Janet Hetherington talks to the creators behind the original animated movie Superman Doomsday, rated PG-13, in which the Man of Steel faces his greatest challenge -- death.
Superman never made any moneyFor saving the world from Solomon GrundyAnd sometimes I despair the world will never seeAnother man like him
In 1938, when the world was in the grip of a great depression and on the brink of another war, a new kind of hero emerged -- a super hero.
That hero was Superman, a larger-than-life comic-book character co-created by Toronto-born Joe Shuster and Cleveland's Jerry Siegel. First depicted as faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman soon became so powerful in his comic book adventures that an "Achilles heel" -- kryptonite -- was invented to slow him down.
In 2007, the Man of Steel meets his alien match in Superman Doomsday, a new, original, animated, direct-to-DVD movie based on the best-selling 1993 story arc and graphic novel (formerly "comic book"), DC Comics' The Death of Superman. Superman Doomsday is the first original animated movie to be created under the DC Universe banner, and it debuts on September 18, 2007, with a bang.
When the intergalactic serial killer Doomsday is unearthed, Superman meets the creature head-on in the "battle to end all battles." Going punch for punch, Superman finally ends the threat of Doomsday as he throws one last punch and collapses forever -- making the ultimate sacrifice to save Metropolis and all those he once loved.
"Everybody knows Superman -- he's an icon," says Superman Doomsday co-director Brandon Vietti. "The death of an icon is headline news. It's an interesting story; nobody really wants to see their heroes die. But Superman has always been invincible, so the concept is very intriguing."
The battle-to-the-death between Superman and Doomsday, and other graphic scenes, have earned Superman Doomsday a PG-13 rating. "We chose to make this movie different from the previous animated versions to really emphasize that the new line of direct-to-DVD DC movies are new interpretations of beloved characters and their stories," comments co-director Lauren Montgomery. "They aren't limited by any previous incarnations or continuities; nor are they limited by a PG rating. Like comics can change artists and movies can change actors, animation can change both."
Still, in this animated incarnation, care was taken to be true to the graphic novel. "The story remains the same, emotionally and spiritually, and we took care to honor the arc or symphonic structure, as I've been calling it (the death, world without, the return)," says writer Duane Capizzi. "Even though the movie runs 75 minutes, it feels epic in scope and, in my opinion, plumbs the same emotional depths as the original."
Capizzi and writer/producer/director Bruce Timm also believed that the movie needed to stand on its own merits and not just be a Reader's Digest version of the comic book's highlights.
Adapting Superman Doomsday did prove challenging, and some source material was massaged. "Where we (myself and Bruce, in plotting story) took liberties is with the details, the specifics of plot," Capizzi says. "Some of that was for practicality's sake -- 1,500 pages into 75 minutes? Sorry, won't work!"
"Some was because what works on the written or drawn page doesn't always translate well to 'film time,'" Capizzi continues. "Then, of course, the movie is not tied to any current or previous continuity, so it had to make sense to a new audience coming to the story for the first time. We had a dual agenda, which was to appeal to comic fans while at the same time appealing to a broader audience. Quite a balancing act."
"We were going for a slightly older audience with this DVD, made apparent by the PG-13 rating and the more mature relationship interactions between Lois and Clark," comments Montgomery. "Also, the action is a bit more brutal and we were able to show blood to emphasize this. There were a few bad words, too. But a lot of this was done to satisfy the older audiences that have watched the many DC animated series with a more emotionally compelling storyline, as well as to attract new viewers who may have found the previous shows too 'safe' or childish in subject matter."
Birth of a Movie
"I was under contract with Warner Bros. Animation, working on some of their other animated projects such as The Batman," Capizzi remembers. "They asked me to pitch a Superman movie for the new DCU line that, unlike Superman: Brainiac Attacks, would be PG-13, darker in tone, and appeal to comic fans. My interpretation of that agenda was to pitch new takes on 'mythology'-based ideas (Superman finding Kandor, for instance). They responded pretty quickly with the need to do something 'bigger' -- the biggest Superman story ever, in fact (gulp)!"
"About this time, Bruce came on board, and our first response was resistance: the story worked once, but everyone knows the ending! What's the point? Well, after about a day and a half of hashing it out, we came up with enough exciting details to realize it might just work," Capizzi says.
"I think the hardest part was making a Superman movie that was 'dark' -- aside from the obvious ways inherent in the source material," says Capizzi. "But I think we succeeded: the movie manages to be disturbing, tragic, elegiac, and triumphant. I began working on the script after Bruce and I had hammered out the plot details pretty tightly; that was over a year ago. We need a fair amount of lead time for pre-production, overseas animation, and post-production."
Capizzi notes that there were a lot of things in the original story that he and Bruce Timm felt were there due to constraints imposed by the previous continuity that did not necessarily make for a better overall story -- the depiction of Luthor as a red-haired clone masquerading as his own son, for example.
