Defenders assemble: 21 super-teams that would make for great movies (but likely never will)
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1. The Defenders
Not long ago, film pundits were pondering if the superhero trend of the past decade might have begun to run its course. The Avengers’ mega-success has put that argument to rest for a while. Hollywood—or Marvel Studios, at least—seems to have boiled down superhero films into a carefully calibrated scientific formula in which characters who are already household names get dropped into adventures that stay true enough to their comic-book roots to keep hardened fans happy while still satisfying all the requirements of big summer blockbusters. There simply isn’t as much of a need to throw random, big-budget superhero films against the wall to see if they stick. That goes quintuple for movies about super-teams. With larger casts, larger costs, and trickier narrative demands, super-team films from now on are likely to feature proven, established entities—like the Avengers. Which is a shame, seeing as how so many great, though lesser-known, comic-book super-teams would make for terrific movies. Case in point: the Defenders. Created in 1971 at the start of comics’ Bronze Age, the misfit group has featured various ex-members of other teams (the Avengers included): The Hulk, Doctor Strange, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner served as founding members, followed by everyone from Silver Surfer to Daredevil. And then with the advent of the New Defenders in the early ’80s, three members of the original X-Men—Angel, Iceman, and Beast—joined the ranks. With that kind of pedigree, a Defenders movie seems like a shoo-in. But the group’s convoluted mythos, not to mention its comics’ brooding, quirky tone, surely guarantees that the strangest super-team in mainstream Marvel history will remain halfway forgotten, and 100 percent unfilmed.
2. Alpha Flight
Another team with strong ties to the ever-bankable X-Men is Alpha Flight. (In fact, Wolverine’s origins are linked to the Canadian super-team.) Originally led by the patriotic, maple-leaf-suited Guardian—and later by his widowed wife, who wore the same superpowered suit under the name Vindicator—Alpha Flight’s familial group dynamic and underdog scrappiness lend themselves to compelling dramatic possibilities. Besides the relatively unmarketable Canadian-ness of the team, though, there’s another hurdle for film producers: Northstar is Marvel’s first major, openly gay superhero. (He recently married his partner in the pages of Astonishing X-Men.) Sadly, studios might justifiably fear a portion of the superhero-movie crowd that could take their bigotry to the box office.
3. Doom Patrol
One of the most intriguing, groundbreaking, super-teams in comics history, Doom Patrol doesn’t have a chance in hell of making it to the big screen intact. After all, the group has barely been able to attract and hold a consistent readership since its first appearance in 1963. Like the far more famous team of outcasts that also debuted that year, the X-Men, DC’s Doom Patrol initially featured a wheelchair-bound genius commanding an argumentative, angst-ridden crew of superpowered weirdoes. They eventually wound up sacrificing their lives, bitterly, to save a human race that loathed them. The team has been reconstituted in various incarnations since, the most famous being Grant Morrison’s take on the team, one of the most brain-melting runs in the history of mainstream superhero comics. Neither the nihilism nor the surrealism would translate lucratively onto the big screen—and without that, it isn’t really Doom Patrol.
4. Suicide Squad
Although audiences of all backgrounds have embraced superhero movies, the fact remains: Studios rightly bank on the fact that kids love them. But what parents in this day and age would want to take their kids to a movie called Suicide Squad? The team is based on the old reliable Dirty Dozen premise: send a bunch of lethally talented convicts on a suicide mission for the government, with the survivors promised commuted sentences. But with the Suicide Squad, those convicts often have superpowers. It’s a simple yet effective mash-up of tropes that has the potential to yield a great movie. But without any instantly recognizable heroes, or a less-dubious name, the chances of that happening are next to nil.
Long before gaining fame and acclaim with Fables, a twentysomething, then-unknown Bill Willingham tried his hand at writing and drawing a series of his own creation: Elementals. Published by the indie press Comico, the series featured a super-team based on the most fundamental premise, literally: the four elements. Members Monolith, Vortex, Morningstar, and Fathom embodied earth, air, fire, and water, respectively, and this simple idea provided a sturdy framework for Willingham’s explorations of death, sex, religion, and politics in a way that was more freewheeling and in-depth than the mainstream publishers of the day could dare. Though the series was never Willingham’s greatest work, the sheer explosion of erratic, youthful creativity could lend a breath of fresh, Hancock-esque air to the superhero-movie canon. That is, if anyone besides the frequenters of comic-shop dollar-bins had any idea what the hell Elementals was.
