Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller almost made a Justice League movie, years before the Avengers made it to the big screen.
It’s one of the panoply of lost Hollywood projects, sunk by the 2007-08 writer’s strike and spoken of in the same terms as Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, Jodorowsky’s Dune, or Bob “Back to the Future” Gale’s Doctor Strange. Miller’s lost project Justice League: Mortal is back in the news because an Australian documentary team wants to show audiences what could have been. Judging from the scripts and other intel that have been leaked, the project had plenty of problems and could have fallen short. Except that now there’s a little movie called Mad Max: Fury Road that has us wondering just what Miller’s Justice League would have looked like, and how it might have impacted the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes.
Here’s what we do know about the planned movie:
- Aside from Armie Hammer as Batman, Miller wanted DJ Cotrona for Superman (marking the first time a noticeably ethnic actor would take on the role), Megan Gale (who played the badass Valkyrie in Mad Max: Fury Road) as Wonder Woman, and rapper Common as the Green Lantern John Stewart, among others.
- The cast was in rehearsals and sets were being built when the project was cancelled.
- Justice League: Mortal was being developed around the same time as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and rumor had it that Nolan wasn’t keen on there being two versions of Batman on-screen at the same time.
- The 2007-08 writers’ strike played a big part in derailing the movie, as the script was in dire need of a rewrite. According to io9, who glimpsed the leaked script when it wound up online in 2013, the plot adapted the Mark Waid Justice League storyline “Tower of Babel,” in which Batman develops a satellite called Brother Eye to spy on the other members of the Justice League and keep them in line. The evil Max Lord steals the satellite and creates a bunch of OMAC cyborgs for the League to fight, then the movie cribs the Crisis on Infinite Earths ending with Flash being turned into an OMAC and sacrificing his life to save the world, instead of Batman snapping Max Lord’s neck and continuing down his slippery slope.
- Miller sounds glad that the movie ultimately didn’t get made. “It was very faithful to the comics at the time, very DCU,” he told the Word Balloon podcast. “Ultimately I think it’s good that it didn’t come out as there were some parts that were cool that they got right and there were some things that people were going to hate. Some of it was very aimed at kids.” At this point in his career, Miller had been making movies exclusively for young kids, such as Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet, so it’s understandable that some of the tone from those films may have leaked into the Justice League script.
- Also, the cast looked like this, and they were adorable:
The production of Justice League: Mortal had some tremendous budgetary hurdles to clear even before the writer’s strike. The story of the making and unmaking of George Miller’s Justice League is fascinating in itself, but it’s even more interesting given the hindsight provided by years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. halting plans to establish a Justice League universe, and the high we’re currently riding off of the spectacular Mad Max: Fury Road.
If Justice League: Mortal had come out in 2009 as planned, what might we have gotten?
Insanely detailed characters: Watching Fury Road, you get the sense that Miller sat down and had a conversation with every single character who appeared on-screen, from the little people operating the telescopes to Immortan Joe’s wife Toast the Knowing (really, what does that name even mean? George Miller probably knows). Even if their characters don’t utter a line, they have histories and motivations.
Considering that Justice League: Mortal would take place without the benefit of being preceded by origin stories for each and every cast member–the film was to take place separately from 2006’s Superman Returns and the Nolan Batman films–this kind of show-don’t-tell storytelling would have been key. Imagine a Superman who has more character traits than “I let my dad die in a tornado so I could have a dog we never see onscreen again” and “Have I tried neck-snapping? I should try that.”
Another detail from the leaked script involves a bunch of random mooks in the form of Max Lord’s army of killer cyborgs, or OMACs. So you know the fight scenes would have brought us an unforgettable bit player like Coma Doof Warrior, and then an equally unforgettable scene of Batman fighting someone like Coma Doof Warrior.
THE ALL-CAPS VISUALS: Miller was supposed to shoot Justice League: Mortal in Australia before changes in tax incentive laws took away that option, but look what the man did with Fury Road after they had to relocate to Namibia! A superhero fight scene equivalent to Fury Road‘s car chase through a lightning-spiked dust storm would have been a feast for the eyes.
Of course, Justice League: Mortal could not take place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But the scenes and details revolving around Immortan Joe’s car-centric religion give us an idea of what Max Lord’s corporate consumer culture brand of evil could have looked like. The idea in the script was for Max Lord to funnel the Brother Eye satellite through his chain of uber-popular, superhero-themed fast-food restaurants. Think of that pyramid of detachable steering wheels disassembled by the Fury Road Half-Life War Boys, of their fervent prayers to gods and cars, and of their propensity to spray their mouths with paint so they’re “chrome” and “shiny” for when they die and enter Valhalla. Now think of Miller bringing that kind of skewering to fast food, and even to the public’s unquestioning devotion to superheroes themselves.
Less talky, more action: The script for Fury Road is probably five pages long, if that, and yet it contains so much story that it continues unraveling even after you’re done watching the movie. The story is in the worldbuilding, the details, and the way the actors embody those unspoken details. And that’s great! Because, as the trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has shown us, the alternative is lines like “Do you bleed? You will!”
A feminist superhero movie: Part of what made the women in Mad Max: Fury Road so compelling was that they were all markedly different from one another: The Wives who declare “we are not things!” and “our children will not be warlords”; The Milk Mothers, whose sole function is clear in their name; The Many Mothers who carry seeds on motorbikes to plant new life somewhere beyond the salt flats; Furiosa, a physical and figurative hybrid of these needs, with her own personal redemption in tow and a truly gifted ability to drive an oil rig through a desert wasteland.
In no way are these women interchangeable. Their roles are all unique and their gender sharpens but does not define them. Of the 10 cast members working on the Justice League Mortal project, three were women: Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul, and Zoe Kazan as Iris Allen. One wonders how varied they would have come across if given the same chance to embody markedly different story arcs.
Serious competition for Marvel: Justice League Mortal was set to hit theaters in 2009, just one year after Iron Man kicked off our current era of cinematic universes with its bomb-dropping post-credits “Avengers Initiative” scene, but three whole years before the world said a resounding YES to superhero team films like Avengers.
While the plot for Justice League Mortal sounds like it needed some work, a refined version would have tackled themes laid out in both Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, 6-10 years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe could slow-build its way there. If the movie had actually been released, and been good, suddenly it would be Marvel who would be scrambling to catch up. How would that have affected subsequent Marvel films? Would Avengers have been rushed into production? Would it have been as good? Would Marvel be seen as the darker counterpart to a bright George Miller-styled DC Cinematic Universe?
Would superhero films from the last few years been able to avoid their formulaic structure? Something like Justice League: Mortal as the kicking-off point for the new DC Cinematic Universe produces a kind of story template that demands equal amounts of originality from its successors, not an attempt to match a uniform visual style.
Now, this article comes with plenty of caveats. As Film School Rejects pointed out, it’s doubtful that Warner Bros would have given Miller as much creative freedom to play in the DC sandbox as they did for his own Mad Max universe. Fury Road itself took Miller decades to make, which is likely time he needed to refine his insanely delightful idea for a follow-up/reimagining/who-knows-what. But it wowed us, and now we can’t help but wonder what could have been.
Natalie Zutter demands at least one motorbike chase scene in this hypothetical Justice League universe.
Chris Lough guarantees you that George Miller’s Justice League movie would have paved the way for a Speedball Cinematic Universe.