SUPERMAN: UNBOUND Turns 10: Exclusive Interview with Writer Bob Goodman

SUPERMAN: UNBOUND Turns 10: Exclusive Interview with Writer Bob Goodman

Like Man of Steel, the animated film Superman: Unbound is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and this is a behind the scenes look at the Superman vs. Brainiac epic with writer Bob Goodman.

By EdGross - Jun 25, 2023 02:06 PM EST
Filed Under: Cartoons

Writer Bob Goodman is certainly no stranger to Superman or the DC Tooniverse at large, having first gotten involved in it by scripting episodes of such shows as The New Batman Adventures, Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League and The Batman. Prior to Superman: Unbound — which, like Man of Steel, turns 10 this year — he adapted Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns into a pair of animated made-for-Blu-ray/DVD features. For this one, he based his script on Geoff John's Superman / Brainiac arc from Action Comics. In the following exclusive interview, conducted at the time of the film's release in 2013, he discusses the writing of Superman Unbound, and shares his feelings on the challenges and joys of writing for the Man of Steel.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Obviously you're coming off of the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. How difficult was Superman Unbound?

BOB GOODMAN: Every adaption has different challenges – they’re each their own animal. In this one, the lion’s share of my work is taking what’s in the comics, a very contained kind of limited story in scope, and building it into a full length movie. On something like Dark Knight Returns, I had the opposite problem – squeezing all of that material into two full movies. This is one where there’s a lot more that’s original to the movie. In the original comic book, Superman discovers this robot, this robot lands on Earth, Superman has a big fight with it, finds out from Kara it’s connection to Brainiac, he goes off looking for Brainiac, he’s trapped in Brainiac’s Skull ship, fights with Brainiac there as Brainiac flies to earth, and then the climax happens when Superman, Brainiac and the Skull ship all come together on Earth. But that’s not the whole story in the film. The big opening sequence with Lois is original to this movie, Superman being trapped in the bottle city of Kandor is original to this movie — and I’ll get back to that, because that’s kind of, in my opinion, the heart of the movie — him escaping the ship, disabling Brainiac enough, he thinks, to hold him for a while; escaping the ship, coming back to earth, Brainiac regaining control of his ship, following Superman to earth, and then the rest of the story playing out – so whole chunks of this story are original to this movie.


VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You referred to the Kandor sequences as being the heart of this movie. Let's address that.

BOB GOODMAN: I always look for the human relatable themes in stories like this – you want to elevate the story so it’s not just super-powered beings fighting each other. Not to suggest that this is completely my doing - I’m always, even when I’m making changes like I did to this one, following the guidance of the source material, and in this case it was Geoff Johns. He made a comic book, my job is to make a good movie, and sometimes that means making changes, but it’s always trying to stay true to the source material and honor and respect the work of the guy who was on the project before me. In this case, Geoff created a new Brainiac that we hadn’t seen before who, in my mind, kind of has OCD; he’s kind of like the most relatable super-villain to fan geeks all over the world because he’s a guy who wants to collect all of the pieces in his collection and keep them in their plastic sleeves, and kind of at the same time can’t handle change and isn’t necessarily socially that great. So he’s kind of a character we all recognized.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: He’s Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

BOB GOODMAN: Exactly, he would fit right in with that show. Which is kind of a funny thing to think about when you think about this super villain guy, who in his words has the strength of ten thousand worlds. Digressing for a moment, one of my lifelong best friends, childhood friends, who stood up at my wedding, was someone beat up in school and in response to that he bulked up. He got big and muscular, and no one was going to beat him up again. And I think Brainiac was like that. I think Brainiac was this little nerd who had to defend himself and this is how he bulked up. That’s all my imagination of his backstory - that’s non-canonical.


So getting back to Superman, the question is how do we take this character, and these themes and Brainiac’s issues and relate the villain to the hero and find sort of related stories in Superman’s life, and in Lois and Superman’s relationship? Believe me, this is all going to circle back to that Bottle City. So, as you can imagine, after coming up on 75 years of people telling Superman and Lois Lane stories, to come up with anything even remotely fresh to do with Superman and Lois. So I thought, well, they’re in a relationship, but what if Clark, out of his own fears, is trying to keep Lois in a bottle so to speak? He’s trying to protect her to the point of stifling who she is. Because when you look at the story, and the Superman world in general, Lois is the strongest character in that world, and needs protecting the least of anybody, so Clark is kind of making a big mistake at the expense of his and Lois’ happiness in trying to bottle her, control her, keep her safe from the dangers he sees. As a result, now we have a lesson he has to learn, which is the same thing that’s a flaw in Brainiac’s psyche. He learns this lesson by going into this Bottle City, by going into the world that Brainiac has created that, in a sense, before he was educated, Superman might have said was very appealing, safe and wrapped up, in a curio case somewhere. But then he sees that this is actually a horrific world, he sees the Stepford side of it. He figures that out thanks to the conversation with his aunt and uncle, realizing the error of his ways with Lois.

