The shortform animated series Justice League: Gods & Monsters Chronicles launches today (first episode below) on digital content network Machinima, featuring a story from legendary producer and animator Bruce Timm of Batman: The Animated Series fame.
And there's more Gods & Monsters coming next year. The current three-episode series was originally created to promote Justice League: Gods & Monsters, the direct-to-DVD movie releasing July 28th, but Machinima has ordered a second season of the shortform Chronicles webisodes for 2016.
For the shorts and the DVD, Timm has created a dark, alternate DC universe where Superman is the son of General Zod, Wonder Woman is from the warring nation of Ares, and Batman is more vampire-bat than man.
For Timm, the progression to short form animation has been "challenging," he says, but the creator sees web series on networks like Machinima as the new frontier for animated storytelling. Machinima, which is partly funded by Warner Bros. Entertainment, originally launched as an outlet for video game-focused videos, but now describes itself as a "purveyor and cultivator of fandom and gamer culture."
As the first episode premiers today, Newsarama talked to Timm about the creation of this alternate universe, the actors he chose to voice Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman.
Newsarama: Bruce, these webisodes definitely have your stamp on them, but they feel a little more edgy and mature than what most fans know you for. Did you feel a little more free to push the story the way you wanted in these shorts, without worrying about a rating?
Bruce Timm: Yeah, this property started as a direct-to-video, which are all kind of PG-13 anyway. This is not rated, so I have no idea what it would actually be rated, but it would probably be somewhere on the top end of a PG-13.
So yeah, it's nothing really new, but yeah, I do find it liberating to work outside the restrictions of children's television. I mean, I'm fine working for children's television as well. But just occasionally, even back in the day, there'd be storylines or situations that we would want to explore that we kind of knew we couldn't, just because it was a kids' show. So yeah, doing the DTVs and then doing this new webseries is liberating, knowing we can go there if we want to.
And I'll just say this up front too: These three Machinima shorts — I'll be blatant about it — they were deliberately designed to be a little bit shocking, because this is going to be the audience's first introductions to these characters before the movie comes out.
So we kind of wanted to do a gut-punch. It's just kind of like, OK, this is absolutely not Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman like you're used to.
Nrama: Let's talk about the 2016 webseries that you'll be doing for Machinima. How did it evolve out of these shorts? Once you saw the shorts, did you guys realize you had something special?
Timm: Yeah, kind of. It was actually Machinima's idea to actually do an extended series, after they saw the shorts. They were actually really excited about them, and they came to us and said, "Hey, you know, besides these three little promo shorts, we would like to do an entire season of shorts." And so we said, "Hey, yeah, that sounds great."
Nrama: Let's talk about the setting of these shorts and the animated movie. Why do you think it is that superhero fans love seeing alternate versions of their favorite characters — particularly, in this case, kind of "bad" versions?
Timm: I don't really know. It's weird, you know. It kind of goes beyond just superheroes or science fiction. I mean, obviously, it's been a trope of science fiction for a long time. I mean, the first one I remember seeing, probably when I was a kid, was the famous Star Trek episode, Mirror, Mirror, which is right up there with some of the best, classic, most memorable Star Trek episodes.
But even beyond that, as a kid — this is a really weird reference, but even shows like Gilligan's Island — every now and then on Gilligan's Island, they would do, like, a weird dream episode where the entire cast would be, like, in a Victorian melodrama or something. Or pirates or something.
There's something kind of fun to seeing variations on familiar characters in a venue where they're doing something different.
So I don't really know the answer about why it's so cool. But it just kind of is.
And DC Comics has, obviously, a long history of doing these kind of things. Back in the '90s they even had a regular series of "Elseworlds" titles, which were basically this exactly.
But even earlier than that, going back to like the '50s or '60s, they had what they used to call "Imaginary Stories," which were kind of the same thing.
I guess it's just always fun to play "what if." You know?
Nrama: How did you choose the voice actors to play these characters? Did they have to change things up to play evil versions of the heroes, or did you choose them because their voice fit the version you had in mind?
