Are the ideals of truth, justice and the American way — long known as the credo of Superman — outdated?
In an era of gun-toting terrorists and violent heroes, it's easy to dismiss the seemingly goody-two-shoes attitude of Superman. The Kryptonian's insistence on moral standards doesn't hold the same kind of excitement as the unethical and immodest politicians and stars who get headlines today.
This week's release of Superman vs. The Elite, the latest animated DVD from DC, explores that question by showing what happens when a powerful new group called "The Elite" confronts the ideals that Superman holds dear.
The PG-13 video is adapted from one of the more acclaimed comics in Superman's history: Joe Kelly and Doug Mahnke's 2001 story from Action Comics #775, titled "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?"
Kelly also wrote the screenplay for the DVD, revisiting the theme he first introduced in the comics. But in the new animated DVD, the story tackles themes that go beyond the original superhero-focused story, taking on the issues of politics and the price of power.
The Warner Home Video DVD features the voices of George Newbern as Superman, Pauley Perrette as Lois Lane,Roger Atkin Downes as Manchester Black and David Kaufman as Jimmy Olsen.
Superman vs. The Elite represents a growing list of animation writing credits for Kelly, who's part of the Man of Action Studios team behind Cartoon Network's Ben 10 and the current Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon on Disney XD.
Newsarama talked to Kelly to find out more about how he adapted the Action Comics story for a wider audience and why he thinks this theme has an even greater resonance in today's world.
Newsarama: Joe, for people who may have never read the comic on which this story is based, how would describe the story you're telling in Superman vs. The Elite?
Joe Kelly: It basically boils down to the question: What does Superman represent? And in the comic, a new team of metahumans called The Elite comes onto the scene, and they're these no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners kind of bad-asses. When they first come onto the scene, they're super-slick and powerful, and Superman sees them and thinks, "Well, they're really strong and they might be OK, but I should keep my eye out for them." But very quickly, he finds out that they're willing to go places that he's just not. And they're extremely powerful.
So the story is really about Superman's response to this. If he's going to get in these guys' way — if he's going to stand up against The Elite — will he go to the places that they're willing to go? If The Elite are willing to kill people and torture people and do all the things that an anti-hero would do, would Superman do that if that's what the world wants? In the world of both the comic and the film, the general public is reacting really well to The Elite. When they take a bad guy out, they stay out. They're done forever, as opposed to this sort of revolving door jail system that's common in adventure stories.
So Superman has to confront those issues. And the reader is confronted with those questions as well. And that's the fun of the story to me.
The place where it resonates with people is when you're suddenly confronted with a Superman who's willing to do anything. It's a really scary process. And in the comic, Doug's art brought that out so beautifully.
Nrama: Looking back at the original comic's success, why do you think people responded so well to this theme, of Superman confronting the more modern yet violent approach to fighting crime? It was something that really spoke to comic book readers at the time, wasn't it?
Kelly: Yeah, the timing was ideal. We were all reading darker, anti-hero sorts of books. If you liked Superman, it was like, he's kind of the granddaddy, and he's lame and he's outdated. So to do a story that gave a different perspective and turned some of that stuff upside-down, the timing was right.
I really came at it with a lot of, for lack of a better word, passion. I really was legitimately angered by some stuff that I had read in other books. I think that stuff kind of stuck to the page in a way that people responded to, which doesn't always happen.
Between that and Doug's art, we really had a package that was very visceral, and the story really held onto people. It gripped them. It was unexpected.
Nrama: Do you think the theme will resonate now in animation, beyond that original audience of comic book fans?
Kelly: Yeah, I definitely do. One of the cool things about the adaptation was that we had that question from the beginning. People at DC liked the story, and obviously I'm a very proud of it. And fans responded well to it, but the question was just always, was it too much Inside Baseball? Is it just a story for comic fans?
But at the end of the day, if you ask people on the street about Superman, they just think of him as the first superhero and that he's always been around. They don't think much past the cape and the tights. They know he's bulletproof, but they don't know how to process him in a modern context when they're seeing all these really cool new superhero movies and certainly guys with a darker edge.
So we were looking for ways that would expand it in an animated film that would reach all different types of audience members. And part of that as to take what the Elite represented and expanding it, so that it isn't just about taking down supervillains, but has more to do with the broader world stage.
You'll see in the film that the Elite immediately go from taking down street-level guys to messing with governments. They're ready to step in and say, "If we can solve problems on a superhero level, why don't we just shut down wars and shut down evil governments?" They really want to get involved on the world stage. And that's something I think anyone can understand by just taking a look at the news.
And then trying to figure out how superheroes, and especially Superman, are relevant in that context definitely works in the film, and works for a broader audience, I think.
