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Two Cheers for Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher was the best thing to happen to us.

The sound that you’re hearing, right now, is thousands upon thousands of fanboys coming to a screeching halt in their web-surfing. “What,” they’re shouting in righteous indignation, “How dare he say that! The last two Batman films sucked! Didn’t he see them? What is he saying?”

Well, I’ll say it again: Joel Schumacher was the best thing to happen to us. Here’s why.

Flashback to 1997: Batman & Robin—Schumacher’s craptacular ode to camp, sexual innuendo, and the wholesale theft of ideas from “Heart of Ice”—stinks up the box office and poisons the Batman film franchise for eight years. Meanwhile, the animated franchise—The New Batman Adventures and Batman: Subzero—are doing quite well, even though the creative team is divided between these projects and Superman. They’re selling toys, TV ad time—the burgeoning DCAU franchise is just gathering steam. Batman Beyond—a bold experiment, despite network meddling—takes shape and then gives way to Justice League, featuring the Dark Knight and his super friends.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. continues to fumble the ball with Batman, moving more and more into la-la land. “How about we get Howard Stern to play the Scarecrow and Jenny McCarthy to play Harley Quinn!” “What about a musical?” “We could do a Batman versus Superman movie!” It wasn’t until recently that they managed to cobble together a Batman movie idea with top-level material, getting the director of Memento and an all-star cast together to make Batman Begins. This was, of course, accompanied by a reset of the Batman franchise, with a new animated show, new toy lines, and new everything come this summer.

Don’t you get it? The DCAU blossomed during the time period that Warner Bros. couldn’t get a superhero movie made. With the characters available and the studio unable to even mention the idea of another Batman flick, Bruce Timm and his collaborators were able to make out like bandits, grabbing a ton of raw material that would have been otherwise tangled up in red tape. I say this with certainty: Justice League would not exist if Batman & Robin had been a success. If Schumacher’s cinematic mess had made money it would have paved the way to more movies based upon DC’s icons. A Superman franchise. A Green Lantern franchise. Without these heavy hitters we really would have been stuck with a League with only J’onn and a crew of second-stringers.

(Not to pick exclusively on Schumacher. Also contributing to this fallow period was the mess with trying to create a Superman film and an unending list of failed Wonder Woman projects, all of which kept them free for Justice League treatment.)

I bring this up now because, after nearly a decade, Warner Bros. is turning their fortunes around. Batman Begins is coming out this summer. Kids’ WB’s The Batman is being aired on two American networks and has its own toy line. A Superman movie will begin filming in March. There’s continuing talk of a Flash feature film and a Green Lantern film. What does this mean for us? Well, consider: due to a decision from the top brass, all of Batman’s supporting cast is now off-limits to the Justice League Unlimited creative team. Think about it: no more Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred Pennyworth; his appearance in Starcrossed was his last. No more Batcave. No more Rogues Gallery. The “Near Apocalypse of ’09,” which was alluded to on Batman Beyond and would have eatured Ra’s Al Ghul, may never happen. And, unless they decide to incorporate the flashback sequence from Return of the Joker into continuity somehow, the Joker’s going to stay in that insanity-induced coma that he found himself in in “Wild Cards.”

Batman’s not going anywhere, of course—without him there is no show, and the executives know it—but cutting out a large portion of the show’s universe limits the creative team in ways that are still being felt (an appearance by Dr. Hugo Strange was nixed, as were possible stories involving Batgirl and Man-Bat). That’s okay, we tell ourselves. Most of Batman’s Rogues aren’t really a credible threat to the Justice League anyway. But consider this: what happens if the Superman movie is a hit and the bigwigs decide to remove Superman’s supporting cast from the show? Do we lose Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Lois Lane? And what about the other fledgling films based upon DC heroes? And, finally, what if—God forbid—the dark day were to come when it is decided from on high that one of the main heroes on the series should be pulled out entirely?

It’s not my intention to scare you or cause a panic. Save for the removal of Batman’s supporting cast, there’s not going to be any wholesale dismantling of the Justice League Unlimited cast—at least, as far as I know. But heed my warning: the good times can’t last forever. Justice League may be the DCAU’s final breath and the creative team seems to know it—the fact that they’re tying this series into the other shows (Superman, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, The Zeta Project) gives me the impression that, on one level, Unlimited is a thank you note to the fans. My point here is that this ending chapter in DC Comics’ movie history provided a window for the DCAU creative team to really stretch and flesh out their little corner of the DC Universe.

And, if it hadn’t been for Schumacher’s folly, we might never have had the opportunity to have the Justice League series at all.

This editorial originally appeared at The Justice League Watchtower. It is reprinted by permission.

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