Ricky Church celebrates Superman: The Animated Series on its 25th anniversary…
In the realm of DC television animation, Batman: The Animated Series is placed at the top and was the first in what would become the DC Animated Universe, a collection of series featuring heroes and villains from all corners of the DC Universe. However, while Batman: The Animated Series is rightly held in high regard and helped set the tone for the DCAU, another series is very significant not just for its storytelling, but for setting up the DCAU in more ways than Batman ever did: Superman: The Animated Series, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Premiering in September 1996, Superman: The Animated Series incorporated many of the modern elements from the 1980s comic reboot. It followed the traditional beginnings of the classic Superman story as he’s rocketed to Earth just as his home planet Krypton is destroyed and taken in by the kindly Jonathan and Martha Kent, but much like those rebooted comics, Clark Kent was not a bumbling, awkward nerdy-type goof, but a confident reporter while his archnemesis Lex Luthor was likewise updated to reflect his change from a mad scientist to a highly intelligent and corrupt businessman whose influence stretched everywhere in Metropolis. Coming from the same team as Batman with Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, Superman proved to be just as rich in its presentation of Superman’s world as their series about the Dark Knight.
Where Superman excels the most is in its characterization of the Man of Steel himself. Though the series de-powered Superman in some aspects, making him a little more vulnerable to gunfire, struggle to lift heavier objects or having to wear a spacesuit out in space, he was still a powerful figure to behold for the citizens of Metropolis. More than that, though, it captured many of Superman’s defining traits: his compassion, heroism, sense of justice and determination to fight evil no matter the cost. The series delved into who Superman was beyond his powers by highlighting his humanity, both as the heroic figure and reporter Clark Kent. As Kent, he would investigate crimes around the city, uncover the deeds of the corrupt and look out for the little guy. The personality of Clark Kent as a clumsy and goofy figure popularized by the Golden and Silver Age comics as well as Christopher Reeve’s performances in the Superman films was nowhere to be found as Clark was instead shown to be well-spoken and brave in his civilian guise. Superman: The Animated Series showed just how much of Clark Kent really is Superman rather than the other way around. As much as Superman’s characterization comes down to the writing, it is also due to Tim Daly’s performance as Superman. Throughout the series he was fantastic as he displayed Superman’s heroic nature as well as a range of emotions, particularly in some of the series’ darker moments.
The supporting cast also received a great amount of exploration. Dana Delany as Lois Lane was smart, confident and sassy as she took no bull from anybody including Superman’s vast rogues gallery. Her chemistry with Daly is one of the best Superman/Lois pairings in both animation and live-action, especially with the back-and-forth teasing between Lois and Clark. Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor is one for the ages, delivering all the menace, selfishness and evil this updated take on Lex provided for Superman. An interesting piece of trivia is how Lex was inspired, both in look and performance, by Terry Savalas’ Blofeld from the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, yet through the four seasons of Superman and his further appearances in the DCAU Brown was able to make the role his own. Other supporting characters like Jimmy Olsen, Dr. Hamilton and Dan Turpin got their time to shine while Mercy Graves, Lex’s personal assistant and bodyguard, was created solely for the animated series by Dini and Timm. Much like their creation Harley Quinn, Mercy eventually made her way into the comics and even a small role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as the live-action TV series Supergirl and Titans, though she has never been nearly as popular as Harley.
Superman: The Animated Series is also responsible for revitalizing many of Superman’s other enemies. Brainiac was reimagined as a Kryptonian AI who allowed Krytpon to be destroyed in order to save himself, Metallo was given his Terminator-like image from the rebooted comics and Toyman is reimagined as a young man wearing a smiling porcelain doll mask. The show also introduced Livewire, a villain created for the animated series who, like Harley Quinn and Mercy, would make her way into the comics and live-action projects. It even utilized Mister Mxyzptlk, the fifth-dimensional imp who loved to plague Superman once every 90 days, with none other than Gilbert Gottfried voicing him. However, the villain who arguably received the biggest rebrand was not Lex Luthor or Brainiac, but the Lord of Apokolips himself, Darkseid.
