Live-action comic book adaptations may rule the blockbuster box office, but creators have been taking superheroes from the printed page to film and TV for decades. Since Batman: The Animated Series introduced a new generation to the caped crusader, Bruce Timm has been at the forefront of DC and Warner Bros. animated universe - and he's back.
Although Timm never really left, Justice League: Gods & Monsters looks to be one of his most original creations in years, swapping DC's 'Big Three' - Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman - for darker, alternate universe counterparts. To give viewers a sneak peek of the new takes on the heroes before the animated feature releases in July, a digital series created with Machinima - dubbed Justice League: Gods & Monsters Chronicles - will offer a short story following each star, to be released online free of charge.
Given how drastic the changes to the characters are, fans aren't likely to give their final thoughts based on this trailer, or perhaps, even the animated shorts. In fact, it's not entirely accurate to call the Gods & Monsters stars alternate versions of the heroes at all; to truly exercise some creative freedom, Timm hasn't just altered the heroes' identities, but the actual characters now sporting the superhero monikers.
Well first off, thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Bruce Timm: Of course!
Gods and Monsters: Batman’s a vampire, Superman is the son of Zod, and Wonder Woman is a new god. How long have you been cooking up this idea? Was it a matter of it all coming together in one swell of ideas, or were these new takes on the Big Three taking shape in the back of your head for a while?
Bruce Timm: From the time I came up with the idea of doing these characters to the time we actually went into production was actually pretty short. This started a couple years ago. I had a meeting with my boss, Sam Webster, about the Justice League. He was talking about the possibility of another animated series, and the only mandate was that it wasn’t going to be a continuation of the old show. He wanted to do something fresh and new with it. So he said, “Do you have any ideas about that? Let me know.” I said, “OK. I’ll think about it.”
So I started thinking, “OK, fresh and different. What can we do differently with Justice League?” And at the same time, DC Comics was doing their New 52 reboot. It made me start thinking about the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern, when they brought them back from… they were completely different than their Golden Age versions of those characters. They basically kept the name and the gimmick and threw everything else out. They gave them new powers, new origin stories, new costumes, new alter egos. I thought that would be really exciting to do that same level of reboot with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, who are the most untouchable characters of the DC universe.
So I thought, “OK. If that was what I was going to do, what would I do? How would I change them?” That’s when I came up with these versions of the characters. You have the son of Zod, and the vampire, and the new god. Pitched that and… again, I pitched it as an animated series, and even then I knew it was a longshot. He said, “Yeah, that’s probably too radical for a series, but maybe as a [Direct-to-Video].” I said, “Oh. OK.” And pretty soon after that we got the greenlight.
So how much of that decision, for you, was selfish - coming up with an idea that would let you do almost anything with these characters?
Bruce Timm: I’m honestly, frankly, just amazed that anybody actually went for it, because it’s a pretty… it’s a big gamble. Frankly, it’s a big gamble for home video. I know they’ve been very, very supportive of it. I’m really grateful. But at the same time, they know that trying to sell a Justice League movie to soccer moms who shop at Target - if they see this DVD and Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman look really weird - they may be a little hesitant. They may say, “Wait a minute. That’s a Justice League? I don’t know."
So, like I said, I’m really, really grateful that they actually bit at the bait. And, at the same time, yeah, I mean once we got going, it became like, “OK, great. Now you have basically this whole new universe to play with.” On one hand, we’re still… it’s a tangent universe. It’s not a completely new universe. It’s kind of like an alternate timeline of the DC universe. So there’s still a lot of established DC characters in it, but they are all going to be slightly skewed. They all have had different life experiences, and some people who were heroes in the traditional universe aren't heroes in this version. They may be villains. They may be civilians. They may be something else. And characters who have had a traditional role in the DC universe, they may act completely differently in this one.
It’s been a lot of fun to kind of throw the cards up in the air and see where they fall. To a degree, I think alternate universe stories are popular and have been popular for a long time just because it’s always kind of fun to do that. You go back to that Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror"; that’s kind of a really obvious idea, like, “Oh, we’ll just make them all evil.” But they’re still the same characters. They’re just in a different universe where they’ve been forced to be ruthless. So it’s like they’re not just evil for the sake of being evil. It makes sense.
Right now, I think alternate universes are really super popular in a lot of media. One of the hottest comics from Marvel right now is like Spider-Gwen, which is a similar kind of idea. It has a lot of established characters in it, but they are all just a little bit weird. Just a different path. Creatively, it gives you an adrenaline jolt because I’ve been working with the traditional version of those characters for 20-some odd years now. And I still love them! I’m sure I’m going to do more “traditional versions” of these characters in the future as well, not that I think they are played out. But this does give you a way to kind of approach them from a different angle that you can’t always do with the established characters.
It happens all the time. When we do a movie with the traditional characters, inevitably we’re going to come up against some kind of story idea that we pitch and somebody at DC Comics is going to say, “Nah. You can’t do that with that character. That character would never do that or that’s going to upset some plans that we have.” But with these characters, even though they had the names of the real characters, nobody can say, “Oh, that character would never do that.” It’s like, “Well, how do you know that? I created those characters! I decide what they say, what they would or would not do.”
Because you mentioned it, it's funny that the Elseworlds titles have always had an almost amplified affection for them because they get to be so weird and so different. You’ve probably come up against it: for the mass audience outside of comic book readers, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Obviously people don't like change, but if you pitch a TV show or movie that is a little bit different, there’s always going to be people saying, “That’s not the version of the hero I remember.”
