When Warner Bros. announced the Green Lantern: Beware My Power animated film, I think most assumed it would be another Hal Jordan-centric piece. So when it turned out to be an origin story for GL John Stewart, it came as an unexpected but a most welcome surprise. Though all of the Green Lanterns from Earth have their dedicated fans, John Stewart has a special place in the hearts of many particularly those who grew up watching the Justice League animated series. Last weekend during SDCC, The Beat had the opportunity to talk with the Beware My Power cast and crew about shining the limelight on John Stewart who incidentally debuted in the pages of DC Comics 50 years ago.
According to producer Butch Lukic, he and producer Jim Krieg pitched the project approximately 4-5 years ago. While things inevitability changed from the initial pitch, John Stewart was always intended to be the focus as opposed to Hal Jordan. An early concept of the project took cues from the “Hard-Traveling Heroes” storyline as part of the acclaimed Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic run from writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams which saw Hal Jordan traveling the country with Green Arrow to face various social and political issues. The filmmakers ended up scrapping this idea with John Stewart as a “more of a street level vigilante rallying against the wrongs of landlords in the ghetto,” believing that Green Lantern thrives better in an outer space setting. However, they tried to retain some of the spirit of “Hard Traveling Heroes” in the film and the inclusion of Green Arrow as a supporting character.
To co-write the script, they enlisted superhero animation veterans John Semper Jr. and Ernie Altbacker. Krieg and Altbacker have been frequent writing partners and friends since film school. Moreover, with this Green Lantern animated film Krieg and Altbacker get to return the favor to Semper who gave both their first Hollywood writings jobs for the ‘90s Spider-Man cartoon. “It’s kind of like the circle of life,” observed Altbacker. “Jim is in charge of these animated movies and I had done several of them but John hadn’t done any. Jim said, ‘Hey John! I’d like for you to do one of these but it’d have to be a team-up with someone who has done some before. How about Ernie?’ And we were like, ‘That’s fantastic! We’d love to do that.’ The collaboration went really well between the two of us writing it and the three of us figuring it out.”
Having written John Stewart in an episode of Static Shock, Semper jumped at the chance to work with his former protégés. “They had a good growing and learning experience. I’m very proud of the fact that I obviously taught them well enough that they have gone on to do really amazing things. When Jim mentioned that he thought he had something that I would be good for and that he wanted me to do, I was more than happy to do it. There was no awkwardness or discomfort because we all had kept up with each other over the years. We have all continued to be good friends. The whole experience went by like a hot knife through butter. It was just the easiest screenwriting experience I ever had. After we beat out the plot with Jim, Ernie and I split the screenplay into two. If I remember he took the first half and I took the last half. We switched around and rewrote each other. It all came together really quickly.”
The film’s narrative takes inspiration from Apocalypse Now which may surprise some at first but makes complete sense in hindsight. As Altbacker explained “Jim Krieg sold Butch on that idea and then told it to us when he brought us on that it was going to be like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It actually works out really well with John Stewart because we lean into his military backward but we can see that this is a man who is struggling coming come from the war. He has PTSD and just like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now who has to go back into the jungle and finish his unfinished business. That’s what John does except he’s not going back into the jungle or the desert, he’s going into space. But he is going into another battlefield. At the end he goes through the fiery crucible and he’s washed clean.”
The aforementioned Justice League cartoon helped define John Stewart into the character he is today, specifically the introduction of John Stewart’s military background. It’s a retcon conceived by producer Bruce Timm that has since been incorporated into the comics. “Bruce didn’t want him to the militant Black Panther party from the early ‘70s because that wasn’t relevant anymore,” revealed Lukic who worked on JL series as a director. “He wanted him to be coming from a military background and he was strict in what he could do with the ring. At the time he could only create beams instead of constructs.”
For Green Lantern: Beware My Power, Lukic divulged that John Stewart’s constructs have stepped up from his early days in Justice League. “His emotions drive the ring. Instead of straight beam it’s jagged and rough. What he creates with the constructs are all based on his senses at that time dealing with the war with Afghanistan.”
