It’s 2008 and George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal is reportedly days aways from filming. Sets and props have been built by the legendary Weta Workshop and costumes have been fitted and are ready to be worn. In fact, the DC project has a full cast and they have trained extensively to bring audiences their rendition of the beloved comic book characters. The script was adored by Warner Bros. executives and they even fast-tracked the project because of their confidence in Miller’s vision. Despite a completed script and a legendary director at the helm, Justice League: Mortal was put on indefinite hold. That’s Hollywood jargon for “cancelled.”
Later in 2008, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight opens in theaters to critical and commercial acclaim. The second film in the British director’s Batman trilogy becomes the first superhero film to earn a billion dollars at the worldwide box office and an acting nod at the Academy Awards for Heath Ledger’s Joker. For a comic-book movie fan, let alone any Batman fan, the future of DC on film seems wide-open and brimming with possibilities.
The Dark Knight‘s adherence to being a character-driven, realistic film that grounds its characters is second to none and is responsible for spawning numerous films, including DC’s very own solo-driven Man of Steel and Green Lantern. It’s easy to see the projects that The Dark Knight helped spawn as they’ve carved their own corner in the pantheon of pop-culture, but what of the project that couldn’t survive because of the immense success of the character-focused film?
Well ahead of its time in both scope and narrative, George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal was set to hit theaters in 2009 and change the superhero film genre by not only forgoing an origin story, but also having the huge slew of characters in their costumes for almost the entire film. The film would have also served as the cinematic debut for numerous DC characters, including The Flash, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and Aquaman. If The Dark Knight was a bastion for grounded, solo superhero films then Justice League: Mortal would have paved the way for more grand, explosive projects that focused on an ever-expanding team, something that Marvel would later capitalize on (and seemingly perfect) with The Avengers.
Mortal was directly influenced by some of the Justice League’s most celebrated stories, namely JLA: Tower of Babel and The OMAC Project. The film opens on a solemn funeral for a fallen hero. With the mystery of the deceased hero hanging in the air, Mortal jumps back two days before, showing all the members of the League as well-established and beloved by the masses. In fact, the crime rate in Batman’s native Gotham City is at an all-time low and Wonder Woman is a UN ambassador who promotes peace on live telecasts. Barry Allen, a.k.a. The Flash, is actually the POV character of the film and is always exuding excitement over being surrounded by so many heroes. Barry and Iris West are together, and Wally West is also seen in the film, having a positive relationship with his uncle. Things seem to be going well for the world until Martian Manhunter is attacked, being exposed to oxygen, which causes him to burst into flames — his one weakness. One by one, each member of the team gets attacked by mysterious technology that capitalizes on their weakness.
The League kicks into detective mode and discovers that Maxwell Lord is behind the attack on the team, which he was able to do thanks to his partner-in-crime Talia al Ghul. When Talia and Bruce Wayne were seeing each other, the villainess managed to get her hands on Batman’s files regarding his respective teammates. Of course, the team is upset at Batman for compiling the information but they put their differences aside to bring Lord to justice. The reasoning behind Lord’s brigade on the League is due to the fact that he was in the OMAC project as a child and the years of pain left him with weak psychic abilities. Now, the villain has his own OMAC droids that contain people inside, which he sends upon the team.
From here, the film gets into the action-packed territory that shows just how capable the League is. Lord manages to use his psychic abilities to control Superman, and we see him fighting the League. Wonder Woman leads the fight against the Man of Steel and eventually they get the Son of Krypton back to his senses. Once everyone is saved, a typical last resort from Lord is seen when he shares that there’s a doomsday device within him that would kill him and everyone else. The Flash then gets his moment to shine as he runs so fast that he merges with the Speed Force, sending him and Maxwell Lord into the void. We then cut back to the funeral, where it becomes evident that the world is mourning Barry Allen. However, the team isn’t without a Flash as his nephew, Wally West, takes on the speedster’s mantle.
What was once going to be our first introduction to the Justice League on the silver screen, as well as the first superhero team-up movie, has been reduced to nothing but myth, a “What if?” in what is now the world’s biggest genre. Mortal has achieved such a legendary status that even a documentary is being made on its production. One can attribute Justice League: Mortal‘s cancellation to its gargantuan budget, which ballooned to $300 million, making it the most expensive film at the time. One aspect that Warner Bros. was certainly concerned about was having two rival Batmen share the big screen, though that worry didn’t come into fruition until The Dark Knight became an unprecedented success.
