SPOILER ALERT: The following interview contains spoilers about the DC Universe Original Animated Movie, “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.”
The latest of the DC Universe Original Animated Movies, “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths,” arrives in stores today (Tuesday, February 23) and CBR News spoke with award-winning animation and comics writer Dwayne McDuffie about the release that features Superman (Mark Harmon), Batman (William Baldwin) and the rest of the world’s greatest heroes facing off against Owlman (James Woods) and the other super friends’ evil mirror images from an alternate DC Universe.
The story kicks off with a “good” Lex Luthor (Chris Noth) arriving from an alternate universe in order to recruit the Justice League to help save his Earth from the Crime Syndicate, a gang of villainous characters with virtually identical super powers to the Justice League.
Produced by groundbreaking animator Bruce Timm and co-directed by Lauren Montgomery (“Wonder Woman,” “Green Lantern” First Flight”) and Sam Liu (“Superman/Batman: Public Enemies”), “Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths” was originally conceived as a bridge story to explain the expansion of the JLA between its two iterations in “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.”
McDuffie goes in depth on what changes he had to make to the script to update the story for a new audience, why Martian Manhunter’s love life was worth exploring and how the new leadership team at DC Entertainment will influence his future projects at DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation.
When you were working on revamping your original script for this release, was it fun for you to get back into the heads of the Justice League of America?
Dwayne McDuffie: It was great. It was really like old home week with so many familiar faces around from Bruce on down. As for the Justice League, I’ve really enjoyed writing them for many years and this really wasn’t that much different. It was just like calling up an old friend.
This story was originally conceived as a bridge of sorts, connecting “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited.” Can you take us back to its origins and what brought you back to the project?
When we were preparing “Justice League Unlimited,” and actually very shortly after we shut down “Justice League,” the idea was to do a movie that would bridge a lot of the continuity between the two shows. It was a big change just going from six to 60 members, and answering questions like, “Where did the teleporter come from? And where did the new satellite come from?” I wrote it, and we realized that putting “Justice League Unlimited” together was a much bigger production and challenge than we thought of ahead of time and we just didn’t have the manpower to do both the show and the movie so we put the movie on the shelf. But Bruce [Timm] really never gave up on it. He kept trying to do it over the years, and I guess the right opportunity came along and he called me up and said, “Hey, we can do this if we base it on the comic books and not the animated version. Would you be interested in re-writing it?” And I was very interested.
Because it was no longer set in the DCAU, was there much editing and re-writing needed?
The storyline didn’t change very much. The characters changed a bit. Some of the motivations changed. Mostly what I did was cut out stuff that was intended to set up the mysterious new “Justice League Unlimited” show, which later enjoyed 39 episodes, but at the time we started, we were leading into [“JLU], so there was a lot of stuff that was supposed to erase questions. I took that out, but I’d say 90 to 95 percent of it is the same story.
With Kevin Conroy no longer Batman and George Newbern no longer Superman, did the character portrayals and actual scripting change at all?
No. Actually, when I wrote it, I didn’t know who would be playing the characters. It wasn’t like, “How would William Baldwin handle this?” [Laughs] I’m writing Batman, and certainly the Batman is informed by the “Justice League Unlimited” Batman that I wrote, that’s the voice of Batman that I hear in my head, even when I’m writing the comics. They made very strong impressions on me, so I am sort of thinking of them through the character, but basically I wrote the characters as best I could, and then the actors who got the job came in and brought their own interpretation. So you get something a little bit new – a fresh take on it. And I thought it was very successful.
What did you think of the interpretations of actors like William Baldwin, Mark Harmon, Chris Noth and James Woods versus those who have extensive histories doing voice work like Kevin Conroy and George Newbern?
You know, I think it’s more what the individual actor brings to it rather than what their main discipline is. Because we had some primarily voice actors in the cast, too, and we had movie actors, and we had TV actors, and we had stage actors, so I don’t think that was the important vector. I think that it was just individual experience and the individual take each actor on the character as the part is written, and they all brought really interesting things to it.
In terms of storytelling, were there some favorite characters that you enjoyed writing? Owlman, as portrayed by James Woods, was obviously quite compelling, as was the depiction of Batman…
I enjoy writing them all. Owlman was fun mainly because there wasn’t a really strong singular take on him, so I kind of got to just make up what I thought would be cool, and then what James Woods did with it was just amazing. It was just a very interesting, cold approach to it that really made him more terrifying than anybody I’d ever written before.
