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It's been nearly 30 years since Batman: The Animated Series changed superhero media forever, and Bruce Timm is still finding new stories to tell about The Dark Knight and his many allies and enemies. Though he first made his mark on DC superheroes via television, Timm has spent much of the 21st century making feature films within the ever-expanding DC Universe Animated Original Movies line, a series that's grown to encompass more than three dozen films adapting various comic book storylines, taking DC heroes through various subgenres and sometimes even exploring territory that the comics themselves haven't managed to go.
Timm's latest film, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, fits into this latter category. Though it follows familiar characters — including the title character and his friends Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and Ben Turner — and embraces certain familiar comic book concepts, Soul of the Dragon was born not out of DC Comics source material (at least not directly) but Timm's own lifelong love of '70s kung fu and exploitation pop culture. The result is a film that blends Batman with Enter the Dragon and the magic of the DC Universe with the wild energy of something like Big Trouble in Little China.
Ahead of the film's release, SYFY WIRE sat down with Timm to talk about bringing Soul of the Dragon to life, making R-rated superhero stories, and watching a superhero boom that he helped give birth to unfolding in real-time.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon kind of stands out even when you consider the wide variety of other DC Animated Movies you've done. How did it come about?
It's something I've had in the back of my head for a long, long time. In a lot of ways, the early '70s was kind of like my decade. I made the transition from childhood into adolescence in the early '70s, so it was when I really started to notice things that I was into. Specifically, 1972, 1973 was when I first started really getting into comics and also the music of the period.
The two big things that were really, really big in pop culture at the time were kung fu movies and blaxploitation movies. Even though I only saw one kung fu movie in the theater at the time, because they were all R-rated and I couldn't go see them, and I didn't see any of the blaxploitation movies at the time until much later, but they were so infused in pop culture, even into the comics. There's stuff like Master of Kung Fu and Luke Cage and then a little bit later the Richard Dragon comic. I just loved that whole period and I loved those two genres.
It occurred to me that using the lure of Batman, or Bruce Wayne, traveling around the world, learning all these different skills that he's going to need as a crime fighter, and everybody knows that he spent some time in Asia and elsewhere studying with martial arts masters. I thought, "Hey, I can fold that into a story that combines the kung fu stuff and the blaxploitation stuff, and I can get Richard Dragon and Ben Turner and Shiva in there, because they're all right out of the comics, and do my '70s-period-piece extravaganza that I have always wanted to do," and voila.
There's a really specific look and feel to the film. Like you said, there's a lot of Enter the Dragon. There's blaxploitation. You even get this James Bond-ish opening sequence where you get Richard.
That was on my bucket list! I've had a James Bond title sequence on my bucket list for years. Whenever we designed a title sequence for one of my movies, I'm always thinking, "Oh, is this a place where I can go all Morris Bender, James Bond?" It's like, "Nah, it's never really been appropriate." But this one, it was like, "OK. Yeah, we can totally lean into that on this one."
So with all that in mind, what were the discussions like about getting that style right and what you wanted to convey in terms of the look of the film?
The trickiest aspect to me was to lean into the '70s fashions and cars and even color schemes and all of that stuff, and definitely the hairstyles, as much as possible without ever making it cross the line into being a parody. Early on we were talking about the style of the characters and the clothes, and somebody jokingly said like, "Oh, yeah. Everybody needs to have those super high platform shoes and you could have the one that's got the see-through heels on it with goldfish floating around." I'm like, "OK. That's exactly what we don't want to do. That's the line we don't want to cross."
Here's the thing, the '70s, they get a lot of slapback for being one of the ugliest decades in terms of style. I think a lot of that is absolutely deserved, but there are still other aspects of '70s style that I think actually looked pretty cool. To my mind, they looked cool. So that was the thing. We got a chance to cherry-pick the clothes and the hairstyles. Men's hairstyles in the early '70s were pretty crazy. Even guys in their 50s and 60s had super long hair and giant sideburns and stuff. When you see William Shatner on an episode of Columbo and he's wearing this tight polyester paisley shirt, and he's got the long hair and the sideburns, it's like, "I don't think so." It was just a matter of, "How far do we go?" There was a lot of trial and error. Women's fashion, especially, there were some really great looks for women back then, but there were also some really nasty ones. Our designers would just do a bunch of stuff. I'd go, "OK, that looks really cool." "Oh, no, we're not going that way." So it was a lot of fun.
