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. Since I looked at Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths earlier, I thought it might be worth a look at what a world run by a well-intentioned Superman might look like.
The interesting thing about Superman is that, as a character, he’s very frequently defined by what he isn’t – or what he shouldn’t be. It’s very hard to codify what Superman is, but easy to agree on what he shouldn’t be (for example, the suggestion that Superman should be light and fuzzy is more likely to spark an argument than the observation that he shouldn’t be dark; or the suggestion that he should be a “sci-fi” hero is bound to more controversial than the suggestion that he shouldn’t be a street-level vigilante). Stories like Mark Millar’s superb Red Son define the character by what he isn’t (a proactive political figure) – while interpretations seeking to define the character in more positive terms are frequently divisive (for example, the space hero of James Robinson’s New Krypton or the “down with the people” “wandering the earth” traveler in Grounded). Brave New Metropolis follows a similar structure, in defining Superman by what he isn’t or shouldn’t be: he shouldn’t be a ruler or people.
Using the old science-fiction staple of an alternate universe as a window to explore what might have been, the show posits a world where Lois Lane has died (he got there “a split second too late”, which seems inevitable at some point). The Man of Steel is immediately disconnected from reality (entirely dropping his Clark Kent persona) and decides that he has been too patient waiting for mankind to mature and move away from their petty acts of violence and mistrust. In doing so, the episode hits one of the key questions surrounding the character: if he’s so powerful, how come he’s content getting kittens out of trees or stopping muggings when he could rule the planet and improve our lives in that fashion?
Superman has the capacity to stop all wars and eliminate poverty with his own two hands (and he could likely remake the world in less than six days as well), so how come a world with Superman in it looks so similar to our own – how come there’s still street crime and murder if Clark Kent can hear all and see all? The obvious answer is that the world needs to be relatable to our own in order for us to engage with Superman, but many writers over the years have attempted to offer their own explanations for why there is still suffering in a world that has a Superman.
The most frequent argument – and the one proposed here – is that in order for Superman to “fix” society, he’d have to take away free will and assume a paternal role, rather than the merely inspirational one he fulfills at the moment (which he dismissively refers to as “clean-up duty”). Rather than hoping to teach us to be better through aspiration, he’d have to become “a tyrant”. He’d have to destroy that very thing which makes us worth protecting – free will. The literary allusion of the title is apt, this is a world without a soul, without a passion or creativity. Though we are introduced to rebels and freedom fighters, it’s easy to imagine the citizens of Metropolis living like drones (Angie even stumbling by a struggle without really noticing). The whole city seems somehow sterile as it is presented to us – lifeless and empty, complete with fascist trappings (faceless goons, black suits and a very clear cult of personality).
Yet, on top of all this, the episode is also something of a pastiche of the “darker and edgier” Superman that has been suggested from time-to-time. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the obvious similarities between “the black costume” here and some of the many proposals for Tim Burton’s doomed adaptation in the mid-nineties. If you want to snazzy up Superman, it seems that you just add a black suit – hell, one of the Superman substitutes from the Death of Superman story arc wore a similar black suit. It’s also fun to see Luthor’s “L” branded in the Superman symbol – particularly as these circumstances have allowed Luthor to effectively declare himself a “savior” (and, evidentally, turn a tidy profit – with references to the a “LexCorp orphanage”, which indicates a new market to corner).
Throughout the episode, Superman is presented as something akin to that selection of nineties anti-heroes which emerged during that period of comic book history – just to give you an idea of how out of character that would be (the episode makes a point of emphasising that this version of the character is rejected by the populace – “alien!” he is called by one of the interned citizens, pointing out how much of his humanity has been lost). “You get one warning,” he advises a bunch of rebels before engaging in tactics which skirt the line between “reckless” and “brutal”. And I thought it was hilarious when Luthor remarked on their partnership as if Superman were some sort of prima donna, declaring that “he’s hard enough to work with as it is.”
It seems the perfect time to point out how wonderful the voice cast is here. Although Tim Daly isn’t Superman to me in the way that Kevin Conroy is (seriously, I hear Conroy’s voice in my head while I read everything except Frank Miller’s Batman – then I hear Michael Ironside), he’s still a solid choice. It probably hurts that Superman has had several animated voice actors whiel Conroy has been far more consistent as the Caped Crusader. Clancy Brown, on the other hand, is perfect as Lex Luthor and is perhaps my favourite performance as the character – the voice is charm and arrogance wrapped around a truly viscious core. Dana Delaney is perfect as Lois (By the way, did her skirt have to be that short for the entire series? I mean, how does she do half the stuff the show puts her through in that miniskirt?) – which is important, because this really is a “Lois” episode. And Lisa Edelstein just has an incredibly sexy voice.
Even withstanding the fact that it’s a great story well told and addressing an important facet of the character, it’s also just a very well put together episode. I was never really a big fan of the animation shift that occurred between Batman: The Animated Series and his show – a lot of detail was lost and everything seemed to get brighter (which caused aesthetic problems, in my opinion, integrating Batman with the wider DC animated universe). Anyway, Brave New Metropolis illustrates that this style can suit darker episodes (as, indeed, would several episodes of the rebranded The New Batman Adventures, animated in a similar style). It looks great.
Brave New Metropolis is a great little episode and one which deserves to be counted among the very best of the animated DC universe. It isn’t by any means a novel approach to the Man of Steel, nor does it posit anything which hasn’t been suggested before, but it’s a well-produced piece of television that displays an obvious affection for the source material.
Filed under: Television | Tagged: alternate universe, animation, brave new metropolis, brave new world, clancy brown, dc animated universe, dcau, lex luthor, lois lane, superman, superman lives, superman: the animated series, Television, the death of superman, tim daly |