Thanks to the fine folks at Suvudu, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of “All-Star Superman,” the tenth entry in the popular series of DC Universe Animated Original Movies, at the Paley Center. For the uninitiated, the film is based on the acclaimed limited comic series of the same name, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Frank Quitely. Over the course of just twelve issues, Morrison and Quitely distill seventy-plus years of comics into one iconic opus to the Man of Steel as he embarks on a series of great feats and tasks while faced with the fact he’s dying, thanks to a diabolical – and successful – plot by arch nemesis Lex Luthor. To Superman fans, the comic series was a celebration of everything that made him, well, super.
Before the screening, I had a chance to chat with two of the talents behind this film – screenwriter Dwayne McDuffie and casting and dialogue director Andrea Romano. (Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men,” who provided the voice of Lois Lane, was also in attendance. But, such is life, I didn’t get a chance to ask her how she enjoying portraying the character or if she could have any super power, what would she choose. There’s always next time.)
I wasn’t the only person wondering how McDuffie was going to faithfully re-create the comic series in a seventy-six-minute film. Certainly, some things had to be left behind, and McDuffie was both candid and affable about these moments – or entire issues – from the series. To my dismay, I learned from McDuffie that my single favorite page from the series didn’t make it into the film. From late in the series, when Superman knows his days are numbered and is struggling to accomplish as much as he can before dying, in a quieter moment, he stops a teenage girl from killing herself. Meeting her on a building’s ledge, Superman tells the girl, “You’re much stronger than you think you are. Trust me.” Even though Superman is near death, he’s still there to inspire hope in others. That hope is never-ending. McDuffie agreed it was a wonderful scene, going so far as to call it “the emotional core of Superman.” He wrote the scene and tried to find a place for it, but ultimately couldn’t make it work. It ultimately was left out, he said, because “we didn’t want to do the scene and not do it justice.” And, after viewing the film, I can say this great scene from the comic, though absent, wasn’t missed. Of course, McDuffie pointed out the scene still remains in the comic; it’s always going to be there, a bit of rational thought that some of the more curmudgeonly comic fans should take to heart when being up in arms about changes to their favorite stories.
[A brief aside: At this point, McDuffie took notice of the Gary Frank-inspired Superman and Lois Lane tattoo on my forearm. After he called it hardcore, I asked if he had any Superman tattoos, to which he replied, “Not that I can show you.”]
With that in mind, I asked McDuffie if he had any surprises in store for fans of the comic series. He emphatically answered, “Yes.” Surprised, I was. In the final act of the film, McDuffie left an indelible mark on the story – dare I say, even managing to improve upon Morrison’s work. In his own way, he manages to do what Morrison did with the suicide scene, showing how Superman can inspire unlike any other, allowing others to find the goodness inside themselves. I believe the true success of any sort of adaptation is knowing not only when to stay true to the source material, but when to veer from it in order to play to the strengths of the adaptation’s medium. It takes a talented writer with a passion for the source material to pull off such changes. And with this adaptation, McDuffie displays both his reverie for the comic series as well as his keen abilities as a screenwriter.
Tasked with finding the right actors to bring the characters of “All-Star Superman” to life was Andrea Romano, veteran of the animation industry. For this outing, she hired James Denton (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) to play a majestic and powerful Superman. The aforementioned Christina Hendricks offered a Lois Lane who was both strong-willed and gentle in just the right balance, as well as playful when the story called for it (such as when the mythic figures Samson and Atlas were vying for her affection, much to Superman’s ire and Lois’s delight). Rounding out the main cast was Anthony LaPaglia as a truly menacing Lex Luthor, whose hatred of Superman could be felt with every word he spoke. In supporting roles, the film featured Ed Asner, Matthew Gray Gubler, Linda Cardellini, and Alexis Denisof. These names all have something in common – they’re not traditional voice actors. Romano goes after whoever she thinks is right for the role. She told me, “You never know. You’d be astounded sometimes at the level of celebrity that still want to come and play. I’m not afraid to approach anybody. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll say no. Maybe they’ll say yes. That’s how we’ve been lucky enough to get the people we have. I took the chance to say, ‘Would [James] Denton come and play?’”
