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2013 “JL Banner Manhunter” by Zyrus Viray
Marvel Comics has seen incredible success with a diverse selection of their characters at various movie studios, even those largely unfamiliar to general audiences. New Line grossed around $400m off the Blade trilogy, and Sony pulled in nearly $200m on the two Ghost Rider flicks. Fox managed to profit by $100m on the panned Daredevil, and probably broke even on Elekta. Leaner budget, lower profile, non-Marvel super-heroes have also performed well for decades at other studios, who found hits with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Darkman, The Crow, The Mask, Spawn, Unbreakable, Hellboy, Wanted, Kick-Ass, and Chronicle, all made for well under $100m and each turning a tidy profit.
DC Comics has not been so successful. Catwoman, a fairly popular and recognizable heroine, managed to lose almost twenty million dollars, and that's before you factor in the advertising budget. If you thought that was bad, consider how Jonah Hex hemorrhaged even more money with less than half of Catwoman's budget. In fact, Warners has had better luck adapting the comics work of writer Alan Moore than their own catalog of B-list super-heroes.The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Constantine and V for Vendetta were all in the black, but were also each single serving cinema. Despite high hopes and deep pockets on Watchmen, it only cleared $55m on a hefty budget. Now, these were all just side bets for Warner Brothers, not serious contenders like Superman, Batman and Green Lantern, who have each managed to underwhelm at various points. Why can't Warners successfully move past the chocolate and vanilla of comic book franchises, Batman and Superman?
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2013 “Justice League (Fan-Made) Movie Poster” fan art by DiamondDesignHD
That's a bigger problem for Warner Brothers than just box office. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Punisher make crazy money in merchandising. Despite a recent push for the Justice League at Target, DC is hurting from the ground lost in this pop culture IP war. DC has had some good fortune with introducing also-rans like Swamp Thing and Green Arrow on television, but always as niche properties on minor networks with negligible cultural impact. Warner Brothers needs to build up its cinematic repertory company if it wants to hold its own against Marvel Studios and Fox. The Super Friends might have been the height of heroic fantasy in the 1970s, but ask Disney how costly assuming relevancy for bygone favorites like the Lone Ranger and John Carter of Mars can be. At the same time, Warners can't afford costly missteps that result in production freezes and retreats back to the World's Finest duo.
While Warner Brothers spends hundreds of million of dollars developing Wonder Woman and/or Aquaman with their eyes on the Justice League prize, what they really ought to do is pull alternative prospects off the bench for some $50-75 million dollar specialty movies to enrich their shared universe and maybe stumble upon another Wesley Snipes or Robert Downey Jr. performance strong enough to build their first non-Superman/Batman super-hero franchise-- one that doesn't cost as much as a small country's GDP to get made. More modest in scope, but with some name actors and flashy sequences to earn it a respectable place on the side of the Justice League meeting table nearer the restroom. A property like the "Sleuth from Outer Space," better known as the Martian Manhunter.
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2012 “Martian Manhunter Poster” by Kal-elmeeksio
"J'onn J'onzz, the Manhunter from Mars" was created in 1955 as a side strip in the back of a Batman comic book series, running for thirteen years total. The basic premise was that an alien was accidentally teleported to Earth by an obscure human scientist, who promptly died of a heart attack brought on by the shock of the Martian's surprising arrival. Stranded, the alien decided to make the best of his situation by using his otherworldly powers to make the Earth a better place. Assuming the identity of a police detective, "John Jones" caught crooks too sharp for normal cops, as well as protecting the Earth from alien invaders. Later, J'onn J'onzz assumed other roles, chasing after a supernatural artifact that periodically unleashed ancient monsters, or combating a hi-tech international crime syndicate by spying on them from within. "The Alien Atlas" also made time to co-found the Justice League of America, one of comics' first and greatest heroic teams.
