Hello Sidespin! I've been doing television reviews for a little while now, and the lack of quality programming in the summer months has got me itching to go back and look at some of my favorite shows as a kid. Since The AV Club has already done Batman The Animated Series and is currently working on Justice League, I figure I'd go back and look at another great DC Animated Universe Show, Superman: The Animated Series. I started posting these reviews last week in the comment section of the AV Club, so this week you'll be getting a double shot covering the 3-part opening and the next two episodes. Without further hindrance, lets start our look back at Superman:
“Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.” Grant Morrison begins his All-Star Superman comic series with the most succinct, and the most perfect, retelling of Superman’s origins. In eight words he is able to capture Superman’s origin in a single page. We all know the story of baby Kal-El being rocketed off the dying planet Krypton by heart and Morrison understood he didn’t need to use an entire issue just to show us something we’ve seen countless times before.
The DC Animated Universe’s Holy Trinity (Burnett, Dini, and Timm) can’t afford the luxury of such a beautifully concise origin. Their first show since Batman The Animated Series kicks off with what is essentially an hour long origin story that takes us from Krypton to Smallville to Metropolis with varying levels of efficiency. The series distances itself from BTAS right away with its opening shot of Brainiac’s ship soaring through the galaxy towards Krypton. Right off the bat we are shown that this show will be far less grounded, figuratively and literally, than its predecessor. The first episode deals exclusively with Jor-El’s attempts to disprove Brainiac about the apocalyptic fate of Krypton. The planet’s rulers blindly trust the computer’s far more optimistic conclusions while wearing the most obnoxious shoulder pads this side of Oakland Coliseum. The character designs are much more geometric compared to BTAS, with almost every man having a square jaw coupled with a barrel chest. Even the costumes are made up of a variety of different colored squares, triangles and circles (Even the damned eyepatches on Krypton are literally black triangles).
I always found the parts of Superman’s origin set on Krypton to be the most boring whenever they were adapted from comic books, but I think writers Burnett and Dini do a good job adding in the Brainiac plot that helps set up several future episodes of the show. The episode feels padded out at some points with some action scenes that feel shoehorned in, such as Jor-El being attacked by a mucus slug like thing while surveying the stability of the planet. Still, the scenes where Jor-El must face the fact that the planet and the people he loves are doomed carry extra weight thanks to their juxtaposition with young Kal-El’s oblivious playfulness.
The second episode continues the familiar story with John and Martha Kent seeing the rocket carrying Kal-El land and their subsequent raising of the man who will be Superman. Compared to the first episode, the second picks up the pace considerably and is able to condense Kal-El being found as a baby, the teenage Clark Kent discovering his powers, and the adult Superman arriving in Metropolis all into twenty minutes. Since we get a lot less time with the Kents than we did with Jor-El and Lara, the scenes where they finally tell him about how he was found doesn’t have the same emotional edge as most adaptations. Nonetheless, the scene of Clark discovering the full extent of his powers by flying around Smallville is beautifully done, giving and excellent scope of the joy the power of flight gives him.
The final section of the origin, the revelation of Superman to the masses, is given the most screen time out of any of the three major origin story sections. Superman’s first appearances to the public are shrouded in mystery, with him being called a “blue angel” thanks to him saving a little girl who fell out a 30th floor window. I always like to think that his reluctance to stay long after saving people wasn’t due to him rushing away to save someone else, but just his natural Midwestern shyness making him want to avoid all the attention. The sudden coverage of what seem to be a bullshit tabloid story ruffles the feathers of Lois Lane, who bemoans the rise of sensationalist TV journalism as well as her new co-worker Clark Kent. STAS’s version of Lois is arguably my all-time favorite portrayal of the character, with Dana Delany’s voice giving the gutsy reporter a sardonic edge that adds a lot to a character that is often times mis-written as a damsel in distress. Granted she still must be saved by Superman pretty often, but I find it a step above Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher.
Soon enough of course a disaster strikes that is so large Superman cannot help but fully reveal himself to the world. While covering the reveal of LexCorp’s newest military weapon, Clark and Lois are caught in the crossfire as mercenaries (including future Metallo John Corben) steal the military robo-exoskeleton. Although he is able to switch to his Superman suit in time, Clark still shows his inexperience when he allows the missile from one of the mercenary planes to strike a passenger jet. He subsequently saves the jet yet loses the trail of the mercenaries, and is finally captured in photograph as he leaves the scene.
Lex Luthor is of course the one behind his own battlesuit being stolen, and Clark proves he has the journalistic chops as he pieces together how Lex let the suit be stolen as part of a scheme to sell it to the Kaznian army. Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor is one of the best performances in the whole DCAU, and my God does he sell the smug assuredness of the character well. Lois gets a bit too close to the truth when she boards a Kaznian ship and is abducted by Corben, and it’s up to Superman to rush in and save her. Superman gets to show off the full extent of his physical powers when he crashes through the ship and catches a bullet aimed for Lois with furious speed.
The final fight between John Corben in the exo-suit and Supeman shows how far the series could take its action scenes, with stunning explosions and exceptional set pieces as Superman lifts a cement truck as its being shredded by the exo-suit’s bullets. Once Corben is defeated, Clark decides to pay Luthor a visit. Lex greets Superman with a lack of respect and snark before deciding to explain the true reach of his influence. Lex knows that his political and business power in Metropolis makes him essentially untouchable even to Superman, and tries to make it clear that despite all of Superman’s physical abilities he still cannot defeat the power of the dollar and humanities ease of being swayed by it. Superman still gets in the final word and flies off into the night to the adoration of the citizens of Metropolis, but it’s clear that his troubles protecting the city and its people are only just beginning.
-There’s a couple trying to escape one of the early earthquakes of Krypton that get straight up CRUSHED in a very quick scene. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but damn that’s a rough death for a show that seems more kid-friendly than BTAS in terms of tone
-Shooter McGavin and Judge Frollo voice Superman’s Kryptonian father and grandfather respectively.
-Martha Kent mentions a “nut in Gotham City” giving people their first hint at the huge universe the DCAU would eventually encompass.
-The “nice S” pun from Lois is apparently inappropriate enough that it gets edited out of certain broadcasts.