The other thing for me that makes the sequence inside the bottle so important is that historically, this isn’t just me, Superman is a tough character to write interesting, challenging stories about, because he’s so powerful, because he’s a super good guy. So you kind of run out of things to do with him, and the well I’ve always enjoyed going to the most is his search for his own identity. His own sense of his place in the world, the loss of his homeland, his family, his connection to his roots, his place as an outsider on Earth, even though he is simultaneously raised by the Kents and is completely human. He has all these dualities and conflicts in his own personality, and so to have a chance for him to step back onto Krypton, even in this artificial way, and be walking around the city of Kandor, and eating Kryptonian food – or as his aunt says, close enough – that for him is a real joy, and a rich place to find emotion and sentiment for the character.


VOICES FROM KRYPTON: I frequently have a debate with a friend about the strength of Superman as a character. Obviously I'm in support of him, but my friend just doesn't feel that he's relatable to a modern audience; that he is of another time and no longer fits in.

BOB GOODMAN: What your friend is responding to is the fact that it has been challenging at times in the history of Superman to tell interesting stories with him. If you look at Silver Age Superman comics, you see how challenging it was to come up with stories to tell. Since he was required to be physically infallible, all they were left with was the world’s biggest Boy Scout. What do you do with that? And what the writers of that time came up with was to tell little mysteries: why is Superman doing that? Superman is behaving in a way that is different from Superman, and why? Because he’s smarter than all of us, and he knows something that we won’t figure out until the end of the mystery. So it’s a structure that worked, and the writers were able to churn out some comic books. But it did also get repetitive very quickly. Back in the mid-90s when we were doing the Superman animated series, the Batman animated series and later Batman Beyond, all at the same time with the same gang of guys, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and that whole crowd, Bruce used to argue that Batman was the better character; that Batman was the character that more interesting stories came from. And I get it. I would argue that Batman is the easier character to find interesting stories to tell about. It’s more challenging to find an interesting story to tell about Superman, but I’m hard pressed to say one is a better character, because I love them both and I derive a lot of satisfaction from playing in both sandboxes.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Superman Unbound represents the first effort of director/supervising producer James Tucker stepping into the Bruce Timm role. What do you think he brings to the table?

BOB GOODMAN: When I’m sitting there writing one of these things, you always hope it’s going to be put in the hands of someone who is going to do what they call “plus it,” who is going to bring their eye to it, their own unique point of view, and look to make the best out of every moment - to find the meaty center of every moment - and James is one of those guys. James simultaneously brings a unique eye, his own perspective and his own sense of humor and ideas to the scenes. He looks to maximize and squeeze every last drop of what the script already brought to him. My absolute favorite moment in this movie is something that was a complete surprise to me that it was coming – totally original to James – and that’s Lois flipping Brainiac the bird. I loved it. I’m thrilled that we get to do that. My response in the commentary reel was we didn’t get to do that on Saturday morning. And I’m grateful to be working with a guy like James who can find those moments, those bits of humanity and that fun. And of course, bring every bit of action and fighting and quality to the whole.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: He says he wants to get back into more original storytelling and not necessarily continue to adapt existing storylines.

BOB GOODMAN: I really appreciate hearing that and I’m glad he said it. There are two things in writing these films - original storytelling and the level of adherence that is necessary when we do adaptations. There have been differing degrees of that in the different Warner/DTVs that they've done, and I think that we get a better, stronger movie when we're allowed to adapt by respecting the source material while also changing things so that they work for the screen instead of the page. Even if that means re-writing parts of the story, or going in a different direction with the character, or changing some dialogue. Comic books are comic books and movies are movies, and they definitely overlap, but it doesn’t serve them to think that one has to be an exact copy of the other. Why bother going to the movie if it’s an exact copy of the comic book?


VOICES FROM KRYPTON: I love the fact that Brainiac’s ultimate demise is because of psychological warfare that Superman plays on him.