The character was little used in the 1970s, but was revived in the mid-1980s as part of the Super Powers Collection toy line and as a fixture in several wildly different interpretations of the Justice League. His visibility steadily grew, until interest in the character exploded after he was drafted into the wildly popular "Magnificent Seven" version of the League, called simply "JLA." Judged to be equal to the company of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman as a foundational hero of the team and universe, the Manhunter from Mars was finally given his own well regarded ongoing series, which ran for three years. The success of "JLA" helped spawn the long running Cartoon Network Justice League show, which prominently featured the Martian Manhunter for most of its run and across much of its ancillary products. The character was next used in the widely watched Smallville television series, reoccurring in key episodes for several seasons, and embraced by fans. The Martian Manhunter also turns up regularly in other DC animated TV shows and direct to video releases, as well as in video games.
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2012 “Justice is Coming!” fan art by DiamondDesignHD
The Martian Manhunter was known to comic fans of the '50s and '60s, but his visibility spiked substantially in the mid-80s, and he's been embraced most by Generation X and Millennial audiences. IGN ranked him #43 on their list of the Top 100 Comic Book Heroes, #40 by Ranker.com, #11 on CSBG's 2007 Top 50 DC Characters list, and #22 on CBR's 2011 Top DC Characters list. Those numbers may sound low, but most every character ranked higher on the list has already been featured in motion pictures within the last decade or so.
J'Onn J'Onzz is perhaps the most versatile remaining super-hero, defying genre by appearing in stories centered on police procedurals, science fiction, supernatural horror, situational comedy, and straightforward comic book punch-outs. The character has a remarkably broad power set, including shapeshifting, telepathy, invisibility, intangibility, flight, laser beam vision, enhanced senses and intelligence, superhuman strength & speed, relative invulnerability... virtually any ability needed for whichever story is being told. His primary weakness is an adverse reaction from exposure to open flames, although its effects range anywhere from triggering severe but manageable anxiety to the catastrophic, potentially fatal loss of all powers and spontaneous combustion. Likewise, the Martian Manhunter's power set is so erratic between interpretations that as many or as few can be used as desired for a given story.
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2012 “Ajax - Martian Manhunter” by Jack Malone
Between a flexibility in plotlines, tone, abilities, and weaknesses, what else could a movie producer possibly want? How about an uncommon openness to interpretation? Although J'onn J'onzz typically assumes the human identity of a middle aged white male in the comics, he's also taken up guises of most every race and gender imaginable. While he spent decades wearing one simple costume, alternate suits have been employed in recent years without any serious outcry from readers. While typically bald with green skin and a pronounced brow, a variety of more alien looks have been adopted without issue. In some stories, J'onn J'onzz is a young expatriate from a thriving retro-futurist Mars, and in others he's the sole survivor of a tribal culture mourning his dead wife and daughter. Sometimes his world dies by fire sparked by a power mad military leader, and other times a plague quietly claims his people. Sometimes his living parents watch over a sweet natured kid brother, and other times he has a psychotic rapist serial-killing twin who indirectly murders everyone J'Onn loves. There's no singular, rigid story fans demand be told on film, and while the Martian Manhunter appeals to a broad swath of fans, his status as an alternative to more mainstream heroes means his audience is more open-minded than most bases.
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2012 “Justice League Movie” fan art by Nicholas Cashio
Where many comic book properties demand that a narrow range of actors of specific types and looks be chosen to accurately reflect the heroic persona, J'onn J'onzz could be played by almost any reasonable performer that could be cast. Admittedly, African-American males routinely provide the voice for the character in animation, and Phil Morris is the best known actor to portray John Jones in live action. Continuing that accepted pattern allows for racial diversity in media representation despite the character rarely having been shown as black in the comics. That said, an actor of any race or gender could believably play the part with the expectation that fans' primary concern will be in their performance and functionality within the DC cinematic universe. Likewise, the hero has a supporting cast that can be drawn from in transitioning to film, but are not necessary to insure fan involvement. From his police partner Diane Meade and precinct Captain Harding in his detective days to a toycentric alien sidekick called Zook to sassy superpowered teenage ward Gypsy, Martian Manhunter's circle of support have come and gone as needed without being essential to his narrative as a whole. The character has a whole menagerie of vile foes, but none like Lex Luthor or the Joker that a filmmaker would be required by expectations to include. The Manhunter from Mars offers a buffet of potential characters, concepts, tones, and genres for the filmmaker to take or leave as they please.
