To celebrate the release of The Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.
After the success of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series must have seemed like the most logical choice. Bruce Timm had already assembled a team of writers and production personnel who had collaborated to produce one of the finest distillations of one of DC’s most iconic characters. Giving Timm a chance to work with Superman seems only reasonable. After all, Superman is a character that Warner Brothers has always had a bit of difficulty exploiting to his maximum potential.
However, Superman is not quite Batman. Despite the fact that he’s older and (at the very least) just as iconic, Superman hasn’t been quite as popular as Batman for quite some time. He doesn’t have the same depth of supporting characters, and his iconography isn’t as thoroughly integrated into popular consciousness as that of Batman. Superman didn’t have a live-action technicolour sixties television show to introduce an entire generation to the Parasite, Metallo, the Kryptonite Man or many others.
Opening with a three-part pilot, it’s immediately clear that Timm knows that Superman is a very different character than Batman, and that he can’t simply apply the same formula which made Batman: The Animated Series such a high-profile success. From the opening episode of Last Son of Krypton, it’s clear that Superman: The Animated Series is going to be a very different animal.
Batman: The Animated Series was, primarily, composed of stand-alone episodes. Sure, more often than not, you could trace a loose arc between various episodes focusing on the same villain. You could watch the Mad Hatter slip further into madness, or see Clayface lose touch with his humanity. However, with the exception of two-parters and villain “origin” episodes, the show could be watched in any order. A fan could get the same joy out of Heart of Ice whether it was the first or fifty-first episode they had watched.
Indeed, the show’s pilot, On Leather Wings, only barely acknowledged that it was the first episode. It fleetingly suggested that Gotham was still coming to terms with the presence of a Batman. Beyond that, however, there was little to indicate that this was the first episode of a new television show. There was a very loose opening arc involving the character of Harvey Dent, but even that was very much pushed to the background, with Harvey’s only major role before his change in Two-Face serving as a victim in the first Poison Ivy episode, Pretty Poison. The show only provided Robin’s origin in flashback in Robin’s Reckoning.
There’s a reason that this approach works with Batman. The character’s iconography and his supporting cast and his motivations are all engrained in popular culture. It also helps that he has the strongest selection of villains in comic books, with even his second-stringers capable of supporting a compelling and fascinating story. Indeed, it’s something of a stock criticism of Batman stories in virtually any medium (most notably the Tim Burton films) that the tale in question is more interested in the bad guys than in Batman himself.
Superman doesn’t have that. His selection of iconic bad guys extends to Lex Luthor and a bunch of also-rans. General Zod seems to earn a place by the charisma of Terrence Stamp’s brilliant performance in Superman II. Brainiac might also garner a place as a high-profile villain. After that, though, it gets a bit hazy. Metallo and the Parasite have nowhere near the cultural cache of the Riddler or Poison Ivy.
So it’s clear that Superman: The Animated Series simply can’t count on the villains to help anchor the show in the way they did with Batman: The Animated Series. Rather tellingly, it seems the writers on the show invested more time and effort crafting new recurring bad guys for Superman: The Animated Series than they really did with Batman: The Animated Series. It’s also worth noting that some of these new characters worked just as well as long-term Superman foes who had been around in the comics since the Silver Age.
Timm seems to accept that Superman can’t simply follow the same model as Batman, and it’s very obvious from the opening few minutes of Last Son of Krypton. For one thing, this is more of a pilot than On Leather Wings. It doesn’t start media res. Indeed, it opens on Krypton when Superman was only a baby, and spends considerable time developing the character and his supporting cast from the ground-up. It’s a far more formal introduction than On Leather Wings ever was.
For another, it’s a three-parter, which represents a fairly significant commitment. No single continuous Batman story ran longer two episodes. One of the remarkable things about Superman: The Animated Series, as compared to its direct predecessor, was a preference for longer-form and arc-based storytelling. Villains didn’t just re-surface and continue their character arcs from where they left off, there’s a sense that actions have repercussions and that these things feed into one another.
That’s apparent even here. Last Son of Krypton introduces Braniac, a character who won’t reappear until Stolen Memories. John Corben is established as a mercenary here, setting up his transformation into Metallo a little later in the season. There’s a sense that Timm and his fellow writers are setting up plot points which will pay off later. It’s a model that carried over to Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, to the point where several of the story strands there pick up directly from the end of Superman: The Animated Series. (As opposed to the somewhat looser association between that show and Batman: The Animated Series.)
