Comic publishers are typically hesitant to give superheroes children since it ages the characters. Yet DC Comics struck gold when the acclaimed comics creative team of Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason paired up Jonathan Kent/Superboy, the son of Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman, and Damian Wayne/Robin, the son of Bruce Wayne and assassin Talia al Ghul, in the pages of their acclaimed Superman run. The team-up was so successful that it spawned a Super Sons comic series written by Tomasi with art by Jorge Jimenez featuring lighthearted adventures of the “best frenemies forever.” So it won’t come as surprise that a CG-animated Battle of the Super Sons movie has been produced from Warner Bros. Animation. Ahead of its release, The Beat had the fortune to chat with the film’s cast and crew.
According to producer Rick Morales, “This one was odd in that I was approached to do something else. It had to do with teen heroes and I didn’t feel like it was right for me. As soon as I read the Superman run by Pete Tomasi when he brought in Jonathan Kent and then they did the Super Sons book, I said, ‘We got to do this at some point.’ I had this in my head as something that we should do at Warner Bros. for years. I didn’t pitch it because I knew there were other artists that were pitching Superman projects so I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes. But it wasn’t Super Sons. So they approached me to do this other film and I said, ‘I don’t think we should do this but I have this other thing.’ And they said, ‘OK’ as simple as that.”
Having collaborated on numerous animation projects together over the years, the working relationship between Morales and screenwriter Jeremy Adams has only grown stronger. As Adams recounted, “We had done a LEGO DC Aquaman movie. He said he wanted to do Super Sons and he handed me the Tomasi trade. I read it and you get the flavor of this Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer adventure thing. We just kept talking what this thing would be about for years. We had talked about in such a granular level that I had the outline done in a couple of days.”
Regarding the decision to produce Battle of the Super Sons with CG animation, “It fell into my lap as a series of fortunate events,” revealed Morales. “When we crewed up and began working on this with the artists, we were going to do this as a traditional animated movie. But then I got a call from an executive who showed me these CG animated tests from Studio Mir. We’ve worked with them before. I looked at them and thought it was great and thought we could do it with this. Because the scale of Super Sons is not as big as some of the other massive DC films that we do, it seemed like a testing ground.”
Part of the appeal for this particular cel-shaded animation style for Morales was its ability to closely replicate comic book aesthetics, specifically the art of Patrick Gleason and Jorge Jimenez. “Both of them were super inspiring. Jorge is just such a great artist. That Super Sons [comic book] has so much lively expressions and you understand who the characters are visually straight away. I thought it would have been a disservice to the property to not use what was already there and working so well. The CG meant we could get it closer to Jorge’s work.”
In fact, Morales had hoped to recruit Jimenez to provide art for the film’s opening title sequence but “for whatever reasons couldn’t make it happen”. However, the filmmakers were able to enlist the services of legendary comic artist Michael Golden instead. “Michael Golden is no consolation prize. After that it was, ‘Who else can we get?’ If I’m shooting for the stars, Michael Golden was at the top of my list. Thankfully he was willing and able to do it. He’s always been one of my favorite comic book artists of all time. It was a huge honor to have him to do it and to see it come in.”
To helm Battle of the Super Sons, there was no one more qualified than Matt Peters. “He was doing some storyboards for me on Beware the Batman. He’s a good storyteller and he gets it,” praised Morales. “When I have an opportunity to produce it makes sense that I take one of my best storyteller guys and bring him along. For this project he’s the biggest Superman fan I know. Matt knows everything. It was a no-brainer as soon as this was greenit.”
The entire film is a love letter to the original Richard Donner Superman movie with references sprinkled throughout. “The Richard Donner movie is playing on a loop inside my mind all the time,” admitted Peters. “Anytime I work on a Superman project I’m always trying to infuse that kind of energy. Jeremy is also a fan of that movie. He’s got that enthusiasm. It felt like coming home. Rick’s also a fan of the movie. It felt like I belonged. For me it was making sure my love didn’t become too obnoxious.”