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2013 “The Manhunter from Mars” fan art by Francis Bernardo
All this talk about how wide open the Martian Manhunter property is may give you cause for concern. Is it too amorphous-- too undefined? Not so. While his fans may be less dogmatic and more accepting of different approaches, readers know who J'Onn J'Onzz is, and will have certain expectations. He is a solemn survivor of great tragedy; an analytical detective; seemingly closed off, but often so as to protect a more delicate than human heart. Mr. Spock would be a good starting point, but with a greater range of emotion, and less emphasis on intellectualism or the arrogance that comes with it. J'Onzz saltily observes and comments on humanity from a remove, but remains grinningly wry and accepting of foibles. I suppose in that respect, he's Mr. Spock crossed with Bones McCoy-- always a slightly irritated contrarian in provocative mixed company, but with a deep soul and an attention to needs overlooked by more remote or reckless personalities.
His sense of humor is dry and incisive. Marvel's The Avengers did a good job of mixing different types of comedy, with Tony Stark the showy sarcastic one, Steve Rogers the honest but befuddled kind, and Thor the blunt, coarse one. Bruce Banner's quiet, self-deprecating, and occasionally sardonic asides would most closely match J'Onn J'Onzz; funny in part because the lines are unexpected coming from such a serious, focused sort. Not unlike the Hulk, stirring the passionate anger of the Alien Atlas is not advised, but its manifestation is silent and surgical. His eyes will glow, his brow will furrow, then he'll instantaneously shut down the minds of every offender within a city block, only to fall to his knees in pain/exhaustion to demonstrate why that isn't his first move. Rather than a nerve pinch, he'll materialize behind an opponent, slide a ghostly hand through their chest, and solidify just enough to paralyze his prey agonizingly. He's a calculating super space ninja private investigator with a droll wit who's content to let other heroes take the lead while he steals the occasional scene with his calm, confident cool.
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2012 “Martian Manhunter Fanart Movie Poster” by Markus Tralls
In terms of story, especially one intended to be told on a budget, my mind goes to '80s cheese like Highlander, The Hidden and I Come in Peace. None of those movies made much if any money on initial release, but most did okay on home video, becoming cult hits. These films don't hold up that well, but they had interesting premises that sustained them in the face of poor acting, abysmal scripts, and/or corny effects. Highlander was sturdy enough to launch a franchise, and all it amounted to was modern day swordplay in single combat between immortals. You can take a similar approach with the Manhunter from Mars.
A human police detective, let's say Diane Meade, works with a mysterious new partner named John Jones with some noticeable quirks as they become embroiled in a case that gets progressively weirder and more intimidating. In a second act reveal, John Jones proves to be a refugee from Mars who is tracking down an alien archnemesis, or has uncovered an invasion plot, or whose extraterrestrial nature allows him to deal with a domestic but ancient supernatural force. Whatever, it's normal people in trenchcoats on city streets with occasional bursts of practical and CGI effects for an hour, with the real money poured into final reel fireworks. That sort of low key, slow burn, paranoid, and slightly scary neo-noir is right in the Manhunter audience's wheelhouse. Add a reasonable budget for behind the scenes talent (quality screenwriter/director/cinematographer,) some sweet but judiciously employed effects, maybe one star and some good characters actors... you could finally pay off on the promise of that nostalgic dreck while feeding into the greater Justice League franchise.
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2012 “Martian Manhunter wp” by “SWFan1977”
The math is simple. Pay less than $100m for a movie guaranteed to have a 50%+ return based on name recognition and its role in setting up the JLA film. Since the character is established, he can dive right into the Justice League feature without a lengthy introduction, and perhaps even bring his own fan base into that film if he does well on his own. If his reception is chilly, the part can be easily recast, diminished to a cameo, or dropped altogether so as not to weight the big tentpole down. I don't see that happening though, since like Iron Man, the Manhunter from Mars is the sort of property that improves by transitioning to live action. Take Morpheus from The Matrix, partner him with Ellen Ripley, and have them uncover and foil the Invasion of the Body Snatchers with cool but relatively inexpensive displays of power. Do you think we could get Denzel for this? Everybody wants to play a super-hero once, and that noir angle could hook him. So many possibilities...