Darkseid only appeared in animation in the 80s Super Friends and Super Powers Team series, but in a very less than faithful portrayal of his usual comic book role. Superman: The Animated Series depicted Darkseid as the grand chessmaster he is, plotting from afar with schemes that slowly played out over the course of the series as he intended to invade Earth in search of the Anti-Life Equation to rule the universe. From his very first introduction, Darkseid is an evil unlike anything Superman had ever faced and is the only villain aside from Luthor who came closest to defeating Superman. Not only did Darkseid once successfully brainwash Superman into believing he was his adopted son, Darkseid is also responsible for one of the most shocking moments in animation: the murder of Detective Dan Turpin, who, after rescuing Superman from Darkseid, gets disintegrated into dust by Darkseid’s Omega Beams moments after a truce is called and Darkseid begins to leave Earth. It is rare for a children’s cartoon series to have a death, much less show it, and was the only time in the whole series Superman lost his cool, sending him into a rage and lamenting at Turpin’s grave “In the end, the world didn’t really need a superman. Just a brave one.” The fact Darkseid killed Turpin purely out of spite and later gloats “Had I known one human’s death would pain you so, I would have killed more” perfectly displays the depths of his cruelty. Michael Ironside, the voice behind Darkseid, gave a terrible and menacing presence to the Apokolips ruler in just a few appearances, nor would it be the last we’d see of Ironside’s Darkseid in the DCAU.
As much as Batman: The Animated Series is credited for beginning the DCAU, it was really Superman that cracked it wide open. While heroes like Zatanna or Jonah Hex appeared in Batman, Superman really branched out by introducing Supergirl and future members of the Justice League. ‘Speed Demons’ brought in The Flash as Superman and the Scarlet Speedster competed in a charity run to see who is the fastest while ‘In Brightest Day…” has Kyle Raynor become a new Green Lantern. Though John Stewart was the main Green Lantern of the Justice League series, it did introduce the concept of the Green Lantern Corps to viewers while ‘A Fish Story’ saw Superman, Lois and Aquaman team up to stop a dangerous underwater experiment by Luthor. Even the mystical Doctor Fate appeared in a team up with Superman. Certain stories also carried over into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, such as Darkseid’s invasions and Brainiac’s resurrections, all having severe consequences in the DCAU’s future.
The big turning point for Superman and the DCAU came, though, with the ‘World’s Finest’ three-parter which saw Superman and Batman meet for the first time. As The Joker acquired a large quantity of Kryptonite and offered to kill Superman for Luthor for a sizeable sum of money, Batman and Superman had to reluctantly team up in order to stop their scheme. The pair distrusted each other on sight as Superman disagreed with Batman’s vigilante methods and Batman thought Superman was too much of a boy scout. As the three-parter went on, they grew to a mutual respect with their skills and personalities complimenting each other. ‘World’s Finest’ is an easy stand-out among both the Superman and Batman series, even being released as The Batman/Superman Movie on VHS and DVD. The pair would team up twice more in the series with one hilarious instance being Superman having to pretend to be Batman when Bruce Wayne goes missing so no one makes the connection between Bruce Wayne and Batman’s disappearances and helping Robin track Bruce down. The relationship between Superman and Batman really makes the backbone of the DCAU and set the stage for what the shared universe would have in store.
Superman: The Animated Series is a great and memorable series because its stories were unafraid to go to darker places or try wildly different tones like the comedic ‘Mxyzpixilated’ or ‘The Late Mr. Kent’, a film noir-like story where Clark Kent was apparently killed after uncovering evidence to exonerate a death row inmate and Superman having to find the true culprit. It honoured the legacy of Superman with its characterization of the title hero as well as his vast cast of supporting characters and villains while setting very important ground for the expanded DCAU. As the show celebrates its 25th anniversary and has a Blu-ray release next month, it is one no Superman fan should miss out on.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.