Concept Factory: Taking Martian Manhunter In A New Direction
With Justice League of America debuting soon, I thought I’d drag out an old idea of mine on the Martian Manhunter. This was a new direction I had planned for when he first died (and would inevitably return) and later an idea that could have been used when DC rebooted their franchise and created the New 52. Now, with J’Onn J’Onn joining a new JLA, one set on keeping the metahuman population in check, I thought it was the perfect time to release this idea that gives Martian Manhunter a refreshing a new interpretation of his powers, and most importantly, a refreshing new role and purpose in the DC universe.
Emphasis on the “Manhunter”
In this interpretation of the Martian Manhunter, he’d be just that: a manhunter, working for the DEO, Checkmate, or perhaps multiple agencies that deal with metahuman threats in the DCU. He’d be an investigator and troubleshooter tackling problems that only his combination of powers and experience can solve.
This may sound completely different for J’Onn J’Onnz, but that’s why it would work so well.
J’Onn has always been described as a cross between Superman and Batman: called a literal “Swiss Army Knife” of superpowers who has the detective skills of Batman to boot (I’m sure telepathy helps). According to Superman, J’Onn is only one of five people in the universe he’s scared of, and yet, when have we ever seen J’Onn at his best? And in most adaptations, J’Onn is a periphery character regulated to monitor duty or providing advice from the sidelines. He’s basically Dragon Ball Z’s Piccolo, post-Frieza Saga.
But a true “Manhunter” series could emphasize what makes J’Onn an effective hero, why, for many years, so many heroes looked up to him or looked to him for support, and why, when in a crazy battle, other heroes want J’Onn on their side. His role as a literal Manhunter also gives him something to do when not with the Justice League, Stormwatch, or whoever he affiliates himself with. He should be more than just “that guy from that team.” He should have his own responsibilities, his own life, that differentiates him from other heroes.
If a movie came out about Superman, hardcore fans and casual movie-goers alike would know it’d be Superman against Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Zod, or any of his other enemies, set in Metropolis. For Batman, audiences have been given everyone from the Joker to Mr. Freeze, and always set in Gotham. How would fans picture a Martian Manhunter film? With him backing up the JLA.
Let’s give J’Onn his own story.
Shapechanging & Identities
A new role as some kind of metahuman Federal Marshal would give J’Onn new problems and scenarios: problems that add tension, danger, and excitement. It puts J’Onn into a familiar role, that of an investigator, an officer of the law, and a superhero, all rolled into one. He’d have to track down aliens and metahumans, beings who can evade all conventional forms of detection; he’d have to go undercover as a villain to find a new supernatural crime boss; he’d have to maintain identities and contacts in scenarios where he has to be in two places at the same time; he’d have to take on superhumans that give even Superman a hard time.
These stories can give a flexibility to J’Onn’s solo title that most books can’t offer. Imagine an Ocean’s 11 bank heist where an entire team of thieves could all be revealed as various personas of J’Onn’s, to perform a job that will get him closer to an elusive mad scientist, his employer for the job. Or humorous visual cues like J’Onn needing to pretend to be different people, and shifting from person to person while on the phone (similar to how actors “get into character”) to maintain his charade. These lies would add complication to J’Onn’s life, because, as we all know, deception=drama. Creating sympathetic characters for J’Onn to interact with, ones on either side of the law that he has to continually deceive to achieve his goals, adds a different type of conflict that super-strength just can’t compete with. And for a character who has been described as “hard to write” and “dull,” it would certainly add even more character to his personality.
But all of these scenarios will work even better when I describe how his power-set should be handled. Read on.
Making His Powers More Nuanced
While it’s not entirely too bad for J’Onn to have such a powerful set of abilities, I believe that giving J’Onn the gimmicky Silver Age weakness of fire is too easy, and not dynamic or nuanced enough to check his power level. Honestly, with Super-strength, speed, flight, telepathy, telekinesis, “Martian vision,” “vortex breath,” invisibility, and intangibility, there’s no reason that J’Onn can’t take out a whole legion of villains on his own in ten seconds. And fire is so common that you’d think supervillains would carry a lighter with them at all times when they found out his weakness. Attempts to balance how much and why fire affects him have given a vague idea of what to do with J’Onn, but I’d like to set in stone a template that works and doesn’t need to be played with so often.
