the involved parties learned any lessons from the failure, or if they simply have hilarious anecdotes about clueless studio execs and insane producers? Did the failure of Justice League: Mortal teach Warner Bros. anything which they are using to improve their approach to the upcoming Justice League two-part movie due out in 2017 and 2019 respectively? Hopefully so, because for a while there Justice League: Mortal was simply something they were fast-tracking to fill a hole in their release calendar when Superman Returns bummed everyone out:
Batman Begins rules, Superman Returns drools
June 2005 – Batman Begins opens to good, but not great box office, selling fewer tickets than any prior Batman movie other than Batman & Robin. It sticks around in theaters throughout the summer, lifted by word-of-mouth, but only manages $374m worldwide on a $150m production budget. Still, the merchandise sales are so strong and word of mouth so positive Warner Bros. is reportedly keen on making a sequel, forced to wait for whenever Christopher Nolan feels like doing it.
February 2006 – Variety reports Warner Bros. is plotting a Batman Begins sequel for 2008 and a Superman Returns sequel for 2009, trusting Superman Returns, heaven forbid, doesn’t tank at the box office upon its release four months later.
June 2006 – Superman Returns tanks at the box office. Well, not exactly tanks, but the studio wanted it to make at least $500m worldwide. Instead, they got a US gross barely above $200m and worldwide of $391m along with a production budget of $209m, not counting the millions spent on earlier versions of the project before Bryan Singer came along.
July 2006 – Warner Bros. officially announces the start of production on a Batman sequel called The Dark Knight.
February 2007 – Joss Whedon announces he has departed a planned Wonder Woman movie, and the next day David Goyer announces (on MySpace!) he has been kicked off a planned Flash movie which was to star Ryan Reynolds.
Justice League Mortal begins to take shape
February 2007 – Variety announces WB has hired husband-and-wife writing duo Kieran and Michele Mulroney, fresh off a re-write of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, to pen a script for an intended Justice League of America movie. No release date is specified nor is there any indication which characters will appear. Christian Bale and Brandon Routh’s respective involvement is unclear.
March 2007 – The Superman Returns sequel, which was expected to enter into production in mid-2007, takes a huge hit when Bryan Singer bolts to make Valkyrie for MGM. WB still wants a Superman sequel for summer 2009, but no one knows if they’ll be able to make that happen.
June 2007 – The Mulroney’s turn in their very comic book-faithful Justice League script, which reads like a live-action episode of the then-running animated series Justice League/Justice League Unlimited with a similarly light tone and nearly identical core team of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the John Stewart Green Lantern, and The Martian Manhunter.
The only difference is that Hawkgirl isn’t around, and instead of the Wally West Flash they have the Barry Allen version, although a seventeen-year-old West has a role as a hero-in-training. Plus, they added Aquaman to the core. There is no origin story, with all of the characters already in place as superheroes for at least 5 years by the time the film starts. Barry Allen serves as the POV character of the story, which is an adaptation of the comics JLA: Tower of Babel (someone gets a hold of Batman’s super secret file containing strategies for defeating each JLA member should they turn evil, and then uses those strategies against them), The OMAC Project (the villain is Maxwell Lord), Identity Crisis (book-ended by the funeral for one of JLA’s members), and Crisis on Infinite Earths (Barry Allen dies in the speed force, sacrificing himself to save everyone). WB likes the script so much Variety wonders, “Should WB release Justice before its Superman Returns sequel?”
July 2007 – Suddenly, that Superman Returns sequel has become an “if,” with Alan Horn telling THR, “If we do a sequel to Superman, we want it to be less expensive. I have to see a screenplay before I say yes to anything. But the studio would be willing to spend as much as $175 million if the screenplay and other factors warranted it.”
August 2007 – Christian Bale voices his displeasure with the idea of there being a Batman concurrent to his own, “It’d be better if [Justice League: Mortal] doesn’t tread on the toes of what we’re doing, though I feel that it would be better if it comes out after Batman 3.”
Can you do it before the strike?
September 2007 – WB hires George Miller to direct Justice League, picking the Mad Max director due to his recent success with Happy Feet for the studio (and also because their first choice, Jason Reitman, turned them down). The production is to be fast-tracked to beat the looming Writers Strike and deliver a summer 2009 tentpole for the studio. Variety reports Bale will not play the Caped Crusader nor will Routh play the Man of Steel. In fact, Christopher Nolan and Bale are so weary of the project WB explored doing an animated or motion-captured version but ultimately decided the world can never have enough live-action Batman.
Still, Variety cites insider sources who presciently claim the production is the type which could easily fall apart before ever going in front of the camera, but the studio is hopeful the project can launch solo Wonder Woman and Flash movies. No start date for filming is specified, but the target release is summer 2009.
September 2007 – Jessica Biel enters into negotiations to play Justice League’s Wonder Woman.
October 2007-January 2008 – Biel’s negotiations fall apart, and Australian model Megan Gale is cast as Wonder Woman instead. Adam Brody is cast as the Flash, Armie Hammer as Batman, and DJ Cotrona as Superman. Aussie actors Hugh Keays-Byrne and Teresa Palmer are also cast, the former as Martian Manhunter and the latter as Talia al Ghul, who has a small but pivotal role as the person who steals Batman’s top secret file after a romantic dalliance. Columbus Short turns down the role of Green Lantern, and Aquaman goes uncast.