Bruce Timm: Yes. But, then again, though, I would argue… Put it this way: I’ve had some experience with this, with people being resistant to change. Back when we did the Justice League show, the first season, fans weren’t loving it. The second season they loved it. We fixed all the problems with the show. They were totally on board. And then we pulled the rug out from under them and changed the show completely. We added like 50-some odd new characters and called it Justice League Unlimited, and no more two-part episodes. I knew the minute we did it that everybody was going to be freaking out.
And I didn’t care. I figured they were going to watch the show anyways just so they’d have something to bitch about. And then, ultimately, they’ll love the show. We did the same thing with Batman Beyond. When we first mentioned, “Oh yeah, we’re going to do a futuristic teenage Batman,” those are three words that nobody ever wanted to hear in the same sentence. Again, everybody was really skeptical. But they ultimately embraced the show.
Look at all the stuff about [James Bond actor] Daniel Craig. When they first announced Daniel Craig, people were freaking out that he had blonde hair. “Oh, no guy with blonde hair can be James Bond! James Bond has to have black hair.” I’m like, “Really?” But now they love him. People are always resistant to change initially. But, you know, as long as you stay true to the concept of the character, and I think you could easily argue that the Daniel Craig James Bond is… he’s James Bond.
Like I said, I’m so into this whole alternate universe thing - I’ve mentioned this before, but I like to keep saying it - there was some talk a while ago about Idris Elba playing James Bond once Daniel Craig is done, and I’m like: “You know, I’d be down with that.” I think that would be awesome to have a black James Bond. I think he’d be a super badass.
Well that’s the thing, right: so many people who created these characters have passed into history by this point, and can't give their opinions. We’re big believers in the fact that if these DC and Marvel movies aren't for you, there will be another one soon enough. But I would ask, because you co-created Harley Quinn [set to be re-imagined in the big screen Suicide Squad], when a different creator comes along and says “I love that character. I dig it. I want to try something different with it,” are you more interested than the fans to see the result? Or do you have to distance yourself a little bit before that even happens?
Bruce Timm: Yeah... I choose B [laughs]. I am as intrigued as anybody else. But, at the same time, I try to be impartial because I know I have more invested in it. And again, I’ve been on the other end, too. I mean we’ve taken characters that, in the comics, were really different and did something different with them in the animated shows. So I know what it’s like to take a character that you think is one thing and you make it something else. Our version of Mr. Freeze was something that nobody had ever really done with Mr. Freeze before in the comics or in the old Adam West show. But we thought it was something that was creative and interesting. Fortunately, that’s now become like the default setting for Mr. Freeze.
But with a character like Harley, I always just have to remind myself: “Yeah, you know, I’ve taken liberties with other characters, so more power to them. they can do with that character whatever they want." I just hope it’s good. That’s all I care about.
And then if it’s a big hit all over again, you can smirk a little, right?
Bruce Timm: Sure! Absolutely.
There’s also been a lot of talk lately about adapting comic books to TV as opposed to movies, being a better fit for the long form storytelling of comics. You’ve actually been a part of writing for both, so what is the difference now that you’ve had time to look back on it? And with Gods and Monsters Chronicles, where you have so little time, is it a new challenge for you to try to condense these ideas down to just a few minutes?
Bruce Timm: Oh, yeah. On one hand, when I first heard about the story length limitation, I was, frankly, a little freaked out. I thought: “Wow. I do not know how to tell a story in seven minutes.” But, fortunately, we did these three shorts that are going to start coming out next week. Those were like our pilots for the idea. So we learned a lot just making those three shorts. And it took some doing. We first had a different idea for each of the shorts that ultimately just wasn’t working for us. Then we reconvened and said, “OK. Throw all that out. Let’s start over. What can we do with each of these shorts?”
It actually came together pretty quickly. We realized, “OK. We don’t have time for setup.” I mean in the Batman one we do. The Batman one is actually the one that’s most traditionally paced, it has a slow beginning, but that one was designed to be all about mood. The other two shorts basically hit the ground running. The Superman one, it’s like you are dropped right in the middle of the action, and the Wonder Woman short is pretty much the same. There’s not a whole lot of setup.
It’s actually kind of exciting. So plotting out basically an entire season of mini episodes has been really fun, because on one hand, inevitably you are going to come up against some kind of story point where you go, “Oh, I wish we could actually do this, but we would need a 22-minute episode to do that.” So it’s like, “OK. We can’t really go that way, so we have to find what’s the equivalent of that or what’s something that’s as cool as that but works in a shorter timeframe?”
So I mean, yeah, it’s a really different format. But to me it’s a lot of fun because it’s just… I always like to say, yeah, it’s like doing a 22-minute episode except you don’t have to do all the boring parts. You just do the fun parts.
Well we're definitely looking forward to seeing the series and film, and appreciate you giving us a peek behind the curtain!
Bruce Timm: Absolutely, thanks.
From visionary producer and animator Bruce Timm (Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series), Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles turns the DC Universe upside-down. In this dark, alternate world, telling the good guys from the bad guys is never easy: Superman is not the son of Jor-El, he’s the son of General Zod; Wonder Woman is not from peaceful Themyscira, but rather the warring nation of Ares; and Batman is more vampire-bat than man…and he’s not Bruce Wayne. It is unclear if our greatest heroes are here to protect us...or to rule us. Machinima has already announced a second season, which will come out in 2016.
Justice League: Gods & Monsters Chronicles launches on Machinima on June 8, 2015. The animated feature will go on sale July 28, 2015.