In Superman Doomsday, Luthor is instrumental in Doomsday being unleashed upon the world. "Given the opportunity to retcon a bit, it simply made more sense to have Superman's greatest villain (as we know him) play a more central role in Superman's biggest story," Capizzi says.
Another central character who became the subject of something old, something new -- but not necessarily wedded bliss -- is Lois Lane. In the comic book, Lois and Clark (Superman) Kent have tied the knot, but in Superman Doomsday, Lois is dating Superman.
"We felt the marriage between Lois and Clark was too tied to its time; let's face it, the average moviegoer has a different preconception of the Lois/Clark/Superman dynamic, and that doesn't involve them being a wedded couple," Capizzi says. "Bruce and I chose to do something in between: Superman and Lois are involved in a romantic relationship as the movie begins."
"In the movie, Superman hasn't even told Lois his secret identity yet," comments Montgomery. "In order to keep some mystery between them, and to make it that much harder on Lois when Superman is killed, it was best that they were not yet married. It makes for a more interesting story when told from Lois's point of view. Her struggle to get by after Superman's death is what makes her such a relatable character. It's easy for us to sympathize with someone going through the very real experience of losing someone we love. The movie almost focuses more on her than it does on Superman."
"We get to see a lot of sides to Lois in the movie," agrees Capizzi. "She has a great role, and it's interesting to see how she does or doesn't modify her behavior once Superman's gone -- after all, once that happens she's working without her usual safety net. There are a couple of great moments that speak to that: can Lois Lane be the same person in a world without Superman?"
Once the story and characters were set, there weren't many big changes made along the way. "Because producer Bruce Timm was so involved at story level, we more or less envisioned the movie shot for shot before it went to storyboard," Capizzi notes. "That said, sequence directors Brandon Vietti and Lauren Montgomery bring all sorts of details to make the story stronger, the action more visceral, the emotions more heartfelt."
However, some sequences had to be trimmed. "DC Comics wanted to make sure we honored the 'World Without Superman' sequence," Capizzi says, "and we did have more 'man on the street' reactions in a scene that moved from nostalgia to paranoia (i.e., they're fondly reminiscing about Superman's accomplishments until they slowly begin to realize they have no one to protect them next time some alien comes to Earth to drain our oceans dry). I really liked that sequence, but understand why it needed to be cut for time and also to tighten focus."
The Superman Doomsday story follows a natural three-part arc, and three different directors were involved in animating those sequences.
"Superman Doomsday has three directors -- myself, Lauren Montgomery and Bruce Timm," explains Vietti. "We split the movie into three acts, and each of us directed one act in that order. So I directed the first third of the movie, which is a very action-packed segment of the movie that takes the audience through the end of Superman's fight with Doomsday. Bruce and I spent innumerable hours going over the script, discussing ideas and direction. Then I worked with a group of storyboard artists to transform those words on the page into images on the screen. My mission on Superman Doomsday was to establish the story's tone and characters, and ensure the visuals were so dramatic and dynamic as to match -- and, whenever possible, to enhance -- the action within the script."
"My responsibilities on this animated DVD were to direct Act B of the film," says Montgomery. "That entails doing actual storyboarding as well as supervising other storyboard artists working on that act and giving them direction where needed. Act B covered the middle of the film beginning after Superman's death and ending soon after Toyman's death."
Montgomery notes that the most important scene of his act was Lois's breakdown on the Kent farm. However, Montgomery says, "The most memorable for me was Toyman's death. It was the first time I got to outright kill a character on-camera instead of just hinting at it happening off-screen. As morbid as it is, it's the truth."
The dramatic scenes needed to be supported not only by strong visuals, but by effective music. "Music can make or break a film -- and it really helps set the tone of a film," Vietti says. "In Superman Doomsday, we needed the music not only to elevate it beyond the previous incarnations of Superman from Saturday mornings, but to also help enhance the dramatic efforts of this story -- the type of story we've never told before. The music really needed to match the maturity of the story itself. We needed the film to stand out, and I think [composer] Robert Kral succeeded [in accomplishing this]."
The voices also needed to stand out, and Superman Doomsday boasts an all-star cast, including Adam Baldwin as Superman/Clark Kent, Anne Heche as Lois Lane, John Di Maggio as Toyman, Tom Kenny as the Robot, Swoozie Kurtz as Martha Kent, Cree Summer as Mercy Graves, Ray Wise as Perry White, Adam Wylie as Jimmy Olsen and James Marsters [Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Spike] as Lex Luthor.
Being a comics fan, Marsters was excited to play Superman's foe, especially as part of this dramatic storyline. "I love comic books," Marsters says. "I've been reading them all my life. But to tell you the truth, I liked Batman; my brother liked Superman. Which meant that I did read all the Superman comics, because I'd read all my comic books and then I'd go steal my brother's comics."
"I enjoyed the idea that Batman had no super powers," Marsters continues. "For me, that made it more exciting. I like this story in Doomsday because we find a way to get Superman in peril, to the point of death, which seems almost anti-Superman. I think that's fabulous, because the problem is always 'how do we get this big strong guy to have an adventure when he's so strong?' And we have found a way to get him to the point of death with no kryptonite."
