Despite its admittedly byzantine continuity and history, the Legion of Super-Heroes remains a beloved property from DC Comics with a dedicated fanbase. In the last few years DC Comics has certainly been pushing the Legion back into prominence with a relaunched series from writer Brian Michael Bendis and Ryan Sook as well as appearances in other media like the most recent season of Young Justice. While the comic series may have been short-lived, we haven’t seen the last of the Legion. To wit, the latest DC animated original movie will spotlight the team with the new Legion of Super-Heroes animated film.
Ahead of the release of the Legion of Super-Heroes animated film, we had the chance to speak with some of the filmmakers including screenwriter Sophie Campbell, executive producer Butch Lukic, and director Jeff Wamester.
Taimur DarDar: Legion of Super-Heroes has a dedicated fanbase but they’d be the first to admit that it’s a huge property that’s right up there with X-Men in terms of convoluted history. How did you approach and tackle such an enormous franchise?
Josie Campbell: I’m part of that Legion fandom. I really like the characters. I got into the ‘80s and ‘90s stuff. I really loved R.E.B.E.L.S. and L.E.G.I.O.N. [and] I’m a big Vril Dox fan. For me some of it was throwing in the characters that I really loved. I did this deep dive of the omnibuses and collection that I got from Warner Bros. of Legion comics. I would read a little bit from each era and go, “Would stood out to me? What character or personality instantly caught my attention?” What stood out to me above everything else?” I didn’t have to put in a million years of Legion history. I was looking for that greatest hits version of what stood out the most and what would help support the story that I want to tell the most. The fact that there is so much Legion history wasn’t a problem. It was a boon and benefit.
Dar: Even though they’re from two different publishers, Legion of Super-Heroes and X-Men have had this fascinating relationship between each other, largely from artist Dave Cockrum drawing both books and introducing Marvel’s analogue characters with the Imperial Guard. This film has a certain X-Men feel with the Legion Academy and I definitely got a Wolverine vibe from the character Timber Wolf. I’d love to know if X-Men was in your head as you wrote this film?
Campbell: [Laughs]. I did pull a lot from the Dave Cockrum era. Like you said he went from Legion to X-Men. There are some Legion costumes that I’m like, “That is just Nightcrawler [with] the shoulder pads!” The thing I like about the Legion is the weird factor that is really fun and cool. It is a little reminiscent of it [X-Men] in that they all have these very strange powers. [The Legion] have that rule where nobody is allowed to have the same power set which means you’ve got Arms-Fall-Off-Boy or Bouncing Boy. You’ve got all these people with powers that you’d say, “That doesn’t seem helpful for a superhero to have!” It’s that weirdness that makes it so much fun and I think the comparison comes in there because they’re different and strange. It makes you have to think about the characters and the way they fight a little bit differently. And it makes you think about being different and what it means to be a character that doesn’t have a normal power or personality or backstory. But you all get to be a little weird together and that weirdness saves the world.
Dar: I love when oddball and quirky comic characters get the spotlight especially in media outside of comics. The best example is James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and characters like Polka-Dot Man. This Legion animated film definitely has some odd duck characters, so it brings me no small amount of joy to see Arms Fall Off Boy make his animated debut. How did you go about assembling the Legion roster for this film?
Campbell: Some of it was because I was using Legion Academy I wanted to pull characters that were either more famous or odder than most. Arms Fall Off Boy was a given because I just love him so much. It’s also so funny to me that The Suicide Squad has its own version [of the character]. He’s really having a renaissance right now. I wanted to pull in characters that either have strange powers or don’t quite have a grip on their powers. I also wanted them to be a little fish out of water. Supergirl doesn’t quite feel like she fits in on Earth. These are characters who feel even in this weird 31st century that they don’t fit in. Because of that they can all sympathize with each other and make a better world for themselves where they do feel like they belong.
Dar: Going into this project, was it always part of this shared universe that Butch Lukic has developed or was this Legion project envisioned as a stand-alone film?