Indeed, the grand finalé to the first season of Justice League Unlimited, Divided We Fall, picks up a story thread from a second-season episode of this show, Ghost in the Machine. The much-loved Justice League two-parter A Better World builds upon the themes established in Brave New Metropolis. Superman: The Animated Series marks the point at which the DC animated universe begins focusing on long-form storytelling and a broader shared universe. In fact, in this pilot, Martha Kent even makes a passing reference to “that nut in Gotham City”, confirming that this takes place in a shared universe.
Perhaps the bravest choice when it comes to Last Son of Krypton is the decision to devote the entire first episode, a third of the whole story, to the adventures of Jor-El on Krypton. After all, Jor-El’s fate is a foregone conclusion, and it’s hard to imagine that anybody tuning into a Superman television show wants to watch Superman’s dad fool around for an episode. However, it’s a decision which pays off – giving a clear indication that Bruce Timm knows what he’s doing.
Jor-El tends to be a bit more important to Superman than Thomas Wayne is to Batman, if only because Marlon Brando never played Thomas Wayne. Jor-El eats up the first quarter-of-an-hour of Richard Donner’s Superman, which really codifies the Superman origin story. Brando plays Jor-El as an almost divine figure who sends his son to Earth so that he may show humanity a better way. Timm’s version of Jor-El is quite a bit different.
There’s a clear sense that Timm wants to break away from the Donner version of Superman. Donner’s take on the character was massively influential and defined Superman for an entire generation. It’s telling that Last Son of Krypton opens on Jor-El exploring in the ice, evoking Donner’s depiction of Krypton as a cold and crystal world. However, the episode quickly reveals that Krypton is not a cold and sterile world. Instead, Timm presents Krypton as a futuristic sci-fi landscape with lots of hovercraft and open-plan living, glistening pools and purple hues.
Timm’s Jor-El as is as distinct from Donner’s vision as his Krypton. Brando’s Jor-El as almost a messianic archetype, a divine figure sending his only child to live among humanity to show us how we may better ourselves. The fact that his world was dying seems almost incidental, and I always found it a little strange that Brando’s Jor-El was so concerned about how his son would behave towards humanity. You’d imagine he’d be more concerned about what would happen to Kal-El on a distant planet so far from home.
Timm steps away from this portrayal of Jor-El. This version of the character isn’t an ambiguously religious figure. Instead, he’s more of pulp science-fiction hero. We open on Jor-El wrestling with a monster at the heart of Krypton and the action just gets bigger and bolder from there. This is a version of Superman’s origin story involving a lot more running and shooting than we’ve come to expect. “Access restricted,” Brainiac advises. Jor-El pulls a laser gun and replies, “I don’t think so.” This could be Jor-El as played by Jason Statham.
I like this take on Jor-El. I like the idea that Kal-El’s heroism wasn’t just a fluke that came from landing on the right planet and finding the right family. I like the idea that his father – even without superpowers – was still a bad ass action hero who would do whatever he could to protect his family. It’s a very different take than most fans are used to, but I think it works. It makes Superman’s father more than just a convenient plot point.
It also establishes mood. One of the other things I really liked about Superman: The Animated Series was the decision to lean towards science-fiction and space opera. My favourite iteration of Superman is the crazy high-concept Silver Age version, and I like that the DC animated universe branched out in that direction, favouring Superman’s more cosmic and alien adversaries. Setting the entire opening episode on Krypton at least establishes that the show will be interested in stuff beyond Earth, and it paves the way for plot points like Brainiac’s visit, the refuge of the Kryptonian criminals or even Darkseid’s involvement towards the end of the show.
I also like the acknowledgement that Jor-El isn’t just an idealised father figure. I tend to like Thomas Wayne when it’s suggested he’s not the saint Bruce imagines him to be, and there’s something quite effective about the idea that Jor-El is just a bit of an arrogant jerk. When he refuses to convince Krypton’s scientists to listen to him, he doesn’t try to build consensus.
Based on his father-in-law’s response to the figures, the fact that he pretty much accepts Jor-El’s findings on a quick read-through, all Jor-El has to do is convince the Council to look at his work, and yet he riles up his opponents so much that nobody will even bother to check his numbers. They accept Brainiac’s assertions not just because they’ve been conditioned to rely too heavily on the computer, but also because Jor-El never tries to win them over. He’s defensive and adversarial.
