With such hits as "Green Lantern: First Flight" and "Justice League: The New Frontier," the DC Universe line of original animated films has become a straight-to-DVD phenomenon. Fans got their first look at the eagerly anticipated tenth entry into the series, "All Star Superman," at New York Comic-Con on Friday night. Also on view were scenes from "Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam," the centerpiece of the upcoming DC Showcase Animated Shorts Collection.
Between clips, executive producer Bruce Timm and Superman/Shazam writer Michael Jelenic discussed the project and answered questions from Gary Miereanu of Warner Home Animation. Timm's involvement in DC Animation goes back to "Batman: The Animated Series," while Jelenic wrote the 2008 Wonder Woman animated film and is currently involved in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold."
They began with Superman/Shazam, which Timm explained came about because they wanted to make use of a character who hadn't appeared much in animation recently. Once the idea of throwing in Black Adam came up, the project "started to get exciting."
The first clip featured a knock-down fight between Superman and Black Adam, with Black Adam throwing lightning bolts and Superman blasting with his heat vision, both characters taking hits hard enough to knock them back into various pieces of architecture. Billy Batson, who hasn't yet learned to become Captain Marvel, is helpless during the fight, but displays the bravery that marks him for the hero he is to become.
Miereanu described the story as a struggle between good and evil for the soul of Billy Batson, a summary Timm agreed with. Superman and Black Adam represent two different ways to use power, "and the question is, which way is Billy going to go with that?"
They went on to discuss some of the choices they made for voice casting, including George Newbern in the role of Superman, Jerry O'Connell as Captain Marvel and Arnold Vosloo as Black Adam. The most interesting casting choice may be James Garner as the wizard Shazam.
The panel then played a clip of Billy Batson meeting Shazam and receiving his powers. Despite the liberties taken with Captain Marvel's backstory (i.e., Billy Batson meeting both Superman and Black Adam before meeting Shazam), the origin scene itself hews extremely close to the source material, including classic aspects of the original such as the cavern containing the Seven Deadly Sins and the giant stone block hanging by a thread over Shazam's head.
Over the years, writers have portrayed Captain Marvel in different ways, sometimes as a boy who turns into a man, and other times as a boy in a man's body. When Miereanu asked which interpretation was used in the film, Jelenic described him as mature, but Timm disagreed. The next clip answered the question pretty definitively. Captain Marvel's first words, after changing from Billy Batson, were "Holy Moley - I'm Big!" As the fight with Black Adam progresses, he discovers that he's also strong and fast. The film is only 24 minutes long, so they said they couldn't waste a second.
The DC Shorts collection, including "Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam," comes out November 9. Miereanu added that the "Batman Beyond" complete series boxed set comes out November 23.
"All Star Superman" will premier in the Spring of 2011, with no firm date yet named. Written by Dwayne McDuffie, it adapts the hugely successful and critically acclaimed "All Star Superman" comic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. The voice cast includes James Denton as Superman, Christina Hendricks from "Mad Men" as Lois Lane and Anthony LaPaglia as Lex Luthor.
"I think what Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely did," said Timm, "was look back over the way Superman used to be in the early Silver Age. He took aspects of the character that people have avoided for the last forty years and embraced them. He didn't point a finger and say, 'Ha ha - look how goofy he is!' but instead embraced the goofiness. It's not played for camp. He does a modern take on that Superman and makes him relevant. They didn't go out of their way to make it cynical or gritty.
"We wanted to do the comic straight up, and I think we did."
The first clip, set in the Daily Planet offices, included Steve Lombard and Cat Grant as well as Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy is in disguise, and yes, he has his signal watch. Superman rescues a manned solar probe by extending his bioelectric field to tow the ship to safety.
The biggest challenge in adapting the story to film was to decide what to leave out. "I don't know how you do this, because it's just 12 issues of wonderment." said Timm. He added that Dwayne McDuffie did a brilliant job of honing it down. Grant Morrison has also seen the movie, and he was amazed with what was done with it.
Other scenes from the comic include simultaneously arm-wrestling Samson and Atlas for the hand of Lois Lane, Superman kissing Lois as Superwoman on the moon with Earth as a backdrop and finally, a fight with The Parasite, envisioned here as a monstrous toad-like creature.
Adapting Frank Quitely's artwork was a major challenge. "He has a really neat style." said Timm. "It doesn't look anything like typical American superhero comics." "It took a lot of back-and-forth to figure out how to make it work."
The Q&A session began with Timm decliningd to name a favorite of the ten features he's produced before another fan asked if they might consider doing an R-rated DC film. "A couple of years ago, we actually got pretty far down the path of making an R-rated DC movie." said Timm, " It could certainly happen.
Asked about bringing out some of the more obscure DC characters, Jelenic pointed out that "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" does that regularly. The fan specifically mentioned the Freedom Fighters and was told they would will be appearing on "The Brave and the Bold" soon.
"What was your favorite part of 'Batman: The Animated Series?'" asked a fan.
"Batman?" replied Timm.
In some films, a fan observed, the voice cast is similar to that of earlier Timm productions, while in others new actors fill the roles. What are Timm's reasons for casting different voices?
"It's hard to quantify." answered Timm, "but sometimes the TV cast just doesn't quite fit." In "All Star Superman," the Grant Morrison characters were different enough that he didn't want to bring in the TV cast to play them.
Another fan asked whether "Crisis on Infinite Earths" or "Kingdom Come" would ever be adapted to film. "Mmmmmm - doubtful," Timm replied, pointing out that "Crisis" is a big story with a huge cast. Even as a miniseries, it would be hard to adapt. "Kingdom Come" is too closely identified with Alex Ross's artwork. Capturing that for animation Timm feels would be next to impossible.
Terry McGinnis, the titular character from "Batman Beyond," was recently incorporated into mainstream DC continuity. Asked how he feels about that, Timm said "I'm glad that the character still has some life in him."
Other upcoming DC animated films include "Batman: Year One" and "Green Lantern: Emerald Knights."
In the final clip from "All Star Superman," Superman and his robots go up against Solaris, the solar parasite. As they fly through space, dodging solar blasts, Solaris declares "Your people will pray to me or die in the cold dark!"