Campbell: For this one, Jim [Krieg] and Butch had asked me if I would be interested in writing something with Legion and Supergirl. They didn’t know what. They knew by the point that I started writing it that it was part of the shared universe. I guess I had my cake and ate it too because you’ve got the very beginning of the film that touches on things that happened in previous films, especially the Justice Society: World War II film that’s fantastic, but then it gets to be its own movie and story. I got to tie-in with the other movies and then write a brand-new story with characters that had never been in the other DVDs. That was really, really fun.
Dar: Like any project, you only have so much real estate for what you can include so certain characters don’t have as much screen time as others. I wasn’t expecting to adore both Phantom Girl and Proty as much as I did, it’s testament how much impact they left on me despite short screen time. Was there anything you had to cut or shorten or wished you had more time to explore?
Campbell: I had the privilege of knowing how long these movies were. I wasn’t going into this blind. I also have the privilege of working as a TV writer and producer in animation. I kind of know how much you can put into a script before they’re drawing things that will just be cut. Everything that happens in this movie has to support the main story and characters. It let me write a very focused and leaner story. The only things that were maybe cut were some extra action. For the most part, the core and heart of the story is all there. The short version is I wrote to what the length would be and tried to be economical. There’s not going to be a moment where it’s not going to illuminate a character or scene. Watching the movie [I said], “Damn, this is everything I wrote.” Jeff knocked it out of the park.
Dar: You’re no stranger to the Legion of Super-Heroes having directed the episode “New Kids in Town” from Superman: Animated Series. I believe you said going into that episode you weren’t entirely familiar with the Legion comic and asked friends about it. So I wanted to check if that was indeed the case.
Butch Lukic: After that show I did get more familiar with the Legion but I never read it as a comic because when you’re a kid you can only buy so many books. At the time I had a good friend named Phil who’s been a fan since he was a kid. I always asked him about the Legion. I did read some of the stories afterwards in the ‘90s. With this Legion [film] I got ahold of him again just to carry me through on some of the other Legion characters I wasn’t familiar with. He knows all the characters and most of the storylines. He became a good trusted guide for me to pick his brain. Josie did her research and followed through on these characters who were going to be the Academy kids. I’m familiar with most of them now but in that period when we did that episode I only had to know the main three— Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Chameleon Boy.
Dar: DC Comics relaunched the Legion of Super-Heroes book a few years back with writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Ryan Sook. The designs of the in the Legion animated film are definitely reminiscent of Sook’s redesigns. Did Sook indeed inspire the designs for the characters?
Lukic: That’s exactly right. Those are the books that I had so when Josie was writing the script. I was already reading that storyline with Ryan Sook’s art. I figured, “This look is great. I love the style and tones.” It’s not that we followed Ryan Sook’s designs on the characters but some of the background styling is closer to what those guys were going in the comic book.
Dar: What was the development history of this Legion of Super-Heroes animated movie?
Lukic: This is part of the whole package [of films] that we presented to Jim Lee. This was #6 or #7. At that point [we thought] we need[ed] Supergirl and we probably should put her together with the Legion. At the time we originally pitched these storylines [and] the running order of the films, we didn’t have the storyline yet or who would be the main villain [for Legion of Super-Heroes]. The hooking up of what you see in this storyline we didn’t even have that yet. We did Justice Society and then used elements in that to hook this up. We also needed Supergirl as a character for where we were going to go with these storylines so we had to build her up as a character.
Dar: That leads perfectly to my next question. Brainiac, a character introduced in the Justice Society: World War II film plays a large role in this Legion animated film. When you were working on Justice Society, were you intentionally setting up future films or was that just a happy accident?
Lukic: That became more of a possible coincidence. Josie pulled that in with Jim [Krieg] once she brought in the Dark Circle element. We had different ideas of villains for this story, but I didn’t want to go down that road with the supervillains that were in the Legion books. So that’s kind of where we found this element.
Dar: I was really delighted by how fun and hilarious this Legion of Super-Heroes animated film was. Your previous DC animated projects like Justice Society and Green Lantern deal with heavy themes of war so there’s not as much room for humor. Is comedy something you enjoy working into these projects and how do you approach humor?
Lukic: This one was definitely going to be geared towards the ‘80s style of teenage comedy because of the characters. That’s all Josie and the way she writes. She already had the humor element built in. Obviously, it isn’t all humor. It is a darker storyline. But I think there’s a lot of value to all these characters interacting with each other. It makes anyone watching it feel like you know these characters right off the bat.
