Beverly Hills Screening of ALL-STAR SUPERMAN
The Man of Steel returns in an animated re-telling of the beloved series...
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It’s a tradition that when Warner Bros. and DC put out a new animated film they hold twin screening events at the Paley Centers for Media in New York and Beverly Hills. I’ve had the pleasure of attending those for Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (read our story HERE) as well as Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (read the story HERE). This time around, the creative team embarked on a truly monumental challenge: to bring the classic All-Star Superman story to animated form! The film releases on DVD, Blu-ray, and more on February 22nd. Read on to learn about the West Coast premiere!
As was the case with previous premieres, this event took place at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The few fans who were able to sign up for tickets waited eagerly outside while those of us in the press corps headed into the lobby. Set up around the room were posters for the film featuring the box art of Superman flying in the sun. One by one the members of the cast and crew filed by, posing for photos and getting interviewed.
First up was Sam Liu, director of All-Star Superman (as well as the previous Justice League film and lots of others). In relation to the other animated DC Universe stories, he said “It’s not like the others where it’s all about a big event, and there are fewer fight scenes. But the story is full of human elements. It’s my favorite so far.” I asked Sam how they tackled the iconic visual style of Frank Quitely’s art in the original All-Star Superman comic. “There was a lot of input from Bruce Timm [Executive Producer]. We went through three or four artists who kept getting closer but it wasn’t quite there. Finally we looked at Jon Suzuki who really nailed it; he became the character designer for the film.” The original telling of All-Star Superman spanned 12 issues that were each a tale unto themselves, which then fit together into a whole. I asked Sam how the film presented that episodic story. “Basically, the comic book and animated films are two totally different mediums. The comic came out in issues, or chapters, but we couldn’t have a series of cliffhangers throughout the film. As written the story was pretty disjointed and non-chronological; that’s not the way we made the movie. In the writing we needed to transition through the chapters.”
Next up in the press line was Bruce Timm, Executive Producer of All-Star Superman and creator of just about every DC animated project since Batman: the Animated Series. Regarding the biggest challenges in bringing this story to the screen, Timm recalled two specific areas: “condensing the script to 70 minutes without losing the heart of it, and getting the art to look like Quitely’s.” I asked Bruce about the more balanced interplay of action and drama in this and he admitted that “it’s not just a slugfest, like some of our other films. But the action scenes do have a point. It’s really a personal story about Superman.” Timm further revealed that All-Star Superman is one of his favorite stories of all time, and that it was very hard to make cuts to the story to fit the film (especially the Bizarro sequence). In other news, Grant Morrison saw the movie and loved it, but Frank Quitely hasn’t seen it yet.
One of the main driving forces behind the film is of course its writer Dwayne McDuffie. While talking to the press line he revealed that he made a small change to the end of the film, adding a brief scene that he felt really tied into the theme and the story. He lamented not being able to include the iconic scene from the comic in which Superman takes a moment to save a girl about to commit suicide; there just wasn’t a place he could fit it in. I asked Dwayne what scene was the hardest to write, but he replied “none of them really, but the prison scene was technically demanding – getting the timing and pacing right with all of the action.” And the easiest? “Lois’ paranoia when she visits the Fortress of Solitude was very fun to write.” With regard to new viewers, Dwayne felt that the film “doesn’t get in the way of getting into the story. It’s definitely accessible.” I couldn’t help but chat with McDuffie about one of his other big writing projects, Ben 10. One of the best shows on television, Ben 10 according to Dwayne has “plenty more on the way.”
Next up was Andrea Romano, queen of animated dialogue (seriously, check out her credits on IMDB). She only had a moment, but was eager to talk to me. All-Star Superman featured several actors new to animation. To bring them in and get the best performances out of them, Andrea said “it’s all about trust. We show them the characters and get them comfortable in the environment. They all did great.” I asked about the amazing array of secondary characters in the story, and which ones were her favorite. “Dr. Quintum, played by Buffy and Angel’s Alexis Denisof, was really fun; he’s an odd guy. Then we had the amazing Obba Babatunde as the World Court Judge and the Bibliobot. And of course Ed Asner (playing Perry White) is always great.”