Pitched as “Monster Squad meets The Goonies,” Battle of the Super Sons harkens back to that ‘80s era of cinema in terms of tone. “I’m a product of that age. Those are the movies that shaped me and launched a thousand adventures,” said Adams. “We wanted to instill that in this movie. I felt like that was the vibe of the Tomasi stuff. It was these two boys having adventures.” Interesting enough, Adams originally envisioned Super Sons as an all-ages G-rated project. However, leaning into the vibe of classic ‘80s PG-rated films actually opened it up for him and the other filmmakers.
For instance, the inclusion of the parasitic alien Starro afforded the opportunity to explore horror. “For myself I never approached it whether it would be PG-13 or R-rated. I played to the genre and to the hill to make sure it would have the emotional reaction that the audience would want to get,” said Peters. “You’ll have a moment of body horror that comes right out of John Carpenter’s The Thing with Starro climbing out of someone’s mouth. But we also put in moments of heartfelt companionship between Jonathan and Damian. The movie pops and moves and feels like so many different genres blended together. We played it sincerely from moment to moment.”
To voice the titular characters, the filmmakers cast Jack Dylan Grazer and Jack Griffo for the roles of Jonathan Kent/Superboy and Damian Wayne/Robin respectively. This isn’t Grazer’s first rodeo in the DC Universe having played bestie Freddy Freeman in the live-action Shazam film. Likewise, Damian is well within Griffo’s wheelhouse after playing Max Thunderman in the Nickelodeon comedy The Thundermans. It’s a character not too dissimilar to Damian Wayne. As Griffo explained, “Max had a rough relationship with his family. Max wanted to be a supervillain in a family of superheroes. Damian was almost a deeper, darker version of Max Thunderman. I’m no stranger to playing a character who’s the black sheep of the family and goes against the grain.”
For actual married couple Laura Bailey and Travis Willingham, who have voiced Lois Lane and Clark Kent/Superman in the past, Battle of the Super Sons was particularly meaningful since it was not only their first time voicing the iconic characters in the same project but also as parents. “This was the first role I’ve gotten to play as a mom where [Lois] was a mom as well. It’s really fun to play that aspect and to see that aspect audiences haven’t gotten to see before. Lois is so capable and intelligent in her day-to-day life. In these moments with Jonathan you get to see her bumble that’s so honest. It’s wonderful to see both sides of this character.”
— Laura Bailey (@LauraBaileyVO) October 27, 2013
Since Jonathan Kent and Damian Wayne are relatively new characters within the scope of DC publishing, they’re not known by the general public outside of comic fandom. That was certainly the case for both Grazer and Griffo. Nevertheless, researching comics was instrumental in preparing for their parts. Although not a comic reader, Grazer was a fan of the Justice League Unlimited animated series. His enthusiasm for being in this project was so great that he joked he was willing just to provide Krypto’s barking.
In contrast, Battle of the Super Sons rekindled childhood memories for Willingham. “Superman was one of the very first children’s books I remember being in my room. I remember going to the public library in Lakewood, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, and reading file boxes full of old Superman comics and loving the lore.” As a child of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was no better time for Willingham to be a reader of Superman comics. “‘The Death of Superman’ arc and everything lead up to it and the ‘Reign of the Supermen.’ I loved that era. I was in a Target shopping with my mom and as we headed to the checkout area all of the black covers were on shelves. It was just such a huge deal. He’s always meant a lot to me. It was a pretty big part of my childhood.”
The pandemic has presented challenges for everyone’s work life, including those in the voiceover industry. Thankfully for Grazer who voice acted in the Pixar animated film Luca, the prolific animation studio provided him the equipment which he then was able to keep and repurpose for other animation projects like Super Sons which he recorded in his mom’s closet.
The Bailey/Willingham household was also forced to adjust their living space for the needs of their careers. “We turned our master closet into our home booth because it’s in the middle of the house and doesn’t have any outside walls. It’s very, very quiet and insulated,” described Bailey. “I said, ‘It’s fine. It’s maybe a month of not being able to access half my clothes.’ Here we are three years later and we still have a booth instead of a closet. It’s a great setup honestly. I’ve gotten so used to recording here that it’s strange now to go into a studio.”
Given the how well it plays in the final version, it’s hard to believe the two didn’t record together. “Having been married to my husband for as long as I have, I’ve gotten to witness his performances and work with him so often that even when I’m recording something and he hasn’t recorded yet I can hear his voice in his head. I have a pretty good idea of what he’s going to do with his lines so it feels like I’m recording with him even I’m not. He still continually surprises me with the things he does. I think it’s so wonderful to know someone that well that you feel like they’re in the room even though they’re not.”
