This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. Earlier today, I looked at Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, so I thought I might explore a Justice League episode which was heavy on Superman, Darkseid and Batman…
One of the things that Bruce Timm and his talented bunch of writers found when producing Superman: The Animated Series was that the Man of Steel simply didn’t have as strong a supporting cast of bad guys as Batman had. Without such a recognisable and eclectic collection of rogues to act as foils to their lead, the guys at the DC Animated Universe decided to co-opt in some outside help. In particular the creations of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World. Sure, these characters had been related to the Superman mythos all along (first appearing in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen of all places), so it wasn’t a stretch. Although Twilight certainly isn’t the last appearance of the New Gods (as Kirby named them) within the DC Animated Universe, it is perhaps the climax. And, quite possibly, the best.
Superman is a tough character to write for. Who makes an adequate foe for a hero “more powerful than a locomotive”? The writers of the show have freely admitted that writing for a character that strong is a challenge, particularly finding the right vibe. (For example, how is Toyman – a villain Bruce Timm concedes would work better as a Batman foe – pose a threat to this guy?) Perhaps that’s why the Superman movies have so solidly stuck to Lex Luthor as a bad guy, while Batman has faced a decent volume of his impressive selection of foes on celluloid.
The plot basically sees Apokalips – crippled after one of Darkseid’s less-than-successful attempts as galactic conquering blows up in his face – attacked by the knowledge-hungry robot Brainiac. In desperation, Darkseid shows up demanding the Justice League’s assistance in vanquishing the alien threat. Superman is less than convinced, but the League decides to intervene anyway.
Here, Timm and company include the two biggest non-Luthor names in Superman’s rogues gallery for a massive and explosive confrontation. If Nolan is looking for foes to bring to the screen for his upcoming adaptation, and isn’t afraid to drag in the “cosmic” element, Brainiac and Darkseid make logical choices (although Metallo and Parasite are both “safer” options).
For those unfamiliar with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, it was essentially a narrative spanning several related books about the inhabitants of the planets New Genesis and Apokalips. Go on, guess which one is good and which is evil. Darkseid rules Apokalips with an iron fist, plotting to destroy his neighbours and/or solve the ambiguous “anti-life equation” which will grant him power over the entire universe (in fact, he eventually does figure it out). As part of a peace deal, for some reason, the two planets arranged for their leaders to swap sons (don’t worry – to quote Batman, “Sounds wacky to me too,” but just go with it).
Anyway, the Fourth World line was intended to be finite, with Kirby tying up all loose ends in a big epic finale. DC, smelling money, blocked him from closing the book on the characters, leading Darkseid and colleagues stumbling blindly around the DC Universe. Eventually The Great Darkness Saga established him as a galactic threat, and he’s been wandering around ever since, adopted by mainstream continuity.
Unsurprisingly, given his somewhat confused origin and weird co-option into the wider DC universe, as well as the fact the character falls into the “completely evil” category of villains, his motivations and personality and threat level have been known to… change a bit from appearance to appearance (as well as, for example, the form and function of the anti-life equation he seeks). Still, the writers here “get” Darkseid, and his animated version is a perfectly boiled down iteration of the villain.
He has been perfectly rendered throughout his appearances, but this episode wastes no time establishing his character. Informed his fleet are outgunned and on the verge of defeat, he casually orders the commander to “take as many of them with you as you can”. And – despite an understandable moment of hesitation – the commander obeys. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the character is his perception of the universe as an extension of himself – to quote Grant Morrison, “Darkseid is.”
The universe exists to serve his will, knowingly or not. “You are now the instrument of my will,” he informs a captive. He’s also just brilliantly evil because he treats himself as the centre of everything – anything that serves his will can be justified. “You deceived me, Darkseid,” Brainiac protests, “used me.” The villain’s reply? “It’s what I do.”
Kirby conceived Darkseid coming from the shadows of the Second World War. A godlike figure (and, you could argue, actually a God – as the episode title, Twilight, alludes to Götterdämmerung, Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods”) he sees the “chaos, confusion and uncertainty” in the universe as something to be replaced with his order, clarity and moral certainty. This is a beast who dreams of the power to “consume entire universes”, so as to build “a new universe created in my image.”
This is the ghost of tyranny and the cult of personality speaking – Darkseid is, although not created until the seventies, a character just as at home in the thirties as Superman himself. He is fascism incarnate. And, like so many DC animated series characters, he is perfectly voiced by Michael Ironside. His tone is perfect and terrifying. It’s a shame he wasn’t back for Darkseid’s recent animated appearance in Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.
In the red corner, we have Brainiac. Another of the animated shows’ better ‘reimaginings’ (so good, in fact, Geoff Johns “borrowed” it for his Action Comics run), Brainiac has had his history tied in that of Krypton to make him a more personal adversary for the Man of Steel. On seeing Brainiac arrive, Darkseid remarks to his son that “it’s death.” Corey Burton provides a superb voice-over performance – perfectly monotone and wonderfully creepy. In fact, the two performances are enough to allow the viewer to gloss over the inevitable double-cross at the episode’s climax.
