Let’s Talk: DC Comics On Film – Elseworlds Part 1 – By Ben Clemmer.
One of the 2020 releases I was looking forward to finally reached audiences, so after trying to figure out what topic to turn to after so much focus on DC Comics and movies…
Well, here we are. They pulled me back in.
I don’t intend to talk about Wonder Woman 1984 yet, and as I was looking back through some of my old files, I discovered a short piece I wrote about two of the most successful comic book films of 2008. As a Batman fan, the impact of The Dark Knight was amazing, but who knew a film featuring a Marvel hero I’d barely heard of before would launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it.
In that same time, the quality of the DC films has been… let’s just say mixed.
The tone of that piece about 2008 was a little jealous. I wrote it in 2017. Back then, we hadn’t even gotten to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame yet, but it didn’t change the fact that one of the best films of the last several years to feature DC characters was The Lego Batman Movie.
DC Comics had a series called Elseworlds. Marvel would call their similar series What If? That is a question I find myself asking and so many others with it.
What if The Dark Knight had launched the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU)?
What if Christian Bale had played Batman for as long as Robert Downey Jr. played Iron Man?
What if the superhero team up event of 2012 had been Justice League, rather than The Avengers?
Let’s explore this alternate universe.
For this exercise, I’m going to try to do a few things. If an existing film works well for our purposes, I’ll put it into our timeline and phases mostly untouched. Unless a casting decision would be really obvious as I shamelessly borrow from the MCU, I won’t make one. I’m not a casting director, especially one as good as Sarah Finn or Andrea Romano. As we pull in DC characters, I will sometimes use equivalents to Marvel characters, but that translation will take many forms. Some equivalents are obvious when it comes to powers, abilities, origins, and goals. Good examples would be Thanos and Darkseid or Ant-Man and the Atom. Sometimes equivalents will take the form of character motivation. That’s where we’ll start.
Right out of the gate we have a problem if we intend to use The Dark Knight as our launchpad for this Elseworlds DC Cinematic Universe. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman is a wanted criminal. If there’s going to be a superhero team up in the DC Universe, it can’t really originate with him. Two years later, someone else would have to step up.
So it’s 2010, and we’re going to put together a DC film to replace Iron Man 2. The second Iron Man is far from a perfect movie, but it serves as our starting point for several characters. Stephen shared a video with me that pointed out that the DC equivalent of Iron Man isn’t Batman, although they share certain similarities, the closest equivalent to Iron Man is Green Arrow. Let’s talk about who and what we would get in a Green Arrow film, shall we?
I may wind up putting together a treatment for this movie, but I don’t have the time to do that here if I’m going to stick to our weekly blog release schedule. For our purposes, picture the first act of Iron Man. We meet Oliver Queen (let’s keep this simple and use Stephen Amell as our visual) as a billionaire playboy who winds up stranded in terrible circumstances and has to remake himself. There’s a comic book called Green Arrow: Year One that gives us most of what we’d need here. The second act of the film begins with Oliver Queen returning home and making two key decisions. The first is to fight crime as Green Arrow and we get to see his first outings as a vigilante in Star City. The second decision is to break up Queen Industries. Batman and Iron Man both lean on their wealth. Oliver sees it as the very thing that’s been corrupting him.
Early in our second act, we get to meet or reintroduce several characters who will be key to advancing the plot of this film. One of his old friends who works in the military could be disappointed that he’s dropping all contracts with the US Armed Forces. This friend could be a pilot named Hal Jordan, the future Green Lantern, who at this point doesn’t have the ring yet. He can serve as our equivalent to Rhodey, if Oliver Queen is Tony Stark. (Casting wise, I keep coming back to Joseph Gordon-Levitt) After Hal and Oliver work through their disagreements, Oliver’s home is visited by two government agents and a familiar third party. Agent King Faraday, a spy from DC Comics who will serve as our Agent Coulson, and Agent John Jones introduce themselves. Jones lets Faraday do most of the talking, but it’s apparent that the desire to keep tabs on vigilantes and work with them is Jones’s idea. Jones could have even appeared in a post credits scene after The Dark Knight, watching Batman escape the police after units move in and find Harvey Dent’s body. For a DC fan, you already know where I’m going with this. Agent Jones is really Martian Manhunter, who has come to Earth to try to save it after his home was wiped out. Jones will be our equivalent to Nick Fury, which is ironic given Fury’s relationship with the Skrulls.