Also on hand in the press line were actors James Denton (above - Superman) and Matthew Gray Gubler (Jimmy Olsen), but there wasn’t enough time to talk to everyone.
What you think of All-Star Superman may very well depend on whether or not you’ve read the comic series. Let’s get this out of the way; if you read comics and/or like Superman, you owe it to yourself to read All-Star Superman. The story is an ode to the character, essentially summing up his life and its meaning set against the backdrop of his final adventures. At the same time, it’s a look into the psyches of Lois Lane and Lex Luthor as they live in the shadow of Superman. In 12 issues Grant Morrison captured the spirit of Superman as he struggles with his own mortality and his impact on Earth and those around him. It’s a very emotional journey as Superman accomplishes one great feat after another in his final days. These don’t always involve combat, and the story is just as noteworthy for its relatively few action scenes. Beyond the fantastic story is the stunning art by Frank Quitely. With its truly unique style and representation of familiar characters, the visuals propel the work onto a whole different level. Superman is larger than life, but not hugely muscled or matinee idol-handsome. Lex Luthor spends as much time working out his body as he does his mind, sporting a tough, lean physique. Emotions are plain as day on the faces of the heroes and villains, pulling you through the same wringer that they’re experiencing. Add to that a couple years of growing fame and a series of awards including an Eisner and you’ve got one of the most beloved stories in recent years. To say that it was a challenge turning All-Star Superman into an animated feature is an understatement.
The film version stays very faithful to the original story, capturing the final days of Superman and his heroic exploits. Dwayne McDuffie boiled down the crucial elements from the 12 issue series including Superman’s initial rescue in the sun and subsequent poisoning, his date with Lois Lane, Kent’s prison interview with Lex, the arrival of Kryptonian astronauts on Earth, and the final battles with Solaris and Lex. Within that framework there are also plenty of the little moments that make All-Star so enjoyable. There’s also a great balance between the heavy emotions and comedy and action. In addition to the overall story, the film adapts plenty of dialogue directly out of the book, and you’ll no doubt re-live your initial reading of it as the characters speak the words that were so powerful on the page.
On the other hand, not every panel of a 12 issue series can fit into a 70 minute film, and so there were cuts. Those who have read the original will notice the lack of some of the larger plot elements (notably the Bizarro sequence and Kent Farm flashback). As the film’s creators discussed in the Q&As, it was a matter of staying true to the heart of the story. While Superman is noble and clever in the Bizarro story, its exclusion doesn’t significantly reduce the character, his motivations, or how you feel about them. In turn, McDuffie added one element to the ending of the film, a sort of postscript send off that ties together loose ends in a new and compact way. Only those who have read the comic will realize it, and it truly fits with the themes and arc of the film’s story.
From the artwork on the DVD/Blu-ray cover, you can tell that much work was put into staying faithful to the style of Quitely as well. In this the crew at DC and Warner Bros. did a great job. The art style is very different from what we’ve seen before in the animated features, with particular effort put toward perfecting the main characters. Superman is powerful yet engaging and vulnerable while contrasting Lois’ petite beauty. Clark is adorably frumpy in his over-large clothing and ill-fitting glasses, especially as compared to Lex’s palpable hunger. Vistas and backgrounds are subtly shaded with the same pastel palette from the book, vibrant and alive. Even with the intricacies of the characters and their surroundings, the action scenes are powerful and dynamic.
