JLA and American Identity


Since I always do what Dan Kelly tells me to do, here’s a revised and expanded version of my proposed opening for a Justice League movie.

My concept here is a setup that would allow the script to build a story about American identity. The last Superman movie tried to run away from Superman’s essential Americanness (“Does he still stand for truth, justice . . . all that stuff?”). The comics have done the same in recent years (not long ago they had Superman appear at the U.N. and renounce his citizenship). That’ll never work. Take away America and you take away the rich, textured cultural background in the American heartland that stand behind “truth and justice” part. Everyone’s for truth and justice in theory; big deal. Without the American way, what do you really have with Superman?

As I pointed out in my previous post, Superman and Batman represent the two most basic sources of cultural strength in America – the moral backbone of the heartland and the cosmopolitan commercial drive of the coastal cities. Wonder Woman is the unassimilated European immigrant – a classic element of the American story. The Flash’s traditional role as comic relief makes him suitable to play a sort of Ben Franklin role – in my story, he would be the moderate (both in views and in temperament) who facilitates compromise between powerful, strong-willed allies who might otherwise be torn apart by their differences. And in a selection that the comics fans will either love or hate, I’m plugging in Black Orchid, a human/plant genetic hybrid who was grown in a lab and has nature powers; she’ll provide opportunities to explore the role of technology and our increasing mastery over nature – a perennial American preoccupation. (Detailed notes for the comics fans appear below the script.)

So I’m calling this a “Justice League of America” script rather than merely “Justice League.” Let me know what you think. Encouragement to write the whole script and encouragement to stop embarrassing myself by posting screenplays would be about equally welcomed. I have ideas for what comes next, which I might share if encouraged.


[Open on a shot of a burned-down barn. Voice over of an older male voice.]

JONATHAN KENT: We always knew you were different, son, but we never realized how much.

[Images of destroyed tractors, dead farm animals.]

We didn’t realize what kind of power you had. It’s not your fault. But now that we know, things have to change. I’m afraid you just don’t have the luxury of being a boy any longer. I’m sorry to say it, but in this life we don’t get to choose what happens to us. We have to live the life God gives us as best he shows us how. So you’re going to have to become a man – starting now.

You have to decide now what kind of man you’re going to be. And son, the kind of man you choose to be might matter more than anything else that happens in the world during your lifetime.

Your mother and I have been talking about it and, well, to us it all seems to boil down to three things. You need to make up your mind that you’re going to be an honest man – the kind of man who lives up to what he knows is true. But that’s not enough. You need to be a man who fights for others, who sees to it that the strong don’t take advantage of the weak. And there’s one more thing. If you do stand up for folks like I’m telling you to, some of those folks are going to want you to go ahead and take over. Run the whole show. To rule them. Maybe no one could stop you if you did. But that’s not how we do things in this country. People have to be free to live their own lives, to stand or fall in their own ways.


Truth. Justice. The American way. I want you to make up your mind right now that you’re going to be the kind of man who stands for those things. What do you say, Clark?

[We see a boy. He’s about eight.]

CLARK: [Without hesitation] Absolutely.

[Cut to a gorgeous landscape – glorious mountains, lush forests. Then we see an enormous, elaborate garden, exquisitely cultivated, stretching off into the distance. A few women in white robes with sashes (some red, some gold, some blue) walk the gardens. Transition to an open lawn in the garden. A long white wooden board has been propped up to serve as an archery target. Close up of the board. It has a row of small black dots on it. With a loud thwack! an arrow lands precisely on the first dot. The camera pans down the row; as HIPPOLYTA speaks off camera, a series of arrows thwack! into the dots one by one.]

HIPPOLYTA: [Regal and aloof] More and more members of the Council are restless. They think we’ve reached our limits here, trapped in our isolated little world. Our civilization can grow no further within these bounds, they say. And when any living thing ceases to grow . . . [thwack!] . . . it dies.

[We see HIPPOLYTA calmly drawing arrows and shooting as she speaks.]

HIPPOLYTA: Beyond our walls, the outsiders are starting to renounce the oppression of our sex, which drove us here in the first place. [thwack!] Why must we stay? they ask. Why not share all we have learned with the outsiders, invite them to come alongside us in our journey to enlightenment? [thwack!]

[Close up of HIPPOLYTA.]

HIPPOLYTA: They are wrong. We have grown within these bounds for two and a half millennia; and we can grow far more before we need to expand. The malcontents have a limited vision of what it means to grow. [thwack!] As for the outsiders, they will go back to the old ways before you know it. Probably as soon as they have another of their stupid wars. [thwack!]

[Back to the target.]

