Screenwriter Ernie Altbacker is no stranger to adapting beloved DC Comics stories into animation. A few years ago he had the unenviable task of translating the 12-issue Batman: Hush comic book story into an 82-minute film. For Injustice, Altbacker faced yet another huge challenge in condensing a massively successful video game franchise and years worth of comic book tie-in material into an animated film around the same runtime. No pressure, right?
Ahead of the release of Injustice, The Beat had the opportunity to chat with the screenwriter. Altbacker discussed his process of bringing to the world of Injustice to animation, what ended on the cutting room floor, and much more.
Taimur Dar: So full confession, I’m not a huge video game player. I’m more into comics but I’m familiar enough with the Injustice franchise through osmosis since it has such a large fanbase. Going into this project, were you a video game player at all or what familiarity did you have with the property?
Ernie Altbacker: Well, I had to go cold turkey on video games about 20-30 years ago because I wasn’t getting enough writing done. So I didn’t play the video game. I did watch the cut scenes. But most of this is from Tom Taylor’s Injustice prequel. The video game is obviously fantastically successful but I came to it through the comics more. Since it’s a different format with an animated film, we have a limited budget as opposed to unlimited pages of a comic and five years of stuff. We did have to chisel away one story that we could do. That was a little bit of a civil war but there were entire sections that we had to hit the pause button on because we just had no room.
Dar: When I interviewed you for the Batman: Hush animated film at SDCC 2019, I remember you saying in adapting that massive storyline the throughline for you was the Batman/Catwoman relationship. For Injustice, I assume the throughline was the Superman/Batman relationship and to a certain extent Wonder Woman. Is that indeed the throughline and if not, what was?
Altbacker: You’re totally correct. The most important storyline is the Batman/Superman relationship. And then they each have a side relationship. Superman loses the love of his life and then there’s that him and Wonder Woman relationship. Batman loses basically a child and you have the side relationship of Catwoman with him. Those two buttresses hold them up through their difficulties. Obviously, Wonder Woman starts to have second thoughts about what they’re doing at a certain point.
You remember the Ares scene with Wonder Woman?
Dar: Oh yeah! I’m just around that part right now.
Altbacker: I put that in the script and it got to storyboard but they had to cut the entire thing. Maybe one day you’ll get to see the storyboards. It’s such a great that was in the book. It really puts where Wonder Woman’s head is at about this whole thing. There are so many great moments and great stuff. Hopefully, there will be more.
Dar: With comic book projects, particularly DC Comics fans, it can often feel like a Goldilocks syndrome. They complain if it’s too dark like the Zack Snyder films or if it’s too funny and lighthearted. So it’s difficult to find that ‘just right” balance. For Injustice, as dark as it gets there is definitely some much needed levity. How do you maintain that serious tone but still retain that sense of fun inherent with superheroes?
Altbacker: That’s exactly right. You have to do that. I find with some of the movies that go for the total seriousness, if you don’t have the humor or wink at the camera sometimes or better yet have a character totally in character say something funny, it seems less real to me. I strive to get in some of the humor. Plus it’s a heavy movie. If you don’t have the laughs in there then it becomes really grim. Usually, I can’t help myself but throw in the jokes.
Dar: This Injustice film features a huge cast of characters. Some are taken off the board pretty early in different ways like Flash, Shazam, Aquaman. How did you decide which characters to include in the film and which to take out?
Altbacker: There is a character limit. We’ve talked about the most important character relationship is Superman vs. Batman. Even then we’ve got five other relationships, 2-3 we haven’t talked about like Damian/Nightwing [or] Damian and his grandfather [Ra’s al Ghul] vs. Batman. I would’ve loved to have Flash in his regular role. He has such a strong throughline in comic how he believes in Superman and then he starts to not believe in Superman. But there’s no way to get that in. Same thing with the Green Arrow/Black Canary romance. It’s too giant for the one movie. If you have a comic book and once it’s rolling you say, “I need this amount of pages and I might need more pages,” you can do that. But you can’t do it with an animated movie. You can’t just go, “We need about 30 more minutes to really do this thing justice.” That’d just laugh at you [like] it was your first day. These decisions are made right at the beginning. The choice isn’t, “Well, they should have obviously done it as ten 44-minute animated episodes.” I would have loved that! [It’s] one movie or no movie. Some Injustice or no Injustice is the actual choice. I’m always coming down to some is better than none.
Altbacker: But if you can do it where it’s popular and the marketing and publicity see, “Oh my God, this is really cool!” That’s when they make something else. That’s when they go, “Maybe this is a 10 episode live-action thing that we’ll put on HBO Max. There’s certainly a lot here and that guy was getting yelled at because he didn’t put enough of it in!” This could be the proof that gets you that show.
Dar: Fingers crossed!
Altbacker: I’m hoping and I probably won’t get to work on it so I’ll just be a fan watching!
Dar: The obvious thing most people likely expect is to have a Superman/Batman fight in the last act which is old hat at this point. There is definitely a conflict at the end but they don’t actually settle things in a physical fight. Was that intentional or just happenstance?
Altbacker: It’s tough because if you write Superman to his full ability, he really should win. So Batman kinda knows that and wants to avoid the head-to-head fight until he can come up with some sort of kickass plan. Superman has other big worldwide things that he has to deal with including the country going against him. We do need to have the scope and just worked towards the fight at the end. It’s more team vs. team and even then they don’t fight against each other, they unite against a threat. Batman in this one I think more realistically goes, “I need somebody else because this guy will kill me.” But there’s really no one else who can go against Superman. Hopefully, they’ll watch the movie and see!
Injustice is available now on Digital, Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD