Next, Judge Maurice Cobbs plans to spit into the wind, and is considering pulling the mask off that ol' Lone Ranger.
Our review of Superman: The Complete Animated Series, published November 23rd, 2009, is also available.
"You don't really have to reinvent those characters from the ground up, because they're archetypes that have been around for sixty-some-odd years. There's a reason they've been around for sixty-some-odd years. They're good archetypes."—Bruce Timm, producer
"He's strong, he flies, he's the Nietzschean fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape. A Superman."—Lois Lane, "The Last Son of Krypton, Part 3"
In the mid-'90s, with Superman's only modern presence on television being the dismally insipid Lois and Clark, learning that the amazing team behind the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series was turning their sights on Big Blue was like a life preserver to a drowning man. While Superman arguably never achieved the consistent heights in storytelling that made Batman: The Animated Series an instant fan favorite, it is still head and shoulders above anything that has been done with the character since the Fleischer Studios version soared into theatres in the 1940s. The key, just as with Batman, was the unabashed love of the characters and the comics that the creative team put into the material, showing a healthy respect and affection for the comics' continuity without being too stringently tied to it, allowing for a Superman that is at once fresh and familiar.
Facts of the Case
The Emmy award–winning team behind the smash hit Batman: The Animated Series brings the Man of Steel to life in Superman: The Animated Series, starring Tim Daly as Superman, survivor of a dead planet raised on Earth and sworn to uphold the highest ideals of truth, justice, and the American way. Posing as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Superman protects Metropolis and the world from super-powered threats such as the ruthless kryptonite-powered cyborg Metallo (Malcolm McDowell, A Clockwork Orange), intergalactic bad-boy bounty hunter Lobo (Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond), Kryptonian traitors General Jax-Ur and Mala, played by Ron Perlman (Hellboy) and Leslie Easterbrook (Police Academy!), renegade supercomputer Brainiac (Corey Burton, narrator of Disney's animated The Jungle Book), Metropolis crime lord Bruno "Ugly" Manneheim (Bruce Weitz, Hill Street Blues), and of course, the ruthless, scheming, untouchable multibillionaire Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown). This two-disc collection includes the three-part introductory origin story "The Last Son of Krypton" (which was previously released on DVD in movie format), as well as these episodes:
• Fun and Games
Clark Kent: "Well, Lois, the truth is I'm actually Superman in
disguise and I only pretend to be a journalist in order to hear about disasters
as they happen, and then squeeze you out of the byline."
When Superman: The Animated Series premiered in 1996, its version of the Man of Steel was one of the purest and most faithful ever put on screen, rejecting the then-current trend in comics toward grimness and darkness in favor of the sort of high adventure and optimism that made comics such a joy to read in my own childhood. Certain liberties are taken with aspects of the character that set it aside from other versions (such as the addition of Brainiac as an enemy of Jor-El and a complicit accessory in the destruction of Krypton), but the creative team never abandons the core elements of the mythology, never shows the contempt for the material that Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher showed for Batman, and never sinks to the soap-opera campiness of Lois and Clark. Having said that, the show opts for a slightly less powerful Superman than the one featured in the comics, allowing for greater dramatic potential: When Superman has to bring a jumbo jet down safely, he has to work a little for it; he can't stay underwater or in deep space for too long without proper equipment; and he does take a beating from time to time from super-powered foes.
Although Superman's powers have been dialed down to a more manageable and believable level (here he could never spin the world backward, for instance), the show is still chock-full of classic Superman bits. Right from the opening three-parter, when we get to see Supes punch an armored battle suit through one side of a building and out the other, to the midtown rumble with the Phantom Zone criminals (recalling the classic slugfest from Superman II), the show delivers plenty of thrills and action. There's a bit of an edge to this Superman; although he's certainly not as dark as Batman, you still would not want to make the big guy mad, considering that he can bend steel in his bare hands and fire heat beams from his eyes.
That edge also shows in the character of Clark Kent. Recognizing that "mild-mannered" need not reflect the bungling of Christopher Reeve or the sissified Dean Cain interpretation, the team wisely uses George Reeves's almost hard-boiled take on the character from the '50s television series. For the voice of Superman, the creative team tapped Timothy Daly, also known as Joe Hackett from the NBC sitcom Wings (which itself cries out for DVD release). Daly brings weight and authority to Superman's character, but Kent is also presented as capable and tough, easily holding his own with the take-no-prisoners Lois Lane. As such, you can believe that Kent has what it takes to keep a job as an investigative reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, and would be just as resourceful even if he weren't, you know, faster than a speeding bullet and whatnot. The George Reeves series made Kent such an interesting character because limitations on budget and special effects forced their hand. But the animated Superman team does it because they actually like the character, separate and distinct from his alter ego.
"It wouldn't be bad if people knew a little bit more about Superman. I don't want people thinking you're like that nut in Gotham City."—Martha Kent, "The Last Son of Krypton, Part 3"
For Superman, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and the rest of the Batman creative team refined their already stylized designs for the Batman show, making the Man of Steel and his supporting cast a lot more streamlined. On this DVD release, the show looks great, with bright, vibrant colors that seem to leap out at you and a wonderful sound mix that emphasizes the thrilling brass and dynamic cymbals of the musical score. As is fitting and proper, Superman is the polar opposite of Batman: Where Gotham City is all looming, claustrophobic darkness, moody music, and retro atmosphere, Metropolis is bright, optimistic, and retro-futuristic, like Fritz Lang's Metropolis redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright and crossed with the 1939 World's Fair. Though the city sprawls out as far as the eye can see, it never feels confining—the soaring skyscrapers and elevated highways create the impression of a bustling, fast-moving supercity ten minutes into the future. The sometimes fantastic technology that would seem incongruous in Gotham—like suits of techno-armor, Kirbyesque weapons and machines, and strange alien devices—harmonizes nicely with the almost Buck Rogers feel of Superman, creating a reality that is altogether separate and distinct from Batman, but perfectly compatible at the same time.
The familiar cast of characters is recreated for Superman as well, and fans of the Batman show might recognize some familiar voices. Young photographer Jimmy Olsen (David Kaufman) and gruff but avuncular editor Perry White (George Dzundza, Law & Order) are constant recurring characters, as well as less familiar Superman cast members such as S.T.A.R. Labs' resident genius Professor Emil Hamilton (Victor Brandt), Clark's childhood sweetheart Lana Lang (Joely Fisher, Inspector Gadget)—who has become a lot more familiar since the runaway success of the WB's Smallville—and Superman's number one fan, the massive but gentle-hearted sailor Bibbo (Brad Garrett). Clark can always find a sympathetic ear with his adoptive parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent (voiced by real-life married couple Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares), and his Kryptonian parents, Jor-El (Christopher McDonald, The Iron Giant) and Lara (soap opera star Finola Hughes, who also starred as Emma Frost in the live-action Generation X TV movie), occasionally show up in flashbacks. For police support, the team has taken two wonderful characters from the comics: the head of the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit, Captain Maggie Sawyer (Joanna Cassidy, Six Feet Under), a tough lady cop who may well be the first lesbian character presented in television animation, and her second-in-command, the hard-boiled "Terrible Dan" Turpin (Joseph Bologna), created here in the image of comics legend Jack "King" Kirby. Some new characters have also joined the roster for this incarnation of Superman; Lois Lane finds a bit of professional rivalry in the form of TV newscaster Angela Chen (Lauren Tom, Friends), and a few new villains have been added to Superman's rogues' gallery. More about them in a moment.
No version of Superman would be complete without Lois Lane, played here in the most spot-on interpretation of the character ever committed to film by Dana Delaney (China Beach, NYPD Blue). Delaney, who also voiced Andrea Beaumont, Bruce Wayne's love interest in the theatrical release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, presents Lois as a fast-talking, sharp-tongued go-getter. When instructed by Perry White to take the newly hired Kent under her wing, she wastes no time in letting him know where he stands: "Nothing against you, Smallville, but even as a kid I never liked babysitting. You wanna keep up with me, you gotta be quick. I'm no tour guide and I don't hold hands." Smart, tough, beautiful, and courageous—even stepping in to attack Lobo at one point—this Lois doesn't just wait around to get rescued; she's a driven, career-minded woman. There's no romance between her and Clark, either, although she certainly has some feelings for Superman. But Lois and Clark are strictly friends and professional rivals, and I personally like it best that way. This competitive attitude creates a wonderful dynamic between the principal characters—and a somewhat antagonistic one, as they are constantly trying to one-up and scoop each other, again recalling the wonderfully done Fleischer cartoons.
