Bruce Timm's latest animation project is the Justice League like you've never seen them before.
Batman isn't Bruce Wayne: He's Kirk Langstrom, better known to fans as Man-Bat, and an experimental attempt to cure his own cancer has basically made him into a vampire. Wonder Woman isn't Diana of Themyscira, but a woman raised in the realm of Ares, the God of War. And Superman is the son of the ruthless General Zod instead of the scientist Jor-El. To the world, it's unclear whether the Justice League is here to rule or to save humanity, and the series' teaser makes it clear that the Justice League doesn't much care about the ambiguity:
Machinima's Justice League: Gods and Monsters, made with instantly recognizable Bruce Timm designs that have characterized the shows (like Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited) that make up the DC Animated Universe, is getting a movie, a prequel comic tie-in, and a web series that's already been greenlit for an expanded second season before its first starts next month. And if its impressive voice cast — which includes the likes of Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), Benjamin Bratt (Law & Order) and Paget Brewster (The Thrilling Adventure Hour) — doesn't grab your interest, you should hear co-writer Bruce Timm talk about what inspired him to change this Justice League, and what the series will explore with those changes.
Timm drew inspiration for this new Trinity (the collective DC universe term for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) from the history of the DC universe itself, specifically the 1950s era reimaginings of the Flash and Green Lantern from their dated 1940s origins into the radically different characters we're familiar with today.
"[DC] basically kept the name and the gimmick and they threw everything else out," he told Polygon. "They changed their origin stories, they changed their identities, everything, their costumes and they were really, really successful. I thought that was really kind of a neat thing. A couple years ago when they announced the New 52, the big revamp, I was honestly a little bit disappointed that they didn’t go further with the revamp. It was pretty a pretty soft reboot.
"So I thought ‘Well wouldn’t it be really cool if they did the same thing that they did with the Flash and the Green Lantern in the 50s'; basically keep the name and throw everything else out. [And that got] me thinking: What would I do if I had that situation? If I had Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to reimagine. And [Gods and Monsters] is kinda what I came up with."
While Machinima has kept many details close, one stuck out as particularly interesting to us. In addition to his changed alien parentage, Superman's new human family represents a radically different experience of America. Timm and his co-writers have taken the immigrant experience subtext of Superman's origin story and made it much more explicit: this Man of Steel was raised by Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Growing up in a family that's an oppressed racial minority in the area where they live has radically changed Superman's attitude towards humanity and America:
"He’s not like Clark Kent; brought up in heartland of America, basically in a WASP culture. He was raised by a Mexican couple in the Southwest, and he’s exposed to a lot of prejudice and bigotry. His people are not exactly treated with the same respect that the rest of America [is]."
"The difference with him is that he’s got the power to fight back," Timm continued, "and at the same time, his dad — this is all going to be in the spinoff comic that’s coming out in the lead up to the movie release — it turns out that his dad actually loves America, and that’s why he brought his family to America, for the hope and promise of it. So he’s trying to instill that into his son, and at the same time his son A: is seeing how his people get treated and, B: has the power to fight back, and C: has the genes of General Zod flowing in him. So his instinct is ‘Screw this! I’m gonna just fight back with everything I’ve got’ and his dad is constantly saying ‘No no no, the American Way works!’ and so there’s that whole dichotomy."
It's great to see the divergent experience (and experiences!) of Latinos in America acknowledged in such a fundamental way in the backstory of a character as iconic as Superman, even in an alternate universe story. At Machinima's newfronts yesterday, Timm revealed more altered versions of the classic Justice League lineup, who will be included in the web series' second season, ones that keep up that theme of diversity. Well, maybe not so much for a a fish-like alien Green Lantern. But certainly for a red-white-and-blue armored Steel, one of DC's most prominent African American heroes, and a Mary Marvel (of the Captain Marvel/Shazam family) inspired by Pam Grier.
We asked Timm where the connection was made between the classic (white-)girl-next-door look of Mary Marvel and the queen of 70s exploitation film, and he confessed that credit was owed elsewhere.
"It was just an idea that came up while I was working with my co-writers. I actually had a different idea for Mary Marvel earlier, I was going to make her younger, and then my co-writer Jim [...] pitched his idea which is too good for me to spoil. I don’t want to give it away, except the fact that she looks like Pam Grier and has a 70s inspired outfit."
Despite ties with villains like Zod, Ares, and Man-Bat, Timm says he doesn't want to place the characters of Justice League: Gods and Monsters on a scale of morality against the classic Justice League. In Justice League Unlimited, for example, the Justice Lords ruled their Earth with a totalitarian fist, having lost their moral compass after the tragic death of the Flash and the election of Lex Luthor as president of the United States. Encountering them motivates the entire Justice League to examine how close they are, or may easily become, to villainy.
When we mentioned the Justice Lords, Timm acknowledged that the comparison was fair, but pointed out that unlike other "Dark Justice League" concepts he's had a hand in, Gods and Monsters isn't about comparing one League to another. Instead, for him, it's about exploring how these new origins create completely different kinds of characters. Gods and Monsters isn't dark just to be dark, he stresses, but dark because of deliberate changes to character ... and because on Machinima he no longer has to restrict himself to an all-ages audience, so "it makes sense to go for a little bit more adult subject matter."
It'll be interesting to see where Timm and co-writer Alan Burnett take that new freedom. Justice League Unlimited got away with some amazingly well couched "grown up" asides, despite appearing on Cartoon Network. Let's hope it's more of that, and maybe not too much of, say, a woman being immolated alive by heat vision, one of the more shocking beats in the sizzle reel shown to press yesterday.