Saturday, May 13, 2017

Looking back at Superman: The Animated Series

I had begun the 1990s as a devoted fan of Marvel Comics, but by the mid-90s my interest in Marvel waned, and with it comics themselves. Around that time I began paying more attention to the animated television program Batman: The Animated Series. Although Batman was a character who I'd never particularly liked in comics and I was well out of reading DC titles I gradually came to admire the lush, stylish animation and the depth of storytelling on that series.

I was fortunate enough to flip over to the WB in time to see the premiere of Superman: The Animated Series, a program which I didn't realize had even been in the pipeline until I saw it on the screen. As opposed to Batman, Superman was indeed a character who I'd enjoyed in the comics and I was pleased to see the same creators who had led Batman (chiefly Bruce Timm) were bringing that same level of craft to the program.

During Superman's second season the program became The New Batman Superman Adventures as Batman moved from Fox to WB with brand-new episodes. The problem, however, was that I never knew when new episodes of either program would air and the merged title was now appearing 6 times a week on WB's schedule (Saturdays was often a 1.5 hour timeslot!). Various episode of both series slipped past me, until finally I went to college in '98 and didn't see the remaining episodes; Superman: The Animated Series aired its last new episode in 2000.

Recently I bought a DVD collection of the entire Superman: The Animated Series and it was somewhat revealing to see the episodes together in order. I feel that the show started off with a very strong first season, but the remaining years carried a lot of flab. Tim Daly voiced a fine, likeable Superman; Dana Delaney was a joy as a feisty, smart-mouthed Lois Lane; the other supporting characters were very recognizable, but tended to keep to the background (has anyone ever written a terrific Perry White story? if so, I haven't read it).

I think the problem with Superman: The Animated Series is its villains. Don't get me wrong, Clancy Brown is perfectly cast as Lex Luthor and Luthor's characterization (based on the Byrne-Wolfman interpretation) was spot-on; Corey Burton was great (perhaps underutilized?) as Brainiac and their concept of Brainiac being quasi-responsible for the destruction of Krypton was actually a pretty good revision of Superman's history; Malcolm McDowell had a fine voice for Metallo, though the villain only had a couple of good stories - as the creators noted, a villain who carries Kryptonite in his chest can end fights against Superman far too quickly.

But then there's the rest; I mean, they did their best with Parasite, I guess. The creators had done such a fine job making the villains on Batman: The Animated Series compelling that it's strange to see how many villains on Superman misfire. Of course, the creators didn't think too highly of Superman's comic book rogue's gallery; according to Bruce Timm:

"Once you get past them [Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, Parasite] suddenly you're in the realm of 50 year old guys who are a little overweight, wearing business suits."

There are other Superman villains from the comics who turned up on the show - Mr. Mxyzptlk was terrifically funny in his first episode; Bizarro was a great mixture of humour and pathos; Titano was... well, a giant ape (too bad they skipped on the Kryptonite vision, it's the most interesting thing about the comics version). Maxima was, for some reason, renovated into a joke character and Kirby homage, to the extent that she didn't resemble her comics counterpart much at all beyond wanting to mate with Superman. They used Phantom Zone villains but avoided General Zod for some reason (did they think he was overexposed?).

But as to those overweight guys in business suits, Toyman was completely renovated into (as the creators noted) a veritable Batman villain (it's surprising he never teamed up with their Mad Hatter or Baby Doll). The other Superman foes of that type (Prankster, Puzzler) were nowhere to be seen; the type of villains Timm was referring to were primarily cerebral threats to Superman, and as they had remarked before how difficult it was to write Riddler stories on Batman, it's no surprise they wanted to avoid similar characters.

And thus, they brought in Intergang and Darkseid from Kirby's Fourth World stories. That wasn't a bad idea at all - Darkseid debuted in an issue of Jimmy Olsen, to be sure; Superman was part of Kirby's original Fourth World stories and they kept pretty closely-aligned to his universe over the decades.

There were also original villains: Livewire, Volcana and Luminus. None of them are much to write home about - Luminus was somewhat interesting as the idea of Superman battling holograms was a different type of threat... Volcana's story was a weird X-Men/Men in Black homage that didn't catch fire (applause, please). Livewire might've worked if she weren't exceptionally and deliberately irritating; she was an attempt at giving Superman a wise-aleck foe similar to the Harley Quinn character developed on Batman but she was seldom funny and never sympathetic, the two qualities which made Quinn succeed.

And then there are the guest stars. Batman seldom dipped its toes in guest stars during its Fox run - there's Zatanna in one episode... pretty much it. Yet in the first season, the Superman creators brought in Lobo for a two-parter (Lobo was a very popular character in comics at the time). Then season 2 brings in the Flash with his foe Weather Wizad; soon after there's Dr. Fate and his foe Karkull; season 3 has the Legion of Super Heroes; Green Lantern (with his foe Sinestro); Aquaman; plus five episodes given over to Batman and his foes.

The guest appearances start coming closer together in the final season, but more than that, I suddenly realized how little Lex Luthor was seen in that season; through season 1 and most of season 2 Luthor was seldom absent, appearing even in episodes where he wasn't the threat (such as the season 2 episode "Target").

So, is Superman's rogue's gallery really all that shallow? I suppose of those villains they didn't use on the show there is Terra Man, the Kryptonite Man, the Atomic Skull, Silver Banshee, the Ultra-Humanite, Master Jailer... but there were also episodes of Superman which didn't rely upon a great super-villain, namely two of my favourites: first, "The Prometheon," a story where the threat is a giant alien which is drawn towards heat - in that episode, the alien is simply a great problem which needs to be solved rather than beaten in a fight (the alien also has no dialogue); the second, "The Late Mr. Kent," a brilliant script in which Clark Kent is believed dead and Superman has to solve his 'murder.' Similarly, Batman featured plenty of great episodes which didn't depend on the hero's rogue's gallery: "P.O.V."; "The Forgotten"; "I Am the Night."

I find Superman loses steam quickly; that first season still holds up pretty well; a friend of mine considers the entire program simply "a test run for Justice League." If you've never delved into the DC animated universe programs I would certainly recommened you start with Batman - it's the best; Superman might be the least among those shows but there are enough strong episodes to redeem investing your time in the program. Uh... maybe skip most of season 3 except for "Knight Time," "Unity" and "Legacy," though.

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