INJUSTICE Interview: Writer Ernie Altbacker On How He Adapted The DC Epic And Sequel Potential (Exclusive)
Injustice writer Ernie Altbacker talks to us about the challenges of adapting one of DC Comics' biggest stories, how he'd like to expand the franchise moving forward, and the joy of writing Plastic Man.
Injustice will be available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital on October 19, and the movie kicks off with an unthinkable tragedy that propels Superman into a dangerous new mindset, ultimately pitting Justice League members against each other in what we can promise you is a brutal, bloody battle.
Based on the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game, this animated adaptation from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment primarily pulls from Tom Taylor and Brian Buccellato's critically acclaimed comic book prequels, telling an original story with a lot of iconic moments thrown in for good measure.
Of course, with so much content to pull from, this movie can't cram everything in. That's a problem writer Ernie Altbacker had to contend with, and he talks to us here about what that entailed. Describing moments he knew he had to include, others he tried to make room for, and even some the scribe would include a sequel, this interview provides fascinating insights into Ernie's process.
He also breaks down a few key scenes in Injustice, sharing his love of Plastic Man, how he approached writing this "evil" Superman, and the preparation involved with bringing this story to life. Prior to this movie, we're sure you'll remember Ernie's previous DC Animated Universe projects, including Batman: Hush and Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and he clearly knows his way around this world!
The Injustice franchise has grown to encompass both the games and prequel comics; how challenging was it for you to decide where the best place to start would be with this story?
Boy, we had long talks about that. Usually, in an adaptation, it’s like, ‘Read the story. Read the comic run.’ For Teen Titans: The Judas Contract, it’s five comics. Even with Batman: Hush, it’s a dozen comics. This was a foot and a half of material that was placed on my desk. Like, ‘Here’s all the stuff; now, pick the story out of it.’ I was saying, ‘Can it be a series?’ [Laughs] They said, ‘Nope, it’s one thing.’ I guess the easiest way in was to begin with #1, but even that is over 100 pages and we have such a short time frame. That really hurt to cut it down because it’s such a fantastic comic.
This movie isn’t a straightforward adaptation of the games or comics, so how daunting was it being tasked with picking out the specific characters and moments you wanted to include?
Yeah. You know, for whatever it is, it’s not all me [Laughs]. People are saying, ‘We have to get that story in here. We’ve got to get that.’ It was a case of giving my initial idea and then talking to [producer] Rick Morales and [director] Matt Peters. We talked about getting other stuff in and trimming other bits, so it’s a give and take. We just wanted to get as many great moments in there as we could. There were other things that really hurt. There’s a great relationship there was no room for, so I had to think about what we could replace it with that would be just as interesting.
When the movie begins, we see Superman listening to the world and all the people he perhaps doesn’t have time to help; do you feel this is a Clark already teetering on the edge before what happens with The Joker?
I took that scene, and it was in Tom Taylor’s comics, as him always listening. He’s listening to the city in that case, but also around the world to make sure nothing bad is happening. Right at that moment, there was nothing going on, so he’s thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can relax.’ Then, he finds out that Lois is pregnant. That disrupts everything, but I think The Joker was on his own mission to win for once because Batman keeps beating him. Unfortunately, this confluence of events just happens at the same time.
The Superman we see here is no longer holding back, so as a writer, what excited you most about getting to explore a Kal-El who is no longer pulling his punches?
Yes! I wanted to make it feel perfectly logical that people would be on board. Again, there’s a great sense of this in the comics too, but it was about making sure he doesn’t just flip a switch and go, ‘That’s it! I’m a totalitarian autocrat! I am your dictator now…worship me!’ Right? [Laughs] At first, I wanted you to think of course he was right and that Batman was freaking wrong, but then slowly switch it by the midpoint where you switch sides. That was really interesting and an interesting challenge to try and do it in this truncated storyline of one movie.
Superman and Mister Terrific’s chess game features some fascinating arguments from both characters; what was the process of writing that scene like for you?
