AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is coming out this month, so let’s talk about JUSTICE LEAGUE. The 2017 blockbuster wasn’t a total flop. It earned back its budget, and it got better reviews than the more infamous DCEU installments such as BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and SUICIDE SQUAD. But, it wasn’t the shot in the arm producers were hoping for, and the current direction of the DCEU remains uncertain; which brings us to JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Concept art for the cancelled JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

MAD MAX creator George Miller’s made a canceled attempt at a Justice League movie called JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL. The film was going to come out in 2009. However, there were complications arising from the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America Strike. That, along with concerns about overlapping with Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN series put an end to the project. But, what if the project went through? Imagine if Miller initially planned out the DC cinematic universe instead of Snyder. Would the DCEU have fared better against the MCU?

Well, the only remnants of JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL available to the public are some blurry photos and a 125-page script. Obviously, these aren’t totally reliable indicators of what the final product would be like. For instance, Jay Baruchel, the actor who was going to play Maxwell Lord, said in a podcast that Wonder Woman beheads a minotaur in the film, whereas in the script posted online, there is no minotaur to be found.

However, for the sake of speculation, I did read the entire 125-page script posted online. So, if we take that script at face value, how does JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL compare to JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)? First, let’s lay down some groundwork. Plotwise, what exactly happens in these films?

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Plot Synopsis – JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

After the death of Superman in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, the dreary world of the DCEU has become even drearier. People have lost hope because of Superman’s passing, although they didn’t seem to like him much in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. During this time, Steppenwolf and his army of parademons have come to Earth.

The various peoples of Earth hid these devices called “Mother Boxes” after Steppenwolf tried to take over the Earth with them thousands of years ago. Thus, Batman and Wonder Woman put together a team. They, along with Flash, Aquaman, and the Mother Box powered Cyborg, join together to fight off Steppenwolf’s forces.

It’s not enough to stop Steppenwolf though. So, they dig up Superman’s corpse and resurrect him Frankenstein-style using Kryptonian spaceship technology in a military base. Superman freaks out a bit, but everything turns out fine and they fight off the bad guys. After the credits, Lex Luthor and Deathstroke plan something on a yacht.

Plot Synopsis – JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL (2009?)  

Image Courtesy of DC Entertainment

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL skips over the character origins entirely. This is because it takes place in a world where superheroes have already established themselves. They’re relatively friendly to one another. Except for Batman, who’s a paranoid jerk. In fact, he’s such a paranoid jerk that he created a bunch of contingency plans and a surveillance system called “Brother Eye” to take down the other heroes in case they go rogue.

Unfortunately, “Brother Eye” goes rogue instead and unleashes the contingency plans on the heroes. This is because Batman’s crazy ex-girlfriend Talia Al Ghul and evil billionaire Maxwell Lord hijacked it.

Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter come together to defeat the enacted contingency plans. They then meet up with Batman to take down Lord. It turns out Lord is the sole survivor of a cyborg super-soldier program called OMAC. Lord mind controls Superman for a bit, turns a bunch of people into killer cyborgs. He even starts body-hopping around as “OMAC Ultra,” until he lands in Flash’s body.

Flash willingly sacrifices himself to the speed force to take down both them. The rest of the team and Flash’s nephew Wally decide to form the Justice League. At the end of the film, they go off into space to fight Starro, the giant starfish.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
pg. 128 on the script. Images courtesy of DC Entertainment

How Do They Compare?

For obvious reasons, I didn’t include every single detail in those synopses. But now that you know the gist of what happens, we can delve a little deeper into the components. Here’s how the two stack up against each other.

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Action

For the time being, let’s assume that the script I read was adapted word-for-word. If so, then JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL definitely has the upper hand when it comes to the fight scenes. Even by today’s technological standards, this a pretty ambitious script when it comes to visuals.

All the members of the League get to use their powers to the fullest extent. Martian Manhunter is constantly shape-shifting and mind-reading; Flash vibrates his molecules to the point of falling through the Earth itself; Superman and Wonder Woman have an all-out battle that takes them all the way to the moon and back; Aquaman summons all sorts of sea life from killer whales to hordes of fish. He even uses hydrokinesis to perform brain surgery; etc.  