Nrama: Were you influenced by current world events as you adapted the story?
Kelly: You know, it's funny. My time on Superman is sort of riddled with these not-so-coincidental coincidences with real life. I really embraced this idea that if Superman is going to be "Truth, Justice and the American Way," you have to look at, what does the "American Way" mean? What do we represent as a country? And how are we perceived by the world?All that stuff feeds into his character, I think, in a very cool way. You could use it in a soap-boxy way, which I certainly have done. I'm not ashamed to say that. But I think you can use it in a much more subtle way, a more interesting way too, as you look at the complexities of how America deals with the rest of the world.
So the situations that are set up in Superman vs. The Elite mirror some stuff that's going on in the real world. But it's taken to a pretty far extreme right away. So if you pick any two countries with a localized conflict that might have greater implications, they sort of fit. So it's not directly inspired by any one conflict.
Nrama: Was it tough to adapt it? Did you get some help paring it down?
Kelly: Yeah, I was lucky enough to be asked by DC to work on it myself, which I was really, really excited about, because out of all the mainstream stories that I've worked on, this is one of the ones I'm most proud of.
But I worked with Alan Burnett. And he's fantastic. He's really great to work with. I can't say enough nice stuff about him. He's super smart, and he really got the DNA of the story. He really helped me whittle it down to what was most important, which was the question: "Is Superman still relevant today?"
And really, pretty bluntly, is Superman still relevant in a post-9/11 society?
Nrama: Were you involved at all when the voice cast was doing their work?
Kelly: No, I didn't get to be there when they were recording. After I handed the script in, they went into production. And then the next thing I knew, they sent me a rough cut.
And it was so cool to get to hear the characters. Robin Atkin Downes, who plays Manchester Black, just knocks it out of the park.
And then Pauley Perrette is the coolest Lois I've ever heard, I think. She brought so much emotion to these quiet scenes, because there are a lot of nice character moments in the show, both spoken and just animated. So I'm really impressed by the direction as well. But she gives you a Lois that's funny and sarcastic and sexy and smart, and really deep. You really get the sense of the partnership between her and Clark on an emotional level.
And then shortly after I got that, we were doing the commentary that's going to be on the DVD, and that was the first one of those I've ever done live. This running commentary. And that was really fun.
So I've seen it three or four times now, and there was something new to pick up every time. And I just got more and more excited every time I saw it and heard these voice actors and saw the way they directed the film. I couldn't be happier.
Nrama: For fans of you work, will we see you back on comics? You're pretty busy on animation projects, aren't you?
Kelly: Yeah, Man of Action has been working with Marvel on Ultimate Spider-Man, and we're producers on that, which is keeping us very, very busy. And we're doing some more stuff for them that we can't talk about at the moment.
But I'm trying to get caught up on my creator-owned books, which are not dead. Four Eyes and Mad Dog, I've got chapter 5 of each one in the can. And I'm just moving forward until I have stuff stockpiled, and then they'll be solicited. I learned the hard way not to solicit comics that weren't quite ready.
So all the guys of Man of Action are putting out new creator-owned stuff this year through Image, and I'm hoping that there are going to be a couple more books I can talk about a little bit later. But those will be a few new self-contained books I'll be putting out through Image. And for those, I'll also be stockpiling issues so they can roll out smoothly. I don't want to take advantage of fans' patience.
I really do care about Four Eyes and Mad Dog. They're really close to my heart. So I'm looking forward to getting the next issues out.
Nrama: Then to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about Superman vs. The Elite?
Kelly: Just that I'm really excited about it. I've certainly had the experience where you write these things and you don't know what you're going to see. And I can honestly say that 90 percent of the words I wrote wound up on the screen, and I just couldn't be happier. It's a very cool DVD. DC Direct has been doing just a great job with these films. And they get better and better each time. And I think this one's up there, and not just because I wrote it. I passed off the ball, and then I saw the direction and the art direction and heard the voice acting and all this passion that went into it. And this one really kicks ass. Just as a fan, I'm going, "Wow, they're really raising the bar." I feel like those guys, every time, they're learning something new and trying new stuff. And I'm glad to be part of it.
Nrama: It's a more mature theme than you usually see in this type of animation, isn't it? With more than just the bad guy vs. good guy?
Kelly: Yeah, and I jokingly say that we definitely earned our PG-13. While there is some language and a certain level of violence, which I think is somewhat inherent in a superhero movie, the maturity of the story is also the type of thing that earns that type of rating. There are layers there that make this a more mature theme — some of which were not necessarily in the comic book.
So there are layers of sophistication that I think people are really going to dig and I think they're going to be surprised. The reaction when we showed it at WonderCon was really, really positive. I can't wait to hear what people think.
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