There was a while there where things were looking pretty bleak for the DC Extended Universe. Their attempt to replicate the success of The Avengers with Justice League failed, delivering a film that made less money than any of the films preceding it, and (given how much had been sunk into its budget) was a certified flop. What’s more, we began hearing rumors (which have now been confirmed) that Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck were quitting their roles as Superman and Batman, leaving the franchise without the two pillars it was supposed to be built around.
The thinking for a while was that Warner Brothers was just going to scrap the DCEU. They’d still release any DCEU movies that had already entered production, and they’d keep the Wonder Woman series going as long as Gal Gadot was willing to play the part, but once those were done they’d reboot the whole franchise and start over.
Then Aquaman came out, and surprised everyone by bringing in over a billion dollars. Now there’s a second hit DCEU movie to go along with Wonder Woman, and with early reception to the Shazam trailer being so positive, it looks like the current DCEU isn’t going away anytime soon.
But where does it go from here? They’re either going to have to recast two of their most prominent characters, or they’ll have to build a cinematic DC Universe without Batman and Superman, something I don’t think anyone ever planned for. And can they ever have these characters team up again without being tainted by the tepid response to Justice League? And what new characters should they bring to the screen fill out their now Bats- and Supes-less roster?
I’m not gonna claim I have all the answers, but I do have a couple ideas I’d like to see.
I think a good pick for a DCEU movie would be Martian Manhunter. For general audiences, he’s a fairly obscure character, but he’s gotten enough exposure from the old Justice League cartoon and the current Supergirl live action series that there are non-comics readers who know who he is. At least as many as knew who Iron Man was before Robert Downey, Jr. came along.
And I think the character’s concept would let Warner Bros. do the darker & grittier superhero movie that distinguishes them from Marvel, without it feeling out of place like it did when tried with Superman. Here’s how I’d like to see such a movie play out:
We start in media res with the FBI surrounding a cult leader’s compound, where said leader is threatening to order his followers to commit suicide if the Feds don’t let him go. Among the FBI at the scene is one Agent John Jones, who uses a combination of shapeshifting and mind-reading to infiltrate the compound, but secretly, without the other FBI agents realizing. Inside, he confronts the cult leader, who we begin to see is controlling his followers not just through standard brainwashing, but outright telepathic mind control. Agent Jones knows this, because they’re both Martians. Dialogue is exchanged between the two, hinting at their backstory. A fight breaks out, Jones kills the cult leader, stops his followers from killing themselves, then sneaks back to his post outside the compound without anyone being the wiser.
Later, we see him cross the name of the Martian he killed off a list, a list with eight other names on it, seven of them already crossed out.
After this tease of an opening, we’d then alternate scenes of the present day story (with Jones investigating the last name on his list, while trying to hide his activities from the new partner the Bureau has assigned to him) with flashbacks to his past.
In these flashbacks, we’re shown the planet Mars from long ago, when the Green Martians rebelled against their oppressive tyrants the White Martians. We pick up on the revolution as the Green Martians have seized the planet’s capital, and J’onn J’onnz, greatest freedom fighter of the Green Martian Revolution, manages to fight his way into the chamber where the ten members of the White Martian Ruling council have hidden away.
But when he enters the room, he finds them all strapped to weird sci-fi chair devices. They take just a moment to taunt J’onn, saying his victory will be meaningless, before the chairs start doing their thing, transforming the White Martians into beams of light and shooting them off into space. J’onn manages to pull one of the White Martian leaders out of his chair before he can activate it, and from him he learns the truth.
Seeing their defeat was imminent, the White Martian leaders sabotaged the oxygen factories that maintain Mars’s precarious atmosphere. The Green Martians may take control of the planet, but it won’t matter, as soon the planet will be a lifeless rock. The White Martian leaders planned to be the only ones to survive, using these chair devices to teleport themselves through space and to the planet Earth. And each of the chairs is one-use only, so with nine of the White Martians having escaped to Earth, there’s only one left that a Green Martian can use to follow them.
As the effects of the atmosphere’s destruction become apparent, the other Green Martians urge J’onn to use the last remaining chair to follow the White Martians to Earth and exact vengeance on them. J’onn is reluctant; he’d be leaving behind his mate and his children to die with Mars, but they too insist he should go. He’s learned the secrets of harnessing his mind’s power to affect the minds of others, and to control the form of his own body, secrets the White Martians tried to keep for themselves. He’s the only Green Martian with a chance of making them pay for what they’ve done.
With a heavy heart, J’onn seats himself in the chair and is transported to Earth, arriving in 18th Century America. From there, the flashbacks follow him as he uses his mind-reading and shapeshifting to blend in with humanity, usually taking the form of a lawman, the better to track down the White Martians also hiding among the humans. We get to see J’onn hunt down and kill several of the White Martians, while also having some nasty run-ins with human beings who discover his secret, and react with intolerance every bit as fierce as what the White Martians had for the Greens.
Meanwhile, in the present day, J’onn’s search for the last of the White Martians leads him to one posing as a powerful United States politician. But this one isn’t content to merely acquire power for himself within human society. Using the government’s resources, he’s taken samples of his DNA and begun growing new Martians in labs, ones he’s used his mental powers to condition from birth to be utterly loyal to him. Soon, he plans to have enough of them to seize control of this planet outright and create a new White Martian tyranny.
Of course, J’onn stops him, fighting many White Martian henchmen along the way, and getting help from his new partner, who learns his secret, but is more accepting of him than he’s used to from human beings. In the process of stopping the bad guy, though, the government is alerted to how close they almost came to being taken over by aliens, and that there are still shape-shifting, mind-reading Martians in their midst, which they respond to with “Round ’em up! Throw ’em in a cell!”
Complicating matters is that J’onn has taken one of the infant White Martians who was being grown in the lab. At first it reminds him of the monsters he’s been hunting all his life, but the child soon begins to remind him of his own lost family. He’s spent more than a century as a Manhunter, focused on nothing but killing his targets. But now he has something else to live for, a hope for his people’s future, to rebuild themselves on Earth without being tainted by the hatred that consumed their own planet . . . if they can only overcome the hatred here on Earth. This will allow J’onn, in later movies, to move from being someone on a revenge quest to someone with a reason to protect and improve the Earth, becoming a genuine hero.
I think that would make for a pretty cool movie. But more importantly, once you’ve established both Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter in the DCEU, then you have the ingredients needed to give the Justice League an overhaul. Given the previous film’s failure, a second Justice League movie is going to have to establish itself as something radically different from the first. Rather than big name heroes in epic battles to save the world, you’ll need to recast the League as something smaller, grungier. You need . . .
Justice League: Detroit!
But that’s just my pitch. What are yours?