Legion of Super-Heroes Interview: Writer Josie Campbell on Balancing Tones

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Legion of Super-Heroes writer Josie Campbell about the upcoming animated DC film. The writer discussed defying viewer expectations and how an action-adventure film can be like a musical. Legion of Super-Heroes arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and digital on February 7, 2023.

“Welcome to the 31st century and the Legion Academy, where a new generation hones their powers with hopes of joining the Legion of Super-Heroes,” reads the film’s synopsis. “Devastated by tragedy, Supergirl struggles to adjust to her new life on Earth. Taking her cousin Superman’s advice, Supergirl leaves their space-time to attend the Academy. There, she quickly makes new friends, as well as a new enemy with old ties: Brainiac 5. But a nefarious plot lurks in the shadows — the mysterious group known as the Dark Circle seeks a powerful weapon held in the Academy’s vault.”

Tyler Treese: This is the first feature film you’ve written. When you’re writing a longer story like this, does your approach change? How was working on a full 90-minute movie?

Josie Campbell: Yeah, so yeah. Because most of my experience has been in 22 minute, half-hour action adventures, the biggest change is just approaching the second act. When I write TV episodes, I’m still using that three-act structure, but with movies, more stuff has to happen and there’s so much more time for things to happen. So I think the biggest challenge and the biggest difference was trying to balance action and adventure with emotional stakes and character growth.

Getting the chance to actually have the space to really fully dive into a character like Supergirl or dive a into character like Brainiac 5 and not have to cut things out and rush things … for me, in a lot of ways, writing this movie — which is the first movie that I’ve gotten to write — was really fun. It’s challenging to find more things for them, but also it was fun that you don’t have to rush through their story. You can really get to those good juicy scenes of them interacting with each other and that’s just as important as the parts where they’re punching each other out.

There are some real deep cuts like Arms Fall Off Boy. What I loved about this was they’re not just in there for a joke. The more obscure characters still get a moment in the movie to do something significant. How was balancing such an eccentric cast?

It was great. I was picking characters both from characters I love, because I’m a fan, and also characters that stood out in the respective eras of Legion they came from. That was one of the reasons I picked to have them all in the Legion Academy, because A.) I love the Legion Academy and I love those comics, but B.) It felt like a good way to be able to introduce people to this really eclectic cast and bring them together and give them a central goal in a way that if you know these characters or if you’ve read the comics or if you’ve never ever, ever heard of the Legion of Super-Heroes before in your life, you’re getting to meet them for the first time and getting to see who they are through this lens of “We’re all coming together to become superheroes.” So balancing the eclectic bunch was a lot easier once I was able to sort of say, “This is their goal, this is why they’re here, and this is what makes all of them different and unique.”

One thing that stood out about the movie was the fun love story. Talk me through your approach to have that develop and give it a the amount of time it needed to be meaningful, but balancing it so it was still an action movie at the end of the day.

I’ve kind of described it this way to writers I’ve worked with before, but I see writing an action adventure thing as almost writing a musical. Every action sequence, every moment in it is basically the same as the musical numbers in a musical where it still needs to move the story forward. It still needs to move the characters forward.

So the balancing act was being like, “Okay, every moment of this story needs to reveal another facet of these characters.” So I felt like the romance was important, but just as important was those fight scenes where we get a lot more of their character revealed, just as important was the moments where they’re meeting each other and making assumptions about each other. So approaching it like every single moment of this movie needs to forward the story and the character made it easier to balance the romance that’s threaded through, but it’s not going to overpower the action, which is really fun, but that’s not going to overpower the character work, you know?

I really liked what you did with Brainiac 5. We see that even in this futuristic society, there’s prejudice and it’s not above judging others due to things outside their control. You can use Brainiac 5 as a character so that when people see Brainiac, they think “villainous” — just like the characters in the movie. What did you find most interesting about playing with viewer expectations in that way?

Playing off viewer expectations is a huge part of this. Everything from what everybody assumes the villains are to that very first scene where we’re seeing the destruction of Krypton from Supergirl’s point of view rather than Superman’s.

So some of that comes along with the theme of finding that place where you belong because, you know, on the Supergirl level, she had a spot where she thought she belonged. She thought that she had her life planned out. Krypton blew up, and all of that blew up as well. But once you get to the 31st century and the Legionnaires … the Legion Academy kids all have these very weird, very different powers. It’s what makes Legion fun, but it also is what makes Legion weird, is that all of their powers aren’t things that you would normally think of as being a helpful superhero power. So much like Supergirl, they do feel like freaks, like fish out of water, like they don’t belong here.

Then to play with that, I think the prejudice aspect comes in because when you are different from other people in your society or other people in your area … I think one of the most evil things in the world is those who prey on those differences or tell people who are different, “You’re bad because of it. You should all be the same, you should all be like us.” So having the plot be not just [about] finding the place to belong, but being different and finding a place to belong versus the bad guys, who are basically the literal embodiment of being the same, it’s basically being an individual versus being part of this faceless whole that really interests me and is, I think, the basis of a lot of what prejudice is, which is, “How dare you be different from us? How dare you not fit in with us?” So to have a group like Legion be like, “Not only do we not fit in with you, that’s our strength,” I think is a great way to talk about it.

From a writer’s perspective, especially in the last half of this movie, there are some great scenes, great action, and the film looks gorgeous. When you see the final product and it looks this great, how fulfilling is it seeing these scenes you wrote really come to life and so magnificently?

Oh, it’s so exciting and rewarding. Honestly, the best part of working in animation is … I have an idea in my head of what these look like. I write it down, I talk a little bit to the people making it, but then they bring their own artistry and their own ideas into this and make it so much bigger and so much better than I could have ever imagined it.

Jeff [Wamester, director] and Butch [Lukic, supervising producer] and their team did such an incredible job. Watching it for the first time, I forgot that I wrote it. I was like, “Oh, this is really great! Oh, this is fun! Oh man, I’d love to write more now that I’ve seen this!” They just did a stellar job.

I thought this version of Mon-El was so interesting, especially his admiration for Superman. There have been so many different versions of that character. Can you speak to your approach of handling him?

Mon-El is a little bit like how I was approaching everything, which is [that] he is such an established character for comic book fans. He was in the Supergirl live-action TV show. Sort of like everything I was doing this movie, I wanted it to be familiar, but then put a little twist on it — make it a little different than you’ve ever seen him before.

So using that admiration as a touchpoint for him … it was fun because he starts off as the Mon-El you think you know, and then there’s a twist with him and you realize that that admiration masks something else … making him so much more multifaceted and so much different than I think people are expecting … that was just so much fun and par for the course of everything that I was trying to do, which is like, “Here are these comic touchpoints that you think you know, and then here’s the little switch that makes them a little bit new.”


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