In what could be the most powerful organized labor union ever established, the League of Heroes formed in the mid-1940s to protect the rights of costumed crusaders. It was a golden age of solidarity.. until it all fell apart.
"The League," a short film directed Kyle Higgins and co-written by Alec Siegel, explores the rise and fall of the heroes' union through the eyes of a dark figure operating outside the system. CBR News spoke with Higgins about the film, grown-up sidekicks, and the true value of education.
"The League" begins in 1946, with Chicago-based heroes campaigning for an organized labor union. Together, the Grey Raven, sidekick Sparrow, and the Blue Blaze make up the League of Heroes. Twenty years later, the League is ready to go national--but much has changed between the founding members, and the Sparrow has struck off on his own, a near-fatal battle having left him a much grimmer hero.
"I was fortunate in the sense that the story, the time period, the characters, the location all kind of ended up meshing together," Kyle Higgins told CBR. "Alec [Siegel] and I worked really hard to make them all mesh. Obviously, labor unions are a very strong part of Chicago's history, so naturally it made sense to set the super hero labor union in Chicago--and we're from Chicago, so that made sense to us. But what really made things start to click into place was making it a period film. The idea first came to me to do a period version of super heroes, the 1960s version, because you have more of the noir element to get away with. And also it's a play on the Silver Age comic book characters of that period, by putting it in the '60s."
Higgins, who created "The League" as a final project for his film degree at Chapman University, noted that some story elements emerged from practical concerns. "To be perfectly honest, the reason I first thought of that was the costume design. I knew I wasn't going to have $20,000 per costume like the Spider-Man films did, so something like Spandex is just going to look incredibly ridiculous on screen," he said. "I'd been reading Darwyn Cooke's 'New Frontier' and some other works, and noticed that any time there are throwback costumes, they look more 'of the period'--they look like actual clothing. From there, it all made sense: labor unions, Chicago, Silver Age comic book characters. Starting it in the '40s, it's kind of a play on the Golden Age. One of my friends brought this up when I was making the film, he said it starts as a Golden Age DC story and turns into a Silver Age Marvel story."
In its earliest incarnations, Higgins had been considering making "The League" into a comedy, possibly as a comic book. "When I got to think about doing it a thesis film for Chapman, I thought, why not do this and combine everything I've ever liked about superheroes and that genre as well as film into this one piece," he said. "Originally, Blaze, the Green Lantern-type guy, was supposed to be the main character, but Nightwing has always been my favorite character, so why don't I do something along those lines?"
This affinity for Nightwing, the original sidekick coming-of-age character, comes from a tendency to relate to the character, Higgins said. "I think it has a lot to do with where I'm at in my own life. It all comes down to, great characters have relatable traits for readers and viewers. The thing about Nightwing, or Winter Soldier, or even Scarlet Spider (hey, I grew up in the '90s, alright?), is that the underlying metaphor is 100% relatable for anyone, the idea of growing up and getting out from under someone else's shadow, and making your own life. Where I'm at in my life is just finishing college, finding my path, what I'm going to do career-wise-knock on wood it's something in film, but that's not guaranteed by any means-and it's finding your own identity. So when I really got into comics and I was reading 'Nightwing' back in the [Chuck] Dixon/ [Scott] McDaniel era, that really spoke to me on a subconscious level. Just the whole nature of the former sidekick, there's a great dynamic there, the whole unspoken father/son relationship between Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky, etc."
Though some of the Leaguers may roughly correspond to established comic book characters, Higgins created his own versions of popular heroes to avoid the pitfalls of other recent short superhero films. "A couple years ago, there was 'Batman: Dead End' and 'Grayson,' fan films which were really cool," he said. "But the only thing about those is that you can't do anything with them once they're done because you don't own any of the characters."
The director indicated that there are more stories to be told in this universe, though whether these eventually appear as comics, short films, or a feature length production has not been decided at this point.
Creating a twenty-seven minute film can be not only very challenging, but also incredibly expensive, especially with production value as high as it appears in "The League." Higgins said that he was able to obtain some funding from family members and other investors, but that having access to Chapman University's facilities and other resources was essential to creating this project. "I was going into my final year at Chapman, and I set this project up as what they call the Senior Project Workshop, which is the highest film project at the university at the undergraduate level," the director explained. "That allowed us access to everything from editing facilities to digital intermediate workflow-we shot on Super 16mm film and then at Chapman they had a 4K Spirit Scanner. We went through what's called a digital intermediate so all of our film was scanned into the computer and then we edited from that and then we did a conform and color on the film all at the university.
"The thing about the project is, there's no way we would have been able to make it if it wasn't a student production for the amount of money we made it for. I think it came in between $35-40,000, all in. At the student level, that's a lot of money, but at the same time, we were working with three Super 16 Panavision cameras all running at the same time on multiple days, through a grant at Panavision. We got a lot of our film donated from Kodak. A lot of the costs were cut down there."
Aside from the benefits simply being a student afforded him, Higgins described the film program at Chapman as "fantastic." "The facilities are second-to-none, really. The sound stage we were working on, we built the sets ourselves there, and we did the entire post-production workflow there. I did all the sound myself, the full 5:1 mix, at the school. There's no way we would have access to a lot of these facilities and equipment without Chapman."
While enrolled at Chapman, Higgins had another experience that immersed him in the world of superhero filmmaking, serving as an intern for Richard and Lauren Donner's production company. "It was a really, really cool time because 'X-Men 3' [produced by Lauren Donner] had been released a couple months earlier, and then Dick was finishing up his version of 'Superman II' and starting up with 'Action Comics' with Geoff Johns."
Higgins also credited the Donners and their assistants with helping him formulate his ideas for "The League."
Around this time, Higgins became acquainted with "Superman: The Movie" writer Tom Mankiewicz, who also taught at Chapman. Though still an undergraduate, Higgins became one of Mankiewicz's teaching assistants. "Tom is an incredible person and I feel very lucky to call him my friend," Higgins said. "He was so supportive of both me and the project. When we were doing pre-production on it, I was with Alec working on the script and Tom would get on the phone with us for two or three hours just talking through different ideas and exploring the universe. When we went to actually shoot the film, we had, as you can imagine, a lot of difficulties to overcome--on the creative side, on the technical side, as well as some people [at the university] like the project, some people don't like the project. You have to swing through that murky water, and Tom was wonderful at giving me a sounding board throughout it all.
"And he's been there. Not only is he a fantastic writer but he's a director, as well. So there are all sorts of different insights that he has, that I just don't have the experience yet. It's great to have someone who's been there and done it all to rely on."
Watch "The League" in HD at http://www.theleaguefilm.com/