Joe Kelly on Writing Superman vs. the Elite
Out today is Superman vs. the Elite, and to promote the movie, Warner Home Video has provided the following interview with writer Joe Kelly. I really liked the movie, both for its character portrayals and the questions it raises about superheroics, and I was glad to see so much attention paid to the story creator. I think Superman vs. the Elite is the best DC animated film yet, and if you’re curious, I encourage you to check it out.
Q: For the uninitiated, what was the genesis for the original story of this comic?
JOE KELLY: The germ for the story really came from a very visceral reaction I had to a comic I was reading at the time — The Authority. It was a dark anti-hero comic. I really like The Authority and its characters, but there was an issue in particular that felt like it had pushed the boundaries of what makes a hero and what makes an anti-hero. I found myself getting ‘fanboy mad’, which I don’t normally get. We had an anniversary issue, and I asked Eddie (Berganza) if we could directly address those characters. I wanted Superman to take those characters on. And that became the germ for Action Comics #775.
Q: As Action Comics #775 was a single issue, how much did you need to add to the story to make it a full-length film?
JOE KELLY: We wrote a lot of new content for the film, and it was funny looking back at the comic because I forgot how much is discussed rather than shown. There’s so much going on between the panels. So it was very exciting to get to see the action sequences that were just hinted at. I’d always seen them in my head, now I get to see them played out in animation.
Q: What was the purpose of adding the Atomic Skull to the story?
JOE KELLY: We knew we needed a villain or a character that would externalize Manchester Black’s argument against the revolving door jail policy. We wanted that parallel to be personal and easily identifiable. Originally, it was the Parasite, but he’d been used in a recent previous film, so it became the Atomic Skull. I really thought the Atomic Skull came out very cool. He worked well visually and for the story. Not having Parasite meant we lost a smidgen of the thematic approach — the Parasite really fit well in terms of his name and what he does to the people around him. But that’s just being picky.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene in Superman vs. the Elite?
JOE KELLY: I’m especially proud of the quiet scenes. It’s very difficult to get quiet emotion in animation and to let the silence actually play on screen. But when you look at the quiet scenes in this film — Pa Kent and Clark on the porch, or Lois and Clark on the couch — those scenes really give us the chance to see Superman questioning himself with the people he trusts the most. And those scenes play beautifully in the film.
It’s like in one of my favorite scenes — just before the Elite takes over the airwaves and makes their grand announcement. I think it’s in the original, but it really came to life for me in the film. Lois and Clark are having a little debate, and he asks if she believes that criminals deserve the Elite’s sense of justice and punishment. And she says “Some days I think they do.” That’s just like a punch in the gut. It’s really an awesome scene, especially because it’s one of those moments in animation that you don’t expect. The big battle with the Atomic Skull is pretty great, too. And the finale is awesome. But I love the quiet moments.
Q: Whose sense of justice do you side with: the Elite or Superman?
JOE KELLY: I’m definitely more in the Superman camp. There are plenty of people I get angry about, and the eye-for-an-eye mentality does flash though my head. I think it does for anybody. But at the end of the day, I do believe we need to aspire to higher ideals. Maybe I’m being naïve, and I may not be able to achieve those ideals myself, but we must make the attempt. You’ve got to try. My dad was a cop, and he had very strong opinions about this stuff, but he would straddle the line. He had his days when he’d think “kill them all and let God sort them out,” but there were far more days where he believed that the law is the law, even if it’s broken, and we live in the best country on Earth because of those laws. So that definitely informed my weird sense of justice.
Q: Did the voices of the actors portraying these characters match the voices in your head while writing the film?
JOE KELLY: The voice acting is so good in this film. Robin [Atkin Downes] is such a good Manchester. He’s got all the snark and all the personality, and his line deliveries are so spot on for that guy. It’s funny because everybody says the same thing: you can’t do an actual Manchester accent and expect to be understood, but Robin’s modified Mancunian accent is awesome. And understandable. The rest of the Elite’s voices are perfect: Menagerie is scary and sexy; Coldcast wears his “angry man” on his sleeve; and everyone giggles when The Hat comes on. I can’t say enough about George (Newbern) — I had heard his acting before, and he does such a great Superman. It’s terrific to see George portray the range of emotion he gets to do in this story. And Pauley (Perrette) so knocked it out of the park — I was immediately in love with Lois. Pauley gets all the smarts of the character. The two of them as a partnership really comes across, which is critical to the story. Lois keeps Clark grounded, and she’s literally the only one that can tug on Superman’s cape. Lois can bust his chops, and that comes through in Pauley’s voice. She’s terrific in the quiet moments, as well. Pauley sells it all so, so well.
Q: Are there other stories you’ve written as comics that you could see adapting to animation?
JOE KELLY: In the DC realm, I’m very proud of Justice League Elite because the characters that pick up from this story are darker and very layered. It’s all about how messy you can get before you become a monster. I love that theme. If we could ever pull off Justice League Obsidian, that would be amazing — it’s just an insane, gigantic epic, and to see those characters animated would be incredible.