Can a DCU The Authority Movie Actually Work?

Books

After much anticipation, the new James Gunn and Peter Safran-led DC Studios has finally announced their upcoming film and TV slate. The goal is to create a giant connected shared story spread out across movies, TV, and even gaming. Characters will move fluidly in and out of animation and into live action, and there’s a special DC Elseworlds label to distinguish standalone efforts and visions (such as Todd Phillips’ R-rated Joker movies).

But within the actual DCU shared universe, there are some surprises. Amongst familiar faced l ike Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and even Supergirl, there’s shockers like a Wonder Woman prequel drama with a Game of Thrones flavor and a Creature Commandos animated series. But perhaps there’s no choice more shocking than the one Gunn is seemingly most excited for: The Authority.

The Nature Of The Authority

Created by Warren Ellis and artist Bryan Hitch, The Authority debuted at the dawn of the 21st century. Ellis and Hitch had been working on Stormwatch, a key title in Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Universe at Image Comics. The pair had turned the title from a typical ‘90s “badass action heroes” title into something more reflective and satirical, aimed directly at Western imperialism and global policing. But there was only one problem: it wasn’t selling great.

And so The Authority was created, conceptualized as the leaner, meaner, bigger sibling of Stormwatch. It would draw upon other successful, boundary-pushing team books of the period like Grant Morrison and Howard Porter’s JLA, but push it farther, take it to places where the actual Justice League characters never could go.

While Morrison and Porter’s JLA series treated those DC icons as modern symbolic equivalents of the Olympian gods, The Authority boasted its own pantheon of figures representing elemental forces of modern existence itself. The team consisted of:

  • Jenny Sparks – The team’s fierce leader, an immortal woman who had lived through the entire 20th Century and was its ultimate symbol
  • Apollo – A Superman-esque figure and the roster’s elemental hero of light
  • Midnighter – A Batman-esque warrior of the night and master strategist who knows every move you’ll make before you’ve made it
  • Jack Hawksmoor – The avatar of the modern human world, with a connection to cities
  • The Engineer – A master of technology capable of creating virtually anything
  • The Doctor- The shaman and the healer, the mystic in tune with reality itself 
  • Swift – The winged huntress and the master of speed

Just as Alan Moore and others changed American superheroes for good with books like Miracleman and Watchmen in the 1980s, Ellis and Hitch continued that British tradition and changed the American superhero once again in the 1990s. While Morrison and Porter’s contemporary Justice League proudly proclaimed that their purpose was “to catch humanity when it falls” and “to inspire them,” the Authority had a very different motto:

Be good, or else!

The Authority answered to no one except themselves. They didn’t just want to save the world. They wanted to change it. On the surface, they were the Justice League dressed in fetishy leather costumes, slick T-Shirts, suits, or chrome metal, and looked like pop idols or celebrities of the era. But they were also, crucially, much like a lot of the British tradition’s work on the American superhero, a sharp satire and critical assessment.

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What if there were superbeings who were willing to re-shape reality, no matter the cost, in pursuit of a better world? What if there were those who hated the status quo and wanted to actively take action to get to their vision of a better tomorrow?

It was, in a way, a return to the ideal of the golden age idea of Superman, who would take dictators during wars and toss them around, forcing them to make peace, only taken to a (then) modern extreme via the lens of the British tradition. What if supergods existed, but they were on our side. It was a fantasy of the primal powers that would deliver brutal justice to every tyrant, corrupt official, and horrible CEO we hated, all the bastards who escaped judgment and never got what they deserved. 

It was a comic of violent catharsis, draped in Bryan Hitch artwork of grand spectacle, with buildings collapsing and cities reduced to rubble. But it was a book of discomfort, too. These weren’t exactly great people you wanted to hang around with. They’d level cities and accept the collateral damage of thousands dying if it meant they’d save a million more. They were cool action hero figures who shared some of your progressive ideals, but also made you deeply uncomfortable with the choices they made. This fine balance of sharp satire of the Western superhero with the utmost sincerity to the pledge of “a better world” is what defined The Authority.

It was so tremendously influential that it changed comics, and a little further down the road, pop culture itself. When Ellis left as writer, the book would be taken on by Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Civil War, Old Man Logan), and he would eventually move onto rebooting the Marvel Universe and the Avengers with Bryan Hitch as his artistic collaborator on The Ultimates, which sold over 4 times as much as the most successful issue of The Authority. The Ultimates was a much more mixed, messy, and uneven attempt at a satire, but it had a tabloid shock-value sensibility and it was a bonafide hit. The Ultimates (stripped of the satirical and uncomfortable elements) became the basis and foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as a result, you can trace a direct line from The Authority to 2012’s The Avengers film. 

But why The Authority? And why now?

When Wildstorm was absorbed by DC, the analogous characters created to be a commentary/critique/satire of the Justice League archetypes suddenly found themselves on the same playing field as the characters they had been critiquing. Until recently, it never quite worked on the page. But now they’re being brought in and cemented as DC Universe characters for good in cinema.

James Gunn has described his vision for the team in the DCU as follows:

The Authority is a very different kind of superhero story. They’re basically good intentioned, but they think that the world is completely broken. And the only way to fix it is to take things into their own hands, whether that means killing people, destroying heads of state, changing governments, whatever they want to do to make the world better. We’ll see how that journey goes for them.”

