As I mentioned in my SDCC piece for The Death of Superman animated feature, whether or not you were alive when the original comic storyline hit shelves, it made a such major a splash not just with comic fans but the mainstream media that it’s still remembered to this day. The followup story “Reign of the Supermen!” most assuredly a product of its time during the radical 90’s, has become a cult classic in the years since it debuted. In a world without the Man of Steel, “Reign” saw the appearance of four pretender Supermen attempting to take on the moniker—Steel (The Man of Steel), Cyborg Superman (The Man of Tomorrow), Superboy (The Metropolis Kid), and Eradicator (The Last Son of Krypton)—before the original Big Blue Boy Scout returned from the dead sporting a new black costume and a mullet. I did say this was the 90’s after all. Though elements of “Reign” have popped up in other media, fans have been clamoring for a proper adaptation with all four replacement Supermen on screen together. Warner Bros. finally listened with the Reign of the Supermen animated feature. During New York Comic Con, I had to chance to talk with some of the film’s cast/crew including executive producer James Tucker, screenwriters Jim Krieg and Tim Sheridan, character designer Phil Bourassa, and voice actors Patrick Fabian (Hank Henshaw/Cyborg Superman), Toks Olagundoye (Cat Grant), and Nyambi Nyambi (Martian Manhunter).
Unlike the original comics which had the real estate of publishing through the four main ongoing Superman books, the limited runtime of a feature film obviously meant losing extraneous plot points from the comics. “We had to boil it down to what would fit and give each of the four Supermen their equal due yet have a complete story. So yeah, some things got truncated a little bit,” said producer James Tucker. It’s not so much imitating key plots but rather replicating the emotions and themes of the story according to Tucker.
With Reign as the latest entry into DC’s shared Animated Movie Universe, Tucker likens the adaptation process to what Marvel Studios has accomplished with its Marvel Cinematic Universe, particularly Captain America: Civil War. “I’ve done adaptations that veered radically from the source material. Hell, Marvel does it all the time! Civil War bears very little resemblance to the comics, but I didn’t hear a lot of people complaining. It was a good movie. At the end of the day, my job is to make a good movie, not to transcribe the comics.”
Emmy-award winning character designer Phil Bourassa echoed Tucker’s sentiments in modernizing the look of 90’s zeitgeist. “Nothing is a 1:1 adaptation. If there are areas where I can improve it without changing any important themes or landmarks then I do that. There are certain choices that may be superfluous to the themes but if they hinder the visual then I get rid of it.”
With a character as iconic as Superman, you can pretty much assume the general audience is well versed enough in his origin, so then challenge becomes explaining the backgrounds of four completely new Supermen, particularly the convoluted continuity of Cyborg Superman and Eradicator. Screenwriters Jim Krieg and Tim Sheridan were up to the task realizing that the movie had to be more than a Wikipedia page. “It’s a story and it’s got to be a simple story. And there are FOUR of them, so they all have to be simple stories,” said Krieg. “With this, the first thing we did when we walked into the room was throw everything out. What are the things that we absolutely need? What are the things that make this story what it is? And then you get to sort of rebuild it and put all those pieces back together in a way that it’s a movie,” said Sheridan.
It’s interesting to see how some of the themes in the “Reign” comic are still relevant today, such as America’s obsession with reality television and celebrity branding best epitomized with Superboy. Created to encapsulate the MTV Generation , Superboy’s egotistical behavior in the original comic book and filming his heroic exploits for entertainment purposes track perfectly with today’s youth culture. Indeed, Bourassa leaned into retaining the flamboyant design like the leather jacket, haircut, and shades (no earring however!) admitting that it makes sense from a narrative perspective. For a video featurette, inn summing up each of the Supermen, Krieg once described Superboy as if he was raised by the Kardashians. Joking about his insights into the teenage mind as a father of a teenager himself, Krieg believes that Superboy would probably spend $900 on a pair of sneakers. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out this fun tidbit, but funny enough Krieg and Sheridan actually worked on an episode of the Justice League Action animated series titled “Keeping Up with the Kryptonians” that imagined Supergirl as a spoiled celebrity in the vein of a Kardashian. Talk about kismet!
The lighthearted nature of Superboy contrasts drastically with the aptly named Cyborg Superman, a favorite among quite a few of the crew. Of all the replacement Supermen, Bourassa found Cyborg Superman the most challenging to design in that it required having, “a horrific aspect to him but he also has to be sympathetic. There’s a complexity to the design but it has to be something animators can emote with.” Keeping specifics close to his chest, Sheridan likewise cited the intricacy of Cyborg Superman’s character both visually and emotionally calling his arc “gut-wrenching.”
For the voice of Cyborg Superman, Patrick Fabian (whom AMC viewers probably recognize as Bob Odenkirk’s nemesis Howard Hamlin in Better Call Saul) clearly has a knack for portraying villains. Fabian believes the deep resonance and depth to his voice lent itself naturally to playing such an inhuman character. Surprisingly, this is actually Fabian’s first outing in the field of animation voice work. After sending out auditions and developing a relationship with voice/casting director Wes Gleason over the years, Fabian finally managed to book the role as Cyborg Superman. He did concede that as a fledgling voice performer he relied heavily on Gleason to instruct him on proper technique so as to not damage his throat. Despite lacking intimate familiarity with the original “Reign of the Supermen!” comics, Fabian did seem to have a smidgen of wicked delight on his face upon learning that Cyborg Superman “kicked Superboy’s ass.”
Similar to Fabian, Toks Olagundoye, the voice of Lois Lane’s coworker and confidante Cat Grant, is a performer not deeply entrenched in the world of comics. Nevertheless Olagundoye, known for portraying Hayley Shipton in Castle, relishes the opportunity to portray another strong female character like Grant. “I enjoy Cat. I think she is just kick-ass and I like her energy. I play a lot of refreshing female roles in that they don’t want to dull it down. They want more energy which I love.”
In stark opposition to Fabian and Olagndoye, actor Nyambi Nyambi wears his comic fandom on his sleeve illustrated by the fact that before he was invited to appear at NYCC as a guest, Nyambi had already purchased his pass, coming every year as a regular attendee since 2010! Between voicing John Stewart/Green Lantern in the LEGO DC Super-Villains video game and Martian Manhunter in Reign of the Supermen, Nyambi is living the dream. As a fan himself, it’s not surprising then to hear Nyambi took inspiration from Carl Lumbly’s performance in the Justice League animated series, ascribing Lumbly as the definitive Martian Manhunter.
Reign of the Supermen is set for release in early 2019