To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.
It seems like I’ve spent far too long comparing Superman: The Animated Series to its direct predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series. However, it’s interesting how radically different Bruce Timm structured of the two shows. Batman came and went off the air with episodes that could only barely be described as a pilot and a finalé. On Leather Wings featured a Gotham still coming to terms with Batman, but it wasn’t an origin story. Judgment Day teased the possibility of closing Harvey Dent’s arc (and maybe killing off some recurring bad guys), but it didn’t offer too much else in the way of closure.
In contrast, Superman: The Animated Series opened and closed with two large-scale multi-part episodes designed to bookend the show, opening and closing the character’s arc. While Legacy doesn’t feel absolutely final, with plot points leading directly into Timm’s Justice League television show, it does offer a fitting end for Superman: The Animated Series.
On Krypton, the scientist Jor-El discovers that his world is dying. Unable to save himself or his wife, he instead builds a rocket to carry his son to safety. Young Kal-El survives the destruction of his world with no knowledge of his origin or history. He plummets through the cosmos, eventually landing… somewhere. He isn’t found by the Kents and he doesn’t grow up to be Superman, or at least not a recognisable version.
It’s a familiar twist on Superman’s origin, one which has been used time and time again. Mark Millar’s superb Red Son is perhaps the most obvious example, with Superman landing in Soviet Russia rather than middle America, but the story has been told many times in many different ways. In The Nail, he lands in an Amish community, and grows up meek. In Flashpoint: Project Superman, he lands in the middle of Metropolis, killing thousands of people.
These stories tend to explore the role of nature and nurture in Superman’s life, exploring just how essential Jon and Martha Kent were to the evolution of their son’s moral code. He might eventually find his way towards being the hero we know and love, but there are always consequences. The version of Superman’s history re-written and presented as fact in Legacy offers another exploration of this idea. A series finalé is the ideal place to reflect on the support structures of a particular television show, and so allowing Legacy to provide an alternative origin for Superman makes it a fitting counterpart to Last Son of Krypton.
In this version of events, helpfully reiterated by Granny Goodness, Kal-El’s rocket landed on the planet Apokolips. He was found by the tyrant Darkseid, who adopted him as his son. Darkseid then entrusted Kal (not Clark, not Superman, but Kal) to assist him in his plan “to bring order to a lawless universe.” Far from being the hero of Earth, Kal-El became the leader of an interstellar army dedicated to conquering and expanding.
Of course, it’s all a lie. This isn’t an alternate reality. Superman still landed on Earth. Darkseid has just brainwashed the hero and re-written his personal history, providing an exploration of just how threatening Superman would be without the morals imposed by humanity. It’s all part of Darkseid’s plan to conquer Earth, although he seems to take some pleasure in the fact that not only does it demean Superman, but it also serves to erode the self-respect of his own son Kabilak.
There’s something so wonderfully petty about Darkseid’s scheming. After all, earth can’t matter too much to him, and he’s not entirely certain that Highfather will let him annex the planet after Superman has invaded for him. (Although he suspects that his rival won’t stop him.) The main thrill of all this seems to be humiliating Superman, with the hurt caused to Kabilak by the constant references to his adopted son serving as a bonus.
Darkseid is the living embodiment of hate and cynicism and rage and violence, but there’s something so decidedly personal about his revenge. He’s moving worlds to settle what amounts to a personal grudge. He seems to be trying to demean Superman for some perceived slight, with everything concocted to humiliate a character who has been so thoroughly brainwashed he doesn’t even realise that Darkseid is taking advantage of him. Even the decision to pair Kal-El off with the decidedly bondage-themed Lashina (turning him into her “boy toy”) seems intended as a petty form of revenge.
Legacy is a pretty bleak place to leave the show, because it doesn’t end Superman’s story as a triumph. Indeed, the character’s two foes end up victorious. Lex Luthor’s cynicism about Superman is finally validated, as the Kryptonian proves himself a massive threat to Earth. Apparently even Lex is surprised by the chain of events. “I didn’t think this was possible,” Mercy remarks. Luthor responds, “Neither did I.”