Marsters says that the Superman Doomsday script impressed him because it read more like a movie script, not just a Saturday morning cartoon: "It seemed to be what was needed for any serious treatment for Superman."
As for voicing Luthor, Marsters put aside his famed British "Spike" accent and found a deeper resonance for Kal-El's nemesis. "Lex Luthor is a classic villain, and I tried to keep in the lower register of my voice," Marsters says. "But I tried to have fun with it. So I tended to make it a little more arched... I probably had a little bit too much fun in the beginning, because the [casting] director (Andrea Romano) had to take me down and get me to have a little less fun with him."
The actor also spent time finding motivation for Luthor. "I started thinking about Lex really as a human being," Marsters says, "and I realized that he's not just a cardboard villain at all. He wouldn't be remembered if he was. So I just started trying to get behind the head of a guy who really thinks that he is Superman. I think that Lex thinks he should be wearing the S. I think that he thinks Superman should be called Super Alien, and that he's the only guy capable of running the planet, or capable of protecting these human beings from themselves."
"I think Lex is just amazed that people fall in line behind this guy," muses Marsters. "It just makes him hate humanity. Superman is tall and he's beautiful, but he's an alien! So that was fun to think about. And just the need to feel better than other people, because I think at his very center, Lex feels less. But that's going pretty deep."
"The point is that the material holds that kind of exploration for an actor," Marsters says, "and I felt like I was able to do that kind of exploration that I do with other projects where I'm actually seen by the camera."
In addition to the action-packed movie, the Superman Doomsday DVD offers extras to appeal to animation fans and professionals alike.
The Clash of the Juggernauts featurette provides a retrospective look at the crazed reaction when millions of fans were faced with the death of their favorite character. President and publisher Paul Levitz and other DC comics staff, as well as comic book artists throughout the industry, go on record about The Death of Superman. News clippings, reports and first-hand archival testimony from fans have been pieced together, and the featurette includes a closer look at the dark Superman appearing in The Return of Superman graphic novel as well.
Gamers can test their skills with Defeat Doomsday: Battle Challenge by battling Doomsday as Superman. The fast-paced game lets users relive the epic battle with game play intercut with footage from the movie.
Of particular interest to animators is "The Artists Playground... From Art to Sound Design in Superman Doomsday," in which Bruce Timm and his creative team of writers, animators and designers examine character evolution. The documentary focuses on early character concept drawings, final character art, various stages of modeling, storyboards, animatics, layering of colors, voice talent and ultimately final animation.
Timm's work is worthy of study. "About a decade ago, Bruce hired me and, while I didn't get to learn directly from him on a day-to-day basis, I can't say enough about the experience of working with him and what I learned simply by studying Bruce's storyboards and designs," comments Vietti. "Flash-forward 10 years, and I'm finally working directly with Bruce, and still learning from him. He has been the consummate team player in his inclusion of myself and our co-director Lauren Montgomery throughout every step of the production process. From the early storyboards and animatics straight through to the final edit, he's been very generous with his time and advice, downloading his theories on storytelling, art direction, editing and everything else along the way. He has an amazing wealth of knowledge."
DC Comics, Warner Home Video and Warner Bros. Animation began working on the DC Universe series of original animated movies in July 2006. The Superman Doomsday made-for-DVD movie is the frontrunner of the DC Universe animated films.
Warner Home Video is the exclusive worldwide home entertainment distributor for all of the DC Universe movies, which will include a slate of two to three action-packed films per year. DC properties with films in development include Justice League, Teen Titans, Green Lantern, Flash and Wonder Woman.
The Superman Doomsday DVD presents a sneak peak at Justice League: The New Frontier, based on the critically acclaimed graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke, which is the next DC Universe original movie. Director Lauren Montgomery storyboarded a section of that movie.
The multitude of DC superheroes provides a multitude of possible movies -- and other animated projects. Vietti notes, "I'd love to direct another film in the DC Universe series, but right now, I'm the director on the second season of Legion of Super Heroes, so I've stayed with the Superman mythology, but gone in a different direction."
"I am currently working on another DCU feature," notes Capizzi, adding, "It's too early to talk about, though."
As for Superman Doomsday, Capizzi discovered a new respect for the last son of Krypton as he worked on the retelling of The Death of Superman. "The eagerness developed as Bruce and I began to uncover the possibilities inherent in the project," he says. "I'm really proud of the final result."
The Superman Doomsday DVD hits retail shelves on Sept. 18, 2007, with a suggested retail price of $19.98.
You stumbled in and bumped your headIf not for me then you'd be deadI'll get you up and put you back on solid ground If I go crazy, then will you still call me Superman If I'm alive, then will you be there holding my hand I'll keep you by my side with my superhuman might Kryptonite
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who, inspired by Lois Lane, studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She shares a studio in Ottawa with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat named Streaky -- er, Heidi.