Despite most of the cast being new to animation, the voice acting is really good. Just as Superman isn’t the fighting powerhouse seen in other stories, Denton’s depiction really does bring a softer, more introspective side to the hero. In fact, all of the main characters are nicely faceted and multi-dimensional as they deal with the triumphs and tragedies of Superman’s final days. Anthony LaPaglia’s Lex Luthor is viciously brilliant, a man obsessed with what could have been. And yet in his final moments, the turn to empathy and understanding is brutally true. Christina Hendricks’ Lois Lane is alternatively full of wonder at being a part of Superman’s world, tough as nails when it comes to her job and protecting her hero, and hopeful beyond measure even when things are at their most bleak. The nuanced performances are truly a testament to the skills of both the actors and Andrea Romano. Finally, even the more minor characters really come to life with great voice performances, especially Gubler’s Olsen and Denisof’s Quintum.
While it may not have the same level of frenetic action as most of the others, All-Star Superman has by far the most developed and complex story of the DC animated films. The evolution and development of the characters is completely real, as are their emotional reactions to the events of the story. Best of all, the movie works on several levels. If you’ve never read All-Star, you’ll find a great story of the Man of Steel and the highest and lowest moments of his life. If you have read it, the film will remind you of the excellent story and beautiful art in a whole new vivid way. Either way, fans of Superman and the DC Universe owe it to themselves to check this out.
After the film, moderator Gary Miereanu introduced the cast and crew in attendance who then sat for a Q&A session. Gary started things off by asking how the creators went about adapting All-Star Superman, and especially how they decided what to cut and what to keep. Timm joked that he “dumped it on Dwayne and told him to make it work,” but that they really hashed out an outline over a weekend. McDuffie called the original story “episodic but with a strong core of mortality leading into the final battle.” He focused on the scenes that told that story, and then added secondary and tertiary ones where possible.
While that covered adapting the story, what about the art? Timm called that the “hardest job I’ve had in 20 years.” He described Quitely’s art as “unique, with a huge appeal in the comics. It was hard to translate that into animation, to boil it down to its essence and then have Korean animators do it. It took us weeks on the designs, but finally we ended up with Jon Suzuki.” Liu added that they went through 3 or 4 designers and that they felt an obligation to get it perfect.
Gary then switched gears and asked about the voice performances, especially since All-Star Superman has animation novices in most of the lead roles. Romano described how she makes “a comfortable, trusting environment for them to explore.” Denton likened the experience to “going to a new specialist who really knows what she’s doing.” Gubler then talked a bit about the give and take between actors in a scene, and how in “regular” acting the person off-screen doesn’t usually emote very much. In contrast, “Andrea acts out every other part and ‘reads you in,’ making it much more natural.”
When asked about the difference between writing a film and seeing it McDuffie called watching it “1,000 times better. The actors are so much better than what I had in my head. It’s really my favorite thing, to see what they do with what I write.”
James Denton is probably best known for his work on Desperate Housewives. Gary asked him how he went from that to playing the Man of Steel. Denton recalls not really realizing the magnitude of his new role until he was driving to the studio. “They had offered me the part and I automatically said yes. Then I got to thinking about how iconic the character is, all the fans, and of course the specific All-Star Superman story. It was a big challenge for me, because usually I play me.”
Gary then asked the entire panel to pick out their favorite scenes to watch, and to put together. Timm admitted to being “a softie” and always tearing up at the goodbye scene with Ma Kent which he called “subtle.” Romano agreed, choosing the specific shot in which Superman lays his hand on Pa’s tombstone and very gently strokes it with his thumb. Timm jumped back in to describe one particular problematic scene, the big battle between Superman and Solaris. “When we watched it Sam felt it fell flat, but I told him to wait until we had the score in place. Now it’s epic.” McDuffie’s favorite is the opening of the film with the decisive voiceover “Doomed Planet. Kindly Couple...” He also really liked the Ma goodbye scene, and felt it was good enough to offset the loss of Krypto in the film. Liu preferred Superman’s last goodbye to Lois and discussed the hard work in perfecting the Man of Steel’s disintegrating appearance. Romano liked the goodbyes as well, including Superman setting off to take care of Kandor. Gubler appreciated the “messages of humanity, love, and forgiveness.” Denton too liked the Fortress scene with Lois.
