Behind the Scenes - Greg Johnson Interview

Marvel Animation Age caught up with writer Greg Johnson, who recently worked on the popular-but-cancelled series “X-Men: Evolution.” Johnson also had previous Marvel experience working on the first season of “The Incredible Hulk” (the good season, by the way) and the highly under-rated “Iron Man” series (particularly the second season). Johnson, writer of the screenplay for “The Ultimate Avengers 1,” took time out to discuss this much anticipated direct-to-video feature film starring a host of Marvel’s Great Heroes.

Why use The Avengers, more specifically “The Ultimates” version, to kick off this Marvel DTV franchise? Is there worry that the casual superhero fan, who may only be familiar with these characters through movies or old TV shows, might overlook this?

For our first film we wanted to hit the market with something that had the widest appeal. It’s hard to beat this lineup - Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant Man, Wasp, and Black Widow. Individually they could all carry their own movie (and some will), so who wouldn’t want to see them working together? We hope to not only draw in Avengers fans, but fans of these solo characters as well. And “The Ultimates,” quite frankly, was a huge success. Business-wise, it only makes sense to want to capitalize on that. Creatively, the books are very cinematic, with an awesome introduction to Cap, and that makes it very adaptable for the screen.

How does it feel to go from X-Men: Evolution to Ultimate Avengers? How has the working environment changed when going from a Saturday morning cartoon to a PG-13 DTV?

The biggest difference is, of course, with a DTV I’m only focusing on one story as opposed to a season of thirteen very different stories. One deadline instead of a series of deadlines. Three months to get a story right instead of two weeks. It’s been a very refreshing change for me.

This isn't the first time you've tussled with Marvel Heroes. Aside from the previously mentioned X-Men, you've also worked on the amazing first season of “The Incredible Hulk” and the criminally overlooked “Iron Man” animated series. What was it like to play with characters like Tony Stark and the Hulk in this new environment? Was it refreshing or "been there, done that?" Why?

I absolutely loved the opportunity to revisit them. Having had the experience on those shows allowed me to hit the ground running. I could get the most potential out of these characters within the balancing act of an ensemble cast, while really exploring them through their interactions with one another. Plus, Iron Man is one of my favorite Marvel heroes, and the Banner/Hulk dynamics are so rich and fun to explore that writing this movie was a dream come true.

When the news broke, many fan communities lit up with a mixed response, a fair amount saying that using "The Ultimates" version of these characters is a cop-out to the long time Avengers fans, that the "The Ultimates" versions of these characters are jerks, and are impossible to root for. Will this movie change their mind? How?

What makes a team interesting is when the members don’t always get along. When they let their personality differences get in the way. This is like the Dirty Dozen – very unique and diverse people forced together for a common goal. That just makes for good storytelling.

What we needed for this movie was a lively, contemporary origin for the Avengers, and “The Ultimates” provided that. But great effort has also been made to depict this team as the Avengers, not just the “The Ultimates.” This film has its own identity, and by the time the end credits roll, I’d be surprised if any viewer felt they couldn’t cheer for our heroes.

Having seen the movie, you start off the same idea as the initial six issues, and then take your own direction. Did you decide to do this to have more freedom for the story, or was it done to avoid some of the rougher material in the original comics (such as the Hulk's killing spree, The Giant-Man/Wasp issue, etc)? Was it the right choice?

We were never aiming to simply animate the comic panels. If we were to do a page by page adaptation, it would be a three hour movie. And what works on the graphic page doesn’t always carry the same impact when translated to the screen. “The Ultimates” gave us wonderful ‘day in the life’ moments with these characters, but in animated action movies where time is limited, every scene must advance the plot. Those wonderful exchanges of dialogue in the books would eat up all the screen time. Also, the threat or stakes provides the momentum for a movie, so I needed to bring the aliens in earlier, which in turn became a more urgent impetus to forming the Avengers. The alien threat becomes the engine that drives the movie, while the characters continually send it off course. These considerations all contribute to departures from the source material.

Any comments on the PG-13 rating this movie picked up? Was this movie created specifically in mind to be a tad more violent than the usual superhero animation we see?

We had the opportunity to finally deliver some serious action scenes, and so we took full advantage of it. I believe it’s the intensity of those fights that got us the rating. So it’s not that we set out to be more violent, it’s that we didn’t censor ourselves. As a writer, it was very liberating to move beyond those particular BS&P cones.

The DTV opens with an old-time radio playing over the opening Lionsgate logo, and the Marvel logo. Whose idea was that? (I thought that was pretty awesome, myself)

That was an editorial decision probably made by either the producer Bob Richardson or the editor George P. Rizkallah. I had written the arms forces radio stuff to be played over the skies as the planes appeared, and obviously they felt there was enough time to lay in the logos. It turned out very nice.

Would you say this first feature is based on “The Ultimates” 1 - 6 or “The Ultimates” 1 - 13? There seems to be a few cues from issues # 7 - 13 of the series, as well. Does that leave a lot of room to really create your own mark in “The Ultimate Avengers 2”?

We did use some elements from the back half of the books, like introducing a more immediate alien threat, but as I said before, that was to provide motivation and urgency for assembling the team. But my approach to the scripts isn’t to make my mark on them. It’s really to tell the best story I can, and to give Marvel what they want. And if Marvel’s happy, I’m happy.