ERNIE ALTBACKER knows his way around the DC mythos. From spotlighting B-listers to giving Golden Age heroes a modern polish, Altbacker writes a DC Universe that's as familiar to the faithful as it is fun for budding fans. And now, with JUSTICE LEAGUE: APOKOLIPS WAR, he has penned a story that's chaotic, surprising, and emotionally resonant, all while reminding us why we hold these characters and their adventures so close to our hearts. We're lucky Altbacker pulled out all the stops, not only for the sake of memorable storytelling but for the sobering fact that APOKOLIPS WAR marks the end of DC's animated continuity. STARBURST recently caught up with Altbacker, who reflected on his time writing the movie, how the process challenged him, and why he emphasised certain characters and relegated others to tertiary roles. We were not ready for this shocker of a conclusion. You're not, either.
STARBURST: How would you pitch Apokolips War to a new DC fan?
Ernie Altbacker: If you're talking about a new fan and they've been in a box and don't know what a superhero is, it will be a little more difficult [to follow]. If they're aware of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Justice League, I would say the Justice League's mightiest foe, a New God called Darkseid, attacks and conquers Earth. And then the remnants of them and the magical community of Justice League Dark and other superhero groups join together to try to take back the earth and beat Darkseid.
What were some challenges or narrative obstacles that were unique to crafting Apokolips War?
Luckily, we had James Tucker's “Tuckerverse.” He knew all the elements that had to be in there. “I want this, I want this, I want these characters, don't forget to have that character say something from that movie.” Through that we kind of made this tapestry, this worldwide fight to the death to try and save the planet. The hard parts were wishing you had more screen time for everything. Now you've gotta share with everybody. So I kind of centered it around Constantine. It's going to be Justice League Dark, and I was like, “What if Constantine was the lynchpin, the key member in all of this?” I've seen the Justice League go fight a monster or a horde of aliens or something. I've seen that story. This one I hadn't seen before and I kinda approached it through that. When I pitched that part of it, people liked it.
Piggybacking off that - how did you decide which characters to focus on? How did you decide that it needed to be a Justice League Dark movie? Was it through the relationships you wanted to highlight? Was it through a pure plot perspective?
Usually, what happens is we get into a room and Jim Krieg is the guy who oversees the writers on all of these (taking over for Alan Burnett). And you'd sit down and start hashing out the story. And James, with that view of the entire continuity, is like, “I wanna get this person in and I think we can get him in through this.” And that's a big mess. It's a pile of stuff. And then Mairghread Scott writes a first draft and then I take over after that and make it more Justice League Dark-y.
Something we were really intrigued by was its emphasis on consequences. You get almost 90 minutes of our heroes messing up in these pretty significant ways. You've got Damian Wayne doing something pretty horrible to Dick Grayson. You've got these characters messing up for most of it. How do you, as a writer and storyteller, balance this triumph with these tragedies in a way that makes the victories feel hard-won and the losses more devastating?
That's kinda the whole thing. How do you make people care? And you wanna do something different. Sometimes, there's a little bit of magic involved. It becomes apparent after several drafts that the screenplay is leaning toward this. And then during the notes session we would talk and go, “You know, this thing might be a little bittersweet at the end so let's amp up some of these last-call moments.” On this bittersweet, hopeful note, which was kinda hard to do. Luckily, most people think we stuck the landing on that part but we'll see five, ten years from now. [laughs]
It's fascinating how you do that, and the key seems to be the relationships between the characters. The Damian/Batman dynamic, for example, was a really strong aspect of the film.
We got Batman crying! Where else are you gonna see that?
What was the most rewarding part of seeing those relationships play out in such a profoundly stressful crisis?
You figure out - and they approve - who the main characters are gonna be. Constantine from Justice League Dark, Superman's gonna be our proxy for the Justice League, Raven's gonna be our proxy from the Titans, and then Suicide Squad—everyone gets an ending that they go to. And writing those, doing the Constantine stuff… Constantine and Zatanna only talk twice in the movie but I sweated both of those conversations because I was setting up these little things that you'll probably only notice if you watch it twice. Some of the inventive things, some of the people coming back, without getting too spoilery, a lot of it was, “Wouldn't this be a cool twist?” rather than writing myself into a hole. Writing that stuff was really cool because you usually only get one per movie and in those ones, I've got like a half a dozen!
JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK: APOKOLIPS WAR is available now on digital download and on DVD, Blu-Ray™, Blu-Ray™ Steelbook & Blu-Ray™ Minifig.