The most effective way to create an imposing villain, in the eyes of both the audience and the hero, is to give them characteristics that are a corruption of the powers of the hero or are an antithesis of all the hero stands for. This week’s episodes feature two of Superman’s most famous foes who both have powers that are bastardized versions of Superman’s own.
The first is Parasite, nee Rudy Jones, a janitor at S.T.A.R. Labs who’s gotten in over his head on some gambling debts. To help pay them off he allows small time thug Marty to steal some dangerous chemicals from the loading bay. After being confronted by security guards, Rudy and Marty flee the laboratory with the chemicals in the back of the pickup. Eventually Marty’s reckless driving causes the chemical to spill onto Rudy, giving us one of the most disturbing scenes of body horror ever broadcast on a Saturday morning cartoon block. The chemicals melt and destroy most of Rudy’s body, slowly turning him into the being known as Parasite.
Just like how Superman gains his powers through soaking up the sun’s rays, Parasite’s power is absorption, taking away a person’s energy, knowledge and powers just by touching them. Voiced by Brion James (aka replicant Leon Kowalski from Blade Runner) Parasite is as cocky as he is powerful. The chemicals not only changed Rudy Jones’ physical appearance, but also left a lasting impression on his mental state as well. He knows his power can be limitless, and he decides to take revenge on a world that formerly used him as a human doormat.
When Superman tries to take a rampaging Parasite to a hospital to get him help, he unknowingly sets himself up to have his energy, thoughts, and powers taken. Finding himself inundated with newfound superpowers, Parasite renews his rampage while also learning the true identity of Superman. Paying a visit to Clark Kent in his apartment, he kidnaps Superman and takes him to the boiler room of S.T.A.R. Labs, where he intends to keep him so he can rejuvenate his powers every few hours.
In the end it all comes down to an intrepid Jimmy Olsen to save the day after he finds Superman tied up while doing some investigating of his own. The reliance on outside help like Jimmy to save the day pops up several times throughout the series and, while it certainly was always present in the comics, seems to be a clear result of the depowering of Superman for this series. Also introduced this episode are the Anti-Kryptonite suit and the Space suit, rule-bending plot devices that allowed writers to work their way around any plot holes that might arise when thrusting a less powerful Superman into situations the comic book version could easily handle. It’s not too hard to look at these and picture the DCAU crew grasping at straws while more and more executive memos reading “We need more toy ideas, give Superman more accessories” filter in.
After donning the Anti-Kryptonite suit while battling Parasite, Superman outwits him by making him accidentally grab a piece of kryptonite in S.T.A.R. Labs. Since he has the same powers as Superman, he also has the same weaknesses, and by absorbing the element he completely loses all of the powers he gained from Superman as well as wiping his mind. Clark Kent’s secret is safe once again, although Parasite still finds he can gain a little bit of energy from the cockroaches skittering through his jail cell.
This week’s other episode brings back a foe we've seen before, but turns him into one of Superman’s most formidable enemies. John Corben, first seen in the pilot as a hired mercenary, has fallen ill during his prison stay and learns he has a terminal illness. Thanks to the intervention of Lex Luthor, Corben is able to escape from prison and be given a revolutionary treatment to give him new life. Much of Corben’s body is replaced with a kryptonite powered metallic skeleton, turning him into something more machine than man.
Corben is blessed with super strength and virtual indestructability thanks to his new body, making him just as powerful and invulnerable as Superman and turning him into a literal Man of Steel. However he finds that the metallic skeleton has left him without many of his senses and almost constantly numb. He finds he no longer feels hunger, and loses his senses of taste, touch, and smell. Luthor assures him he will get used to the feeling, and the ability to never get sick or feel pain again should outweigh his concerns.
When Superman tries to stop Corben, they are evenly matched until Corben reveals his new kryptonite heart, draining Superman of his powers. When Lois shows up to help Superman, Corben decides to force a kiss upon her. Corben is horrified to find that he felt nothing from the kiss, and realizes the surgery even took away his ability to feel any sort of pleasure. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Corben is the perfect balance of menace and cunning. His voice is able to show off the self-assuredness of Corben as well as the pangs of despair when he realizes how much he gave up for a new chance at life. Scenes of a pre-surgery Corben enjoying opulent meals smuggled into prison or Luthor eating caviar with a lady friend on his yacht serve to highlight just how much Corben lost when he decided the surgery was his last chance.
Upset as he realizes he will be trapped in an unfeeling body forever, Corben rips off his synthetic skin revealing the metal man he has become, and assuming the new identity of Metallo. While they do explore the loss Metallo experiences realizing he’ll never being able to feel again, they never go as far as to paint him as a sympathetic figure. I understand Metallo is one of Superman’s most famous villains and they wanted him to keep coming back for future episodes, but I do wish they had gone a bit deeper into the conflicted feelings he had, or lack of them (The show will eventually go into this with the episode Action Figures, although in the end it reverts back to the idea that Metallo is just inherently evil).
After angrily confronting Luthor on his yacht, Metallo is calmed down enough to allow Luthor to take him back to his lab to reattach his skin. Superman shows up and, after almost losing a fight with Metallo, reveals that Luthor was the one who infected him with the terminal illness in order to have a body to test his new robotic skeleton on. Just before Metallo tries to infect Luthor with the same illness that felled him, Superman blows up the ship, sending Luthor and Metallo crashing into the water. Of course, a dense metallic body doesn’t exactly equal buoyancy and Metallo quickly sinks to a watery grave. Of course this turns out not to be the case, with the final image of Metallo, fully stripped of his skin, walking along the deep sea bottom looking for revenge. The scene gives off an incredibly creepy vibe and does a good job of foreshadowing how often he’ll be appearing throughout the series (If I’m not mistaken he appears the most out of any enemy besides Luthor).
-Following Brion James’ untimely death in 1999, the role of Parasite was taken over by frequent DCAU voice actor Brian George, best known as Babu Bhatt from Seinfeld.
-The writers do a good job of saying that Corben just really misses having sex without being too obvious about it.
-As the ship is blowing up and the explosion flings them both into the sea, both Luthor and Metallo’s asses are on fire. I figure that’s just some quick joke from a bored animator.