"I control everything in this town, Superman. Your cooperation is not really necessary. The offer was merely a courtesy."—Lex Luthor, "A Little Piece of Home"
Heading up the roster of bad guys is Superman's archenemy, multibillionaire industrialist Lex Luthor, played here with smooth, Bond-villain appeal by Clancy Brown (Cast a Deadly Spell). Until Superman's arrival, Luthor was the most powerful man in Metropolis: His money built the city, his technology keeps it going, and over two-thirds of the city's citizens work for him, either directly or indirectly. "You work for me," Luthor reminds an underling in one episode. "Don't forget that. There shouldn't be an opinion in your head that I haven't put there." However, faced with the prospect of a powerful force in his city that steals his thunder and thwarts his most carefully laid plans, Luthor has become obsessed with humiliating and controlling Superman. To that end, Luthor's hand can be found behind the scenes of a number of villainous plots; it was Luthor, for instance, who engineered the creation of the flawed Superman clone Bizarro (also played by Tim Daly, in later episodes), had the consciousness of mercenary John Corben placed into the indestructible body of Metallo, and first discovered the withering effects of kryptonite. For the show, a new character was created to serve as Luthor's bodyguard and chauffeur: Mercy Graves (Lisa Edelstein, Fathers and Sons), a deadly assassin and troubleshooter who has since made her way into the comics as well, not unlike the Joker's hench-wench Harley Quinn on Batman: The Animated Series. More new villains created to face off with Superman include Livewire (Lori Petty, Tank Girl), a loud-mouthed radio shock jock named Leslie Willis who gains power over electricity in an accident, and obscure Kryptonian supercriminal Jax-Ur, used here in place of the more familiar General Zod, was given a brand-new companion in the form of Mala, both of whom were thwarted on Krypton by Jor-El and sent to the Phantom Zone, only to re-emerge as threats to Earth.
Familiar villains from the first few episodes include a completely reimagined (and rather disappointing) Toyman (Bud Cort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou); Rudy Jones, who becomes the life-stealing Parasite (Brion James, The Radioland Murders); intergalactic bounty hunter and fanboy favorite Lobo; and Intergang boss Bruno "Ugly" Manneheim, who serves to introduce Jack Kirby's New Gods characters in the episode "Tools of the Trade" when he makes a deal with Kanto (Michael York, Logan's Run), an agent of the intergalactic tyrant Darkseid (Michael Ironside, Starship Troopers). When the Flash (Charlie Schlatter) guest-starred in the episode "Speed Demons"—an homage to Superman #199, "Superman's Race with the Flash"—he brought along an unexpected guest from his own rogues' gallery: The Weather Wizard (Miguel Ferrer of Twin Peaks, who oddly enough played a very similar character in the mortifying live-action Justice League pilot movie). Although Batman: The Animated Series certainly had his share of notable guest stars, such as the magician Zatanna and Kirby's demon Entrigan, the more fantastic, science-fictiony atmosphere of Superman made it easier for visiting superheroes to drop by: In addition to the Flash, the series would eventually present animated versions of Dr. Fate, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the entire cast of New Gods. Building this large roster of costumed do-gooders paved the way for the eventual expansion of the animated DC Universe with the launch of Cartoon Network's Justice League, where actor George Newborn would take up the voice of Superman.
Raised in the heartland on a steady diet of American ideals such as fair play and confronting evil head-on, Superman is perhaps the greatest myth that we've ever created for ourselves. His legend is a textbook immigrant success story, as deeply ingrained in the American experience as George Washington's cherry tree, John Henry's war against encroaching technology, and Paul Bunyan's incredible adventures, and Superman: The Animated Series will, I believe, stand the test of time as one of the most definitive interpretations of the character ever done. With its mix of traditionalism, inventiveness, and healthy respect for the mythology, this is a Superman for all seasons. Did the creative team have a better affinity for Batman than for Big Blue? Yeah, probably. They don't quite capture the lightning in a bottle that they did with the previous show, but that is no slight against what they've accomplished with Superman. When all is said and done, they've remembered two key elements of adapting any superhero material for another medium: first, that just because the source material is comic books, you don't need to condescend to your audience; and second, superhero comics are supposed to be, above all else, fun.
Caped wonder stuns critic. Not guilty.
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• Commentary on "The Last Son of Krypton, Part 1" by Producers Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett, Director Dan Riba, and Art Director Glenn Murakami
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