One of the really cool things about this job is that occasionally you get to talk to people that you would love to talk to anyway. Last Tuesday I got to chat for a bit with DC animation pioneer Bruce Timm about his upcoming Justice League: Gods And Monsters animated movie. It's a very different take on the Justice League with very different versions of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. And DC is so behind this project that there is not only the movie, but an accompanying web series from Machinima, a digital comic series and even a toy line all before the film comes out. But then again, how could you not have confidence in the co-creator of Batman: The Animated Series?
So I put my iPhone on speaker, held my digital recorder right next to it and talked to one of the most influential animators of the last couple decades. Here is that conversation, transcribed as best as closely as possible.
Bruce Timm: A little of both. I had a meeting a couple years ago with my boss Sam Register and he mentioned he was interested in doing a new Justice League animated series for television. The only mandate he was going to give me was he didn't want it to be a continuation of the old show. It needed to be fresh and new and different. He said beyond that he had no idea and if I came up with something to let him know. So while I was doing my other jobs I was thinking about that.
I was for some reason thinking of the silver-age versions of The Flash and Green Lantern and basically what they did there with those characters was they kept the name and the gimmick of the golden-age versions and threw everything else out. They gave them new costumes, new alter egos and even changed the way their powers worked. And I thought, wouldn't it be exciting to apply that same process to the big three. Usually the big three are sacred, you're not allowed to mess with them. You don't tug on Superman's cape.
So I thought that was exciting, let's explore that idea. And if I was going to change Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, what would I do with them. I didn't want to go too far outside the DC Universe. About 10 years ago there was the Stan Lee Imagines… where he reinvented a bunch of the characters but they had nothing whatsoever to do with the DC Universe. And that was the mandate but to me that felt a bit random. You have a guy named Superman but he's nothing like Superman… so I wanted to have my cake and eat it too.
Part of the fun of these what if stories isn't just seeing what happens to the characters but seeing what happens to the rest of the universe around them. Knowing that I wanted to keep it somewhat grounded in the DC universe, but kind of an off-kilter tangent… I went back to the origin story and I had this idea that what if at the moment of concept Superman was the son of Zod instead of Jor-El? That's a major game changer.
I got really excited about that and I moved on to Batman. I always remember this quote from Bob Kane who said Batman was half Dracula and half Zorro. I always liked that Batman had this dark and creepy look and had all these vampire references in his costume. I wanted to do a vampire Batman, but I knew he wasn't going to be Bruce Wayne… and I remembered the character of Kurt Langstrom in the comics who was Man-Bat. So I took Langstrom and instead of making him Man-Bat I made him a vampire Batman.
Wonder Woman was tougher to figure out. Alan Burnett and I were discussing the character. All of our original ideas were staying in the realm of Greek mythology. We had this idea we kind of liked, instead of being the daughter of Hippolyta and molded out of clay, she was going to be the daughter of Zeus. She was basically going to be Athena. She was basically going to be a female Thor and her dad was going to be an asshole like Odin. And we wondered what Olympus would look like if it was created by Jack Kirby. I came up with this design for her that had a lot of Kirby influence in it. So we were going along that line and literally a week later the new 52 comes out and sure enough Wonder Woman was going to be the daughter of Zeus. So we couldn't do that and had to go back to the drawing board. So Alan was looking at the design I had done of Wonder Woman and said she kind of looked like one of the New Gods and I went "well duh" she's a New God. That pulled our bacon out of the fire there.
BT: It was literally a matter of the time limitations once we realized it was going to be a movie and not a television series. We only had 70 minutes to play with. We just didn't have room to put in other characters. We hoped the movie would be successful enough to go back and do a sequel. But now it turns out we are making a web series. So the ranks of the Justice League will definitely swell. There will be a lot of new characters in season two. It was difficult enough in the movie to get these three characters in it, tell their origin story and still have time for a villain plot. So we limited it to three just to get the thing done in the limited amount of time we had to play with.
BC: The thing with the Justice League is always about what force is powerful enough to justify pulling the heroes together. But we haven't seen very much of the villains in the trailer… what can you tell us about them?
BT: I don't want to spoil it. Unfortunately we built it into the script as a bit of a mystery. We don't find out who the villain is until the third act of the movie. So I'm not going to spoil it.
BC: Originally it was planned as a series and then became a movie and now has branched out into comics and a web series. Were those extra components part of the plan when it get changed to a movie or did they get added on later as the thing grew naturally?
BT: A little of both. When we first pitched the idea of Gods And Monsters to DC and Home Video, both liked it very much. A few weeks after, DC came back and said they'd like to do a comic book spin-off of it. Which was great because it allowed us to explore elements of the backstory of the big three that we didn't have time to address in the movie. And we could tell how the three of them came together for their first adventure as the Justice League. The difficult thing breaking the movie was figuring out how to squeeze everything we wanted to do in the 70 minutes. And we had come up with a bunch of different ideas for each of their backstories but we just didn't have the time. So the comic was perfect for that.
Then pretty late in the process – we'd been having talks with Machinima over the last few years about doing original content for them – and when the heard about Gods And Monsters they got intrigured, and then when they saw some of the early production material they got really excited. They felt that it would make for a great series of shorts for them. We barely had enough time to get them done and air them before the movie gets released. When the shorts came back in, Machinima loved them and said they'd like to do a second season if we were interested… and of course we are interested.
BC: I got a chance to see a clip from the film which features Harley Quinn, a character you and Paul Dini created for the Batman: The Animated Series. With how much the character has grown and changed over the years, how was it going back and reinventing her yourself?
BT: Well… I'll be honesty with you about this version of Harley. Over the years the character has gotten really popular and every time I go to a convention I see more Harleys than I do Mr. Spocks or Klingons. And now she's going to be in the Suicide Squad movie so she's going to get even more popular. And weirdly since they've been going outside of the class costume of hers. They've explored all these different variations on her costuming. Some of them I like, some of them look a bit skanky… some of them I say "whoa, that's not even appealing". What I wanted to do in the Gods And Monsters short was to go extreme and nasty with her. It's not the cute and cuddly Harley from the Batman Animated Series. You want skanky Harley, here you go. So it was kind of a mean spirited take on that.
It was also my way of signaling to people that hey, if I'm willing to do this to one of my own characters I created, anything is possible.
BC: This seems to be a darker take on the characters. Was that part of the mandate as well or was that just something that came naturally as you explored the idea?
BT: That was kind of a natural thing. And again I don't normally use the word dark to describe the series. It's not that it's dark and grim and gritty, I think of it as more of an adult take on the superhero genre. It's what we've been leaning towards doing the last couple of years with the animated movies. And even going back to the Batman animated series it was something I always kind of pushed. I think that is something people noticed about the series is that it wasn't just a kid's show and it occasionally handled some pretty heavy issues. And everything I've done since then, Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League Unlimited… was trying to push the envelope as much as I could within the framework of children's television. With this being a direct to video movie it was already in the PG-13 ballpark.
And I'll give credit where credit is due, one of my big influence on this series is Warren Ellis' Authority. It's one of my favorite comics of all time. It was the first time someone did a really bad ass version of the super team concept. So I wanted to explore the more morally ambiguous edges of the superhero genre with these characters. See how hard I'm trying to avoid using the word dark.
Here is the first episode of Justice League: Gods And Monsters Chronicles from DC Comics and Machinima: The episode is called Twisted and features the voice talents of Michael C Hall and Tara Strong. We get a look at a very twisted and extreme version of Harley Quinn… and an even more twisted version of Batman.