At that point Gary opened up the questions to the audience. The first person wanted to know about the casting process. Romano described “looking at the source material, then brainstorming as a group. Then I look at my wish list where I keep names of people who I would love to cast. As we choose people I also have to consider who would work well with the other voices to make a good ensemble.” Timm chimed in, adding that the biggest concern was obviously the voice of Superman. He called All-Star Superman “a cross between King Arthur and Jesus. He’s innately good and a source of inspiration for all. He’s not just a badass, but he’s nice too. James [Denton] really brought that likeability.”
One fan of the comic series appreciated the inclusion of Superman saving a man from falling bridge debris early in the film. McDuffie recalled wanting “more than just the pure story, and the book is full of moments like that. It’s really the best scene of Superman helping others while disguised as Clark Kent.”
When asked about the differences between this type of story and one like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Romano joked that All-Star Superman had “fewer characters.” Timm called Crisis their “normal type of movie” and explained that his team came up with “the action and comedy mix from the Justice League show template. All-Star Superman was totally different.” McDuffie agreed, noting that this film has “a 20 minute date scene!”
The next fan wanted to know if there were audience reactions that the cast and crew didn’t expect. Timm recalled their first film, Superman: Doomsday, in which they actively tried for a more adult tone. “Near the beginning Doomsday kills a deer, and the audience cheered!” McDuffie was very concerned about the “camp level” in All-Star Superman, saying that they “never really know how it’s going to play until it’s done.”
Denton was asked about playing such an iconic role, and the actor called it “daunting. I tried to stay above it. Something that helped me understand the character was what Grant Morrison said about Superman: he’s actually three characters in one. There’s Superman the hero and Clark Kent the bumbling reporter, but those are both just facades for the real Clark Kent who grew up in Smallville with the Kents’ values.” Gubler really felt he was in something momentous when his dad got excited. At first he thought about searching out and reading/watching a bunch of source material, but then decided to “just be sincere” in his own interpretation of the character.
A longtime Superman reader asked about how the filmmakers created the Fortress of Solitude. Timm described the biggest challenge of adapting Quitely’s art: “the backgrounds are really spare. We modeled our Daily Planet exactly on the art and then realized we needed to add background elements or it wouldn’t look right. Just so with the Fortress; we tried to honor the comic with the palette and main painted elements, then we added details.
“How is voice acting different?” asked the next audience member. Gubler called voice work “the truest acting. There’s a stark element to it; it’s very exciting.” Denton added that “it’s crucial you trust the director.”
Another fan of the comic asked how many times the cast and crew had read the comic, and what they thought was the most important part of it. Romano admitted to reading it just once, and focused on “the romance in balance.” McDuffie, who had read it many times, felt strongly about the “humanism. Superman represents hope and all of the emotions we’re ashamed of, the ones called ‘soft.’” Timm had read the series during its release, then when it came out in the trades, but not again until he got the script. Liu had read it twice.
When asked about the difference between adapting a story and creating an original one, Timm called the two practices “totally different.” McDuffie recalled being the new guy while working on Justice League, but learned quickly “to go to the essence or idea of a character and then cherry pick the stories that embody it. It was the same here, but within 12 issues.” Liu said that “adapting can be easier or harder depending on the subject. When it’s original you don’t have to follow what’s already been done and accepted by fans, which can be limiting.”
The final questioner asked about the future of DC animated films and what fans can expect in the future. Romano proudly declared that “we’ll keep getting better and better.” Liu described All-Star Superman as “something different, something new. If this is successful we’ll be able to do more varied stories, with more personal and dramatic elements.” Denton added that he’d be willing to do anything asked of him.
And with that, the event was finished. Go out and your copy of All-Star Superman now!
Words and Photos by Scott Rubin