Bailey also cited the guidance of voice director Wes Gleason as integral to the process, a sentiment that was shared by her spouse. “He and I go back a number of years before he worked on the DC properties like a few interactive titles,” said Willingham. “There’s also that kinship when you started on ‘smaller projects’ and are able to work together later on larger projects. He’s also a huge nerd so there’s a certain geeking out and fan element. The best thing about a great director is someone who can find shorthand. That’s how Wes is so fantastic. He just translates so well to so many different actors”
Moreover, to help Willingham find his Superman voice, Gleason provided this key direction. “‘Think of your son. Don’t try to talk to Jonathan Kent. Let me hear you talk to your son and hear what that sounds like.’”
It’s not surprising that the film resonated for Bailey and her own parenting. “It’s tough wanting your parents to be around all the time and knowing it’s not possible. It’s something I struggle with because I want to be with our son every moment that I can be. Recently I’ve started saying no to certain projects more than I would have in the past because it will take me too much away from being around our child.”
Interesting enough, both Griffo and Grazer compared their own fathers to those of their respective characters with Grazer recalling a childhood image of his father, a former Hollywood movie teamster, as Superman. Conversely, Griffo described his father’s emotional availability along the same lines as Batman but knows the love is still there.
As Griffo elaborated on the Batman/Damian relationship, “In the beginning he doesn’t feel a sense of belonging or purpose or love from his dad. It’s beautiful because it shows the power of a father and a son because even though they don’t know each other, he is willing to be there by his side and change his whole mentality. I let the relationship with his dad inform everything. Damian is going through a lot on his own. Everyone knows his father but he doesn’t.”
Though initially opposed to each other, the Jonathan and Damian relationship begins to take shape through this shared human experience. “There’s this feeling of being constantly on the outside,” said Adams. “And you start to think that maybe you can’t communicate the right way in order to fit in. I can understand that with Damian. Jonathan is coming into his own with his super powers. At least he has this upbringing with parents that love him. The way Jon interacts with Damian I tried to approach the way that my mom told me to find something you can like about someone even it’s the color of his shoelaces. That’s who Jonathan is. He’s this farm boy who has this open heart even though Damian is a jerk. As Jonathan understands who Damian is, there’s a real friendship that forms.”
It amuses Adams that he’s made a career out of his interests that he was bullied for as a kid. By contrast, Willingham didn’t face the same kind of ridicule. “When I started to go through growth spurts in middle and high school of course coaches came around me to play basketball and football,” said the voice actor. “I was this nerdy competitive swimmer growing up. I played a little bit of football and found a lot of love for that sport as well. It never took away from my love of the nerdier things like comics and video games and storytelling. There was a natural need to defend that in the areas where sports were more prevalent in locker rooms and sticking up for friends who didn’t play. I became sort of a bridge between the two worlds and also an ambassador.”
Much in the same vein as Ted Lasso, Superman’s positive nature is largely what appeals to Willingham. “I always bumped against people whose biggest critique of Superman is he’s unrelatable because he’s invulnerable and he can do anything. Batman with all his demons is the character that you love. To me Superman always represents what the best of us can be. It’s very much Captain America or what people consider old fashioned. I don’t buy into that. While the man has the responsibility of the world on his shoulders, the great thing about this movie is that it shows that when your son needs you, you have to be able to go macro but also micro. You have to come down and focus on your family and whatever is happening under your roof and make sure you prioritize what should matter the most to you in the world which is your son. That’s a wild concept especially for a man who can see a tsunami in Japan. Being able to show that softer and empathic side where his walls come down was really important to me.”
Obviously the question I’m sure that is on every fan’s mind is the possibility of a sequel. And while the filmmakers would love nothing more, it all comes down to the success of this first outing. But if the tremendous reaction when the film was screened in front of a full NYCC crowd is any indication, I have a feeling this won’t be the last animated adventure for the Super Sons.
Batman and Superman: Battle of the Super Sons is available now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Combo Pack, Blu-ray and Digital