In the past decade alone, she has hired Mark Harmon, Kyle MacLachlan, Adam Baldwin, and Tim Daly to play Superman in the various animated movies. I asked her how she went about finding the right actor to play Superman for the right story. She described the process as very hard; a bunch of people have input on the casting, but there’s also room for “sitting around with a bunch of TV Guides, paging through and going, ‘Oh, okay, who’s appropriate for it?’” She also maintains a wish list of a bunch of actors she’s always wanted to work with. With regard to Superman, she said, “[He] is such an iconic character. Everybody knows Superman. It’s a big responsibility; you try to make sure you get the right guy.” Fortunately Romano never had to replace a Superman yet, which she’s happy about, as she rightly does not like to ever have to fire an actor. She believes each Superman she’s cast so far has been just right for the role. And in a moment that absolutely endeared me to her, she wanted to know my opinion on the different actors, asking, “So far, so good?”
Curious about other names on Romano’s wishlist, I asked who else she’d like to see voice Superman. I invited her to suggest people she couldn’t ever get, allowing the question to apply to deceased actors. Her reply: “Oh, gosh, wouldn’t it have been great to work with people like Marlon Brando.” Having already played Superman’s father Jor-El in “Superman: The Movie,” I can’t help but wonder what he could have done voicing Superman in an animated film. As for living actors, Romano offered a crowd-pleasing response to who else she’d like to work with, Jon Hamm of “Mad Men,” who she thinks would be remarkable. She said, “I’d cast him in almost anything. He’s just a really versatile, wonderful actor.” So, even though the rumors of Hamm playing Superman in the upcoming live-action film proved false, there’s still hope that he may play the Man of Steel one day.
Following the screening of the film, McDuffie, Romano, and Hendricks appeared on stage for an interesting and laughter-filled Q&A moderated by Gary Miereanu from Warner Home Video. Here, McDuffie elaborated on his intent of the film, not only to show how Superman improves the lives of people who have known him, but also to create a film that could emulate the emotional impact the original comic series had on him. Hendricks revealed that one of her first two moviegoing experiences as a child was “Superman II” (the other was “Clash of the Titans”). And in the highlight of the Q&A, Romano directed the entire audience through the process of “walla-ing,” imitating the murmur of a crowd in the background. In this case, we were re-enacting the background murmur of a prison riot, complete with the sounds of punching, being punched, and coughing from tear gas. Prison riots shouldn’t be this much fun.
Toward the end of the Q&A, McDuffie discussed that a big piece of the film was “our relationship as a culture to the idea of Superman.” This sentiment was felt by many in the theater that night, from one of the audience members talking about first being hooked on the character from watching the old George Reeves show when he was four years old, to Christina Hendricks who explained her desire to do the film, saying, “I just heard Superman and Lois Lane and said, ‘Okay, where do I go?’ I was just excited.” Superman has been around for more than seventy years, and with each new year, more people will discover the character, be it in a comic book, a cartoon, or a live action movie. The inspiration McDuffie spoke of, the way Superman inspires others, extends far past these mediums. The character offers unfettered optimism, which some may find hard to swallow, but can be achieved by anyone who wants it, or wants to try for it. Superman shows us that, and this film is a fine reminder of how we all can keep reaching for something greater.
The film will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download on February 22, 2011. The comic series on which it’s based is collected in two volumes and is in stores now. If you’ve ever been curious about Superman, but never known where to start, you can’t go wrong with either incarnation of “All-Star Superman.”
Randall J Lotowycz is the author of the DC Comics Super Heroes and Villains Fandex. A graduate of the New School University’s Creative Writing MFA program, he’s currently at work on his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn with two cats, and he’s apparently got a hardcore Superman and Lois Lane tattoo on his left forearm.