Of course, given how over-the-top this all is, and Jay Baruchel’s minotaur comment from earlier, it’s entirely possible that these sequences wouldn’t have made it to the silver screen totally intact. Some of it could’ve been cut out, modified to be more down-to-earth, or rendered through particularly bad CGI. Still, the script definitely has a lot of fun with using each member’s specific abilities. Compare this to JUSTICE LEAGUE, where the climactic fight scene features Aquaman jumping around in a barren waterless place.

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Characterization

Well, it’s always going to be a struggle to have balanced characterization in a film with at least 6 protagonists. So, JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) definitely has the advantage in that it builds off other films. There are several films preceding it that established its world and some of its main characters.

I don’t think the DCEU handled Superman particularly well. At least, I never bought into the idea of him being the figure of hope that JUSTICE LEAGUE treats him as. But, I do think the film shows that Batman and Wonder Woman’s personalities have grown since BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and WONDER WOMAN.

JUSTICE LEAGUE Handles Its Heroes

Diana in WONDER WOMAN is somewhat naive since the film is about her leaving Themyscira for the first time during World War I. So, it makes sense that when we reach the modern events of JUSTICE LEAGUE, Diana has become a wiser and savvier hero.

Likewise, Bruce in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is a paranoid, overly-violent vigilante who realizes the error of ways once he sees Superman sacrifice himself for the greater good. Thus, in JUSTICE LEAGUE, Batman becomes more of a down-to-earth figure. Though he is still figuring out how to get along with superhumans.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

Admittedly, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg don’t get that much character development in comparison to the main three, but they still have their own distinct personalities. Flash is overly enthusiastic and quippy. Aquaman acts like an arrogant musclehead. Cyborg is a stoic machine man trying to reconnect with his human side. They don’t have the most remarkable set of personalities, but everybody’s got their own thing going on.

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JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL’s Missing Origin Stories

On the other hand, JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL mainly focuses on two members of the league: Batman and the Flash. As stated earlier, Batman learns to be less of a paranoid jerk, and since Flash, AKA Barry Allen, dies at the end, the film makes sure to try to humanize Barry as much possible. So, in order to do that, Barry gets most of the quips, and there’s a lot of emphasis on his relationship with his wife Iris. They even have a bizarre PG-13 pseudo-sex scene together.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
pg. 49. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

The rest of the League Members besides Batman and Flash are portrayed as your usual morally-upstanding heroes, and as stated earlier, the script focuses more on their powers instead of their personalities. This didn’t bother me that much, but MORTAL doesn’t really delve into the characters’ origins either, presumably under the assumption that characters like Superman and Green Lantern are already so well known that audiences already know their backstories.

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While I get that perhaps Batman and Superman’s origin stories are common knowledge by now, I do wonder if things like the speed force and the green lantern corps need to be explained to general audiences. In particular, Talia Al Ghul is one of the villains in MORTAL, who has sworn revenge on Batman for using her to help him take down her father Ra’s Al Ghul. Maybe all you need to know is that her dad fought Batman. But, if you don’t know who Ra’s Al Ghul is, you might not fully understand where Talia is coming from.

Villians

Speaking of Tahlia, it’d be a shame to leave the characterization section without a one-on-one comparison between the films’ main villains: Maxwell Lord and Steppenwolf. Frankly, Steppenwolf isn’t all that memorable. He’s a big ugly guy leading an army of smaller ugly guys that the good guy’s fight. In other words, he’s a set piece designed for the purpose of giving the Justice League something to punch.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

Now, at the end of JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL, Maxwell Lord ends up in a similar situation when he becomes OMAC Ultra, a big ugly robot leading an army of smaller ugly robots that the good guy’s fight. But, for what it’s worth, he does get some characterization before that happens. In fact, Lord seems to be somewhat similar to BATMAN V. SUPERMAN’s take on Lex Luthor.

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Maxwell Lord VS. Lex Luthor

One thing they have in common is that they’re youngish/awkward looking billionaires. Jay Baruchel, who was going to play Lord, and Jesse Eisenberg, who played Luthor, are both graduates of the “Michael Cera School of Acting”. For those of you who don’t get hackneyed pop culture references, here’s what I mean.