6. The Minutemen
With Watchmen’s new prequel line, Before Watchmen, bearing more promise than naysayers guessed, there’s more interest than ever in the Minutemen, Watchmen’s 1940s supergroup, which featured such colorful, lavishly retro characters as Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice, and Dollar Bill. Watchmen writer Alan Moore even announced in 1985, while Watchmen was still being published, that he planned on writing a 12-issue Minutemen series. It could make a great film, but after Zack Snyder’s uneven, underperforming Watchmen film, there’s little chance of a studio wanting to roll the dice with yet another period superhero drama rife with darkness and complexity.
7. Metal Men
Though news recently broke that director Barry Sonnenfeld is working on a Metal Men movie for Warner Bros., fans of DC’s funky robots are taking a “believe it when we see it” attitude. The Metal Men could be terrific on film—if Sonnenfeld follows the more tongue-in-cheek ’70s version of the comic, the one with the eye-popping Walt Simonson art and postmodern affectations—then there’s a lot to work with, from the specific quirks of the robots’ element-based powers to the way those powers reflect their personalities. (Mercury is liquid and hot-tempered; Iron is strong and confident, and so forth.) But while Warner Bros. may be thinking it has another Transformers on its hands, in just about all of its incarnations over the past five decades, Metal Men has been an extremely weird book. The non-human heroes are strangely neurotic and led by a semi-mad scientist who seems cruelly indifferent to the fact that he designed one of his robots as jittery and nervous, and another one passionately in love with him. Sonnenfeld is offbeat enough to do justice to the original, but only if he’s allowed to make it as nutty as it should be.
8. The Champions
Comics in the ’70s went a little super-team crazy, as editors at Marvel and DC scrounged around for any otherwise-unaffiliated heroes they owned, then threw them together in their own magazines. Marvel’s Champions were one of the motliest of those crews, featuring the ex-X-Men Angel and Iceman, the Avengers-affiliated quasi-heroes Black Widow and Hercules, and, uh, Ghost Rider. Yes, Ghost Rider. (Hey, it was the ’70s, and Ghost Rider was hot. No pun intended.) But what made The Champions seem like an afterthought in its era is also what’d make for a killer movie now. Who wouldn’t want to see Scarlett Johansson and Nicolas Cage teamed up to fight… crime? Aliens? Demons? Each other? Who cares? And it doesn’t matter who plays Angel, Iceman, or Hercules, either; just the machinations it would take to bring the existing movie versions of Black Widow and Ghost Rider together would be worth the price of admission.
9. Freedom Fighters
Some of the ’70s super-teams seemed to come together arbitrarily, but Freedom Fighters made sense, both creatively and as a business decision. In 1956, Quality Comics went out of business and sold off its characters, giving DC the rights to some of the niftiest heroes of the Golden Age: Plastic Man, Blackhawk, Doll Man, the Human Bomb, Phantom Lady, and more. In the DC Multiverse, the Quality heroes lived on “Earth-X,” where the Nazis had won World War II, and where an intrepid band of good guys (led by a two-fisted Uncle Sam) fought for the resistance. After winning—with help from the Justice League and the Justice Society, as part of those teams’ annual team-ups—the Earth-X heroes moved to Earth-1 to make a fresh start. The original Freedom Fighters comic was DC’s attempt to put some of its idle assets to work, and thus keep its claim on its copyright. But it was also a quintessentially ’70s book, turning its heroes into misunderstood fugitives from the law, dealing with a disillusioned America. The potential plots for a Freedom Fighters film are legion: The writers could make it an alternate-history saga, or make it about the heroes of the past grappling with the problems of today, or do something else entirely. So long as the movie features a scantily clad Phantom Lady and a kick-ass Uncle Sam, it could be a smasheroo.
10. The Thunderbolts
How’s this for a movie premise? At a time when the world’s major heroes are missing and believed to be dead, a new team emerges, promising “justice, like lightning.” The twist? They aren’t actually heroes; they’re villains who’ve taken on new identities, with the intention of earning the public’s trust and leveraging it to seize power. The twist within the twist? The longer they play out the con, the more they find they enjoy the adulation that comes with helping people. Over the years, Marvel has rebooted the Thunderbolts several times, changing the nature of the group. But the best version remains the one co-created by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley in 1997, which sustained several years of surprise twists, narrow escapes, and second-guessing—a little like a superhero-comics version of The Shield.
