By Jeff Jensen
June 07, 2012 at 01:25 PM EDT
DC Comics

The superhero wars are heating up. With Marvel Studios’ The Avengers now No. 3 on the all-time box-office chart, Warner Bros. appears hungry for a blockbuster superhero group of their own and is trying yet again to rev up a Justice League of America franchise. According to Variety, Will Beall, the screenwriter of the forthcoming crime epic Gangster Squad, has been tapped to pen a script. The new effort comes four years after Warner Bros. grounded a different Justice League project directed by George Miller (Babe, The Road Warrior). At the same time, the studio is developing separate, individual franchises for Justice League members Flash and (for the umpteenth time) Wonder Woman. Behold the legacy of The Avengers: A potential second wind for modern superhero cinema, and an affirmation of Marvel’s shared-universe approach — a business model which Warner Bros. (via DC Entertainment) might be able to milk and maximize in ways Marvel Studios can’t, given that Warner controls all of DC’s most valuable brands (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, in particular) and Marvel, at present, does not (see: Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four).

The Justice League of America — introduced in the pages of The Brave and the Bold #28 in 1960 — was a reboot of an older, then-defunct superhero team from the “Golden Age” of comics known as the Justice Society of America. The reformulated sixties assembly — “the world’s greatest heroes,” according to a hypey cover blurb — included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter, a green-skinned extraterrestrial superman. There was also this other guy named Snapper Carr… oh, but never mind. The crisis that demanded their alliance: Starro the Conqueror, a brain-sucking alien starfish that was very large and had only one eyeball, also large.

Yes, the story sounds silly to us today, but it was a sensation with readers of the time and an industry game-changer. The success of Justice League of America (the team got its own dedicated title in late 1960) spurred Marvel Comics to become the Marvel Comics that we know today (The Fantastic Four and The Avengers were both conceived in response to the JLA) and helped ignite a creative renaissance known as the “Silver Age” of comics.

There are more contemporary templates of the Justice League that could help inform a movie. Last year, DC Comics introduced a new incarnation of the team, shepherded by two superstar talents who also happen to be high-ranking officers at DC Entertainment, writer Geoff Johns and penciler Jim Lee. The line-up: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg, a teenage African-American football star turned cybernetic iron man. The new series’ first storyline felt overtly engineered for cinematic adaptation, or at least a fun way of saying: “If one were to make a four-quadrant Justice League of America movie for today’s global marketplace, here’s how one could do it.” For starters, the team (and the comic) was now just  “Justice League.” No previous knowledge of DC mythology was required. “Origin” — set in a world where superheroes are a new and disruptive phenomenon — found each hero early in his or her do-gooding career. Like Whedon’s Avengers, the Johns/Lee Justice League squabbled and scrapped amongst themselves, then found a common enemy that gave them reason to form a club: Darkseid, DC’s preeminent cosmic villain, presented here as “an alien warlord” bent on “claiming our planet as his own.” Superman and co. succeeded in sending Darkseid back to his hellacious home world of Apokolips, and in the process, they earned the world’s trust and agreed to work together again, whenever needed. The breezy story was not only filled with sensational action sequences, but chockablock with self-aware, self-effacing humor. When Aquaman shows up, Green Lantern quips: “Aquaman? I thought Aquaman was a sketch on Conan O’Brien.”

A successful Justice League film franchise could do many more things for Warner Bros. than produce massive box office grosses. It could be a springboard for spin-offs devoted to established yet under-leveraged brands like Aquaman and Flash. It could be used to creatively rehab and revive franchise non-starter Green Lantern, much in the same way that The Avengers retooled and re-energized the Hulk. It could be the place where Warner Bros. beta tests a new Batman for a new decade, given that the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale incarnation of the caped crusader is slated for retirement this summer. Future installments could introduce new characters — i.e., new potential franchises — like The Atom or The Spectre. Will a Justice League movie exist in the same creative world as Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot of the Superman franchise starring Henry Cavill? Maybe. Or maybe Justice League will represent a separate, unique line of DC superhero movies, featuring a different riff on Superman, played by a different actor altogether.

(Isn’t speculating wildly about the implications of stuff that doesn’t even exist yet so much fun?)

It will be interesting to see how any movie formulation of the Justice League of America will distinguish itself from The Avengers. The Marvel smash set a high bar for quality — and an even higher bar for high-stakes superhero conflict. More important than putting together a super line-up of heroes will be to find a truly super villain to challenge them. Darkseid — a hulking, stone-faced wannabe god obsessed with something called the Anti-Life Equation that can eradicate free will — is a worthy force of antagonism. Yet his ambitions aren’t all that different from Loki, and on the whole, he’s quite similar to the monstrous incarnation of evil on deck for the next Avengers flick: Thanos, a hulking, stone-faced wannabe god obsessed with death. If Justice League gets fast-tracked and goes the Darkseid route, and if Avengers 2 remains committed to Thanos, and if both films insist on being yet another invasion-by-mad-alien-demigod-backed-by-hordes-of-hideous-warriors story, then a race to be first to theaters could be on.

There are other possibilities. (Please be other possibilities.) In the same way Marvel used 2011’s Thor to set up Loki as the bad guy in The Avengers, Warner Bros. might choose to hustle other single character franchises like Wonder Woman and Flash to theaters in advance of a Justice League extravangaza and use them to ramp up a lesser known or even totally new antagonist for the group to fight. Or maybe multiple antagonists. The Injustice League? Now that would be one way to up the ante on The Avengers: a full-on Legion of Doom!

Dare to dream, Super Friends. Dare to dream.

Read more:

‘Justice League #5’: Hello, Darkseid

Wonder Woman: The Missing Superhero

‘Justice’ is Served