NYCC 2012: DARK KNIGHTS & LEGO Fights on DC Animation

To the delight of several thousand fans, legendary animation producer Bruce Timm and Emmy-winning voice director Andrea Romano descended upon the New York Comic Con this weekend with a variety of treats. First, they showed their audience several clips from the upcoming film Batman: Dark Knight Returns Part Two and answered questions about their celebrated works…and then, revealed information about the next two DC Animated films coming in 2013.  Since they shared those juicy details last, let’s get to them first, shall we?

Publicist Gary Miereanu, who moderated the event, said a film called Superman: Unbound will arrive in the middle of next year. “It’s a based on the Superman/Brainiac Geoff Johns series,” he said as the crowd applauded. “Yeah, you’re going to like it,” Timm added. While neither he nor Romano would announce the name of the voice actor who would play the Man of Steel, actress Molly Quinn – of Castle fame – was mentioned as being involved.

“And later in the year, probably sometime in the fall, we’ll have a film called Justice League: Flashpoint, also a Geoff Johns story,” Miereanu added. That 2011 series centered around an alternate timeline in the DC Universe, with Wonder Woman and Aquaman at war with each other, Thomas Wayne working as Batman and Barry Allen left to make sense of it all. Fans can expect that movie in time for San Diego Comic Con 2013, he teased.

The hour-long panel began with a fun trailer for LEGO Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes United, due in the new year. That film tells the tale of a team-up between Lex Luthor and the Joker, who intend to decimate Gotham using their Deconstructor weapon and “pull Batman apart – literally”. Imagine what a four year old can do to a newly assembled Lego castle, and you’ll get the idea. Clancy Brown has returned to play the role of Lex, with Will Arnett opposing him as the Dark Knight Detective. Cyborg, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter will also appear in the movie.  Of all the action sequences glimpsed in the trailer, the audience especially responded to the sight of Superman tossing Batsy up in front of a full moon, allowing his cape to open, before catching him. “Not cool”, he muttered. The crowd clearly disagreed.

The main topic of conversation, however, was The Dark Knight Returns, Warner Home Video’s first two-part film series. “If they’d said ‘you have to do it all in one movie’, it would have been a non-starter,” Timm explained of the project. “This story is so big and so well-loved by comic fans there was no way to squeeze it into a 75 minute movie.”

“Recording both parts at the same time made sense, production-wise,” Romano said of the challenge of coordinating the actors’ schedules. Peter Weller stars as Batman, with LOST’s Michael Emerson as the Joker, Fringe’s Mark Valley as Superman, Ariel Winter as Robin and David Selbey as Commissioner Gordon. Justice League’s Hawkgirl, Maria Canals, is one of the few actors from a previous DC project to land a role in the films.  She voices Ellen Yindel; a character Romano feels is far less feminine than Shayera Hol. “In this role, she’s really tough as nails,” she shared.

Emerson, it turns, out, was asked by Romano several years ago whether he’d be interested in voice-over work. The actor ended up recording his performance over Skype instead of by phone, which allowed Romano to direct him and get a sense of the physicality of his performance. As Timm explained, “we didn’t want him to sound like Hamill or Dimaggio or Nicholson.  And if you’ve read the comic, he’s actually really different in the comic. I’ll be really curious to see what people think of him.”

One clip showed Joker on the set of a late-night talk show, claiming he’d suffered mental abuse at the hands of Batman, only to then shatter a mug and slice open the throat of his doctor. Timm challenged the audience to recognize the voice of the talk show host, and they did almost immediately. Conan O’Brien, in that brief role, deeply impressed Romano with his ability to deliver the chilling laugh of a Joker gas victim in one take. “He was unbelievable,” she declared, suggesting he might very well take on the challenge of voice-acting again.

The duo spoke a little about composer Chris Drake’s approach to the music of the film. “Every time we start talking the music with the composer,” Timm began, “the first thing I say is ‘I don’t want it to sound like Danny Elfman and I don’t want it to sound like John Williams – the two typical approaches to superhero movies.’” Drake, a longtime collaborator, turned to films by Dario Argento and John Carpenter and the work of German group Tangerine Dream for inspiration. “Instrument-wise, he only used instruments from the 80s, which I thought was a really cool touch,” Timm shared, saying that the film’s climax will feature “synths verses orchestras” to underscore the notion of Batman and Superman’s opposing viewpoints.

The brutality of that battle, glimpsed in the trailer for Part Two, is due mostly to the skills of director Jay Oliva. When he first heard of the project, Timm recalled, “he elbowed and kicked everyone else out of the way because he’s a huge fan of the comic. He’s a genius at action staging, so that was something that was really crucial.”  Oliva also storyboarded a fair deal of the upcoming Man of Steel picture for Zach Synder, he added.

Ultimately, Timm still feels the strength of the story is its sense of hope. “It’s a book with so many themes, what was the most important to translate was…probably to not get lost in the darkness, because it is a dark, gritty book. It’s actually famous for starting the whole ‘dark and gritty’ movement in comics, but at the same time, there’s heart in the book as well. It’s ultimately a story about redemption: how Bruce Wayne is able to come out of retirement and be Batman again… and learns to compromise over the course of the story. That was the most important thing that we wanted to stay true to. Ariel Winter, when she comes in as Carrie Kelly, it changes the tone of the story. It’s kinda dark, dark, dark and Carrie comes in and she injects some humanity. I don’t think the story would work nearly as well without her.”

During the Q&A portion of the panel, fans inquired about the kinds of edits that might have been made to the source material during the making of the films. One asked if audiences can expect to see a particular scene involving boy scouts, and Timm replied, “all I can say is there are boy scouts in the movie…and not just Superman.” Another inquired about a female character who appeared in the book with swastikas on her breasts. Timm conceded that they were required to replace Gordon’s cigar with nicotine gum, but “as it turns out, swastikas on breasts don’t automatically get you an ‘R’ rating.”

Some asked whether the work of Grant Morrison would eventually get the DC Animated Film treatment. “There are aspects of what Grant has done with Batman that we’ll definitely be touching on in future projects. More than that I can’t say,” Timm shared. He didn’t seem to have any stories he was especially eager to adapt to animation, having now completed Batman: Year One and TDKR. “Beyond those, I don’t know if there’s one specific story I’m dying to do. HUSH? Killing Joke? I don’t really have one,” he shrugged. One fan suggested doing a film entirely centered on the various characters who’d worn the Robin suit over the years. “I wouldn’t disagree with you, but you might have a hard time convincing the WHV people to fund a movie like that.”

When another suggested a new Batman Beyond film, Timm seemed to brighten up a bit, saying, “I would love to. We don’t have anything currently on the slate but it comes up. Keep your fingers crossed, I would like to do it.”

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