You mentioned you began with some kind of wishlist stuff, and that eventually became a story. What was the evolution like along the way?
Well, basically I had a period of about two weeks pretty solidly working with [screenwriter] Jeremy Adams and [producer] Jim Krieg where we'd just sit in Jim's office for the entire afternoon and spitball a bunch of different ideas and throw a bunch of different things out there. We knew the character dynamic of our ensemble was definitely going to be very heavily influenced by Enter the Dragon, but we wanted to avoid any direct plot stuff from Enter the Dragon. We kept going down that rabbit hole as we were trying to plot the story out. We kept going, "Oh, yeah. We've got this island and there's a big competition." [And then we'd realize], "No, no, no. The island is fine, but we can't have a competition. We can't have the big tournament." So it was always just a matter of going a little bit and then pulling back.
At one point when we were plotting the thing out, somebody, I don't remember who it was, it might have been me, I don't know, mentioned Big Trouble in Little China, which of course was much later. That was at least 10 years later in the '80s. The thing I liked about it was that it had a lot of kung fu tropes in it, but then it also really embraced the crazier aspect of some of the Hong Kong films of that era with big, heavy doses of the supernatural. Again, it was the thing where that gave us an extra spice to inject into it. It was just really a matter of, "We probably don't want to go as crazy with it as they did in Big Trouble," but it was just something that we thought gave it a bit more scope and a little bit more visual pizazz to keep it from going too far into the Enter the Dragon lane. So it just evolved.
It was a lot of fun just throwing out different things that we liked. It was like, "OK. How can we get a Chuck Norris-y kind of thing in here?" Then I would bring up stuff even from my own '70s-based experience of the kung fu thing. That was the thing. I didn't get to go see the movies, but I would read the comics. I was a really big fan of the Master of Kung Fu comic. There were even several pulp paperback series out at the time. There was an original Richard Dragon by Denny O'Neil. There was a series I really loved when I was a kid called The Black Samurai, which eventually got turned into a movie with Jim Kelly, strangely enough. It was just crazy spitballing.
This is a kind of Elseworlds movie, though it doesn't pull directly from the comics. What other kinds of Elseworlds and subgenre ideas do you have on your mind that you still would like to play with in these films?
Until I get into a position where I actually have to come up with something, I usually don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. For instance, this one, it was just something I had in the back of my head. I hadn't really spent a lot of time formulating the idea. I just brought up the very gist of the idea at our bi-weekly meeting with the people at DC and with [Warner Bros. Home Entertainment]. I just threw it out and everybody got excited. It surprised me how much everybody was into that idea. So I don't really have anything outside of my '70s extravaganza. I don't really have anything that's on my Batman bucket list. I'm sure if I thought about it I could come up with some stuff that I hadn't done before.
But, funnily enough, once we finished making this movie and I showed it to my friend James Tucker, he and I started riffing on some other '70s stuff that we could incorporate, if this movie does really, really well and if we got a chance to go back and do '70s Batman again. We just started throwing out a whole bunch of different ideas of what we could do for a sequel that would go above and beyond even what we did in this one. So let's hope it does really well because that's one I would really like to do. We came up with some really fun stuff, which I can't tell you right now. So I have a sequel in mind, is all I can say.
How do you feel your role and process have evolved in all the years you've transitioned from animated series into working on this universe of animated movies that just keeps going?
It's interesting because my level of involvement in all these different movies, it changes from movie to movie. It sometimes has to do with external factors like, for instance, when I was doing the Green Lantern show I didn't have as much time to devote to the movies because I was torn between those two projects. Honestly, some of the movies that we did were ones that I wasn't particularly all that jazzed about, frankly. I won't say which ones, but sometimes it was like, "OK. This is what everybody else wants to do, so we'll do this next."
