Back in the waning years of the 1950s when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite ominously orbited Earth, a colorful team of teen superheroes emerged from the fertile minds of DC Comics’ Otto Binder and Al Plastino. Set in the limitless landscape of the 30th century and based on the science fiction lore of Superboy, Krypton and the Superman mythos, the Legion of Super-Heroes was virgin territory for a rotating roster of DC writers and artists to explore.
This diverse intergalactic force featured an imaginative gathering of characters from various home-worlds. The Legion of Super-Heroes has millions of ardent supporters of all ages and their outer space adventures remain fondly fixed in comics fans’ imaginations. It is in this endearing spirit that Warner Bros. Animation is presenting a new Legion of Super-Heroes animated film being released on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray combo pack and digital this month.
Directed by veteran animator Jeff Wamester (Justice Society: World War II, Green Lantern: Beware My Power) from a screenplay by Josie Campbell (She-Ra and the Princesses of Power), this new feature-length offering showcases a potent vocal cast that includes Supernatural’s Jensen Ackles (Batman), Darren Criss (Superman), Meg Donnelly (Supergirl), Harry Shum Jr. (Brainiac 5), Robbie Daymond (Timber Wolf and Brainiac 4) and Matt Bomer (The Flash). The pic is exec produced by Sam Register, with producers Jim Krieg (Batman: Gotham by Gaslight) and Kimberly S. Moreau (Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Butch Lukic (Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman: Man of Tomorrow) is supervising producer.
The plotline in this latest DC Universe Movie finds young Krypton refugee Kara Zor-El, a.k.a. Supergirl, enlisting as a cadet at the Legion’s 31st century Earthly headquarters on the suggestion of her legendary cousin Superman after having difficulty fitting in with modern day Metropolis. When a powerful device that lets users bend reality becomes the object of nefarious intent, Supergirl/Kara teams up with Brainiac 5 to stop the Dark Circle terrorist cult from stealing the dangerous contraption from an impenetrable vault at the Legion Academy.
“I think it’s a different world than we’re seeing in the current superhero setting, and there’s that appeal of having it all set in a different location and a different time,” Wamester tells Animation Magazine regarding the team’s enduring popularity. “I remember reading a few of the Legion of Super-Heroes comics as a kid and I really enjoyed being pulled into another interpretation. It’s always fun to go to a completely other time and place when you explain a story like this.”
In a Herculean feat that necessitated sifting through more than a half-century of material, the creative crew formulated a manageable storyline to teleport the Legion from page to screen.
“The first trick was narrowing down the best story from the 60-plus years of Legion of Super-Heroes comic-book stories that would work as a vehicle for Supergirl to hone her powers and teamwork skills, and to fit within our continuity,” Lukic explains. “Josie found the Dark Circle storyline, and then married it with the other parts of the Legion that we thought would help the story as far as Supergirl needing to be trained. As for essentials, we knew we wanted most of the main characters that the true Legion fans would appreciate.”
Legion of Super-Heroes’ animation style has a classic, retro vibe akin to vintage Hanna-Barbera and Filmation shows, and the finished product should please newcomers and longtime readers.
“We set out to do more of the comic book traditional look that we set up in Superman: Man of Tomorrow and Batman: The Long Halloween, and have utilized throughout this continuity,” Lukic adds. “We’ve used a more anatomically correct look with some unique styling dependent upon the story and characters.”
For Wamester, the biggest challenge was taking the narrative from the very beginnings of Supergirl and have her interpretation and reaction to a whole new cultural environment, coming fresh off losing her home planet of Krypton and her parents and suddenly having to adapt.
“She’s a little wild and the only thing she has left is her cousin, so it’s a bit of a struggle to pull that off without making her seem whiney,” he notes. “I think we pulled that off with this movie and it was really fun to make that work.”
A comics industry background (Top Cow’s The Darkness: Four Horsemen) and experience as a character design on Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy animated TV series helped the director forge an intuitive approach to superhero tales.
“I grew up on comics, so I know a lot about the history and have read quite a few issues in the past 30 years or so,” says Wamester. “It helps to know the overall mythology and tone with which a lot of these comic book stories are told and why people love them so much. Storytelling in comics is a close cousin or sister to storyboarding, especially the aesthetics that you hit when you’re doing these animated features, so it really helps a lot.”
“Warner Animation wanted characters that are pretty easy to see their powers right off the bat. Some are a little more nuanced and take a bit more time to understand, but the ones we have, it’s fairly simple to make it clear what they’re capable of. Many of the superheroes in the comic book world can be pretty gritty and sad, so it’s nice to have a mix with new problems and situations, but also with hope tacked onto the end of it.”
The vocal cast for Legion of Super-Heroes is an eclectic blend of talent that Wamester truly loved interacting with, especially Meg’s Donnelly’s dramatic turn as Supergirl/Kara Zor-El.
“The performance for Supergirl was so good. That was one of my most enjoyable recording sessions in a long time. That speech at the end with her mother was a bit of a tear-jerker. It affected everybody in the recording booth and really got the ball rolling on the movie.”
What is the evergreen appeal of the Legion of Super-Heroes and what lures fans back into their futuristic realm time and again? Lukic believes it’s the cornucopia of optimistic crimefighters.
“I think it’s ultimately the variety of the characters that are presented — there’s something for everyone — and it’s very much a Justice League-type of group, except that they’re teenagers,” he says. “That probably helped a lot with the comics’ popularity, considering the readership was teens and pre-teens. They could see themselves in these characters. And, of course, many of those kids are now in their 40s and 50s and still appreciate those characters.”
Having confidence in the film’s enthusiastic director and screenwriter always makes for a harmonious production, which made Lukic’s job as Supervising Producer much smoother.
“Jeff and I have been working together on these films for the past three years, and it’s a very complementary relationship. He has a great sense for storytelling, acting and solid imagery and angles/shots. His directing vision is in line with our approach to this continuity. Josie really understands the attitude and nuances of these characters, and she’s a great writer. She knows how to get the most out of the story. It’s a very good team to have alongside me on this journey.”
Legion of Super-Heroes lands on 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray, Blu-ray + Digital and Digital on February 7.