As someone who grew up watching the JL cartoon, voicing John Stewart is a dream come true for actor Aldis Hodge and has deep meaning for him. “The ring represents his new path and potential. The ring chooses him before he chooses it. In this story he has to go about figuring out whether or not he wants to accept his new destiny and whether he wants to step up to his own new potential. He’s already a superhero before he puts on the ring. This man goes on a journey to discover himself and figure out who he is to the world and who he is to himself. The ring represents necessary evolution and change.”
The filmmakers couldn’t have picked a more perfect actor to portray John Stewart with director Jeff Wamester describing Hodge as having a similar persona and attitude to the character. For Hodge, whose parents were both marines, this role imbued him with a deep sense of pride. “I was born on a military base. I get to see him from the perspective of being a human being as opposed to [just] a serviceman. People go into service because who they are as people. The idea of a serviceman can sometimes be an archetype. Servicemen are human beings. People with real hope, drives, desires, darkness and you get to pull from a real human aspect of figuring out who his personality is as opposed to a caricature of that. My experience with my parents helped me shape how I see John Stewart.”
In recent years, media has been tackling the issue of mental health and in doing so has helped erased the stigma associated with it. With respect to John Stewart’s PTSD, the filmmakers were very cognizant of dealing with a sensitive subject. “We wanted to handle that respectively,” said Altbacker. “The truth is that a lot of these combat veterans, if they’ve seen heavy combat, it will scar you. And we wanted to show that in this character that he’s having trouble getting back into society. But what is his immediate reaction is to protect people that are being picked on or beaten or running into danger when he sees a ship crashing.”
“What it does is strengthen your hand if you can establish your hero’s obstacle and weakness. That’s the thing that the hero is ultimately going to overcome and that’s the crux of every story,” elaborated Semper. “At the beginning he’s more willing to reflexively hurt people and by the end of this it’s something he gives a great deal of thought to and doesn’t want to do.”
The filmmakers decided very early on that in order to better serve John Stewart it was essential that DC’s “Big 3” (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) not appear in Green Lantern: Beware My Power. For similar reasons, the filmmakers had to completely alter the opening. Originally the film began with a sequence of Hal Jordan in space and the mysterious circumstances of his disappearance. “We realized it was not working and it was turning it into a Hal Jordan movie,” admitted Wamester. “It was a big change to make at the last minute because you have all these other things that have to change in order to bring it back. This has to be about John so we made it into a flashback.”
After coming off a large ensemble piece like Justice Society: World War II, Wamester relished working on a film focused on one character. “For Justice Society it’s all about the little plots and the main thrust of the film. So you’re thinking about the main message through the film and how do those subplots reinforce and help make sense of that. With this, you’re considering the decisions the main character makes. You don’t want to treat those other characters as throwaway characters.”
Indeed, all of the supporting characters in Green Lantern: Beware My Power play pivotal parts. One such character is Oliver Queen, better known as the emerald archer Green Arrow, voiced by Jimmi Simpson. While not a diehard comic collector, Simpson knew his way around superheroes before this project. “My familiarity was mostly Super Friends from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I was always drawn to Green Lantern the most. I read a lot of comic books but I never collected comics. The script was so beautifully executed that I then started researching Green Arrow himself and found his backstory so thrilling [and] his choice to give up financial success.
Simpson jokingly described Green Arrow as the “MacGyver” of superheroes and is fully aware that he is likely the most ill-equipped superhero for an adventure in space compared to his compatriots. But as the filmmakers pointed out, John Stewart is a fairly serious character so having someone like Ollie injects some much needed levity. By the end of Green Lantern: Beware My Power, John Stewart and Oliver Queen form a classic buddy cop friendship à la Lethal Weapon.
