Dwayne McDuffie certainly knows his way around the DCU, having written a number of comic book titles, animated television series and direct-to-video films over the course of his career. Utilizing that experience, the writer combined a few of those into one singular entity for the latest offering in Warner Bros. Animation’s line of original movies: an animated adaptation of the Eisner Award-winning series “All Star Superman.”
Written by Grant Morrison with art by Frank Quitely, the twelve-issue “All Star Superman” told what many fans consider the quintessential Superman story. The series followed the Man of Steel’s final days after a plot by Lex Luthor leaves his super cells over saturated with energy and literally exploding with power. From taking trips through time to Smallville’s past to battling long-lost Kryptonians to forging keys from dwarf stars, the title garnered much critical acclaim for its modern take on the Silver Age roots of the character.
The adaptation penned by McDuffie continues the line of animated feature films produced and created by Warner Premiere, Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment, a series that already includes such titles as “Green Lantern: First Flight,” “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” the latter of which McDuffie also scripted. CBR News spoke with the writer about translating the tale from page to screen, what makes this his favorite Superman story and why in this tale more than any other he’s penned, Superman really gets to cut loose.
CBR News: Dwayne, when you first started working on this adaptation, what’s the first thing you had to think about as a writer?
Dwayne McDuffie: Well, we’ve always adapted bits and pieces of DC Comics and DC canon, but this was an embarrassment of riches. Usually, when we adapt things, there’s a really good hook, but there’s not really a clear storyline. Or there’s a really good story, but then no hook. We have to change it to make it work. This was the first time where I adapted something and there was more good stuff than I had time to use. It was a joy to work on and is probably my favorite Superman story ever. I know that everyone who worked on this wanted to do a good job on it because we love the comic.
What do you think it is about this particular comic and story that makes people fall in love with it the way they have?
I was absolutely charmed by it as sort of a tour through the many, many different versions of Superman over the years. The comic itself did a wonderful job of touching on all of the elements and all of the different, major periods of Superman history and making it somehow contemporary. That was terrific. We certainly couldn’t do all of that — what we had to do was find a core story at the center of it and tell that story as well as we could. And I think we were pretty successful.
When doing an adaptation like this, how do you find the balance between taking dialogue and scenes directly from the comic and tweaking them or adding your own touches?
I’m not really trying to add my own touches. What I’m trying to do is recreate the same feeling in the movie as the comic created in me as a reader. Probably the major thing that changes is that dialogue that you read is very different from dialogue that is spoken. If anything, what you want to do is keep the sense of the dialogue and recreate the emotion that the dialogue in the comic creates, but make it speakable dialogue. Actors can do wonderful things that you can’t do in a comic, and you don’t want to have wonderful actors and not take advantage of the kind of talent they can bring to something like that. It’s almost like a translation job. “This sequence of still images are doing this. What can we do in a movie sequence with actors and a moving camera that will create the same feeling?”
You said that you had to cut certain scenes, which is understandable and expected from a fan’s point of view. But was there a scene you had to cut or something from the comic that you weren’t able to adapt that you wished you could have included in the final film?
Oh, yeah. Probably the thing I miss the most is Superman stopping a girl from committing suicide. It’s a wonderful scene and the essence of Superman. It gets to the heart of the Superman character and why he is a hero and why it really isn’t about powers. He’d be that guy without the powers. There’s something wonderfully humanistic about it, and that’s my own bias. But it just didn’t fit.
The other scene that I really miss is the time travel sequence where the Supermen from the future come in. We had to lose some things for time, but we had to lose that mainly because it kind of gives away the ending.
Writing these characters, and even when reading the comic, who stuck out as your favorite?
Actually, Superman. It’s really rare when he gets to be the center of it and about his concerns. So often, Superman comics are about him helping other people, and while this is about him helping other people, with this, we’re dealing with existential issues of Superman. He really popped for me. I thought the take on Luthor was really, really interesting and I had a lot of fun with that. There really isn’t a bad character here. There wasn’t a character that wasn’t fun to do.
You’ve written Superman before, in “Justice League Unlimited” and recently in the “Crisis on Two Earths” film. How does this version of Superman compare to the others you’ve written previously?
One of the things about writing Superman in “Justice League” is that if you write him at his full potential, then there’s no need for the rest of the Justice League. So, you always have to sort of power him down or kind of Worf-Effect him so he doesn’t solve the entire problem in four seconds. You have to adjust him in a way that makes him less effective than he normally is. That’s probably true for every member in a team book who has their own solo thing, but it’s really obvious with Superman. In this case, one thing, we’re starting off with a Superman who is much more powerful than he’s ever been, which is fun as well. I generally have to write a Superman who is much weaker than he usually is. The problem of having him in a story that’s not a finite one-off like this is, is that if Superman is at full power, he just fixes everything and there’s nothing to do next month.
We touched on this a little earlier, but with a story like this, that’s so critically acclaimed and beloved, while you’ve done stories in almost every single medium — both original and adaptation — with this particular project, was there any nervousness or pressure at all?
Not really. I was eager to do it because I liked it. I think you’re probably better off having people that really like comics writing it, directing it, producing it at every stage. You have people that love it rather than having someone that didn’t have the affection for it. I really like doing this, so you do the best you can. If it doesn’t work out, well, you know, next time you don’t make those mistakes. Fortunately, everybody was at the top of their game and were working on a really nice piece to begin with. The finished product is probably my favorite animated piece that I’ve worked on.
How do you compare writing your own story for a film to adapting one?
Even when you’re writing your own piece, certainly when writing a DC property, you’re writing a new story, but you’re writing another piece in the very big tapestry of that character. Generally, when we’re adapting stuff, we adapt really loosely. Mainly, because comics are read by people who know the characters really well, you can skip a lot of steps. You don’t have to establish things. A new Superman comic is part of a 75 year long conversation about Superman between writers and readers. He’s so part of the culture and part of the lives of the people consuming it that it’s very different from making a one-shot Superman cartoon that for many people isn’t their only exposure to Superman, but is probably their most intense exposure to it. So, you have to define things. When you write new pieces, the most difficult thing for me is finding a new way to establish things that a lot of your audience knows really well — you don’t want to bore them — but some of your audience doesn’t know at all. If you’re writing Justice League, you have to explain what the Flash is, you have to explain Green Lantern, then you have to explain what a Justice League is. Then you have to explain what a Legion of Doom is. Whereas if I was doing this in a comic book, I have a splash page and it’s like, “Oh. The Legion of Doom is back.” The audience knows what you’re talking about.
Looking at the finished film, is there a moment or a scene that is your favorite?
There’s about four of them. It came out beautifully. I’d be really surprised if anybody who likes Superman at all goes through this movie without being choked up. I think it really gets to the essence of the character and the character’s relationship with American culture and our feelings about ourselves. It’s a really wonderful piece and a celebration of Superman.
The last thing I wanted to ask is a bit tricky. Obviously, we can’t go into what movie you have coming up next, but is there any story out there that you still want to adapt, be it a graphic novel, miniseries or whatever?
There’s a lot of stuff I’d really enjoy doing. I don’t know that there are many things that I have as much passion for as I did this one in terms of adaptation, but I love the characters and if they ask me to work on them again, I’d jump at it. And they have, and I can’t say what it is yet!
“All Star Superman” is available on DVD and Blu-ray February 22.