J’Onn’s abilities have mostly been explained as a complete control over his molecules, and telekinesis. Manipulating his molecules into a more dense structure adds strength and durability, spreading them out allows for phasing, and his martian vision, flight, and speed are related to his telekinesis. His ability to regenerate and shapeshift into larger forms comes from his ability to absorb material into his body. And then you have his telepathy, which is extremely powerful, capable of manipulating minds, stunning them, or touching the entire populace of the world at the same time.
This is a good start; the idea of linking the abilities to common denominators. But providing limits also add terrific tension, and I think the trick to J’Onn’s abilities is limiting him to using just a few powers at a time. DC worked with this by making an enemy alien who hit J’Onn with “a ray” (good ol’ Silver Age) that forced him to have to use his powers or his invisibility. But instead of a cheap and goofy reason, just keep it to the distrubution of his molecules.
When in an attack situation, J’Onn condenses his body for a “Battle Mode,” and maybe even has to absorb nearby material to make himself even more resilient. When in a surveillance situation, J’Onn spreads out his molecules for a “Ghost Mode,” that gives him some intangibility and invisibility.
These two modes put him in new situations that he couldn’t do before, and give him character-defining weaknesses. His “Ghost Mode,” for example: he’d be more susceptible to fire because his molecules are so spread out. It would limit his using these abilities to particular situations because it would be his most vulnerable state. His ability to phase would be limited to things of lesser density, and finding he cannot phase into an enemy stronghold or out of a prison would force him to have to think outside of the box, and use those detective skills more. In his “Battle Mode,” even his Superman-level strength could be compromised if part of his mass were destroyed and he was locked up somewhere where he couldn’t absorb the material around him.
His psychic abilities would also be limited, to an extent. Perhaps to steal someone’s memories he’d need to do it manually. With a node to his appearances in comics the last decade or so, he’d have to stick tendrils into their mind to get the most of it. This would emphasis his alien nature, and physically represent the violation he is making by breaking into their minds. Otherwise, he’d only be able to pick up impressions of major thoughts and feelings at a distance or through touch, but only things that are lingering strongly in someone’s mind. This adds some tension to interrogation or espionage situations where he can’t get too close, because he’d have to manipulate the dialogue to make the target think of the information he’s trying to steal.
Finally, his martian vision and telekinesis would be severely limited, only available if he absorbs enough energy to produce such affects. Without excess energy, he would have to tap into his own reserve, forcing him to use his own molecules to create such high-powered abilities.
The “Man” Behind the Hunter
If you don’t know the character of J’Onn J’Onnz, it may not entirely be your fault. DC has struggled to find a proper backstory for the Manhunter from Mars a few times, and tried a few different origins to figure out his place in the larger cast of DC’s heroes. The only common element is that he was from Mars, and was accidently transported here to Earth by a scientist, who, startled, died upon seeing J’Onn arrive. Similar to Superman’s origin, he was the last of his kind, and extraterrestrial; opposite to Superman’s origin, he was an adult, ripped away from his family, and forcibly brought to Earth.
From his numerous origins, the most compelling to me were the ones where he was snatched from his era and brought thousands of years into the future. His family, his home, all of it was now a barren wasteland, and he was–without a doubt–the last of his kind. I’ve also liked the idea of his being a poet warrior “manhunter” on his home world, as opposed to his lunatic twin brother, Ma’alefa’ak, who was also responsible for the destruction of his species.