In opposition to the humorous Green Arrow is Hawkgirl, the hardened Thanagarian soldier, voiced by Jamie Gray Hyder. Playing a character who has been around for nearly 80 years can be an intimidating challenge, but one that Hyder welcomed with open arms. Having previously played similar characters like Lieutenant Salter in the Call of Duty video game franchise and Zethrid in Voltron: Legendary Defender, Hawkgirl was completely in Hyder’s wheelhouse. Mirroring John Stewart’s own character growth, the actress appreciated the moments in the film that forced Hawkgirl to reconcile her preconceived notions regarding her enemies and in doing so soften her exterior.
In her free time, Hyder has been involved in veteran service organizations which informed her performance. “Whenever I’m tasked with playing a courageous warrior, you’re forced to consider the examples of these characters in real life. For me that is reflecting the tenacity and the strength and the courage of the women who make up our U.S. Armed Forces. Taking their motivation to heart and the protection our people and placing them into someone like Hawkgirl who has the same motivation to protect her people and her planet. There are definitely influences from my outreach and past characters that played into my portrayal of Hawkgirl.”
Rounding out John Stewart’s ragtag team is Adam Strange. Created in the mold of classic sci-fi pulp heroes like Flash Gordon, Adam Strange is a fairly obscure character as far as non-comic book readers are concerned. That’s not the case for Butch Lukic who produced a DC Showcase short featuring the character a few years back. “When I was a kid in England, a lot of comics we had were reprints of Adam Strange for some reason. I liked reading Adam Strange but I didn’t think much about him,” he said. “So when the time came to do the DC Showcase shorts we were given a list of characters that we could use. One of the characters that nobody wanted to touch was Adam Strange. For me I thought if I could take him out of the way he was, like a Flash Gordon type, and put him in a mining colony and approach it like The Thing or Alien. He’s more like a Kurt Russell type.”
Lukic’s reinterpretation of the character is very much the same in this Green Lantern film. For actor Brian Bloom, who voices the character, it allowed him to explore a different kind of hero. “One of the things I noticed in one of his early scenes is he’s really in need of a second chance that he doesn’t think he deserves,” said Bloom. “I think that’s something many of us can understand whether we’ve been there or not. There’s something very human about that. I like this version of Adam Strange because of the humanity and how much he loves his family [and] how much pain he feels about being estranged from his home. Your home isn’t only a place, it’s people that you love. There’s nothing super science-fiction or superhero about those things that I just said. That makes it kind of grounded and interesting.”
Adam Strange’s personal journey affected Bloom’s vocal performance. “I found the voice for this character by thinking about the way we meet him. He’s down and out and he hasn’t spoken to anybody in a long time. Also he doesn’t have his confidence or center when we meet him. I took the voice up into the throat a little bit and thinned it out and found some texture. As he found more of his confidence and himself again I put it down in the diaphragm where your center and presence comes from. I wanted to make sure you felt the emotion on some level but also let the animation do the talking in some cases.”
As one of the first black writers in TV animation, infusing proper representation has been at the forefront of John Semper’s work. “I have always been trying to get credible black characters on screen. I did it on Spider-Man. We did such a good job that we got nominated for an NAACP Image Award. I have always been trying to work strong black characters into my work like Blade the vampire hunter. This is the continuation of that mission for me to be able to take this character in his 50th year while I’m in my 40th year as a writer, so we’re kind of in sync there.”
Semper views Green Lantern: Beware My Power as a sign of the tremendous progress for Hollywood and media is the natural progression of Semper but is fully aware that things aren’t perfect. “Animation in general has come very far. The kind of things we do in this movie we could not do back in 1993. I would imagine that it’s going to keep going and cast off the yoke of being considered woke, and yes that does rhyme. I think we need to get away from this epithet of “woke” and get to normal. Let’s just get to the point where you can do a black hero and it’s just a normal regular thing.”
Green Lantern: Beware My Power is available now on 4K, Blu-ray and Digital
Miss any of The Beat’s earlier SDCC ’22 Coverage? Find it all here!