The agents have come to Oliver because his vigilante activities haven’t exactly been subtle. It’s suggested that he could be arrested if he doesn’t cooperate, but the agents also present a common goal. Someone has dealt Queen Industries technologies and weapons to unstable governments and terrorist cells on the black market (yes, I’m still pulling from the original Iron Man film). The influence Queen still has in the public sphere and his alter ego as Green Arrow could be put to good use to make sure the weapons and tech aren’t used to harm innocent people. I did mention three people visiting Oliver. The third is a woman who is also a vigilante he’ll be paired with for the missions. Her code name is Black Canary (we are absolutely still casting Jurnee Smollett).
The rest of our film gives time to develop the relationship between these two as they go on missions that resemble everything from SEAL team tactics to Bond films. This could eventually lead to who’s been undermining Queen Industries, a competitor named Lex Luthor (though unlike Justin Hammer and Obadiah Stane, we’ll see Luthor more extensively in future films. We’re also recasting Jesse Eisenberg). We can end with a confrontation with Count Vertigo (our equivalent to Whiplash for this film, probably played by Paul Bettany) who attacks Queen twice, once at the beginning with his own tech and again at the end of the film with Luthor’s. Oliver Queen can confront Lex Luthor with evidence that Lex was behind Vertigo’s attacks and the black market dealings, Lex knows Oliver’s true identity. The two come to an uneasy truce as neither can risk the other making the information they know public. It is a truce that we know won’t last.
Now that we’ve thrown Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Green Arrow: Year One into a blender and hit puree, let’s finish out phase one. Our Thor film is instead a Superman film. We want the film’s mood to be closer to existing MCU Thor films, and more like the lighter Superman content of the past, obviously less campy though. A good framework is the Geoff Johns Superman: Secret Origin comic book. Lex Luthor appears again, though he is not the primary antagonist. We’ll get Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White too. We get a short and sweet version of Superman’s upbringing as Clark Kent before we’re off to Metropolis (there’s a chapter that brings in the Legion of Superheroes and we’ll get to them later). This Superman film establishes him in Metropolis, offers a similar world changing dynamic that Thor did for the MCU and we get to see how science and the military respond thanks to villains like Parasite and Metallo. From the military side, we could also see things from Hal Jordan’s perspective. Again, he doesn’t have the ring yet. We’ve now brought Superman into our DCCU and we have just one film to go before Justice League.
Our replacement for Captain America: The First Avenger is pretty straightforward. It’s Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot is cast five years earlier. We add a post credits scene that shows her saving others throughout the century between the events of World War One and present day, but she keeps a low profile until others like her begin to emerge and our heroes will have to band together to face a threat not of this world.
We get to Justice League on similar footing to what the Marvel heroes had going into The Avengers. We’ve already had entire films and significant screen time dedicated to most of our heroes. Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Black Canary can return without much context being necessary. Batman has been in hiding since The Dark Knight, but other films have dropped hints that Bruce is still around. This gives us an opportunity to focus on two characters who haven’t had a lot of screen time, Hal Jordan and Martian Munhunter. The world ending stakes are similar to The Avengers. We get complicated team dynamics as John Jones reveals his true identity, Superman has good reasons not to trust the military and government, and Hal Jordan is M.I.A.
Hal’s story begins as he is brought to space and we see him become a Green Lantern while the rest of the heroes deal with the crashed remains of Abin Sur’s ship and the other alien on board. Atrocitus (the eventual first Red Lantern) is our Loki. The alien threat is the Manhunters and we get all sorts of problems as the aliens attack Earth, Hal trains with the Guardians of the Universe but learns that he can’t trust them. We get a good setup for his stand alone movie when we introduce Sinestro and Kilowog during Hal’s training.
Hal returns to Earth to battle the Manhunters, and while he, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Martian Manhunter can hold their own against the flying alien robots, Green Arrow and Black Canary are a little overwhelmed at the street level. In our third act battle, we need an equivalent to the Incredible Hulk’s breakout performance and the “puny god” moment.
We get this scene when Batman joins the fight in the third act, as we see him for the first time since The Dark Knight.
I also can’t help but picture the scene in The Avengers where Captain America gives defense orders to a cop who refuses to listen to him until he single handedly takes out a bunch of enemies. Picture that exact same moment, but with Wonder Woman in Cap’s place. It just makes me smile.
Now you might be thinking, did he just push back the release of The Dark Knight Rises and change some of the key plot points of that film? Yes, but we’ll have more on that in part/phase two.
Until next time,
Ben and the Storytelling Breakdown team