During WonderCon 2012, CBR News spoke with director Michael Chang, writer Joe Kelly and actor Robin Atkin Downes about the upcoming Warner Home Video direct-to-video release, “Superman vs. The Elite,” looking at the challenges of bringing the acclaimed story to the screen, giving characters the right voice and pitting Superman against extra-violent opponents.
The film, which marks the fourteenth entry in the DC Animated Original Movie line, is based on the “Action Comics” #775 story, “What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?” It sees Superman face an extreme superhero team known as The Elite and explores the concept of true heroism. As writer Joe Kelly explained while talking with reporters, it was a response to the then-popular “The Authority” being published though DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint.
At the turn of the century, many comic book heroes were caught up in a wave of darkness where their methods were questionable and titles like Wildstorm’s “The Authority” showcased a sort of superhero fascism. “There was a general vibe [at the time],” recalled Kelly, who readily admits he is a fan of that material. However, there was a particular “Authority” issue that did not sit right with him. “I felt that it wasn’t just about an antihero. It was sort of like, ‘If you believe in any of this superhero garbage, you’re stupid,'” he explained. “That was the way I took it, whether or not that was the intent.” With the “Action Comics” anniversary issue, he felt it was time to have another voice in the conversation. “[The voice] coming from Superman seemed appropriate.”
The film version marks the first instance of a comic writer adapting his own work for the line of animated films; an opportunity that came about because Kelly was already working at Warner Bros. Animation. “I was very honored not just to get my story translated, but to write it was huge,” he said. “[That story] is a real touchstone in my career, so I wanted to make sure I did it justice.”
Kelly believes he benefited from having nearly a decade’s distance from the original story. “It wasn’t precious to me anymore; I could sort of tear it apart and break it down,” he said, crediting longtime DC Animated Universe story editor Alan Burnett in guiding his writing process. “I was totally geeking out anytime he called me,” Kelly beamed. “I have such respect for his work.”
In translating the story for animation, the key challenge came from what the writer referred to as the “inside baseball” element of “Action” #775. “It really is about comics and antiheroes in comics, and you have to have a little bit of a background to wholly appreciate that story,” he explained. In taking that element out, Kelly discovered he had to find a new context in which to question the Superman style of heroism for an audience that might not have read the original story. “I think they’re really nice companion pieces,” he said. “None of us wanted to do a straight adaptation anyway. You just don’t want to animate what’s already there.”
Animating the script was director Michael Chang, a veteran of “Batman: The Brave and The Bold,” “Teen Titans” and “Young Justice.” Chang came onto the project as long-time DC Animated movie director Lauren Montgomery opted out of it in order to move on to other opportunities. With much of the design work in place when he took over, Chang focused on storyboarding the film. “During the process, I got to know the script really well,” he said. “The more I read it, the more I liked it.”
While utilizing Doug Manhke’s art style from the original story would have been difficult, he said they “tried to catch the spirit of the characters.”
Currently working on a new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” show at Nickelodeon, Chang reflected fondly on his time at Warner Bros. “You just have such a wealth of talent and creative input. You have Bruce [Timm], James Tucker, Alan Burnett; all this information at the tip of your hands,” he said. “It’s classic characters that you grew up with — it’s like a dream come true.”
Returning to thoughts of the film, one element that surprised the director was the amount of violence in the finished project. “It’s kind of pushing the envelope for Superman,” Chang said, laughing. “We earned our PG-13,” agreed Kelly.
In expanding the story, Kelly introduced a global conflict between nations. “At the same time, we inserted a more specific superhero conflict to illustrate Superman’s track record of putting someone away, but then they’re out again,” he said. “Those things helped flesh out the story and really embody the conflicts.” Lois’ role has also been also expanded with the ace reporter investigating The Elite. After so many years away from the comic’s publication, Kelly was shocked to realize much of the original story featured fights referenced in dialogue as opposed to being shown. “We had a chance to expand on some of those battles,” he said.
“Some of those scenes really helped the story along,” Chang added.
Robin Atkin Downes, who plays Elite leader Manchester Black in the film, was also surprised by the movie’s level of violence, saying, “This one is a lot grittier than some of the other Superman movies I’ve seen.” The actor, originally from England, adopted a modified accent for the role. “There was a fine line with the accent ,because if you do a real, thick Manchester accent, a lot of the American audience isn’t going to be able to understand it,” he explained, mentioning that plenty of regional slang still made it into the final product.
A veteran of sci-fi shows like “Babylon 5” and video games like “Uncharted 3,” Downes appreciated the more realistic tone of the acting required for the part. “The movies are not very ‘cartoony’ at all, and with Manchester, they didn’t want to play him too big,” he said. The actor was also struck by Manchester’s vision of justice, saying, “He wants it his way. [He believes] throwing criminals in prison does not work. Manchester just wants to wipe them out and be done with them.”
Asked if it surprised him how contemporary the story felt even though it was originally published over a decade ago, Downes responded, “It did feel like we were plucking from the headlines. Questions of abuse of power [and] if you can find hope and goodness in human beings … that’s really relevant.” According to Kelly, the key to Superman is not his perfection — indeed, he has plenty of flaws — but his belief in mankind. “Superman is that beacon of hope because he believes.”
With his first DC Animated project now under his belt, the writer admits to having a few other characters he would love to tackle. “I’ve always been a fan of The Spectre,” he said. “I think we like more mature animation as adult fans, and we don’t get the chance to do it that much. Anytime we get a chance to crack that nut and show an adult audience that animation can do some really cool stuff with mature themes, I’m up for it.”
He added that he liked the “DC Showcase” Spectre short from a few years back and even wrote a short script for the series that was never produced.
Other characters he would enjoy working with include Captain Marvel and Batman. “I’ve written Batman in things, but I’ve never written a Batman story,” said Kelly.
It was a sentiment shared by Downes. “I’ve been up for Batman a couple of times … maybe someday.”
“Superman vs. The Elite” arrives in stores and via digital download on June 12.
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