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Can J.J. Abrams Save Justice League Dark?

J.J. Abrams is being asked to ride to the rescue once again — this time, by Warner Bros. and DC.

The writer-director-producer, whose production house Bad Robot signed a lucrative overall deal with Warner Bros. in September 2019, has been tasked with revitalizing Justice League Dark, which has stubbornly refused to be adapted to the screen in over six years of development (via Deadline).

The arrangement is still in its very early stages, but it is said to include both film and television adaptations featuring characters associated with the "JLD," as they're known among fans. The superhero team, which first appeared in the pages of DC Comics with the debut issue of their eponymous book in 2011, includes an extensive and revolving roster of members comprising those characters whose powers tend to relegate them to the... well, darker corners of the DC universe, and who typically deal with supernatural and magical threats outside the purview of the Justice League.

Deadline reports that Bad Robot's TV boss Ben Stephenson and film chief Hannah Minghella will soon be convening writers and other creatives to determine which characters to develop projects based on, and (presumably) to hammer out the direction of the long-awaited, extremely troubled Justice League Dark feature film. There's no word on whether Abrams himself will work on any of said projects as a writer or director; his last attempt at salvaging a troubled feature, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, didn't go over quite so well.

Which DC characters are featured in Justice League Dark?

DC has a long tradition of fielding horror-themed characters and titles, and Justice League Dark capitalized on this by assembling the kind of team that would make your average supervillain's skin crawl. In the team's first iteration, its ridiculously lengthy roster included the likes of John Constantine, a sorcerer and occultist of questionable morality; his onetime love interest Zatanna, a stage magician-turned superhero; Deadman, a ghost who uses the bodies of the living as vessels; Pandora, an immortal sorceress based on the figure from Greek mythology; and Swamp Thing, the sentient mass of vegetable matter who draws his powers from the swamp in which he lives.

After the "DC Rebirth" relaunch event of 2016, a leaner, meaner version of the JLD team was introduced, with Constantine, Zatanna, and Swamp Thing remaining on board. Joining them were Detective Chimp, an extremely intelligent chimpanzee; Man-Bat, the antihero and frequent Batman nemesis; Kent Nelson and Khalid Nassour, two of the characters to have held the title of Doctor Fate; and Wonder Woman, who took over as the team leader.

Abrams and company will have an extremely deep well of iconic DC characters to choose from for their Justice League Dark projects, and while it remains to be seen exactly how Bad Robot will tackle the property, a pair of extremely talented filmmakers have helpfully provided a years-long record of what won't work.

Guillermo Del Toro was the first to tackle Justice League Dark

The first to attempt to bring Justice League Dark to the big screen was the great Guillermo del Toro, whose strong track record of putting up dark, fantastical onscreen visions like Pan's Labyrinth — not to mention the comic book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy — seemed to make him a perfect fit for the material. Del Toro began work on the project in 2013, and indicated early on that he was interested in fielding a team based on the classic lineup, with Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, and Swamp Thing all being involved (via Collider).

By mid-2014, the project was in full swing, with del Toro saying that Warner Bros. intended to allow him a great deal of creative freedom, and to allow the JLD to exist separately from the other films of the DC Extended Universe, which at the time were still firmly interconnected (via SuperHeroHype). By November of that year, the first draft of a screenplay had been completed, and in April 2015, it was reported that a revision had been handed in, which indicated that the project was all but ready to go before the cameras.

Then, a shocker: only a couple months later, in June 2015, news broke that del Toro had departed Justice League Dark in favor of working on Pacific Rim: Uprising (which he ended up producing, but not directing, and which didn't hit the big screen until 2018) and the Gothic horror flick Crimson Peak, which was released later that year (via The Hollywood Reporter). JLD remained a part of Warner Bros.' plans, however, and the search for a new director was on.

Doug Liman tried to take on Justice League Dark

The studio took its sweet time with said search, but in August 2016, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) was announced as Justice League Dark's new director. Warner Bros. and DC were now saying that the flick would "play a major role" in the DCEU, which in actuality was only about a year away from undergoing a major recalibration as a result of the failure of the team-up film Justice League.

There was virtual radio silence on Liman's iteration of the project for the better part of a year, and when the director popped up in May 2017 to give an update, it wasn't terribly encouraging. Liman had just finished work on his feature The Wall, and could only offer that he was "excited" to offer a "grounded" take on Justice League Dark; no other information, such as casting, the status of the screenplay, or when fans could reasonably expect the film to begin production were offered.

Speaking of The Wall, fans could see the writing on it at this point (sorry, we couldn't resist). Literally just a couple of weeks after Liman gave his detail-free pronouncement, he was reported to have exited the project, leaving it once again stranded in limbo. The period of radio silence on Justice League Dark was substantially longer this time than after del Toro's departure; while writer Gerard Johnstone was hired to work on a script rewrite in August 2017, that was literally the last update we got before Bad Robot's takeover was announced last week.

J.J. Abrams steps in to try to save Justice League Dark

Now that Abrams is involved, we can likely at least put to bed the question of whether Justice League Dark will ever see the light of day. Bad Robot's overall deal with Warner Bros. is worth a whopping $250 million, and the studio isn't likely to sic its new, expensive partner on a property that it just doesn't have that strong of an interest in developing.

Of course, as we alluded to earlier, Abrams — who co-wrote and directed 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens before sitting out 2017's Star Wars: The Last Jedi — was called in to take over co-writing and directing chores on Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker after director Colin Trevorrow departed, and by any measure, it didn't go well. The film divided fans, was eviscerated by critics, and stands as the lowest-grossing entry of the Star Wars sequel trilogy.

Rise of Skywalker failed mostly because it tried to be all things to all fans (and if certain online conspiracy theories are to be believed, this is just as much the fault of Lucasfilm parent company Disney as Abrams). Hopefully, a thing or two was learned from the experience — and in our humble opinion, Bad Robot would do well to find a creative team who are really passionate about tackling this property, and let them do their thing. Abrams is a gifted director, but by his own admission, story is not his strong suit.

At any rate, it looks like the JLD will finally claw their way up out of Development Hell. We'll keep an eye out for any news related to Bad Robot's Justice League Dark projects, and we'll keep you up to speed.