Veteran television writer Stan Berkowitz has a long history with DC Comic’s animated properties and his latest project hits stores this week in the form of the Direct to Video feature, "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies."
Originally released as a six-issue arc and eventual collected work in Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ bestselling comic "Superman/Batman," "Public Enemies," is a showcase for a very presidential Lex Luthor, played by Clancy Brown, and tells the tale of how Superman [Tim Daly] becomes the world’s greatest fugitive and the only person he can turn to in his time of need is a superhero who fights crime using a different set of rules: Batman [Kevin Conroy].
Dating back to his work on "Superman: The Animated Series" in the late nineties, Berkowitz has penned dialogue for one or both of the iconic characters on the hit animated shows "Batman Beyond," "The New Batman Adventures" and "Justice League," as well as features like, "The Batman/ Superman Movie: World’s Finest" in 1998 and "Justice League: New Frontier," a decade later in 2008.
CBR News recently spoke with Berkowitz who shared that he would love to adapt the third arc written by Loeb for "Superman/Batman," entitled "Absolute Power," something that he may very well get the opportunity to do..
CBR News: Coming into this project, were you familiar with the original Jeph Loeb run on "Superman/Batman"?
Stan Berkowitz: No, actually, I wasn’t. At the time, when I was approached, they hadn’t decided on which one to do. So we danced around for maybe a week, week-and-a-half, trying to decide which of the series, that they were going to do. My first choice, oddly enough, was "Absolute Power," the one where Superman and Bruce Wayne become almost like semi-deities and the world kept changing because the kids from the future were changing the timelines. I always like alternate world stories. But the executives at Warner Bros. Animation, Warner Premier and DC [Comics] decided to go in another direction as their first choice.
But once they landed on "Public Enemies" and you read it, did you see the potential for an animated feature right away?
Absolutely. I think Jeph wrote it that way. He’s a very accomplished TV and screen writer, so I’m sure he thinks in a blockbuster form when he dos his comics, as well as the scripts for other media.
What’s the story about?
The movie is about President Luthor trying to stop a meteor that’s headed towards Earth. And at the same time, figuring that he can frame Superman with a murder charge. That’s essentially it. Superman is framed with a murder charge while a giant meteor threatens to destroy the Earth.
For those who aren’t familiar with the source material, and who maybe only know the Christopher Reeve movies or the Bryan Singer movie, is it explained how Luthor becomes President?
We wanted to make sure that the guy who buys this in a Wal-Mart, who says, "Oh yeah, I remember Superman from this movie I saw along time ago." He won’t feel like, "I don’t understand this, because there are too many weird things going on. I thought Lex Luthor was the bad guy." So we explain how Luthor becomes President – right off the start. That’s how it begins. It’s a really horrible economy. Imagine that it’s 2012. In 2012, when this is being written, the Republicans screwed the economy and the Democrats are elected and they can’t fix it. So we’re still in trouble in 2012. And at that point, a third party candidate, an updated version of Ross Perot comes in and says what? The Democrats and the Republicans are too beholden to their different ideologies. And they are too eager to fight with one another. And Luthor says, "What you need is a tough, tough guy like me to come in and fix it." And he fixes it. I mean, if it hadn’t been for that damn meteor, Luthor would have overshadowed Superman. And that’s how this story begins. Luthor is on verge of overshadowing Superman. Superman’s been trivialized and Luthor is "The Man" who has fixed everything. "Tough times require a tough man" is Luthor’s presidential campaign slogan.
The one thing we assumed is that Luthor goes back and forth between being a criminal and not being a criminal. In "Justice League," years ago, we showed how he got a pardon. He used his scientific ingenuity to save the Justice League, so he was given a pardon and he became a free man. He makes a reference to having been a very bad guy at some point. And it’s assumed he got a full pardon for something which is unspoken, and now he’s the President and he’s doing a damn fine job because he is a tough guy and he’s very smart.
Was there something specific about "Public Enemies" that drew you in as a storyteller?
I felt, and this is going to sound too easy, but there’s a pace to it. And there’s a dread to Superman being framed like that. There’s a nightmarish quality that, in a way reminded me of film noir, except some people on the internet have really taken me to task for mentioning "film noir" in the same breath as "Public Enemies," but I did see that. Structurally, it’s very similar to some of the fugitive-like film noirs that we started seeing in the late 1940s. So I like that. That’s something that’s always appealed to me.
What was your relationship like with Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett on this and other DCAU projects?
On "Justice League: New Frontier," Bruce was the note giver, and on this one, it was Alan. Although I got notes from Bruce. We talked a little bit at the beginning when we were trying to form the story, but in the actual scripting, Alan sort of segued in during the story portion, and from then on, I worked for Alan. Which is a comfortable relationship for me, because from 1996 to 2000, I worked for him on "Batman," "Superman" and "Static Shock." He was actually the producer, but he also functioned as a story editor.