11. The Power Company
Unlike in the ’60s and ’70s, it’s been harder to introduce and sustain new super-teams over the past few decades. Besides the Thunderbolts, Kurt Busiek had a hand in co-creating one of the more novel groups of recent vintage: the Power Company, a DC Universe organization run by super-powered lawyer Josiah Power. The big gimmick in The Power Company—for the short time the series lasted, anyway—was that Power ran his team like a law firm, recruiting young talent and making them partners in his heroes-for-hire business. The introduction of office politics to the usual punch-ups would automatically set a Power Company movie apart from the pack. Here’s the pitch: X-Men: First Class meets The Firm. Green-light it, Hollywood!
12. Damage Control
For everyone who watched The Avengers and wondered how New York cleaned up the mess the big intergalactic battle left behind, Marvel/Disney should consider at least a featurette about Damage Control, the for-hire group in the Marvel Universe that repairs the buildings and streets super-beings trash. (The team did get a nod in Iron Man, but only in a graphic beneath a TV news report in the background of a scene.) An entire Damage Control feature would be even better. Though most of the company’s employees are regular, powerless folk, the logistics and technology of their business are impressive, and in the larger history of Marvel, Damage Control has been involved with some storylines that are thrilling and dramatic, not just quirky. But a quirky Damage Control movie would be fine too, if only for its potentially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like look at what happens on the periphery of the stories we know so well. (It’d also be nice to see the team’s late co-creator, Dwayne McDuffie, get some acknowledgment for what he brought to superhero comics, before his life and career were cut short.)
13. The Inhumans
The Jack Kirby/Stan Lee-created Inhumans aren’t superheroes per se, they’re more an early example of Kirby’s fascination with the daily lives of demigods. First introduced in a 1965 issue of Fantastic Four, the Inhumans are a product of alien intervention in human evolution, and in their first decade or so in the Marvel Universe, this super-race generally interacted with other heroes reluctantly, whenever they were convinced that their hidden city of Attilan was in danger. A few of the Inhumans—primarily the tendril-haired Medusa and the elemental controller Crystal—have been a part of some of Marvel’s major teams from time to time, but for the most part, Inhumans stories deal with courtly intrigue and in-fighting. It was reported last year that an Inhumans movie is in the early stages of development, but it’s hard to imagine much coming of that, since the characters are hardly iconic, and given that it’d be difficult to make a super-team movie in which the group’s leader, Black Bolt, either doesn’t talk at all, or speaks at a skull-crushing volume. Still, there’s a wonderful pre-New Gods Kirby freakiness about the Inhumans, and it’d be fun to see someone try and put it on the big screen.
A group of teenagers who team up to escape their supervillain parents, the Runaways came close to having a movie made at the height of their popularity. A writer and director were attached, and casting notices were sent out, but the project fell apart as Marvel Studios shifted its focus to The Avengers and higher-profile heroes. Taking elements from different corners of the Marvel universe, the team is one of the most diverse in comics, with members that include a non-superpowered, African-American leader; an Asian witch; a lesbian alien; and a telepathic dinosaur. The majority-female cast would give the film the opportunity to tap into the female demographic superhero movies struggle to attract, and Brian K. Vaughan’s “adults are evil” plot has a much different hook than most superhero fare. The longer the characters stay out of action in the comics, the less likely a movie seems, which is a shame, because the Runaways are one of the few superhero teams truly geared toward a younger generation.
There are enough X-Men spinoffs to keep some variation of the mutant team onscreen for decades, but the one that would make the most intriguing film is also the one that will probably never be touched. With a cast of egotistical, immoral, suicidal fame-addicts, X-Statix was such a wild departure that Marvel dropped the antiquated Comics Code to have it published unedited. Peter Milligan and Michael Allred created a group of deeply flawed, multilayered characters who were completely expendable, and the death rate on the team makes it unlike any other supergroup. Peter Milligan’s subversive stories reveal a side of the superhero rarely seen, and Allred’s pop-art sensibilities would translate beautifully to the screen. The Marilyn Monroe-esque U-Go-Girl is a dream part for any actress, and the sheer weirdness of mutant-potato-alien-thing Doop needs to be exposed to audiences across the nation.