With these two ideas comes a great dynamic: a crime he can never find justice or vengeance for, committed by his own twin. And then to feel so lost in a world where he can look like anyone, but never truly feel like any of them. And then, watching humanity and all its faults, being compelled to right wrongs because its the only thing he knows how to do. And then to find out that there are dangers that not even the Earth’s heroes are prepared to take on…
One thing that J’Onn has never had much of was a defining threat. Superman fights for truth, justice, and the America way (later, for the world). Batman fights to prevent the same level of crime that took his parents away from him. Martian Manhunter fights… for…
But what if–especially after his tenure with Stormwatch–he learned that there has been a growing conspiracy, an organization set in places ages ago that threatens the order of the world for something sinister. And what if he found out that that same organization, or “Society of Evil Villains,” was founded by the same person he’s been haunted by since his arrival on Earth?
Keeping with the idea that he was ripped through time, what if his twin brother Ma’alefa’ak, after the destruction of Mars, came to Earth eons ago with a handful of other martians (some green, some white) and started to produce a long-reaching series of events that manipulated history in their favor and allowed them to come to power in modern day? What if no one knew who they were? And what if they were in places of power, like the presidents, prime-ministers and CEOs of several nations, organizations, and businesses with international power?
This would put J’Onn in an awkward spot: trying to expose a conspiracy that seems too fictional to believe, even for his fellow comic book superheroes. This could explain J’Onn’s secrecy and his actions so far in the New 52, and adds some depth to a man who can do anything but stop his brother, again, from destroying a world he cares about. It could also literally put J’Onn on the spot–and radically change the dynamic of his book–if he were exposed as some kind of traitor or meta-terrorist, and went from being a manhunter to a man hunted.
A Better Rogues Gallery
In his time as a manhunter, J’Onn will come across a variety of enemies that will become archenemies, rivals, allies, or even love interests. Some potential characters based on both new ideas and new takes on old enemies:
The Getaway King: A criminal on the Most Wanted list who uses alien technology to leave no traces at his crimes.
The Headmaster: A cyber-enemy who can jump between hundreds of special android bodies around the world.
The Khunds: Getting captured by the Khunds and forced to fight at half-strenth in a gladiator tournament to the death.
Kanjar Ro: Uncovers a smuggling ring by Kanjar Ro that harvasts humans for something sinister?
Lobo: What if Lobo were using his cosmic tracking abilities to find a victim that J’Onn needs? Someone important to an upcoming case? Someone he needs to save from Lobo, who’s been paid trillions of dollars of space bucks to kill as soon as possible?
Maxima: Perhaps assigned as Maxima’s escort for a meeting between Almerac and Earth, he has a limited time to solve her murder when she’s “killed” on his watch. Or, when Maxima crashes on Earth, it’s up to J’Onn to help this warrior queen escape her enemies while finding a way for her back to Almerac.
The Thanagarians: Perhaps uncovers an invasion or threat from an extremist Thanagarian terrorist cell? And finds out Nth metal is being used in terrifying new ways?
And perhaps his biggest enemies–besides his brother Ma’alefa’ak–would be Despero, an alien who can take J’Onn on ability for ability, and his original archnemesis The Human Flame, a human transformed into an entity of burning rage by a mistake J’Onn made early in his career.
He could also be instrumental in recovering some important DC comics artifacts, like finding a crashed Omegadrome, trying to find the Apokoliptan Entropy Aegis armor that was lost during a battle with Darkseid’s force (which he loses to a new, dangerous enemy), finding Kryptonite of different spectrums, finding and safeguarding the powerful element of Promethium, and the list goes on.
My Final Word
The Martian Manhunter is one of my favorite superheroes of all-time, right up there with Aquaman and Wally West. I love the character a lot, but much like Aquaman and Wally West, his potential or accomplishments in certain titles have always been overshadowed by watered down versions of him found in other comics and media adaptations. But like Aquaman, perhaps the public perspective of Martian Manhunter can change, while also staying true to the character that has developed over the last half-century.
We’ll see what DC’s plans are for him soon, and I’m extremely interested in the Manhunter back up DC has planned in the JLA comic. Here’s hoping he’s done right.
If you like my ideas, hate my ideas, or have ideas of your own, please feel free to post a reply to the comments below! I’d love to hear your takes on the character and how you think he could could stand out from his more popular peers.