Truth be told, I’m not sure about the decision to reveal that he doesn’t really think that Superman was an alien invader. I tend to like the idea that Lex genuinely sees himself as a hero, fighting the good fight against an alien who has fooled the rest of the population into submission. It strikes me as more interesting that a version of Luthor who is self-aware enough to realise he’s the “bad” guy.
I just find it more compelling when Luthor’s own moral views can’t allow him to concede that Superman could be as good as he appears to be. We do get a reference to this approach to the character in the second part, as a wounded Luthor observes, ironically, “No one man should have that much power.” It’s a statement which, I think, perfectly sums up Luthor as a villain, and it’s nice that he gets to be a part of Legacy. In a way, turning the military and the world against Superman, he gets to win.
Indeed, Legacy is full of losses for Superman. He terrifies the world, including his close friend Emil Hamilton. “Did you see the look on Hamilton’s face?” he asks Lois. “He’ll never trust me again.” General Hardcastle observes, “The aliens have turned against us.” There’s a sense of fear and distrust around these former heroes, with Superman no longer a paragon of virtue, but a “filthy alien.” That’s pretty bleak.
After all, where can Superman go from here? “How would you win back our trust?” General Hardcastle taunts. “Rescue a kitten from a tree?” The news coverage after the events suggest that the public aren’t going to simply forgive and forget. “If y’ask me, the bum aughta go back where he came from.” Superman is finally confronted with racism and xenophobia, finally gone from being a symbol of hope to an outsider.
He can’t even truly defeat Darkseid. Oh, he can beat him. Superman goes on a pretty epic rampage across Apokolips here, but it makes him seem even more terrifying. This is Superman with unchecked power and not restraint to hold him back. This is Superman finally cutting completely loose. And it’s not awe-inspiring or cool. It’s downright horrific. And even all this turns out to be for nothing. Superman bruises and bloodies up Darkseid pretty fierce, and then casts him down to his own slaves for judgement.
“Darkseid is finished,” Superman assures the frightened slaves. “Do with him as you will. You’re free.” To Superman’s horror, the slaves begin nursing the despot back to health. You can’t liberate a people who don’t want freedom. That’s the true horror of Darkseid, a tyrant so powerful that his slaves have come to love the chains of oppression which shackle them. They don’t want to be free. Darkseid has so thoroughly oppressed them that they would rather live at his mercy than according to their own free will.
So Superman can’t even vanquish a tyrant. The only victory he accomplishes in the episode is a hollow one. I have to admit that I respect Legacy a great deal for its willingness to shake things up – to do this to its lead character. Of course, making Superman a pariah or an outcast might have been more effective before the show went off the air, but it’s a fairly bold way to end Superman: The Animated Series, and gives the whole thing the feeling of the end of an era. Superman might try to make things better, but they’ll never be the same. There’s no going back.
It’s only the knowledge that Justice League is coming which allows Superman: The Animated Series to close on anything other than a grim note. Timm’s animated Justice League television shows would explore the themes developed here, and build off Legacy. Indeed, Legacy really feels like more of a launching pad to Justice League than a fitting end to Superman: The Animated Series. It’s strange that Justice League took a while to build up to these themes and threads, only really exploring the implications of Legacy in its second season.
To be fair, although Legacy does have a relatively gloomy atmosphere, there are still some lighter touches which suggest that Timm isn’t completely embracing cynicism and darkness. There’s something delightfully Silver Age about Supergirl manning all those Superman robots, even if she is the most nineties character to appear on Timm’s animated shows. (“Oh no, Clark will have a cow when he hears about this,” she laments at one point.)
We also get to see Lois going undercover and rescuing Clark, a nice reminder of why this version of Lois Lane stands head-and-shoulders above many portrayals. It’s also nice that the creative time make a point to demonstrate that – even with his powers removed by the red light – Superman is still a force to be reckoned with. As Darkseid’s brainwashing proved, it’s more than the powers which make Superman a hero.
Legacy is a suitable place to wrap up Superman: The Animated Series, and a nice taste of things to come.
Filed under: Television | Tagged: batman, clark kent, darkseid, Kal-El, Kinky, Lashina, lex luthor, lois lane, man of steel, mark millar, Mercy Graves, Steel, supergirl, superman, superman: the animated series |