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Greg Johnson: Upping The Ante On The Ultimate Avengers

Greg Johnson returns to Marvel Animation again, providing the script to the second of Marvel/Lion Gate’s Direct To DVD features, The Ultimate Avengers 2: Rise Of The Panther. Johnson is writing all four of the announced DTDVDs, and is currently hard at work bringing The X-Men back to the small screen for next fall. The Image and Toon Zone News sat down with Greg to talk about his work on the Ultimate Avengers movies.

TZN: What thought went into bringing The Black Panther into the fold? Were you looking for someone who had not yet made their stamp in any of the Ultimate comic books?

ImageGREG JOHNSON: Not much had been done with the Black Panther as far as animation goes, and to us he seemed to be an exciting fit into this group of unique characters and conflicting personal agendas. Plus, he had the added benefit of being from a secretive nation that would provide the second movie with a fresh arena.

In our original plot discussions for the first Ultimate Avengers, we knew we needed an alien motivation that went beyond the standard world domination. So we came up with something unique to the world of Wakanda, something the Chitauri desperately wanted, and that become the focal point of the second movie. It also provided a logical reason to introduce the Black Panther into our story.

TZN: With the feature already featuring 8 heroes plus the villains, was there ever any worry that you were cramming too much into the story?

GJ: There’s always that fear, especially in a movie that runs only about 70 minutes. But since we got to know most of them in the first film, we only had to build upon the personalities already in place. Still, with ensemble stories, someone has to be the focus of the movie. They get the most screen time and their actions invariably dictate the story events to some degree. Cap and Panther share the focus in this film.

TZN: Was it difficult to develop the Chitauri aliens without having them speak?

GJ: Not really. Kleiser becomes the voice of the alien agenda, and the rest are merely soldiers with a job to do.

TZN: Do you find that the follow up was more difficult to write than the original?

GJ: The sequel was definitely more difficult. In the first film, it was like the Dirty Dozen, where once it became essential to gather a team, we got to go along for the recruitment. We also knew that we wanted the finale to be a huge Hulk fight. So between the recruitment and the Hulk fight, a lot of the story elements were already being dictated.

Marvel Animation AgeUltimate Avengers 2 became a challenge because we didn’t want to play those same kinds of beats. We knew we wanted Hulk involved, but not as the grand finale. We knew we wanted the alien agenda to drive it, but not see the same kind of battle we’d just done. We also needed to have some growth for Cap beyond the ‘man out of his own time.’ So coming up with an arc for him that was different became the topic of many discussions.

TZN: Was there anything you couldn’t fit in the original that you were dying to put in the sequel?

GJ: That would have to be Hawkeye. I’d mentioned in previous interviews how we’d worked out a back-story for him that was pretty cool. In that WWII battle sequence, there was a sharp-shooter who took out a Nazi machinegun bunker from a great distance by firing through the tiny slit. We had a scene in which Cap saved him from a grenade. That sharp-shooter was named Barton, and was the grandfather to Hawkeye. By having Hawkeye join the Avengers in present day, we had the makings of a very unique relationship. Hawkeye would never have been born if it hadn’t been for Cap.

We tried to fit it into the new movie as well, but it became evident that we just had too many characters to service. So once again, out he went.

TZN: Do you think it’s important for a character’s origin to be shown andexplained for them to be fully developed? If you could fit them into the run time, would you include them?

GJ: In a packed movie with a limited running time, there just isn’t the luxury of introducing characters that don’t impact the story in a meaningful way. Vaguely explained characters would tend to clutter the scenes, taking away from the important elements.

TZN: Was it difficult to fit The Hulk into the story after he kicked the crap out of the majority of the team back in the original?

GJ: It was. But furthering Banner’s story is what was appealing to me. Having him suffer the consequences of his actions in this one provided a great way to revisit him.

TZN: Ultimate Avengers isn’t the first time you’ve visited these characters. You served as a writer on Iron Man and story editor of The Incredible Hulk back in the 90′s. With Iron Man, the main premises of the show was a man trapped in his armor, refusing to open himself to the outside world which eventually forced his team mates to leave him, leaving him as a lone wolf, and in Ultimate Avengers, he’s the loner of the group? Was this coincidence or do you think Iron Man is the perfect loner character?

GJ: I see the armor as a means for Stark to conquer his own emotional and physical limitations. Yes, he’s smart and cheeky and empowered by the protection of his suit, but people with inner demons tend to fight them alone while putting up a facade. They fill up their lives with excesses because of emptiness inside. Not to get too philosophical about it, but a guy who closes himself into a metal suit is the perfect metaphor for a guy who closes his true self off from others.

ImageTZN: Both Ultimate Avengers films are rated PG-13. Do you think these types of films could be done on Saturday mornings, or do you think the DTVs are the perfect outlet for the older audience who might groan at the restrictions placed on Saturday mornings?

GJ: My personal opinion is that these films wouldn’t be a natural fit on a typical Saturday morning lineup. I believe that, for those few hours on Saturday morning, parents shouldn’t have to worry about what their young kids watch. Let the BS&P rule that landscape, I’m fine with it. There are plenty of other venues for these kinds of stories.

TZN: If you could write a solo DTV of one of the characters that took place after Ultimate Avengers 2, whom would you pick? Why?

GJ: I’d love to explore Black Widow’s character more. She’s full of mystery, and it would be interesting to see how she began, and how she came to be Fury’s number one agent.

TZN: What do you think of the possibility of Ultimate Avengers continuing as an animated series?

GJ: Creatively speaking, it could work. There are enough divergent characters to really feed the stories. Realistically, who knows? I’m sure the idea has come up in discussion, but there has been no move in that direction that I’m aware of.

This interview co-published with Marvel Animation Age. Images in this interview appear courtesy of Image.

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