HIPPOLYTA: But it’s no use. Too many of the Council have gone over. Yesterday Aporia told me she was going to vote for expansion, and she will draw more with her. [thwack!] The Council will demand we leave our home. The best I can do is devise a way to satisfy them without endangering all we have built here. That is the way of governance, I’m afraid. [thwack!]

[Back to HIPPOLYTA. She speaks to someone we haven’t seen.]

HIPPOLYTA: There. Now you. [We hear someone else drawing a bow and shooting. The shots come faster now, and the thwack! sound has a noticeably different pitch.] Attend to me, Diana. Civilization is a fragile thing in any circumstance. [thwack!] The more advanced it becomes, the more fragile it is; the more susceptible to disaster from the least misstep. [thwack!] We who rule must sacrifice our own desires, set aside all thought of ourselves and our own happiness, to preserve civilization. [thwack!] And this burden will rest doubly upon you, because of your extraordinary gifts. [thwack!] I have decided to train you as none of our people has been trained before, so that you will surpass all of us – wiser than our wisest, stronger than our strongest, deadlier than our deadliest. [thwack!] Then we will send you forth, send you out . . . as an ambassador to the outsiders. This way, we can slow down the opening as much as we can. [thwack!] I place this burden on you because you are the one best suited to bear it, and that is what we are born for. [thwack!] We are born to serve. We are born to serve.

[Close up of the last arrow in the line HIPPOLYTA shot earlier. With a final thwack! we see another arrow land directly upon it, splitting it in two. The camera pans up and we see that the whole row of HIPPOLYTA’s arrows have all been split in two by the arrows of the second shooter. Cut to a girl with a bow; she’s about eight. She turns from her final shot to face her mother, who is off screen.]

HIPPOLYTA: [Voice over.] Are you prepared to bear this burden for the sake of your civilization, Diana?

DIANA: [Without hestiation] Absolutely.

[Cut to a suburban home. We see an angry, exasperated father talking to his son, off camera.]

BARRY ALLEN: Wally, we’ve tried everything we can think of to get through to you. These pranks have to stop.

[Images of people in an elementary school having pranks played on them by someone who’s moving too fast for us to see – items in their hands switched with nonsensical substitutes, a dunce cap put on a teacher, etc. The pranks occur in rhythm with the voice over for maximum comic effect. On the last sentence, the camera lingers on the resentful face of the principal.]

BARRY: I know you didn’t ask to be born this way. I didn’t ask to be this way either, and I remember how scary it was to be so different from everyone else. When you started school, you wanted to make the other kids laugh. You figure that way they’ll like you instead of thinking you’re weird. But Wally, if you don’t stop, things are going to get very serious. There are adults in this world, and not just at your school. They get scared when people like us don’t follow the rules.

[Back to BARRY.]

BARRY: Scared people do crazy, stupid things, Wally. The consequences could be very serious. Now do you hear what I’m saying to you?

[Someone flies into our view and out again, too quick to see. BARRY is now wearing a clown nose. He closes his eyes, exasperated.]

BARRY: Wally . . .

[The blur comes in again, only this time BARRY deflects it. BARRY is also moving so fast he’s a blur. For a few seconds, BARRY and the other blur tussle at lightning speed, thrusting and parrying in a super-fast series of blurs. Then they’re still again, and the clown nose is off.]

BARRY: There. Are you ready to listen to me now, Wally?

[Cut to a boy, about eight. He’s wearing a clown nose.]

WALLY: [Pause for comedic effect, then deadpan] Absolutely.

[Cut to a laboratory. A middle-aged man – dressed in street clothes, not a lab coat – is speaking.]

PHILIP SYLVIAN: Suzy, I love you more than anything. No father ever loved a daughter more. You’re . . . different . . . but . . . you grew from the love between your mother and I.

[The camera pans past large cylinders of purple fluid – some very dark, some translucent.]

SYLVIAN: You grew from our love in . . . a different way. But you grew from our love, and I’m your father and I love you. The thing is, I’m scared . . . I’m scared by what I’ve done. I . . . I just loved your mother so much, I couldn’t let her go. And I couldn’t let her research go, either.

[We see one of the translucent tubes contains a female human form. She is normal-looking, except purple – we assume because of the purple fluid she’s in.]

SYLVIAN: She was so brilliant . . . I see now that I was tampering with forces I didn’t understand. Maybe I was wrong. But I can’t regret what I’ve done, because it brought you to me. Anything that brought you to me, I can’t regret . . . even if it was wrong.

[The female form moves – it’s alive. Audience shock. Back to SYLVIAN.]

SYLVIAN: You are a person, Suzy. Because you look different, and because of . . . how you grew from our love, some people think you’re not a person. And we have to go away now, because they want to treat you like an experiment.

[We see suitcases.]

SYLVIAN: They’re wrong. A person is a person, no matter where they come from or what they look like or their . . . biological state.

