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The few minutes of Martian Manhunter in Justice League involved hundreds of hours of work

Zack Snyder worked with Scanline VFX to perfect J’onn’s head

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League reconstructs most of the grand set-pieces the director previously imagined for his four-hour superhero epic back in 2017 — but there are a few fresh additions, too. And the inclusion of Martian Manhunter in two key sequences might be the most labor-intensive cameo ever committed to film.

In the comics the Martian Manhunter, known to un-hunted men as J’onn J’onzz, is a telepath, a shapeshifter, and the last survivor of an extraterrestrial apocalypse. While never integrating himself into human culture quite like Superman, J’onn is often down on Earth palling around with humans while disguised or with superhumans while fighting galaxy-threatening evil-doers.

Fans of the Justice League animated series, and the CW’s Supergirl know him as a powerful team member and ally. People who only keep up with the movies would … have no point of reference. When Martha exited Lois Lane’s apartment three-quarters of the way through Zack Snyder’s Justice League and turned into an eight-foot green alien, there were likely some raised eyebrows, smashed pause buttons, and questions for the nearest comic nerd.

Zack Snyder didn’t intend for the Martian Manhunter to show up in the movie — according to the director, he had hoped to include a cameo by a Green Lantern, specifically John Stewart, but Warner Bros.’ plans to use the character in a separate film put the kibosh on the fan service. So Snyder conjured up the idea of using Martian Manhunter, and casting Harry Lennix, who played Secretary of Defense Calvin Swanwick in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in the role. With a quick few scenes in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a character fans thought they knew from two prior movies became something else entirely.

Actor Harry Lennix provides performance capture or Martian Manhunter
Martian Manhunter incomplete Justice League animation Images: HBO Max/Scanline

The VFX outfit Scanline brought the character to life on a very tight schedule; work on the Martian Manhunter only began in the fall of 2020. Scanline would go on to do over 1,000 shots across 22 sequences on the film, from redesigning Steppenwolf to the tunnel, park, and underwater battle sequences. On top of revising many of their original assets from the 2017 theatrical version, the company also had to adjust every completed effect for Snyder’s preferred 1.33 aspect ratio.

Creating the Martian Manhunter was a multi-step task that involved mixing Snyder’s notes with internal designs to land on something that could be faithful to the comics and Lennix’s performance. Bringing the actor under the sensor-reading cameras was essential to pulling it off.

“Facial performance, especially when it comes to dialogue, has a lot of intricacies that are hard to achieve without any reference, especially for a photo-real character,” Julius Lechner, VFX Supervisor at Scanline, tells Polygon. “In order to incorporate Harry’s personality and acting style into our CG character, it is incredibly beneficial to actually capture his performance. It is still a work-intensive process that requires creative manipulations to create a nuanced digital character.”

Martian Manhunter Justice League design third-turned black and white render
Martian Manhunter Justice League design front-facing black and white render
Martian Manhunter Justice League design third-turned render
Martian Manhunter design front-facing render Images: HBO Max/Scanline

Snyder’s big note was to get away from any look for the Martian Manhunter that might appear as an actor wearing a prosthetic. “An important topic, for example, was the shape of his skull,” Lechner says. “Overall we wanted to keep a good balance between alien and human aspects as well as Harry’s unique facial features. If we stray too far from what an audience is used to seeing such as human faces, the brain immediately questions it and pulls you out of the film.”

After the capture, hundreds of hours are devoted to designing the final look, building a 3D model of the character, texturing, shading, matching the facial tracking, additional animation, and cloth simulations. If that sounds like a lot of work for a character who only appears for a minute or two, Lechner insists it’s the norm, and “much less screen time than Martian Manhunter” take just as long to execute.

Could we see more of Martian Manhunter in the future? The assets exist — but so far there aren’t any immediate demands for their use. At least, from Warner Bros...