Superwoman was a blast to write. Batman is always fun to write. He’s always a favorite. I like writing Superman. It was fun to write kind of a pissy Superman. The way I’ve always taken Superman is pretty much that nothing bothers him, except Lex Luthor. You know Lex Luthor is the one thing that gets under his skin, and he’s trying to be a good guy, but it’s just so wrong. So it’s fun to write Superman when he’s not 100 percent in control.
There were some great shout-outs to longtime DC fans, like making Slade Wilson the President of the United States. Was that your idea?
We actually made up a fake president, who we thought was going to be president in “Justice League Unlimited,” just because we knew we were going to do some political stuff, and actually somebody at DC said, “It’s weird that everybody else in the universe is somehow related to somebody we know.” So they sent me a list of guys that they thought would be interesting, and Slade just kind of jumped out. “Oh, that’s kind of cool.” [Laughs] So that worked out really well. Particularly because I had already created a daughter that was sort of an activist for the president, and that would make her Rose, so that was really interesting. So that just worked out nicely. That was DC’s idea.
I wanted to ask you about Rose and Martian Manhunter. The J’onn J’onzz love story sub-plot is not a tried and true plot device. Where did that idea originate?
Martian Manhunter is a very, very lonely character, and in a lot of different ways in the old series, it was something that we dealt with. I wanted to connect the characters to the world other than just, “We’re the Justice League and we help people.” I wanted a personal relationship, and he seemed like the least likely to have one, which made it the most interesting to me. It also gave me the opportunity to do the sort of mind-meld recap, which gives us a chance to put in a lot of Easter eggs in for comic fans and animation fans in terms of Justice League history and the Martian Manhunter origin.
As someone who has written extensively for both comics and animation, what’s your perceived audience for “Crisis on Two Earths?”
When I’m writing something like this, it has to be accessible for someone who doesn’t know these characters well or doesn’t know them at all. I would imagine that a large percentage of the people who buy this have no idea who the Martian Manhunter is and certainly have no idea who the Outsiders are. The trick is to be accessible to new fans without boring the pants off the old fans. And being a fan myself, I like to put in Easter eggs, but the rule with Easter eggs is it can never derail what we’re actually doing. We’re telling a story, and if we need a guy who does this and there happens to be one from the comic, we’ll use him. But our primary mission isn’t to have as many cameos or have as many references to issue numbers or whatever other little things we hide in there as we can.
I don’t know if it’s an Easter egg or maybe just a callback to the original designs of this story as a bridge between “Justice League” series, but at the end of the movie, there’s a reference to a membership drive needed to beef up the Justice League’s roster. Should we read nothing into that except maybe it was fun to drop in some extra JLAers, or might we see more movies set within the continuity established by “Crisis on Two Earths?”
As far as I know, there are no plans for these guys again, but if this does really well, I can’t imagine that anybody would object. I know that I would be right in there, if they wanted to do a sequel and have another adventure with this particular set of guys.
That was really both a nod back to what the story originally was, and in a way, sort of an open ending. I don’t want to completely give the ending away, but there was a conflict between Superman and Batman in this, and that’s sort of a solution.
You were writing “Justice League of America” for DC Comics not too long ago, and your departure was rather unceremonious. Now you’re back writing the Justice League for Warner Bros. Animation. Might we see you back writing for the newly restructured DC Entertainment anytime soon?
Warner Bros. and DC and Dwayne are like three different things. So, there are different relationships within DC. There are different relationships, certainly, between me and Warner Bros. Animation, and me and DC, and me Warner Bros. Home Video, and three other companies that I forgot that are in there. They wanted me to do the movie, and I wanted to do the movie, so it was great. I wanted to do the comic, and I did it as long as they let me, and that was great too.
So, will we see you doing any more comics for DC?
Not in the immediate future, I don’t think. [Laughs] My phone’s not ringing off the hook. But you know, you never can tell.
Did the restructuring at the top with Dan DiDio, Jim Lee and Geoff Johns surprise you at all?
I think all three of those guys are really smart, they all love DC Comics and they’re all going to do the best they can do. I think the company is probably in as good of hands as it could be, right now.
Any other projects forthcoming that we should can keep an eye out for?
Well, I’m in the middle of “Milestone Forever,” which is a two-issue limited series that both explains and ends the old Milestone continuity and begins the new DC continuity. I reunited with all my old pals from Milestone and it came out really, really well. I’m particularly looking forward to the second issue.
And “Ben 10 Alien Force” is racing towards the series finale. And right after that, there is a second spin-off show called, “Ben 10 Ultimate Alien” where we are really shaking stuff up so if you’re into Ben 10 at all, this is a really good time for you. And I guess “really” is the operative word there, because I said it six times in that sentence [laughs].