Is it a garbage heap? Is it a wounded buffalo? No, it's Judge Clark Douglas, in need of a shower and shave!
Our review of Superman: The Animated Series (Volume 1), published March 2nd, 2005, is also available.
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"It doesn't matter where you came from, or what you can do. You'll always be Clark Kent. Superman just helps out now and again."
Facts of the Case
Mild-mannered Clark Kent is a reporter for The Daily Planet, the most-read newspaper in the large city of Metropolis. Clark is a nice guy, but generally regarded as a hapless nerd by his co-workers. Little do they know that Clark is actually Superman, the all-powerful and much-loved protector of Metropolis…much less this his actual name is Kal-El, and that he's really an alien from the planet Krypton. Clark spends part of his day battling supervillains, monsters, and other threats to mankind, and the other part sitting behind a typewriter reporting on these spectacular events. Clark's co-worker is the intrepid Lois Lane, a reporter who will fearlessly tread into any dangerous situation if it means getting the scoop on a hot story. Clark is desperately in love with Lois, but Lois is far more interested in the hunky Superman than in boring old Clark Kent. Superman might be able to win every battle he engages in, but can Clark Kent win the heart of the woman he adores?
After the considerable success of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series, producer Bruce Timm and his team decided to bring DC's other big-name superhero into the spotlight: The Man of Steel. However, creating a successful Superman show wasn't going to be easy. In recent decades, Superman has become a considerably less popular character than Batman, and understandably so. Superman's bright, vibrant world lacks the modern appeal of the grim, gritty Gotham City, the character's seemingly unstoppable superpowers aren't as cool as Batman's hard-earned natural physical abilities, and the villains of Metropolis generally lack the rich depth of Gotham's Rogue's Gallery. Timm and Co. certainly had their work cut out for them. Fortunately, the team was able to produce a high-quality, entertaining program that (while never quite reaching the heights of the best Batman episodes) managed to make the best of what they had to work with.
An inconsistent element of Superman's character over the years has been his level of power. In some instances, he struggles to keep a giant boulder from crushing him, while in other instances he's able to make the entire world spin backwards with ease (I'm looking at you, Richard Donner). For the sake of being able to give Superman a wide variety of threats, this series opted for the "slightly less powerful" approach, still making Superman a guy who can fling automobiles around like nobody's business, but making him weak enough that, say, a 100-foot robot might be able to give Supes quite a pounding. However, the most surprising thing about this show's characterization of Superman is the manner in which the character's inherent goodness is so frequently turned into a weakness. Superman has always been the nicest guy in comics; the sort of superhero who will always stop to get a kitten out of a tree. This series suggests that he's also rather naïve at times, as his instinctual "do the right thing" reaction is exploited again and again by his unsavory foes (particularly Lex Luthor). Clark isn't an idiot, but he has a tendency to give people the benefit of the doubt (as opposed to Batman's "guilty until proven innocent" mentality), and it costs him on numerous occasions.
The design of the series is a particularly fascinating element. While Gotham City was a gloomy, unpleasant, frightening place often shrouded in darkness, Metropolis is a bright, bustling cityscape that simple crackles with energy. The art deco architecture adds a great deal to the program, giving Metropolis a sense of personality and character all its own. In many comic incarnations, Metropolis has more or less been a composite of various major American cities, but in this series it is most assuredly a place all its own. The colorful look of the city seems to influence the rest of the animation, as Superman: The Animated Series frequently relies on a vibrant and cheerful color palette.
The voice casting is inspired throughout. I hated it when the bland-sounding George Newburn was cast as Superman in the animated Justice League series, but only because I had grown used to hearing the marvelous Tim Daly in this show. Daly's authoritative-yet-warm voice is a perfect fit for Superman, as he fills the character with an appealingly earnest goodness (as opposed to Newburn, who simply made Superman sound stubborn and dumb). Dana Delaney is just as impressive as the quick-witted Lois Lane, a strong female character who hasn't gotten the portrayal she deserves in any of the live-action Superman flicks. Superman may be rescuing Lois Lane on a regular basis, but she's no damsel in distress. As voiced by Delaney, Lois is a fiercely independent, colorful character who's every bit as fearless as Superman given her lack of otherworldly powers.
