Dwayne McDuffie on Adapting ALL-STAR SUPERMAN: An Unpublished Interview

We lost writer Dwayne McDuffie 11 years ago, but one of his last projects was adapting to animation Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, which he discusses in this previously unpublished interview.

The late Dwayne McDuffie moved effortlessly between working in comic books (serving as, among other things, the cofounder of Milestone Media) and animation, working on such series as Static Shock, Damage Control, Justice League Unlimited and Ben 10. Additionally, he wrote the animated films Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths (2010), All-Star Superman (2011) and Justice League: Doom.

All-Star Superman was based on Grant Morrison's 12-issue comic max-series in which Lex Luthor arranges things so that Superman is exposed to what is best described as an overdose of solar radiation, and while it has increased his powers, it's also going to be ending his life. In the time that he has left, Superman attempts to accomplish all that he can, deeply touching the lives of everyone he encounters. Sadly, the film was released the day after McDuffie passed away on February 21, 2011 at the age of 49 of complications following emergency heart surgery. What follows is an unpublished interview with the writer that was conducted shortly before he died.

What drew you to adapting All-Star Superman in the first place?

DWAYNE MCDUFFIE:  Well, my memory of this is I was over at Warner for something else, talking to [producer] Alan Burnett, and he was saying that they wanted to do it and he wasn't sure how to approach it. And I very vaguely said, “Are you kidding me? I know exactly how to do it.” And I told him my theory for the approach and the next thing I knew we had a deal and I was working on it. And it was absolutely a pleasure. The general take on the book is that it's episodic and that it's a bunch of really great stories, but it's not one story. And it seemed very clear to me that it was primarily one single story and approaching it from that angle, what should stay and what should go, and what we should focus on and what we should focus off of just became crystal clear.

If it’s a single story, what would you say that is?

It's Superman dealing with his mortality. That's really the clear central piece of it. Secondarily, it's the final confrontation between Superman and Luthor, which is the conflict that has defined Superman's life. The terrific thing about the comic is that it pulled from all of the classic interpretations of Superman from the beginning and found a way to be true to those and make it contemporary at the same time. That's the brilliance of it. I think that the audience for a direct to video isn't as aware of, say, 1950s and '60s Jimmy Olsen wears the disguise stories as a long-time comic book fan would. So what I tried to do was find a way to honor that, but pretty much at the level where if you don't know it, it's entertaining to you anyway.

all-star-superman-and-lois

Is it tough with a 77-minute running time to take all of those different things that you're trying to deal with and make it come together and feel like each aspect has enough time to breathe?

It's challenging, but really rewarding, because it's all there. There wasn't a lot of invention that had to be done. It really was an adaptation with a lot of interpretation. We knew that. In other words, I knew that the room was blue, but what shade of blue?  The time limit was certainly a challenge, but I think in a lot of ways it forced us to keep the story focused. We didn't have the luxury to go off and do something that's really fun that didn't go directly to the central story. If you're doing monthly comics, you can go off and deal with something for a couple months and then circle back to your themes. But we had to go straight there and stay there. I really only regret a couple of scenes that we had to cut. I'm kind of amazed as long as the comic was, that there were only two things where I was, like, “Oh man, I really want that in the film.” But considering how much of the original thing is in there, I think we all did a great job.

The relationship between Superman and Lex Luthor is such a defining aspect and history of the character. What is the evolution of that relationship through the course of this film?

It goes back to the old comics where it was two people who were very close friends who have a break, and then spend the rest of their lives battling, knowing that they should have been friends. In this case, Superman is such a redemptive force. One of the things that's wonderful about this book is everybody who he comes in contact with, he makes their lives better and then he leaves and their lives are still better. It's not like he keeps them from getting killed in a bank robbery and goes away and they just have a good cocktail story. He transforms them in a fundamental way. And as he prepares for his death, he transforms the world in a fundamental way, which I think is really nice.

superman-and-Lex

Absolutely. And, when Luthor gets the powers and he gets the sense of what it's like to be Superman and how he sees the world, it transforms Luther, which was the most stunning aspect of this movie.

We decided to put more focus on that than was in the comic. At the end of the comic, he punches Luthor out and says, “You should have made the world better,” and Luthor goes to his grave still being Luthor. And I thought, “This is the last Superman story. He beats Luthor every week and then Luther comes back.  He's already escaped from jail, like, 900 times just because Luthor isn’t about to go to the chair. We don't believe it. And we don't believe that Luthor's really going to be punished. And we don't believe that Superman won. So the thing that we changed is at the last moment, Superman redeems Luthor.

And the beauty of it is you believe it, because for just a moment, Luthor is Superman and he understands it for the first time. He truly understands.

And that's the thing, it's like if you're reading the comics, it feels not random, but episodic that Lois,  like in one of those old stories, gets powers. But in this case it's also establishing both the mechanism and what it feels like to be Superman and sets ups change. So this thing's really, really tight. I've always been a fan of Grant Morrison’s. I've never obviously read anything of his as closely as I read this and I was continually impressed by how tight things were and how buried the connections are. He really rewards close reading.

Given how often you’ve written himm this seems like a dopey question, but is Superman one of your favorites?

I think he is. He's really challenging, though less challenging in a solo movie than he is in Justice League, just because he's so much better than everybody else on the team, that they're really not necessary.  So you kind of have to cheat to make him weaker. You make him forget he has super speed. You do all kinds of stuff so that there's something for Green Arrow to do [laughs]. But when you're telling a story just about him, it's sort of wide open. And particularly when you're telling a story like this one with a definite ending and you don't have to worry about topping it next month, so you can pull all the stops out. And we certainly did. The direction is absolutely phenomenal. The designs are wonderful. I really think this might be the best thing I've ever worked on.

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