16. Seven Soldiers
An Arthurian knight, a corporate vigilante, a witch-boy, a magician, a bombshell, an escape artist, and Frankenstein’s monster team up across time in Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers, a psychedelic superhero adventure that re-imagines DC’s classic Seven Soldiers Of Victory. The members of Morrison’s genre-bending super-team never actually meet, but somehow still find a way to unite against a common threat. (It’s just as weird as it sounds.) The comic was published as seven miniseries, each focused on one team member, and bookended by a pair of special issues that pulled back to look at the big picture. Imagine if Warner Bros. mimicked the structure of the comic when creating a Seven Soldiers series? Each one could have a different visual style, and the final movie could even copy the way artist J.H. Williams III used different visual approaches in the same scene to represent different characters. It would be one of the most ambitious superhero-movie projects ever attempted. Unfortunately, Seven Soldiers probably wouldn’t make much money, because mainstream audiences don’t really care about Shining Knight and Mister Miracle.
17. Justice League International
Where is the superhero comedy? As hilarious as Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ ’80s and early-’90s incarnation of the Justice League was, Warner Bros. will never put out a Justice League International film, at least not before putting out a proper Justice League with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The characters of Justice League International showed that a super-team can do more than just fight the bad guys, and the book’s focus on comedy made them one of the most tightly knit iterations of the Justice League ever. Although Giffen and DeMatteis turned a cast of losers into fan favorites, as with Seven Soldiers, there just isn’t enough mainstream interest in characters like Fire, Ice, and an Oreo-loving Martian Manhunter to justify the risk of a big-budget project. Perhaps a mockumentary style film following Maxwell Lord as he tries to create a functioning superhero team out of low-grade talent like Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, and third-string Green Lantern Guy Gardner? If nothing else, it would strike a completely different tone than what audiences are used to in a superhero movie.
18. The Zoo Crew
Kids love anthropomorphized animals and superheroes, so it’s a wonder that Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew have yet to be adapted to any medium outside of comics. On Earth-C, a planet inhabited by cartoon animals, Captain Carrot and his friends keep Follywood, Califurnia safe from the local criminal element. The goofy characters have become cult favorites, and if Alvin And The Chipmunks can spawn three big-screen features, then surely DC’s adorable superanimals can anchor a film.
19. The Authority
If there was ever a superhero property tailor-made for Michael Bay, it’s the Authority, a team of quippy, brutal superheroes who will do anything to protect Earth. That includes fighting God and stopping an invasion from an alternate-reality Victorian Empire. First written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Bryan Hitch, the comic pioneered widescreen action comics, paving the way for Mark Millar’s and Hitch’s The Ultimates, which became the major foundation for this year’s Avengers film. Antiheroes have proven semi-successful at the box office with Wanted and Kick-Ass, but The Authority offers much more extreme morally questionable blockbuster action. The budget would be astronomical, but the Northstar issue stands in the way of a big-screen version: The Authority’s members include Apollo and Midnighter, stand-ins for Superman and Batman, who are in a committed gay relationship. Warner Bros. is probably fine with its two biggest heroes punching through people’s skulls, but sticking their tongues in each other’s mouths presents other problems.
With Nextwave, Warren Ellis offered a different, equally offbeat take on modern heroes by pitting a bunch of B-list Marvel superheroes, like Machine Man and Boom-Boom, against a hilariously over-the-top evil organization that used weaponized koala bears and a giant lizard in purple underpants to cause global chaos. Drawn by Stuart Immonen, Marvel’s most madcap superhero team seems like the Adult Swim version of the Avengers, with a cast of not-quite-there heroes and a main villain who’s easily the funniest Marvel character of the past decade. Plus, it already has its own theme song, describing it as “like Goethe, but with lots more crunching.” How could any movie executive turn down that kind of pitch?
21. Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors
There’s already a theatrical element to the superhuman conflict in Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors: The rivalries between heroes and villains are staged for the public while they work together in secret. The students of Gladstone’s School are unaware of this illusion, and cause some serious damage to that alliance when they try to prove themselves as supervillains. Mark Andrew Smith’s tween-supervillain team is similar to the Runaways in that each member is pulled from a different corner of the superhero genre: a mummy, ghost, alien, etc. Smith’s story puts a new spin on the super-school concept that has already been tried in films like Sky High and Zoom. Armand Villavert’s sleek artwork would translate well to computer animation, and Smith’s clearly defined yet whimsical cast makes Gladstone’s a great fit for a studio like Pixar. The chance of a creator-owned superhero team launching a big-budget animated feature is slim, but if The Walking Dead can become the highest-rated show on cable, there’s always hope. (OS)