“You can never be wrong, Jor-El,” his father-in-law accuses. “You’ve got an ego the size of Argos.” Of course, he’s correct. We have the benefit of knowing that Jor-El’s theories will be right, but there’s a sense that Jor-El simply doesn’t play well with others. He cares about his family and he loves his wife, but he’s condescending and passive-aggressive. His plans don’t seem to take into account the mood of the people. His suggestion that the Kryptonians could hide inside the Phantom Zone is a sound one, but he doesn’t seem too bothered about the fact the Zone is home to countless violent criminals.
One of the better aspects of Bruce Timm’s work on Superman was a willingness to let the character be wrong, and to allow him to make mistakes. Of course, Superman should never be as fundamentally flawed as he was in Superman Returns, but Timm was quite fond of suggesting that Superman had emotional blinders and could be distracted by his ego from time to time. It’s a plot point in both Twilight and Clash. Establishing this as a weakness of Jor-El is fairly efficient foreshadowing.
Jor-El’s escape plan is also a very clever way of explaining why he would build a ship that could only carry one person. If he’s been ranting and raving about the disaster for quite some time, you’d imagine he’d at least have a contingency planned for himself and his wife. The Phantom Zone plan is a logical way of getting around that, with the idea being that the person flying the ship could let the Kryptonians out on another planet. (That said, one does wonder why he and Lara don’t flee into the Phantom Zone, although I suppose there simply isn’t time.)
The episode does suffer a bit because the Superman plot doesn’t really feel that effective. It’s very hard to give Superman an origin story explaining the outfit and the cape and the persona, because it’s hard to justify precisely what the right level of interference in human affairs is. There are a lot of questions that Clark needs to figure out before he becomes Superman. How does he define the boundaries of the role.
He’ll stop a plane crashing in Metropolis, but what about fighting drought in Africa? How does he justify keeping a day-job as Clark Kent when he could be Superman all the time? At what point does listening for crimes become an invasion of privacy? What about confessions he extracts? These are questions which only really occur when you start delving into Superman’s beginnings. In contrast, Batman’s origin poses much more straight-forward questions. Without Superman’s powers, what Batman is capable of doing is much more limited. It’s a lot easier to excuse Batman skirting due process because he is obsessive. And only human.
That’s probably why Superman origin stories are so tricky, despite the fact there are so damn many of them. And Last Son of Krypton fumbles with that a bit. It just puts Clark in the costume without too much meditation or thought on what that costumes means. As a result, the three-parter isn’t just an origin story, but it’s also a first adventure. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly banal adventure, with Superman fighting a mercenary in a war suit. This is certainly an early indication that Superman doesn’t have the same depth of villains as Batman had.
At the same time, though, there are nice touches. It’s quite clear, for example, that the production team won’t let Clark get lost in the shuffle. Clark has a tendency to appear a two-dimensional disguise for Superman, a weak-willing stuttering nobody afraid to draw attention to himself – exactly the characterisation that Tarantino mocked in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. In a clear attempt to get away from that, Last Son of Krypton immediately establishes Clark Kent as more than just a generic nice guy.
He’s actually portrayed as surprisingly canny. Here, it’s Clark who is able to get “under Lex’s skin” about his culpability in the theft of the war suit. He also beats Lois to the launch, prompting her to ask, “What did you get?” Smirking, Clark replies, “A shared by-line if you use it.” He’s sharp, this one. Lois apologises, and admits that Clark isn’t quite the two-dimensional goodie two-shoes he might appear to be. “You’re not the rube hayseed I took you for.” I like this depiction of Clark as street-smart and well capable of dealing with people.
And I do like the effort put into developing Clark Kent’s world, and establishing Luthor as a recurring foil who can’t simply be arrested and carted off to prison at the end of the episode. That said, I am glad that the series never made a series attempt to follow through on the whole “Lois and Lex used to date” plot point. I’d prefer that Lois wasn’t reduced to some sort of prize in a battle for Metropolis between two alpha-male characters. Still, Clancy Brown remains one of the very best casting decisions that the DC animated universe ever made, so it’s great to see him introduce the character here.
Last Son of Krypton isn’t the strongest episode of Superman the show produced. In fact, it’s more efficient as a statement of intent than a demonstration of what the show is capable of. However, it does demonstrate that Timm and his staff have some very interesting and very solid ideas about where they plan to take Superman as a character. It’s a pretty solid first step.
Filed under: Television | Tagged: Argos, batman, batman: the animated series, bruce timm, general zod, Henry Cavill, jor-el, krypton, Leather Wings, man of steel, Metallo, Phantom Zone, richard donner, russell crowe, superman, superman: the animated series, Timm |