[Back to SYLVIAN.]

SYLVIAN: You are a person and you are loved. Don’t ever forget that Suzy. Don’t ever let anyone take that from you. You are a person. You are Susan Linden-Sylvian. You are my daughter. And you are loved. Always. WIll you remember that, Suzy?

[We see a hideously deformed girl. She is misshapen. No mouth is visible. Her skin is purple and fuzzy, and in many places it’s growing outward from her body in disturbing shapes. Pause for major audience shock – she should really shock us. Then she speaks, and we see for the first time her mouth, which runs at the wrong angle; her voice is also abnormal. Audience shock again.]

SUZY: [Unhesitating] Absolutely.

[Cut to a police station. We see a sergeant talking to someone but we can’t see whom.]

JIM GORDON: Listen, I know you don’t want to hear this right now. That’s okay. For right now you don’t have to do anything. Just listen and remember it. Believe me, real soon you’ll be glad you did.

I’ve seen a lot of people killed. Shot, stabbed, hit by cars, you name it. One time I saw a guy’s chest blown clean open by a shotgun at point blank range. I’ve seen a lot of death. And when you see death, well . . . it makes you wonder what it all means. If anything’s worth doing. If it isn’t all just a waste.

Right now you’re in shock. You probably don’t feel much at all . . . except like crap. Am I right? Well, pretty soon the shock’s going to go away. And then there’s going to be grief. And anger. And then that will fade, too. And your parents are still going to be dead. Sooner or later, you’re going to wonder whether anything means anything.

I want you to remember that it does. Life is worth it. But you have to make it mean something. You have to make it count. You have to leave your mark. That’s what I do. Every time I put a bad guy away, every time I break up a fight or get a woman to a shelter – hell, every time I fill out one of those friggin’ reports, I’m leaving a mark. “Jim Gordon was here.”

You hear what I’m saying, kid? You leave your mark. Focus everything on that, and I promise you, you won’t wonder whether it’s worth it. You’ll know.

[We see a boy. He’s about eight. He’s staring into the distance, not looking at GORDON or responding.]

GORDON: Okay, okay. [Pats his arm] But just one more thing and I’ll leave you alone. This isn’t the last time you’re going to meet bad guys. It sucks, but take it from me, bad guys are everywhere. Don’t you run from them. You hear me? You fight back tooth and nail, with everything you have. Don’t ever go soft on a bad guy. Trust me, when people go rotten, the best thing you can do for them is break. You hear me, kid? Break those bastards. Break them as hard as you can. Break them without mercy. You hear me?

[He turns and looks at GORDON, no change in his expression.]

BRUCE: [Cold, emotionless] Absolutely.


A few notes for the comic fans:

1) For obvious reasons, I’m not trying to accommodate the new Superman movie. The actual JL movie, when it comes out, will have to do so. I’m also not interested in accommodating the latest version of DC continuity (which seems to be influencing the movie, unsurprisingly). I don’t keep up.

2) I’m keeping the core group to five. DC heroes need more space; you can’t crowd them in like Marvel does. Plus, after you put in Wonder Woman, whose participation is mandatory (and who I think is more promising source material than most seem to give her credit for) it’s hard enough to find any two heroes who can stand next to Superman and Batman without looking ridiculous; adding more just makes it worse.

3) Like I said, WW is mandatory. The two next in line with seniority are the Flash and Green Lantern. I’m putting in the Flash in spite of the difficulties he creates for writing a good story because he provides wonderful comic relief. But the Green Lantern is a kiddie character and he needs to go sit at the kid’s table with Antman.

4) The fifth character should be another female. First, this balances WW, who is a strong taste. It’s next to impossible to get WW right for contemporary audiences; I think it can be done and the effort would be richly rewarded, but we need another woman in there for people who just won’t make the leap and embrace even a rebooted WW. Second, this provides a great opportunity to distinguish DC from Marvel, whose Avengers are male-heavy. Third, DC stories are myths about the gods, and mythology needs a rough balance of gods and goddesses. The super-safe choice is Hawkwoman, but she’s unrewarding as a character. The logical choice is Zatanna – strong fan base and established association with JL. Unfortunately she presents all the same problems WW does, and with less prospect for improvement. Plus I think it’s generally wise to keep the outright supernatural characters (spellcasters, ghosts, etc.) in their own stories and not bring them into the bona fide superhero stories. I was a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Black Orchid and the series that followed; what I’m offering here will be a hybrid of the original Orchid (a more traditional superheroine) and Gaiman’s creation, basically using the original character (because you could never put Gaiman’s Orchid on a superteam) but enhancing her with some of the Gaiman Orchid’s greater powers (so she can stand next to Supes and Bats and not look ridiculous) and limited humanity (which makes her interesting).

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