Justice League Dark, and its development hell history

Justice League Dark
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It looks like we’re finally getting films based around DC’s Justice League Dark – but as James charts, it’s been a project stuck in development hell for a looooong time.

News broke out Wednesday this week that JJ Abram’s production company, Bad Robot, was interested in developing film and television projects based on characters from DC’s Justice League Dark at Warner Bros. Abrams recently moved his Bad Robot firm to Warner Bros after years developing projects for Paramount, and this appears to be one of the first fruits of that move.

Whilst some comic book fans may start writing the fanfic believing that Abrams is jumping from one franchise to another after his Star Wars  work – most recently The Rise of Skywalker – this story is not the first time that rumours around Justice League Dark have surfaced. There’s a long timeline of development hell for the alter-egos that handle situations outside of the Justice League’s traditional scope, and the story of bringing this to the screen goes back nearly a second.

Notably, rumours suggested in November 2012 that Guillermo del Toro was working on a film titled Heaven Sent, that would feature regular Justice League Dark characters like Deadman, Swamp Thing, Constantine, and such like. del Toro even confirmed it himself a couple of months later with the actual working title Dark Universe and he was looking to hire a screenwriter during its early development stages.

In 2013 whilst talking about his movie Pacific Rim, he mentioned that the core elements of the Heaven Sent story were complete and he hoped to start the screenplay soon. Fans were confident that this would be his next project after the production of his gothic horror Crimson Peak was completed.

del Toro’s idea for the film became known. His movie would not be an origin story, instead having each character already established in the world, seeding elements of their backstory throughout. As del Toro kept working on it, other characters were confirmed for the project, ones very much of interest to DC fans. The likes of Floronic Man, Madame Xanadu and Zatanna all supposedly featured in the script, with other characters still not being ruled out.

All that del Toro needed was the go ahead from Warner Bros. and the film could begin its production stages. Around the same time, the DC Extended Universe  (DCEU) had started in earnest with Man Of Steel, hoping to become as cohesive and commercially successful as its Marvel rival. But would Warner Bros pursue both an ultimate Justice League project, as well as Justice League Dark?

del Toro was ever hopeful of Justice League Dark being made and said he would honour any correlation to the events of Man of Steel and the DCEU in his own film. He even believed that his film could unite the DC TV shows that were also gaining popularity in the superhero world at the time. He felt it could coexist with the already established TV series, Constantine, even using the same actor, Matt Ryan for the role in the movie. Yet the DCEU hit a major slump in the road with its projects and later del Toro went back on his own words in July 2014, claiming that Justice League Dark would now be independent from the universe established with Man of Steel. That the time to unite them would come once DC and Warner Bros. knew that they’re quantifiable.

A few months later, Del Toro confirmed that the script was complete and had been handed to Warner Bros to be reviewed.

Everything appeared to then go quiet regarding Justice League Dark during this time, probably due to the promised battle of the two most popular comic book characters of all time in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Whilst Warner Bros kept Justice League Dark in development though, del Toro opted to depart, in a major blow for the project. He would no longer be directing.

With del Toro no longer attached to the project, Doug Liman (Edge Of Tomorrow) was now announced as his replacement, with del Toro still taking on a producing. Still entitled Dark Universe, the project remained stuck in development – being worked on by the New Line arm of Warner Bros that would ultimately give us Shazam! – and Doug Liman eventually left too. He chose to focus on directing Chaos Walking (a film set to be released this year).

In 2017, Justice League Dark was finally made into a film (above), albeit as part of the DC Animated Original Movies, being digitally released without a theatrical run. It was still able to acquire a great voice cast with the likes of Rosario Dawson, as well as Matt Ryan reprising his role as John Constantine. But considering five years before one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation stated his public interest in developing a film, it’s safe to say the wait wasn’t worth it.

Yet it isn’t just the inconsistency of DC films that have caused the delay of any live-action Justice League Dark material. When it was first aired in 2014, Constantine’s developer David S. Goyer planned to bring other characters into the fold that would eventually gain spin-offs or allow team-up specials with the occult detective. But Constantine only lasted one season due to poor ratings, meaning the only crossover fans ever got was Matt Ryan’s special guest star appearance on The CW’s Arrow, a small consolation prize.

As well as this, last year’s Swamp Thing was destined for greater things in the eventuality of featuring the ensemble of Justice League Dark. Despite being produced by Aquaman director James Wan, Swamp Thing was already cancelled shortly after its premiere, only lasting 10 episodes all together. Hoping for longevity similar to The CW’s DC shows, Swamp Thing was building up to featuring all members of the Justice League Dark around its third season. But similar to its feature films, both entertainment outlets were so desperate on planning for the future that the emphasis on making something workable from day one was apparently lost  (no wonder its working title was Dark Universe).

The reveal this week though that Justice League Dark is back and active ends several more years of development hell that the project has gone through. It’s the first positive news in a long time. Time will tell whether this is the turning point for the darker depiction of superheroes following the success of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. Or if this is another false dawn for a property lots of fans are very, very keen to see on the big screen…

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