Justice League: Mortal began as the brainchild of Michele and Kieran Mulroney, with their script being uber traditional in how it approached its characters, which translated later into how the League’s costumes were designed. The roster of characters was modeled after the Justice League animated series, but Hawkgirl didn’t make the cut.
With the script deemed a unique winner by Warner Brothers, the studio began to find a suitable director for Justice League: Mortal in 2007. The project was initially offered to Jason Reitman, who, wanting to stick to his indie roots, passed on the offer. This led to Mad Max director George Miller taking on the duty of bringing the Justice League to the big screen for a budget of $200 million in September of the same year. Miller is no stranger to taking on risky projects and turning them into surefire critical and commercial successes. His keen eye for large, sprawling aesthetics and fascinating visual language has made him one of the most interesting directors working in the industry, so one can only imagine the rich celluloid tapestry he could have weaved with Mortal.
Within just a few short months, Justice League: Mortal went from being a spec script to having a word-class director ready to assemble a cast. The cast included Armie Hammer as Batman, DJ Cotrona as Superman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as the Barry Allen version of The Flash, Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman, Common as Green Lantern John Stewart and Hugh Keays-Byrne as Martian Manhunter. In terms of villains, Jay Baruchel was cast as Maxwell Lord and Teresa Palmer was set to play Talia al Ghul. Warner Bros. saw a brand new franchise on their hands and were keen on casting younger actors who could portray these roles for several years to come.
Despite all the unseen hard work that went into getting this insane vision off the ground, the Justice League: Mortal cast members never got the chance to grow into their roles, let alone even film a frame. The first sign of trouble came in the form of the looming 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike. Production was swiftly moving along on the project up until November of 2007, when the strike kicked off, forcing it to go on pause. It should be kept in mind that one of the reasons why the project was given such preference in acceleration in the summer of 2007 was because the studio was well aware that the strike would pose a hurdle. Their forethought was admirable but it didn’t do the project any favors as this was the first of many nails on a particularly dense coffin.
With the strike coming to an end in February 2008, George Miller thought he was on track to bring Justice League: Mortal to your local multiplex but taxes got in the way, as they often do when someone intends on partaking in something remotely unique. Miller, a native to Australia, wanted to have the project shot at Fox Studios Australia. Warner Bros. was game as the studio would have received a 40% tax rebate by the now-defunct Australian Film Commission. The core cast consisted of three Australians in Megan Gale, Teresa Palmer and Hugh Keays-Byrne but the Film Commission thought that wasn’t enough. What should’ve been a smooth process turned into the entire production being uprooted to Vancouver, Canada as filming was pushed to July of that year.
And that very month, The Dark Knight hit theatres, forever changing the fate of Justice League: Mortal. With its aforementioned success, Warner Bros. just didn’t think it was feasible to produce a $300 million Justice League movie that featured a slew of characters that audiences just weren’t aware of. Beyond that, Christian Bale’s Batman was that generation’s definitive hero and the studio wasn’t interested in confusing fans with multiple versions of Bruce Wayne. There was also the worry that this now risky project would step on the goodwill that Nolan and Bale had bought, resulting in middling reception for their third Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. As Christopher Nolan’s vision reached unfathomable heights, George Miller’s plummeted.
Justice League: Mortal never got the chance to prove itself thanks to Warner Bros. second-guessing their choice at the eleventh hour as well as tons of delays. It’s evident that the studio was passionate about George Miller’s vision but they may have just jumped on it too quickly without considering the logistics involved and the fan reception it would have garnered. Would the film have been a success? Maybe. Maybe not. 2019’s Joker proved that audiences were interested in unique takes on beloved DC characters but 2017’s Justice League confirmed that the studio just couldn’t handle a team-up movie. One can only imagine what insanity George Miller and his team would’ve brought the table.
It’s 2008. You just finished watching The Dark Knight. You think it’s the future of superhero movies. And you have no idea what you’ll never get because of it.