Timm: We cast them specifically because their natural speaking voices were exactly what we wanted. I've been a fan of all three of these actors for a long time.
Benjamin, in particular, years ago, I remember watching an episode of Law and Order thinking, wow, that guy's got a great voice. I've got to remember that. Someday I'm going to use him in something. And he came up while we were trying to figure out the casting for this thing, and his name came up, and I was like, oh yeah, perfect! And the fact that he's… he's not technically Latino, but he was raised Latino. So we thought it would be kind of cool if we actually cast a Latino actor who had just the slightest trace of an accent.
And then Michael C. Hall was like, I think when his name came up, it was just like, "Oh my God, that is so perfect." Honestly, I didn't know if he'd be available. I think they were wrapping up the last season of Dexter when we did this. But he was available and he was totally into it. And it was like, you couldn't get better casting than that.
And again, he's really great in the part. He doesn't sound at all like any of our previous Batman. Everybody else is kind of in that Kevin Conroy ballpark, and we absolutely didn't want him to sound like that. So again, being very familiar with Michael's work, we knew his voice would just be spot-on.
And Tamara — I watched the series she's on, Bones, a lot, and was just struck by how magical her voice is. It's just so strong and so rich. So I just filed it away in the back of my head. "I want to use her someday." And she was perfect for this.
Nrama: That's interesting, to think of you watching television shows and being distracted by the depth of the actor's voice.
Timm: Yeah, it's funny, when I watch TV, it's one of two things. Either I'm, like, mentally trying to remember people who I like, either for their acting ability or simply just their voice quality. Or sometimes, it's kind of like, just kind of, "spot the actor I've worked with." It's like almost any TV series I watch — any current TV series — there's somebody in the supporting cast or in a guest spot, and it's like, "Oh yeah! They played such and such in Green Lantern or Superman or something."
Nrama: You've completed these three promotional episodes for Machinima, and now you have to come up with an entire series for next year. Does next year's web series spin out of the DVD? Will it have an ongoing story? Or will they be self-contained stories? I mean, they'll still be short, right?
Timm: Yeah, the format of [the 2016 web series] is a something unique to me, and a particular challenge. It's 10 seven-minute episodes. I hadn't had a whole lot of experience working in such short lengths. The three promo films were really good ways to test the waters, to figure out how to tell a complete story in such a short length of time.
The series, while every single episode is a stand-along episode, there is also a continuing story arc that ties it all together. That's kind of tricky, trying to figure out exactly how to do that.
We'll be introducing new characters. They're all re-imaginings of existing DC characters. They'll all go under the Gods and Monsters knife and come out transformed.
The same thing for the villains and the antagonists in the series. They're going to be familiar, but not. They're going to be as different as we can make them from their established continuity counterpartts.
Nrama: And all spinning out of the direct-to-DVD film, right?
Timm: Yeah! I mean, it's interesting, it kind of came full circle. When I first came up with this idea, it was going to be an animated series, because they were looking to reboot the Justice League animated show and wanted it to be completely different from what it was previously.
So I was just thinking all over the place and came up with this concept, and pitched it as an animated series. Everybody liked the idea, but they said, yeah, it's probably just a little too radical for network TV and a mass audience.
They said, but, it could possibly work as a DTV — as a one-off. So that's what we did.
And it kind of just grew after that, and ended up becoming a web series.
Nrama: I assume you see a future in this type of format. I mean, it's growing so fast.
Timm: Oh yeah. That's why I'm really excited about it. One aspect of it is that we're kind of in the Wild West right now, in terms of non-traditional TV distribution, with the success of Netflix and all these other different formats — you know, Amazon and Machinima.
It's so great to get outside the rigid formats that TV has locked everybody into for decades, not even just in terms of what kind of content you can do, which is great, but even the length of the series or the length of the episodes.
Yeah, the potential is definitely there for lots more shows like this. So hopefully the thing will be a hit and we can keep doing both this series and maybe other stuff.