BOB GOODMAN: Which was an expanding of an idea that was original to the comics. In the comic book, if I were to get into Geoff’s head, I would think he was trying to do an homage to War of the Worlds, and had the idea of the all-powerful alien comes to destroy the planet, and the lowly bacteria kills him, which of course is a classic sci-fi idea. To tie in with the themes and to find something new to do, I brought it back to this idea of Superman learning something in the story and actually revealing where, despite Brainiac’s superiority to Superman – and he does turn out to be physically stronger and the mentally superior character – here is one place where Superman is stronger. There are others, but one is because Superman has this resiliency, because he can adapt, because he was able to live in a real world and adjust to it, he is used to life in all it’s messiness and noisiness and complexity, and Brainiac can’t take it. Brainiac can only accept the world on his terms, can only accept these planets in this little diorama that he’s made. And of course what makes a big difference is Superman's capacity to love. This is one of those stories, in the classic tried and true way, where the love of a good woman gives Superman the strength to prevail.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: There’s also a lot more humor in this. There’s a scene where Superman catches a robot by the throat and gives it a, "Are you kidding me?" look before crushing it.

BOB GOODMAN: I’m not sure if that’s one I can take credit for or if that goes to James or our great storyboard artists, who are, no exaggeration, just the best in the world. And as evidence of it, frequently they jump back and forth from working with Warner animation and getting top shelf feature work. But thank you, I did my best to infuse a lot of humor into the script. I probably said it in this conversation, I say it a lot, I’m always looking for the real people and real feelings and real reactions from these people, and the Lois and Clark relationship is one of the most wonderful relationships to get to play with in the history of fiction. And I look for places to have fun with them as a real couple – the more they are a real couple, and these are people with real problems, they get into real fights men and women get into, the better the themes are, and the more entertaining the movie is. One of the things I was really happy about that I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed to do is that implication that sports writer Steve Lombard makes that he thinks Clark is gay. That’s just one of those places where you find humor and you find fun in thinking, "How would people really react to these guys, somebody in that kind of shape and that private, and acting like he’s got a secret, what are they going to think?"


VOICES FROM KRYPTON: One character we haven't really talked about in this film is Supergirl....

BOB GOODMAN: Kara’s story is also something that I really expanded from the comic and looked for something new to do. And so again, following the lead of the comic book but finding some new stuff there, she’s kind of suffering from PTSD. She’s seen the boogie man in the form of Brainiac and lived through the worst day imaginable back home on Krypton. Again, kind of thematically paralleling what I was saying about Brainiac, saying no one is ever going to be a bully around her again. And now that she’s come here to earth, and discovered these powers, her response is she’s taking her experience about what happened to her on Kandor out on every other bully, whether it's a bank robber or human trafficker. So, again, we get to see a character who has all this strength but is still afraid of something like we all would be. She has to overcome that and literally face the boogie man at the end of the movie, rising to the occasion and triumphing.

VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Why do you think Superman endures?

BOB GOODMAN: I think Superman is a deceptively rich character, that there’s a lot more to do with him than people give the character credit for. He’s much more relatable in ways than Batman. Batman was kind of a response to, "Oh you have this superhero with all these powers, not as relatable. Let’s create a superhero that is just a regular guy and doesn’t have super powers." I would argue that Superman is, of the two, more a regular guy and a relatable character. Like we were saying earlier, you can always find stories to do with Superman/Clark that relate to us; that are, this is what I wish, this is how I hope I would react in this situation, this is a situation we can all see ourselves in. Plus, he’s very much in my mind the right character for the century that he’s evolved in. He’s existed through this period of time that has seen such mind-blowing changes in technology, in out visions of the future, and change like we’ve seen in the 20th century and going into the 21st century. Change like that brings anxiety. It brings simultaneous wonder and optimism with dread and fear. And Superman stories have always embodied that and always been able to change and shift, and embodied anxieties that the culture is feeling at any given time. So we can explore through Superman stories our worries are about. What happens when humanity does contact aliens? Will they be our protectors and saviors, or will they show up in a Skull ship and want to blow us up? At different times during Superman’s history we can explore what the bomb is going to mean to us, what nuclear energy is going to mean to us, what growing corporate power in the form of Lex Luther is going to mean to us. What Nano-technology is going to mean to us, what cyborg enhancements, combining man to metal, is going to mean to us; what chemical contamination is going to mean to us. So Superman has always been a character who grew with the times in enabling us to exorcise our own demons about our future-phobia – and at the end of the day see our hopes triumph.

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