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Who are the Authority, stars of the DCU’s new superhero blockbuster?

The Justice League of a superhero universe you’ve never heard of

From The Authority #1, Wildstorm Productions, DC Comics (1999). Bryan Hitch/DC Comics

There are a lot of common-sense projects in Warner Bros.’ new DC Studios roster: a Green Lantern buddy show set on earth, an Amazonian clash of politics and swords show set on Themyscira, a new Superman movie to set the new tone, and a Swamp Thing flick for the booming genre of horror cinema.

And then, there’s a movie about the Authority — a high concept superhero team from a little-known indie superhero setting created as a boundary-pushing reflection and celebration of the Justice League and the Avengers, whose two most famous members are basically “What if Batman and Superman were gay married?” They adopted a kid, and everything.

What is the Authority? How did the team come to be? And how did they go from a reflection of the DC Universe to being in the DC Universe itself? We have the answers.

What is DC Studios’ Authority film based on?

The heroes of the Wildstorm universe, as depicted on the contiguous covers of Authority #19 and Wildcats #20. Image: Mark Bagley/DC Comics

The Authority began its editorial life in the pages of the Wildstorm line, the independent superhero setting of then-upstart comic publisher Image Comics, founded in 1992 by current DC Comics chief creative officer, Jim Lee. Wildstorm was a kind of hard-edged, ’90s kid version of the Marvel Comics titles that Lee and his artist cohorts had quit in order to form their own publisher, and the Authority grew out of its founding superhero team, Stormwatch.

Image’s Stormwatch title was a reimagining of the teams of proactive, weapon-toting, secretive, extra-governmental task forces that were all the rage in superhero comics at the time. But while the team’s brand of Schwarzenegger-esque one-liners and take-no-prisoners attitude was all the rage in 1993, it was looking increasingly dated by the end of the decade — and sales were starting to show it. Enter writer Warren Ellis, who was given the reins of the series in 1997 and a mandate to burn down and rebuild it how he saw fit.

Ellis — who work is now overshadowed by persistent allegations of predatory interpersonal behavior — replaced Stormwatch with a completely new roster. Now spearheaded by the foulmouthed, Union Jack-T-shirt-wearing Jenny Sparks, and the Trench Coat Guy par excellence Jack Hawksmoor, Ellis’s new team didn’t just take a proactive approach to crises. The whole point was that they were determined to shape world events, even if that meant overriding or even overthrowing national governments. All of which led to the creation of a brand-new team out of the ashes of the old one: The Authority.

What characters are on the Authority?

“Don’t piss us off,” Jenny Quantum warns, backed by the other members of the Authority, LtR: Apollo the Doctor, Midnighter, Swift, Jack Hawksmoor, the Engineer, in The Authority Vol. 1, DC Comics (1999). Image: Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch/DC Comics

The new title, launched in 1999 with the team of Ellis and artist Brian Hitch, struck like a widescreen lightning bolt on the comics scene, thanks in significant part to Hitch giving the book an expansive visual language inspired by cinematic blockbusters. Ellis imagined his team as an ersatz version of DC’s Justice League, but one that engaged with — and exerted their will on — a world far more like our own. Alongside Sparks (alive since the year 1900, electricity powers, eventually revealed to be a human embodiment of the 20th century) and Hawksmoor (genetically engineered via alien abduction to take on the ineffable power of any city he walks into), were the Doctor (a magic-wielding mystic who was something like if Doctor Strange had no limits), the Engineer (a scientist who replaced her blood with 10 pints of nanomachines that can build essentially anything), Swift (Hawkgirl, but interesting), and the tag team of Midnighter and Apollo, clear analogues for Superman and Batman (with a little bit of Wolverine) who were — shock upon shocks for 1999! — a devoted gay couple.

With a then-revolutionary approach to large-scale, decompressed storytelling, and a wry, cynical attitude toward superhero cliches, The Authority rapidly became a trendsetting buzz book for the new millennium. That reputation that became even more pronounced after the Ellis/Hitch team was followed by the loud, brash, and very deliberately controversial approach of writer Mark Millar and artist Frank Quitely. Under their pens, the new team set the tone, style, and storytelling approach that (for better or worse) superhero series would follow for the next decade and change: From the cool-kid energy of Marvel’s Ultimate Universe (for which Millar wrote an updated Avengers), to the attitude of writer Grant Morrison’s concurrent run on DC’s JLA.

What separates The Authority from other attempts to make “more realistic superheroes” was that while it was more violent, sarcastic, and gritty than the classic superhero team book, at its best, it retained a fighting optimism about superheroes as a whole. If the world sucked, then the Authority would grit their teeth and find a way to make it better, whether by punching a despot’s brain out through the back of his head, or using their bigger-on-the-inside headquarters to home refugees afterward.

How did the Authority become part of DC?

Superman inspects holographic images of various members of the Authority on the cover of Superman and the Authority #1, DC Comics (2021). Image: Mikel Janín/DC Comics

Ironically, just as The Authority was beginning its run, Wildstorm itself underwent a corporate shift, moving from Image Comics to new ownership under none other than DC itself. At first, the new owners continued to run the Wildstorm universe as a strictly independent venture, meaning that the Authority and their pals only crossed over with the JLA and Batman in occasional, special-event crossovers. But the launch of DC’s New 52 in 2011 inaugurated a new approach of gradually but steadily blending the two continuities.

And so, in 2021, the Authority came full circle, as Grant Morrison and Mikel Janín gave us Superman and the Authority, a miniseries that imagined a near-future in which Superman himself has assumed leadership of the globe-watching superteam, and shaped them into an organization for the defense of humanity. And while that series seemed to be imagining an Elseworlds reality to come, Morrison (and their editors) were clear that it reflected the new status quo of the DC Universe, telling Comic Book Resources, “What I did was kind of retrofit it all in so it absolutely ties in, it’s kind of important […] it’s very much tying in with what happens next with Superman and with Superman’s son Jon Kent.”

So, two decades later, the Authority have become more than just a wiseass version of the Super Friends: They’re a sincere, if intimidating, encapsulation of what superheroes mean to the DC Universe in the new millennium. Here’s hoping the world is ready for them.

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