The appeal of these two hugely powerful villains is simply because they actually offer a challenge to the superhero (and, by extension, his team – a good rule of thumb is that if a character can challenge Superman, he’s half-way there to being a good Justice League opponent). They can both stand up to the Man of Steel physically, which is just as important as the introspection or self-doubt that has accompanied several more modern adaptations like Superman Returns.
After all, what’s the point of featuring Superman if he can’t hit anything? Check out that final fist fight between Darkseid and the Man of Steel. There’s a wonderful moment where Superman, still caught up in his fight, pushes Batman away so hard that he takes a chunk out of the wall – illustrating that he’s barely holding back. Which is great, because why have all that power if you’re just going to hold back? However, both characters work as Superman adversaries because, quite simply, they also because they pose interesting philosophical threats and oppositions to the Last Son of Krypton.
Superman, who fights for “truth, justice and the American way”, is a logical counterpoint to Darkseid’s tyranny and dictatorship – Superman represents the triumph of the individual and a champion of free will, while the ruler of Apokalips is the very embodiment of subjugation. If Superman is “the tale of the immigrants who build America” reflected through a cosmic mirror, Brainiac is a disgusting inversion. He’s a parasite, who – rather than contributing to the worlds he visits – takes from them and gives nothing in return.
The casting here is, as ever, top notch. Ignoring the aforementioned Michael Ironside and Corey Burton, the guest cast is populated with names that can be easily recognised by geeks. Rene Auberjones has a brief cameo as Desaad (and the fleet commander). Michael Dorn is always great as Darkseid’s failure of a son (“I can’t believe we’re blood,” the conqueror remarks). Ron Perlman begins a recurring guest spot as Orion, Darkseid’s son who was exchanged over to New Genesis as the price of peace. I could even swear I heard one of the Warner brothers from Animaniacs popping up as one of the New Gods (on checking the credits for the episode, I can confirm it was, in fact, the voice of Yakko).
The episode happens to be a wonderful tribute to Kirby, featuring some of the most wonderful background designs of the entire series. Check out the scenes of the heroes flying around New Genesis, dancing like flies and courting or the design of the “Brainiac” asteroid. “Kirby-esque” is an apt way to describe the episode’s design aesthetic, even not factoring in the New Gods – for example, the canal into Brainiac’s lair, with its shades of neon purple and windows to other worlds, seems like something Kirby would approve of.
The episode is also just pure unadulterated pop. I picked up more than a few Star Wars references – be it the ship in the asteroid crater or even some of the sound effects. There’s a real sense of joy and energy in proceedings, which is just great on a story of this scale (and “scale” is really the best thing that Justice League offer the DC animated universe, as it could be “bigger” and “louder” than anything that came before). “You enjoying this?” Batman asks at one point in the midst of a fire fight. “Yes,” Martian Manhunter replies in a matter-of-fact manner, while using a Brainiac robot as a weapon.
I’ve remarked before that I’ve always found integrating Batman with the more fantastical elements of the DC Universe is something of a hard balance to get right. As I remarked on my World’s Finest review, the writers managed to (mostly) get around this by making Batman the team “grown-up”. Sure, he can’t fly (here Wonder Woman carries him), or punch through walls (though Superman throws him at a wall), but he’s the token team member with common sense.
That, plus the fact he just exudes “alpha male” through every pore (almost to an insane degree). When Superman remains sceptical about helping Darkseid, it’s Batman who offers the no-nonsense “tough love” response:
We know he used you, humiliated you, brainwashed you, wound you up like a toy soldier and turned you loose against Earth… Cry me a river.
And later he physically hauls Superman out of an exploding ship. Not to mention his response to the discovery of the New Gods living in a cloud city miles above New Genesis: “I’m gonna need a longer grapple.” Or his deadpan reflection on how things have fallen apart: “Next time I let Superman take charge, just hit me. Real hard.” Again, there’s the fact that Kevin Conroy is voicing the character, which is always a good sign.
In contrast, George Newbern as Superman, replacing Tim Daly who had voiced the character in Superman: The Animated Series, is still a strange fit in the role. He just doesn’t seem to exude the same sort of authority that the character needs. In fairness, a selection of strong Superman episodes later in the season – notably Hereafter and A Better World – would help make him more comfortable in the role, but there’s just something missing.
It’s interesting to see Superman filtered through religious imagery in this episode. In fairness, he’s being crucified in the shape of Brainiac’s “three triangular spots”, but it’s still an example of religious imagery which harks back to Donner’s Superman (though not quite so overt as in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns).
Filed under: Television | Tagged: animated, anti-life equation, apokalips, batman, brainiac, bruce timm, darkseid, dc, dc animated universe, dc universe, dcau, dcu, fourth world, jack kirby, justice league, lex luthor, new gods, ron perlman, superman, twilight |