Obviously, this one, because it's an idea that I generated myself, it was one that I was super into. Like I said, it just varies from movie to movie. The weird thing about it is regardless of how involved I am with the movie in the very beginning, by the time I get into the post-production of it, to me, that's almost one of the aspects of the whole production process that I love the most. Once I get into the editing room, get to work with the composers, do the sound effects and rewrite lines and ADR and stuff, I have a tendency to fall in love with every movie while I'm working on it in post-production. So I usually have quite a bit of ownership in every one of the movies by the time I'm done with it. But they don't always start that way, I'll be honest.
There's a constant debate over the role of R-rated stories in the superhero genre, which a lot of people feel should still be all-ages. As someone who's done both R-rated and family-friendly superhero stuff, how do you feel about it? Is there a trick to doing both well?
Yeah, there's a trick to it and then sometimes I don't always end up where I expect to be. I'll be honest with you, I didn't think Soul of the Dragon was going to be R-rated. We didn't intend it to be. We thought we were making a PG-13 movie. When we got the R-rating it was almost a little too late to go back and make changes. But fortunately the Home Video people and the people at DC said, "It's OK. Yeah, let's go with the R-rating. It's not going to hurt us." I don't really quite understand it.
It is interesting because I'm very curious how it would be to actually go back to the same kinds of standards that we had on shows like the original Batman and Justice League where we had a lot of really strict restrictions, lines we were not allowed to cross, and yet we still made shows that appealed to both kids and grownups. There was a lot of quote-unquote "adult" story situations that were still done very tastefully but forcefully without having to be watered down because of being in children's programming. Whereas when we do the movies obviously we have a lot freer hand at it. Even just getting to do a PG movie or definitely a PG-13 we can use stronger language when we need it and the levels of violence or whatnot. At this point, it would be a little bit of a challenge to go back. So, that would be interesting.
I understand the debate about should superhero movies remain all-ages at all times. It depends on the project. The first one I made that was into R-rated territory was The Killing Joke. I don't really know how you could do that story faithfully without making it R-rated, because there's just some really disturbing adult story elements in it. So that one had to be. Weirdly enough, if we were making The Dark Knight movies nowadays, those would actually probably get an R-rating at this point, because I think the standards have changed. It's one of those questions that I'm not sure I have a really solid answer for it. There's good sides to that and there's bad sides.
When Batman: The Animated Series started, Batman was kind of the only superhero blockbuster game in town. You have since then worked on a lot of different superhero projects and seen the superhero media landscape just absolutely blow up and change. The content has changed, too. What keeps you personally coming back to it even amid all those shifts?
That's a really good question. Boy, I wish I had something profound and pithy to say. There's a train of thought that says that the things that you're into when you're 12, the things that you imprint on, those are the things that stay with you your entire life.
When I was 12, it was comics and monster movies. Even before 12, the Adam West [Batman] show was the thing that cemented superheroes in my brain. I just love it. It's almost in my DNA. To this day I read a lot of old comics. I rarely read modern comics just because, especially during COVID, I haven't had access to a comic book store. I read them and I can appreciate the craft that goes into it. It's pretty stunning, the level of craft in modern comics, but for some reason they don't really speak to me very much with rare exceptions. So I got out of the habit of buying them and reading them.
Again, I'm generalizing like crazy because, like I said, I'm sure there's tons and tons and tons of great comics being done. I have a tendency to go back and reread old comics. I do watch a lot of superhero content and everything from HBO's Watchmen show to the stuff on the DC Universe channel, which now is on HBO Max and stuff. So I do follow that stuff. Not religiously, but I do check it out, and the movies as well.
I got to tell you, it's really weird for me. I had this feeling of weird disconnect that if you had told me when I was 13 that there was going to be a live-action Iron Fist TV show with the whole supporting cast in there and everything, I would have said, "You're out of your mind." So the fact that this stuff is pretty commonplace now — Black Lightning has his own TV show — I'm like, well, "Wait, what?" It's superhero dominance. It's pretty cool. I never expected it to be like this in my lifetime. I literally didn't even imagine it could even be.
Batman: Soul of the Dragon is available On Demand today and will arrive on Blu-ray on Jan. 26.