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But what purpose can The Authority really serve in a world where multiple seasons of The Boys exist? The ruthless satirical critique of superhero fiction that Ellis’ The Authority was can’t really work alongside a traditional superhero shared movie and TV universe meant to deliver blockbuster after blockbuster. Even if the intent is to do a serious, meaningful satire and critique of the genre, we may end with a shallow pretense of one, akin to the MCU’s handling of many heady questions. No matter how well-intentioned, it’s difficult for a cinematic Authority serving a traditional and commercial cinematic universe to escape the limitations placed upon it given the corporate and financial realities involved. Is this an interest in the ambitious questions posed by The Authority or merely the big, loud bombastic aestheticism of it? We’ve lived through over a decade of indulging in the latter, while only a handful of projects (The Boys, HBO’s Watchmen) have truly grasped the former. 

In a lot of ways, the original purposes and aims of The Authority comic have now been taken up and fulfilled by The Boys, with both works being deeply British satirical critiques of Western ideas and capitalist imperium. It’s possible that The Authority no longer has the purpose or meaning it once did, and its niche is well covered and occupied. But perhaps the most recent major attempt at bridging The Authority and the DCU may prove instructive in this regard for DC movies.

Grant Morrison and Mikel Janin’s 2021 Superman and The Authority saw the Man of Steel  assembling a new generation of superhumans to take up his mission, connecting The Authority right back to the root of the angry Superman they once sprung from. Save for the usage of Midnighter and Apollo, Morrison would largely create or utilize DCU analogues/stand-ins for this Authority roster, avoiding any existing continuity baggage. The whole comic operates as a sharp satirical reflection on the superhero idea, both where it had been, and where it is now, laying bare all the ways that Superman had failed and could have done more. But it also gets at how the classic Authority had failed, digging into how the concept itself was a specific product of its time and zeitgeist, outside of which it struggles. As Grant Morrison put it in told us in an interview:

“The Authority was great at the time, it was punk superheroes. But really it kind of trivialized world problems that then became bigger and bigger. So this was something different. This was, could we make an analog team that was like the Authority but wasn’t the original Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, Frank Quitely Authority but took some of that attitude. It’s trying to capture that feeling but at the same time to interrogate it because it didn’t really work. A lot of what we hoped for, a lot of what the radical utopian left and the creative community hoped for didn’t really turn out the way we hoped or turned out in a way that yeah, that’s what we wanted but it was the bad guys who got it right.” 

You can’t exactly expect a militaristic Western superpower to make the world better. It can be cathartic and satisfying as a fantasy to read. Ultraviolent supergods can’t save us or make us a better world. Only we can do that, together in unity and solidarity. Playing Superman (and thus the superhero) as symbol and metaphor as opposed to the pseudo-realist approach of The Authority comics, Morrison leaned into the unreality and implausibility of the whole superhero enterprise. Veering away from the troubling imperialist figures, they pushed the superhero into inspiring figures of absurdity. More a critical essay than a story, Superman and The Authority currently stands as Morrison’s final word on DC, and the book is a fun trek through the history of thought on the superhero idea.

This, of course, does not play as well on screen or work for a traditional superhero cinematic universe of the sort that WB and its new chief David Zaslav are looking for. Which complicates things for DC Studios. The ideal adaptation of The Authority, if you were really dead set on doing it, would, of course, be a standalone HBO TV series, akin to Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, a critical work of commentary on superhero fiction that could operate on its own, in its own bubble, without the weight of the shared universe. It’s largely why The Boys also works, as a singular show exploring the humanity of the regular people who live in a world of men masquerading as gods.

Gunn and Safran’s vision of the DCU is one of variety. You have the classical heroes like Batman and Superman, but you also have Green Lantern and Wonder Woman mythologies re-worked in the vein of modern prestige dramas like True Detective (with Lanterns) and Game of Thrones (Paradise Lost) respectively. Swamp Thing is intended to play to a proper horror niche, while Creature Commandos looks to be leaning more towards a horror action/comedy set-up. Booster Gold lends itself to comedy most readily above all others as well, while Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow occupies the space opera role traditionally slotted for Green Lantern. And while Waller will further explore the villainous world of DC, granting it its unique place, the intent with The Authority seems to be to place it squarely amidst all of these as counter-programming, a contrast to the ethos of both the classical heroic figures and the villainous bastards of DC. They’re not the weirdos and freaks to the side, happy to do their thing. No, instead they’re the freaks who bring the thunder and lightning and make some noise. 

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This new DCU, and any screen vision of The Authority, has to live in a post-MCU world, wherein The Authority has been strip-mined for parts by everything that surrounds us starring superheroes, with its satire lost. We live in a post-The Boys world, wherein it continues as the torchbearer for the likes of The Authority, but an entire segment of the audience completely miss the point, with many rightwing morons thinking Homelander was a true hero all this time. This is the cultural zeitgeist and moment in the 2020s we’re in, which The Authority was never really designed for at all.

Will it have the same impact? Can it work at all?

Only time will tell.

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