November 2007 – The Writers Guild of America goes on strike over DVD residuals and new media content. Any scripts in development or filming at the time of the strike cannot be altered by any WGA member until after the strike ends, which doesn’t happen until February 12, 2008.
January 15, 2008 – WB’s self-imposed greenlight deadline for Justice League passes with no official greenlight.
January 16, 2008 – WB announces Justice League: Mortal has been put on indefinite hold and lets the options on all of the actors expire. The cause for delay is attributed to the need to improve the script as well as tax break complications in Australia, where they intended to film.
February 12, 2008 – The WGA strike ends, and JL: Mortal is immediately revived, the Mulroneys instantly returning to begin script revisions, which are ordered to be completed in 6 weeks. The rapper Common is added to the cast as Green Lantern. Jay Baruchel is cast as Maxwell Lord, Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman and Zoe Kazan as Iris Allen.
Delayed and Dead
March 2008 – The production is again delayed, this time by three months, when the Australian government refuses to grant a 40% tax rebate even though Miller had put three Aussies in the cast and was going to utilize an entirely Australian production crew. He tells the Sydney Morning Herald, “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Australian film industry is being frittered away because of very lazy thinking. They’re throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars of investment that the rest of the world is competing for and, much more significantly, highly skilled creative jobs.”
July 2008 – JL: Mortal fails to go in front of cameras as had been the plan when it was delayed in March. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight comes out, is amazing, breaks records.
August 2008 – WB’s Jeff Robinov** tells Variety, “We’re not off the notion of a Justice League. There’s a massive interest and knowledge in the comic book industry and it takes time to sort of catch up and understand the characters and the history, where they’ve intersected with each other and what their worlds are. That’s part of the education that we’re going through.” In the ensuing years, JL: Mortal quietly dies while WB shifts focus to a solo Green Lantern in 2011 and a new Justice League script by Will Bealls in 2012 designed to springboard from Man of Steel.
May 2009 – Unlike JL: Mortal, Terminator: Salvation survive the Writers Strikes and finishes in time for a summer 2009 release. WB only has one other tentpole the rest of the summer, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but on June 5, 2009 a little film called The Hangover delivers them a surprising new franchise.
What Unicomb’s documentary will hopefully uncover is just how close Justice League Mortal came to actually being filmed. Same say nearly everything from sets to props to costumes had been built and special effects pre-vis work completed, with the plug ultimately pulled mere days before the start of filming. Unicomb has already uncovered some concept art and pre-vis, releasing it on Twitter. In addition to the Wonder Woman and Aquaman photos I’ve already included above, there’s also this pic from somewhere around the film’s climax:
Looking back at it today, George Miller told DenOfGeek the film ultimately never happened because:
“There was a writers strike. There was some legislation with a tax rebate to make it in Australia. It was the first film that came up, and there was a debate about whether it was Australian content even though I was driving it. It didn’t have to be Australian content, but Australian control. But there was a board that no longer exists that the government cobbled together from people who knew nothing about the film industry. And they voted — they struck it down by one vote. We were all ready. Once that happened and then the writers’ strike happened…it fell apart.”
This hasn’t stopped WB from trying. As Gregory Noveck, senior vice president of creative affairs for DC Entertainment, said in 2008, “We’re going to make a Justice League movie, whether it’s now or 10 years from now. But we’re not going to do it and Warners is not going to do it until we know it’s right.” Figuring out the right time to do it, though, has been their consistent hurdle. Clearly, in the case of JL: Mortal there was a folly in making a film just to meet a release date and fulfill some kind of quota for big budget movies, but that actually seems like fairly standard Hollywood. What has plagued them has been a nagging uncertainty around whether it’s better to introduce characters in solo films and then team them up or do a reverse Avengers and use a team-up as a springboard.
With JL: Mortal, they almost ran with a multiverse in which their live-action Justice League was totally separate from either the Nolan Batman movies or Singer’s Superman, and they were going to forego any kind of origin story. Then they tried to maybe do more of a Marvel Studios thing but on a shorter schedule, jumping straight into Justice League after Man of Steel. Now, they’ve decided to use a Batman/Superman team-up as a not-so-secret Iron Man 2-esque set-up for Justice League. Along the way, they’ve continually preferred to introduce their characters in a team before spinning them off into solo adventures, and this has evolved to the point that by Justice League: Part 1 in late 2017 only Superman (in Man of Steel) and Wonder Woman (in a self-titled film in early 2017) will have had their own solo films, although Wonder Woman will have been introduced in Batman v Superman.
The only real evolution since JL: Mortal is that WB has realized they need to have just one cinematic universe for their characters as far as the movies are concerned. Then again, they’re still totally cool with having their TV shows scattered to the wind, and the word is that their Shazam movie will actually be stand-alone. Plus, Batman is getting his own animated LEGO movie. Still, if not for one single vote by a member of a now-disbanded faction of the Australian government JL: Mortal very well could have happened, giving us two different live-action versions of Batman (Bale and Hammer) and three different versions of Superman (Superman Returns, Smallville, JL: Mortal) going at the same time.
Sources: Check out DenOfGeek’s recent deep dive into JL: Mortal’s script – the League would have already established practical world peace, Wonder Woman would present to the UN and have romantic tension with Aquaman, and unlike Man of Steel Batman would be the one to snap the villain’s neck, not Superman
*Former WB President Alan Horn has been the chairman of Walt Disney Studios since 2012.
**Jeff Robinov, who was a huge proponent of only backing big-budget tentpole releases, was forced out of WB in June 2013.