What about your two leads – Superman and Batman – and playing these two icons off of one another? You’ve written them both before, but what is it about that dynamic that creates great dialogue?
Are you talking about the characters or the actors?
Both, I suppose.
In terms of the characters, it’s very easy to say one’s light and one’s dark. Even when we were doing the TV series, Batman was someone who haunted the night and Superman was more of hero that you would see in daylight. You would rarely see him at night. And I think those are the visual aspects of what their personalities were. Batman was a vengeance-motivated vigilante and Superman was a guy who is often described as a big boy scout. He’s just trying to help people. Unlike Batman, he had no vendetta against criminals. So they’re almost opposites. They do the same thing, but they’re almost opposites. And it’s always fun as a writer to position two opposite characters moving towards the same goal, to contrast the ways they want to achieve that goal, to give each one a taste of the other one’s world. Although, in this one, it’s mostly Superman getting a taste of Batman’s world, because Superman’s never been a fugitive before whereas Batman sort of treads uneasily between the law and the lawless.
As far as the actors go, they work well together because they’ve been doing these parts for a long time, and both Kevin [Conroy] and Tim [Daly] are consummate professionals.
When you're writing Batman and Superman for an animated project, do you have Kevin and Tim’s voice and delivery in your head?
Yes. It would be different for me if at the start of a project, someone said Kevin and Tim are not going to be doing this, because you have to start altering your ear. But at the beginning of this project, when I started writing, they weren’t sure who they were going to use. As I was writing, they became more and more certain of who it would be. But regardless of those acting machinations, it was always Tim and Kevin, and for that matter, it was Clancy [Brown], as well. So I was writing for them. God help Warner Bros., if they would have cast other actors, because those actors would have had to have done their best to do dialogue that was written for other actors. But happily, we got the cast we wanted.
Can you speak about writing for Clancy Brown, because "Public Enemies" is really a Lex Luthor story?
I only hear one Luthor when I write. So whether they cast Clancy or not, I hear Clancy’s voice and I write for Clancy. It’s a luxury and an honor and a pleasure to write for him because he inevitably takes what I think is already good dialogue and always makes it much better. He’s a very gifted voice actor. And he just takes whatever’s there and polishes it. It’s great, without ever changing anything. It’s really a pleasure to hear words spoken by Clancy, whether they’re your words or some other writer’s.
You have a long history in animation and television writing. Is it still a thrill to hear your words spoken on screen, especially by talented actors like Clancy Brown?
Yeah, it’s almost embarrassing to tell you how extreme it was. This was recorded very quickly. In the morning, Clancy was there with Kevin, and it was going, I think, incredibly well, so when we took a lunch break, I went over to them and said, "You know, guys, I started doing this when I was about 12 years old. Borrowing my parents little 8mm movie camera and started making movies." And the thrill that I got was exactly the thrill that I got that day from hearing those two guys voicing the dialogue. And it just brought me back all those decades when I first got the bug to start making movies and TV shows and stuff. And what was amazing was that the two actors just kind of looked at me and shrugged. I think they thought I was being overly sentimental and quite silly. They just shrugged it off and said, "Yeah, fine. Thanks." They must have thought I was completely crazy.
We talked a little bit off the top about using Jeph Loeb’s source material and how it was very cinematic in it's own right. That said, are there some major differences between the original comics and the final script of the movie?
Of course. We can’t keep everything. One of the key differences between his comic book and the feature is the comic book form, I believe was in six issues, meaning he had to put six cliff hangers in. Structurally, the movie seems to be three acts. It’s a normal three act structure, otherwise your audience feels like something’s missing. Or they feel like it’s going on too long. There are no commercial breaks in the feature, of course. But by and large, most people have a sense where each section of the movie ends. So we had to change the structure to accommodate three acts rather than six. There were a lot of things...not a lot, but a bit with the Young Protégés was cut. It just seemed to prolong the ending. I understand why it was there in the comic book, but I think it would have slowed down the feature. So that had to go. And also, by not having the protégés in there, it made Batman and Superman seem more alone and more like fugitives. It emphasized that aspect of it.
And the other thing was the narration. There were thought bubbles for both Superman and Batman throughout, which I thought read really, really well. But I don’t think they would have translated very well to the feature because I think they would have slowed it down and I think they would have taken away from the urgency of the need to A) stop the meteor and B) prove that Superman was innocent.
Do you know of any plans to do more of these? Maybe "Absolute Power," the one you’d love to do? Or the "Supergirl" storyline?
I would love to do more. Obviously, I already told you the one I preferred was "Absolute Power." As of now, I know of a couple that are coming up, but I’m not doing anything. I’m working on another show right now for a company in England. But that’s over on Tuesday, so I have nothing. No plan at all to do anything. I’m available, I guess, starting Tuesday!