Baruchel and Eisenberg initially rose to fame by playing socially awkward everymen. Thus, since they both are acting as super-arrogant billionaire supervillains, it seems that Lord and Luthor in these films are parallel to one another.

For instance, Lord and Luthor both claim that they are victims of child abuse, and they use that to justify hating superheroes. Luthor had that whole spiel about believing that all-powerful beings are inherently evil. He says this is because his dad beat him as a kid. Lord, on the other hand, unwillingly participated in a military experiment as a child. He’s mad at the superheroes for not saving him and the other children there.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
pg. 101. Context: Jonah Wilkes was Lord’s actual name prior to undergoing experimentation. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

It’s unclear whether or not the superheroes were even around back then when Lord was a kid. So Lord’s motives are a bit fuzzy here. Still, for what it’s worth, Eisenberg’s Luthor is at least better than the blandness of Steppenwolf. So, if Maxwell Lord turns out to be like Eisenberg Luthor, I’ll concede that MORTAL has the better villain.

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Franchise Potential

Now, here’s the big question. Which Justice League film is better at supporting a cinematic universe? Granted, I am comparing the script of a hypothetical film to an actual film released in theaters. But it’s still interesting to consider whether or not the tone seen in JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL would’ve been a better starting point for the DCEU instead of what we have now.

Crossover With The Nolanverse?

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Images Courtesy of DC Entertainment

First off, I think that 2009 probably wasn’t the right year to release JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL. A 2009 release would mean that the film would be premiere while Nolan’s BATMAN film series was still ongoing. I suppose one might argue that the Nolan films could be used as the backstory of the Batman we see in Justice League and that by tying all the films together, Warner Bros. would be able to establish a multi-installment cinematic universe right off the bat (pun somewhat intended).

However, if you couldn’t tell already by the plot descriptions in this article, it’s clear that the Nolanverse films and JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL are going for completely different tones in worlds that abide by completely different rules. Nolan’s take on Batman is all about emphasizing a sense of realism.

MORTAL, on the other hand, is about a world in which over-the-top superheroics are the norm. Also, given that Armie Hammer was cast as Batman instead of Christian Bale, it seems pretty clear that JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL’s version of Batman is not intended to be the Nolanverse Batman.

Reorganizing the DCEU

Nolanverse aside, how would JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL work as the first installment of an all-new DCEU? Or, in other words, what would the MCU be like if THE AVENGERS came first?

Well, it’s hard to tell. If it turned out well, JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL could be a solid all-encompassing base to build the DCEU off of. It would kick things off by creating a clear screenshot of how this cinematic universe is supposed to work, especially in regards to how all the variable heroes in this world operate and interact with one other.

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Alternatively, starting out with the big crossover could end up being a case of putting your eggs in one basket, and by ruining everything at once, you end up having to rebuild everything from scratch.

That being said, either way, starting with JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL would probably help organize things a bit. The current DCEU is fairly chaotic; it started with solo origin film MAN OF STEEL, then it was followed up by a big crossover movie, then there was SUICIDE SQUAD, which still feels somewhat isolated from everything else that’s going on. After that was WONDER WOMAN’s solo film, and then another big crossover, and now it’s been announced that there are several solo films being considered, some of which may not even be canon to the DCEU.

Chaos Strategy

JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment

But if you want to differentiate yourself from the MCU, a totally well organized and interconnected release schedule might not be the answer. Maybe the DCEU is on track with a more unpredictable approach where solo films, non-canon Elseworlds tales, and the occasional crossover film come out in a less-interconnected manner that focuses more on individual films rather trying to create one giant network narrative.

Obviously, with such an approach you don’t need to go back and revise everything to make sure it matches up. And I think if you could get it to work, it would be an interesting contrast to the neatly organized MCU.

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In any case, I think it’s too soon to say whether or not the DCEU needs to start over from scratch. But to answer the titular question, JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) has better-established worldbuilding, but  JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL, if adapted correctly, could’ve been a larger-than-life superhero spectacle that could have possibly rivaled INFINITY WAR.

Of course, do keep in mind that MORTAL gets the benefit of the doubt because it hasn’t, and probably won’t ever get made. But if Warner Bros. really is just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, who knows? Maybe there’s a place on screen for JUSTICE LEAGUE: MORTAL yet.

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