Good as Daly and Delaney are, my favorite vocal performance comes from Clancy Brown (The Informant!) as Lex Luthor. The character has historically been Superman's greatest foe, but many writers have pushed the character into silliness (whether intentionally, as in Superman II, or unintentionally as in Superman Returns). This Lex Luthor is not a megalomaniac, but a businessman. His hatred for Superman is not only rooted in the fact that the Big Boy in Blue tends to subvert his less-than-ethical business shortcuts, but also in something deeper: Luthor may be the pinnacle of human achievement in many ways, but as long as Superman exists, Luthor will feel inferior. In his own warped way, Luthor regards himself as humanity's champion, attempting to demonstrate that his own mental ingenuity is greater than Superman's brute strength. Brown voices the character with an intensely arrogant sense of cool, oozing contempt and smug superiority that occasionally gives way to unchecked rage.
The only other villain that holds a candle to Luthor is the mighty Darkseid (voiced by Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers), Jack Kirby's villainous comic book character that undeniably influenced George Lucas's creation of Darth Vader. In fact, many fans of this show would probably argue that Darkseid is far and away the best villain, but that's probably just because the episodes containing Darkseid are some of the best-written of the series (while Luthor appears in some of the worst). The character doesn't appear until the final third of the series, but the multiple two-part episodes he appears in are far and away the most intensely dramatic stories contained within this set. It's a real shame that the series ended when it did, because the final eighteen episodes or so represent the writers truly hitting their stride.
Aside from the Darkseid-centric episodes (which also generally contain other elements of Jack Kirby's "Fourth World"), highlights of the series include the three-part "World's Finest" (a delightful battle royal featuring Superman, Batman, Luthor and The Joker), the three-part "The Last Son of Krypton" (an enjoyable origin story that opens the series), "Speed Demons" (in which Superman races The Flash for charity), "Mxyzpixalated" (an extremely funny episode starring Gilbert Gottfried as Superman's most obnoxious foe) and "The Demon Reborn" (another Superman/Batman team-up which features one of my single favorite moments of the entire series).
The DVD transfer is…well, it's exactly the same as the transfer on the previously released sets. You know why? Because these are the exact same discs. No, seriously, the exact same discs, just repackaged in a somewhat flimsy plastic case (the thin snaps holding everything in place had shattered by the time I received my set, which is frustrating considering these cases are difficult to replace). The worst part about repackaging the old discs is that half of them are those horrible double-sided discs that scratch and scuff so easily (something this particular packaging lends itself to even more than the previous individual series sets…one of the discs in my set was horribly scuffed up by the time I received it). With each volume, you get one standard single-sided disc containing six episodes and then a double-sided disc containing six episodes on each side. Having double-sided discs is bad enough, but having some standard discs thrown into the mix just makes everything look even tackier. On the plus side, the price is hard to argue with, as the set is available from most online retailers for less than $40. Anyway, in case you're curious, the transfer is solid if less than remarkable. The bright colors come through with clarity, but detail is occasionally just a bit lacking and the action scenes aren't quite as smooth as I would have liked them to be. The audio is sharp, even if it has slightly less punch than you would expect for such an action-oriented show (Shirley Walker's orchestral music hits harder than the sound effects).
Naturally, the original discs repeat the original extras: nine audio commentaries, four making-of featurettes ("Superman: Learning to Fly," "Building the Mythology of Superman's Supporting Cast," "Menaces of Metropolis: Behind the Villains of Superman," "Superman: Behind the Cape"), a snippet of the feature-length "Look: Up the in the Sky!" documentary, and one pop-up trivia track. What's contained on the all-new, freshly-pressed seventh disc? A single 16-minute featurette called "The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman." It's a perfectly decent little featurette spotlighting Jack Kirby and one of his most famous creations, but talk about a wasted opportunity to sweeten the package. A whole disc for a 16-minute featurette? Pssh.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
After the respectable three-part origin story that opens the series, the show struggles to find its footing for a while. Early on, there are simply too many over-simplistic, semi-wearisome stories in which Superman basically punches it out with banal threats for 22 minutes. As the show progresses there is an increasing level of quality and consistency, but this box set does contain its share of duds.
If you don't yet own Superman: The Complete Animated Series, this affordably-priced box set is a decent way to go, but there is absolutely no reason to upgrade if you already own the individual sets. Here's hoping Warner Bros. will try again at some point and give this show the respect it deserves.
The series is not guilty, though this box set is guilty of lazy
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Episode Commentaries
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