That was a great scene and we definitely wanted to keep that in there. There’s a question of what character…you know what, I’m running down a road I probably shouldn’t here! Yeah, I really enjoyed writing that scene and thought Mister Terrific really gave us an awesome character we haven’t seen before in a major role in one of these. We wanted him in there.
Plastic Man is such a fantastic addition to the movie and brings a tonne of humour to proceedings. What led to you deciding to put the spotlight on him in such a big way here?
Well, he was one of my first favourite comic book characters as a kid. I’ve always thought that people use him as comedic relief, and he’s great at that, but can also be a badass. I thought there was a more active version where he’s weighing in and a leader of the group. People recognise that. There wasn’t much of that in the first book and this was one of those things I picked out from a later storyline. I was like, ‘Well, if there’s only going to be one, I want this in there. I want to be able to do a more serious Plastic Man.’
It’s clear the comic books were a big influence on the film, but did you still find the games useful? Did you watch the cutscenes or perhaps even play them in order to get a feel of what happens down the line with these characters?
I have a problem with video games, so I had to give up cold turkey about 20 years ago [Laughs]. I have not played this game, but I did watch the entire three or four hours of cutscenes. I watched all of those, read all the comics, and then because our objective was just to do one where it came to an end. The first comic ends with Superman in the Red Sun prison swearing he’s going to get out so you know there will be another one, but we don’t know! [Laughs] We can’t do the cliffhanger quite yet, but if this thing does well, then maybe they’ll say ‘We’ll do three more’ and it’s easier to then know you can end on a cliffhanger. Just doing the one, you’ve got to try and pack as much in there as possible, hope it does well, and then maybe they do the show with 10 or thirteen episodes. Or live-action. Who knows? It’s really such a kickass story.
Without spoiling anything, it feels a lot like we could return to this animated Injustice world for a possible sequel - is that something you’d be interested in?
Absolutely. I think everybody would be of that opinion. That’s why we backed things off that were just too big. There’s the Lantern war which is separate. The magical beings war. The Atlantis versus Superman war. We don’t want to just spend 30 seconds on these things, so if we pull them out and back them off a little bit, we can use them later. If people knew what constraints the animators and everybody were under, they would be marvelled that we got something out of this. There are limits on the speaking roles. People say, ‘Well, why didn’t they have this character in there?’ Then, there would be 100 in there. You get 17! [Laughs]
With an ensemble like this one, we’re always going to see more of some characters than others, but was there anyone you’d have loved to get the chance to write more of for Injustice?
Hmm, let’s see. I think I would have liked a couple more of the villains. The Sinestro aspect of it and the Lantern war. Boy, I’m raring to do that. That’s my favourite kind of stuff with the Green Lanterns and having Superman fighting them and teaming up with Sinestro. I’d have loved to get that stuff in there, but it was just impossible. There’s so much and it’s such a rich idea. I’m surprised no one has done it, but the famous scene between Ares and Wonder Woman I did write in there and they found that they had to cut it for time. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is great and really rounds out the relationship of Superman and Wonder Woman and what her intentions are.’ Unfortunately, it was then, ‘No room for it! It’s gotta go!’ [Laughs] That’s the way it is. It’s often hard with these things and I see people say it should have been a ten-hour long animated adaptation, but that wasn’t our choice. Our choice is one film or nothing! [Laughs] I don’t get to go, ‘Hey man, this thing would be much better in live-action and needs half a billion dollars to make three movies as a trilogy.’ We don’t get to make those choices, unfortunately.
Things do get very violent as the movie progresses, but what was the process like for you of deciding how to dispatch these characters in such inventive, and often gory, ways?
A lot of times, I was just borrowing from the books. There is something about having freedom in being the terrible tenant getting kicked out of the house. I can wreck anything and do whatever I want. The guys did such a great job animating it that I found when I was watching it that my stomach was roiling. I didn’t want bad things to happen to these characters. What did I do? Why did I write that?
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