Dar: That Legion episode of Superman: TAS I mentioned is definitely a send-up to classic ‘80s films like The Terminator and Back to the Future. You just mentioned ‘80s style teen films influenced this film so I’d love to know any specific inspirations.
Lukic: Sixteen Candles and films by John Hughes. Giving it a little bit of that type of feel to give it more bounce when we had all the school moments with Brainiac 5 and [Supergirl] going back and forth. It was a natural feel to approach it. Also, the characters’ voices are a lot lighter than what we’ve been doing. That keeps the element of humor going throughout this whole production.
Dar: You’ve worked in a variety of genres from dark gritty crime noir to big epic cosmic sci-fi adventures. Do you lean towards a particular genre?
Lukic: I do but most of the time I [have] never gotten to do them. I’ve been doing Batman for decades and I love it. I like the dark crime stuff absolutely. But the science fiction stuff I like too. But it’s sometimes hard to get what you really want out of the animation to make it look as great as a science fiction film. I love Star Trek so some of that feeling is where I like to go with these things. There’s a film coming up where there’s a couple of other genres that we never really get to do in animation that I got to put in one full film. I finally got to do a couple of those genres within this superhero storyline. I’m getting to finish off things that I always wanted but we could never pitch them and get any follow through because most of those genres people wouldn’t be interested on the money end.
Dar: Legion of Super-Heroes is a huge franchise with a dedicated franchise. Before this project how would you describe your familiarity with the Legion?
Jeff Wamester: I read quite a few of the comics when I was much younger. I didn’t follow it through all the iterations. But I used to pick it up all the time.
Dar: I’m a big fan of body horror like films by David Cronenberg or John Carpenter. Based on last act of the film, I have a strong suspicion you are as well. I won’t spoil too much so people can see it on their own, but I definitely got some Frankenstein and John Carpenter’s The Thing vibes. Could you talk about incorporating the horror genre?
Wamester: [Laughs]. I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen The Thing once or twice. I had done quite a bit of the boarding in that section. Those movies are incredible inspirations.
Dar: I was really delighted by how fun and hilarious this Legion animated film was. Action and comedy are two different skill sets. Some directors find one easier over the other. Is comedy something you enjoyed with this Legion animated film?
Wamester: Personally, I really enjoy action comedies. But I think any real story has both feelings in it. When you’re trying to make a story you try to write true to life. As humans, emotions run from humor to dark. That’s all a part of it. To have that all in a movie rings true to an audience versus having everything be serious all the time. I adhere to the idea that there’s tragedy in comedy and there’s comedy in tragedy. I’ve done other action comedy shows before and I find a lot of times the funniest humor comes from the heart and from a place of trauma or tragedy.
Dar: As I was watching the film, one thing that really stood out to me was how incredibly expressive the characters are particularly in their faces. Was something an important aspect in the animation for this project?
Wamester: Absolutely. That’s something we try to hit as much as we can. We don’t have control over the directing animation because we do the “pre” and “post.” A lot of that we hopefully when we do the boards we’re making that as clear as possible to the [overseas] animators. It’s good to hear that a lot of that came through. We always try but we don’t have 100% control over that. We try to push for those emotions especially with Supergirl. We want her to wear it on the surface. Her emotions are very much on her sleeve throughout the movie.
Dar: When you work in a project that’s part of a shared universe, you want to try give it a distinct voice but still feel a cohesive with what’s been established. The common criticism of many MCU films is they lack distinction, so that’s why I love recent Doctor Strange film when it goes full Sam Raimi. How you wanted to make this different from previous DC animated movies in this shared universe.
Wamester: A lot of what brings the cohesion are two things. Obviously the look but also these characters have a full range of doubt and problems. They’re not just superheroes but they have their own set of damages. Those are the two main things that we’re pushing at.
Dar: The animation industry pretty easily adapted to working remotely. With things opening back up are you still working from home or have you been going into the office at all?
Wamester: 95% of our office works remotely. There are a few of us, like me, who come into the office. But there’s only a couple of people we have in the office. Most people are out. Thankfully animation is one of those things that we can do remotely pretty well.
Legion of Super-Heroes arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital on February 7, 2023