Over the weekend at WonderCon, folks were treated to a way-in-advance screening of Superman vs. The Elite, the latest animated film from the wonderful DC toon machine overseen by Bruce Timm, due out June 12. It's a Michael Chang film based on the story called "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice and The American Way?" in Action Comics #775, written in early 2001 by Joe Kelly and illustrated by Doug Mahnke. In it, Superman has to engage in a battle of philosophies with Manchester Black and the Elite – a team of antiheroes who prefer to kill bad guys in order to make the world a better place. At the time it was published, it was Kelly's response to gritty, ultraviolent books like The Authority, which seemed to be trying to put Superman out to pasture.
"I read a lot of comics, I read a lot of dark comics, I write dark comics," Kelly said when explaining the genesis of his story to the WonderCon crowd, "but the vibe at the time was really trending towards darker antiheroes, and it's something we've been dealing with since the '80s. I love all that stuff, but there was a particular issue of a comic that I just felt crossed the line, not because of the content or anything, but it sort of made me feel like if you believed in any of this 'truth, justice and the American way,' you're an idiot. At the time, I was working on Superman, and I just felt like there had to be another voice. I wrote it really fast, because I was mad and I can write fast when I'm mad."
Kelly adapted his own story for this film, but not everything stayed the same. "What was important to the story for us is 'is Superman relevant in today's day and age?' That's the heart of the story, and that never changed from the comic to the film," he explained. "What had to change was the sort of 'Inside Baseball' of Action #775, because that was really much more about the superhero universe and Superman in context with superheroes, so we wanted to expand it to hit a different kind of audience. Bringing it to the world political stage seemed to make the most sense."
"The comic, when I went back and looked at it because I hadn't read it for a while – dissecting it, we realized how much you talk about battles," he noted. "Most of that stuff is off-panel, and we really had to flesh it out with more action. The character stuff, too – Lois plays such a big role and her performance is incredible."
That performance is from NCIS star Pauley Perette, who provides the voice of Lois Lane with her signature gravel, and that proved to be one of Kelly's favorite parts of the film. "I love every Clark and Lois scene," he said, "especially when she's not just giving him a hard time, but working as a real partner with him."
Of course, even some aspects of the Clark/Lois marriage had to be altered for animation – namely, a scene that originally took place when they were in bed together had to be taken into the living room. "For all the things we get away with in the film, which I think really earned its PG-13, I had to laugh that a married couple couldn't actually be in bed together," Kelly said with a grin about a movie he wrote that gave Superman the opportunity to say the word 'wanker' for what must be the first time ever.
The film is rougher around the edges than you generally expect from a Superman film, mostly in terms of language (as you might expect from characters who are riffs on Warren Ellis creations), but maybe not so much after you've seen the recent releases. "The other movies definitely had to come before this one to test the audience and know where the boundaries are to get us to where we can do the things that we did," Kelly noted. "We couldn't have done the movie the way we wanted to do it if there hadn't been Batman: Year One before that, Justice League Doom and all that kind of stuff. Each one got a little edgier and a little harder."
Kelly is no stranger to ultraviolent antiheroes – his original run in the first ongoing Deadpool series is hands-down the best Wade Wilson has ever been written, and it was full of gruesome insanity that poked (or rather stabbed) at the conventions of superhero comics. But he made it clear he still maintains a healthy respect for the classics.
"You know, I do believe in what Superman represents," he affirmed, to applause from the crowd. "It sounds corny, but I enjoy him. I like knowing that there are those kinds of heroes out there. We live in a world that's so saturated with darkness and there's evil everywhere and there's a bad guy on every corner and everybody's corrupt. If you don't have hope, you don't have anything. That's what Superman represents for me. It actually became more timely than I expected in the writing of it. I didn't really expect it to reflect current events the way it did, so that was sort of serendipitous, and you can take it as a good thing or a bad thing. But I still believe in Superman."
"The whole point of this show is to question those morality structures," Kelly said of the assertion that Superman sees the world in simplistic black and white. "It is simple for him, until he's confonted with The Elite, and regular people appreciating what the Elite do. That throws him off to the core. When Lois says 'yeah, maybe I would like to see terrorists killed, that would be okay by me,' it just totally messes him up."
"I think that there are shades of gray within Superman," he continued. "He goes to those places in this story, and the challenge is to find an organic way to get him there. To keep him interesting and contemporary, he has to question himself, and that's where I think those shades come in. At the end of the day, he's still going to land at that point in the spectrum that he's comfortable on and he really represents, but you take him for the crazy ride. Theoretically, if this universe kept going, I think you'd have a Superman who's like 'okay, I proved a point here, but I have to address the realities of this world.' I think you would see a different Superman as a result of this story."
"One of the things that I've taken heat for in the past is using these characters for stories that are a little bit more political or that address some real world issues," he added. "Some people would prefer straight-up escapism. But I think that these characters are really great vehicles for that sort of real-world exploration, and there are definitely hints of real world scenarios in this film, without question – lines of dialog that hit pretty close to home. I think that's important. I think that we can use these characters for that kind of thing without being uber-preachy. It's the hope that it's entertaining as well as making you think a little bit."
Even though The Elite were intended to be a one-shot pastiche of The Authority to make a point, they did wind up appearing again in later comics, and they even had their own series for a while in Justice League Elite. When asked if he'd like to bring those characters back in animation as well, Kelly was very open to it.
"I love The Elite," he explained. "It's funny, when I first did #775, they immediately said 'do you want to do an Elite series?' I was like 'no, it already exists. The Authority is already out there, I don't need to do it.' Then [editor Mike] Carlin and I started to talk about it, it was like 'what if it's the Justice League and what if the spin on it was that they were undercover?' It was really about 'can you fight monsters without becoming a monster yourself?' That, I dug. I had a lot of internal conflict over whether or not we should see The Elite again, and Vera [Manchester Black's sister, who appears briefly in Superman vs. The Elite] being the leader of that team helped. Okay, it's a fresh start, I know what I'm doing here – and then we had characters on the team like Green Arrow and Batgirl, so it was really a different beast for me. That's a long way of saying yes, I love those characters, I love that they're all messed up, and in the Elite, they're even more messed up because they're more real. You actually care about them as people, and to do that in animation would be really great."