Knuckles is a bit of a scene stealer in Sonic 2. When he faces off against a cocky Sonic (voiced by Benjamin Schwartz) the assured warrior only has one question in response to the hero’s goading: “Do I look like I need your power?”
The answer is no. Unlike Jim Carry’s obsessed Dr. Robotnik and Sonic’s arch nemesis, Knuckles isn’t at all interested in the blue blur’s special abilities. Knuckles then proceeds to smash Sonic into the ground with relative ease. The shoulder heavy echidna oozes confidence and the fact that he is voiced with the deep and rich voice of Idris Elba, doesn’t hurt all that much either.
But before we met him in the movie, there was Knuckles, the video game character. First introduced in the Sonic 3 video game as a villain, the Sonic 2 movie reimagines the meeting of Sonic and Knuckles and follows the story of the two as they grow from enemies to friends. Rather than being a throwaway character kept on hand for the occasional joke, Sonic 2 examines the backstory of Knuckles with surprising depth as we learn of his past and path to the Master Emerald. Director Jeff Fowler sat down with Polygon to talk more about the making of Knuckles, working with Elba, and on creating a “fully realized, fully dimensional” Knuckles in the movie.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
So I have to ask: Did you intentionally make Knuckles hot in any way?
Well, I think Idris is just inherently uh, sexy as we’ve all uh, sort of seen online, the sexy Knuckles debate. It cracks me up. I love seeing people discuss it. It’s hilarious. It was not something I would ever expect. But yeah, Idris, I mean, is the sexiest man alive. So that makes Knuckles I guess, the sexiest echidna alive, you know, or something?
In the movie, Knuckles’ character is based on some pretty little known lore about the Echidna clan and the Chaos Emerald. What made you want to use this as a starting point for his backstory?
I mean, it is just a matter of trying to tie in as much as we can of the mythology that fans are gonna recognize. It’s always a little bit of a balancing act, because we also have our own sort of movie mythology with stuff like Longclaw — in the backstory that is only specific to the movie universe. But we dovetail with the canon that comes from the games wherever we can. Over the 30 years, there have been so many different takes on [Sonic] across all the different games, the comics, the animated series; There’s just lots of variety in it.
What we loved about Knuckles’ original introduction, was the very simple concept of him being manipulated by Robotnik into thinking that Sonic was his adversary. And then of course, if you’re going to tell a Knuckles story, you got to have the Master Emerald in there as well, because those two concepts are a package deal. So once you kind of identify those things, you just start building the story out. It’s great, because a lot of it kind of slots into place pretty quickly, just knowing that this is the mythology that fans know, and really enjoy seeing on the big screen.
With all the different versions of Knuckles since his introduction in the Sonic 3 game, how did you go about conceptualizing the Knuckles we’d see in Sonic 2? Did you use any specific games or shows as a starting point for him?
Certainly what I just referenced in terms of his original introduction, only because I think it was really important that the movie and the story took him seriously and [Knuckles] certainly has been played for comedy at his own expense a lot of the time. So while we still love that idea, I just wanted to double down on the threats [Sonic] is facing. Obviously Robotnik is always there, and is always going to be challenging for [Sonic] and that’s his sort of true arch nemesis. But we wanted to pile on another problem for Sonic and to throw Knuckles into the mix, and have him be very formidable as an opponent. Sonic loses most of the fights against Knuckles in the movie — [Sonic] doesn’t win any of them, right? And that’s because Knuckles has spent his whole life training for this mission and this purpose. He’s got this legacy. He’s the last of the echidnas and his whole whole purpose is to honor the legacy of the tribe and do what they could not do. So that was all very dramatic. And it felt very cool for a Sonic film to really treat Knuckles with a lot of respect, and just make him a badass.
Did you have Idris Elba read the lines in his own voice? How did you find his Knuckles voice?
There was definitely some workshopping that happened in the early recording sessions just to find the character. I mean, obviously, Idris just has a very clear British accent and that felt a little bit at odds with the idea of Knuckles coming from this — I mean, primitive is not the right word, but that more kind of tribal-like background. There is a sophistication that sometimes can come along with a British accent, and it just felt like it couldn’t be only that. We definitely did a lot of playing around with it to figure out the right delivery and treatment. And Idris was great. He really was up for it and it was up for trying lots of different things. And we just would put it up against the animation and see what felt right.
You mentioned Knuckles has become sort of a punching bag, but you wanted him to be more than that. How did Elba pull out Knuckles’ gentler side in this movie and flesh him out more as a character who felt full?
Idris is a great actor and [has] got great instincts. I think he wanted the same thing that we all wanted for Knuckles: which is that he’s just a fully realized, fully dimensional character with an arc. You’re not rooting against [Knuckles] but he shows up and he kicks Sonic’s butt. So it’s like, Who is this guy? I don’t know if I like this guy. Then you learn more about him. You learn about his backstory, that him and Sonic were kind of two sides of the same coin from the events of the first film when the echidnas ambushed Longclaw. There was lots of dramatic material to work with.
In a previous interview, you said that Elba had a lot of questions about Knuckles. What questions did Elba ask when he was thinking about playing Knuckles?
Oh, it’s just who is it? Who is this guy? What are his motivations? What does he want? That’s the same kind of question I think an actor would ask about any character they play. It’s identifying those core character details that help them inform their choices as actors.
I think once you understand Knuckles is not a bad guy, that he’s just inherited this mission from his ancestors, who might have been a little bit more flawed. They’re obviously a very much kind of warrior race, or warrior tribe — all about honor, all about duty. And, and so just as a kid being born into the system, he’s just inherited all of that. And so it doesn’t mean Knuckles is a bad person. But it just means that a lot of who he is was kind of like, thrust upon him without him even having a say in it. If you’re born into an echidna tribe, it’s like a Spartan way of life. You’re going to be trained to fight and trained to be a warrior. And [Idris] just got that and so Knuckles is all about the mission. He’s all about duty. He’s all about honoring his ancestors. And I think all of that is very relatable. It’s very simple. So [Elba] totally understood that and was really interested in helping that inform all his choices.
I’m really interested in how seriously you took Knuckles as a character. When directing the film, did you think about Knuckles as you would any other human character?
For sure. And one of the things that we had kind of played around with the story was how to help the audience root for [Knuckles] and want him to overcome Robotnik’s deception. You just want him to understand the error of his ways, and get off the path he’s on, and realize that he’s partnered up with the wrong guy.
It was such a fun character knowing that we could bring him into the story, and really have him come in and bring something that we couldn’t before. When Sonic and Robotnik fight, it has one sort of playlist of the sort of things you can do. [...] But then from Knuckles to just be another super-powered character and to be able to pit those two against each other really allowed us to change the nature of some of the fights in the action and in some really interesting ways.
In the movie, Knuckles’ hands look really fluffy and soft, almost like he’s a stuffed animal. But then like he’s scaling walls and smashing through rocks. Why did the team go with that design? Were there any rejected concepts for his Knuckles’ knuckles?
The most important thing for me was just silhouettes; like looking at these characters, Knuckles, Tails, and Sonic, and just immediately being able to sort of understand them as characters just by their silhouette. That’s why we made Knuckles a little beefier, a little broader in the shoulders. Just stuff that informed: this dude is a brawler. He’s all about strength. You look at Sonic and Knuckles side by side [...] and it just felt like we just really wanted that physical presence to be conveyed the minute you looked at him.