When you think about superheroes, what’s the first one that comes to mind? For me, it’s Superman. He’s the archetype for superheroes so for me, it’s hard not to think of him first. Of course, he’s not my favorite superhero as that title belongs to Batman. Whereas Superman is the ideal power fantasy for young children, Batman appeals to both adults and children alike. I suppose that’s why Batman has dominated the media landscape in the past couple of decades instead of Superman. This is especially true of Superman: The Animated Series (S:TAS) as its legacy has been totally eclipsed by its predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS).
I don’t normally do this sort of thing with my reviews, but in order to evaluate S:TAS, I have to compare and contrast it to B:TAS. It’s only fair considering the talent involved in both shows and how said talent approached both legendary comic book characters in their respective animated adaptations. Executive Producers Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett who all worked on B:TAS, developed S:TAS as a spinoff. And right there is the key distinction between both series. B:TAS rode the wave set by the Tim Burton Batman movies and broke new ground for western animation with its gothic art style, superb voice cast, and great writing. S:TAS flew into already broken ground so rather than try to capture lightning twice, the crew took the existing Superman mythos and updated it to modern standards of storytelling, animation, and technology.
The best way to see the influence of Byrne’s work is in the three part premiere “The Last Son of Krypton”. Things like Planet Krypton depicted as a lived in world, Lex Luthor (voiced by Clancy Brown) being an egotistical industrialist instead of mad scientist and Superman (voiced by Tim Daly) struggling to stop a plane from crashing feel more tangible without sacrificing the power fantasy or great animation. And then there’s Brainiac (voiced by Corey Burton) who in this version, is a sentient supercomputer created by Jor-El (voiced by Christopher McDonald) who goes rogue once it determines that Krypton’s death is inevitable. As he contains Krypton’s entire database, Brainiac escapes Krypton and begins his conquest of assimilating other worlds. It’s an interesting take on the Collector of Worlds that fits in line with the other contemporary updates. Overall, “The Last Son of Krypton” is a great introduction for the series. While the writers on B:TAS didn’t want to retread Batman’s origin due to general audiences exposure to movies, S:TAS had to tell the “Born as Kal-El, Raised as Clark Kent, Grows up to be Superman” so that a generation of kids that may have never been exposed to Superman, can get on board with this series.
The three part premiere not only established the series look, tone, and players, but also the serialized nature of its continuity. If you look back at B:TAS and The New Batman Adventures, each episode could be watched in any order as they felt like standalone stories. Some later episodes and a couple of two parters did rely on some continuity context, but the titular hero didn’t grow as a character like most of supporting cast. Batman’s still the same stoic hero from the start of the series as he was at the end. Come to think of it, Batman genuinely did grow as a character each time he crossed over in S:TAS starting with the three parter “World’s Finest”. Also, it seems that plenty of DC Superheroes did make appearances in S:TAS before appearing in Justice League…
But I digress. As Superman’s strength and prowess kept growing, so did his character development. The Superman and Lois Lane at the end of “Legacy, Part Two” are a far cry from that moment when Lois dubs Superman as the “Nietzschean fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape”. Getting there took some planning with aspects introduced in each episode, standalone or otherwise, would later be crucial story elements for future episodes. Furthering this was that relationships made by both Superman and Clark Kent would grow over the course of the series and come back in unexpected ways.
For instance, Superman and Dan Turpin (voiced by Joseph Bologna and modeled after his creator, the late Jack Kirby) start off on the wrong foot but over time, they become more appreciative of each other in their war against crime in Metropolis. When all seems lost in the second part of the episode “Apokolips … Now!”, Turpin rallies the people of Metropolis behind Superman giving the Man of Steel the strength to stand up to the invaded tyrant, Darkseid (voiced by Michael Ironseid). Superman wins, but Turpin is killed by Darkseid’s Omega Beams for defying the New God. After failing to catch the escaping tyrant, we see Superman smash a tank in futility that evokes emotions found in that scene in Superman: The Movie sans the cop out ending.
What follows is a somber funeral as many citizens of Metropolis (and some visitors) honor Turpin’s life. It’s a poignant moment for the series that serves as a fitting tribute to Jack Kirby.
Dan Turpin is just one of the many notable characters that make up Superman’s supporting cast. Out of all the characters that make up the Daily Planet bullpen, none are more important to Clark Kent or Superman than Lois Lane (voiced by Dana Delany). Often viewed by many as just Superman’s love interest, the producers took a more sophisticated approach to Lois than just making her the damsel in distress. This version of Lois is smart, sassy, and career driven above all else. From taunting hijackers on a commercial jet to breaking into a military compound, Lois goes the distance to uncover the truth and persevere in any situation. Lois is a great role model for girls and the most grounded character in this fanatical world. On the flip side, you have Jimmy Olsen (voiced by David Kaufman), the plucky young photographer that hangs around the Daily Planet. While they nailed the look and sound of Jimmy Olsen, this character got the short end of the stick when it came to character development and it’s apparent in the episode “Superman’s Pal” which Bruce Timm called the worst episode of the DCAU.
Supergirl (voiced by Nicholle Tom) is introduced in the two parter “Little Girl Lost” but with a slight twist. Due to DC’s then-present edict set by The Man of Steel, Superman was to remain the only surviving Kryptonian (which is weird when you remember that they were allowed to use Kryptonian criminals from the Phantom Zone) so the producers compromised with Superman finding Kara frozen in suspended animation on the Kryptonian colony of Argos and later adopting her as his “cousin”. With a slightly different strengths and weaknesses, this version of Supergirl was the kind of positive shot of energy the series needed right after Darkseid killed Dan Turpin. Her eagerness to be just like Superman presented the power fantasy that boys had, to an audience of girls at a time when “girl power” was all the rage.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of them, but the villains in S:TAS really do define the kind of hero Superman is. After all, Superman is all about power so his foes reflect how he doesn’t use his powers. There’s supervillains like Livewire (voiced by Lori Petty), Parasite (voiced by the late Brion James), and Metallo (voiced by Malcolm McDowell) all gain fantastical abilities that they use for nominal goals like revenge and wealth. Then you have Mister Mxyzptlk (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) and even Lobo (voiced by Brad Garett) who just amuse themselves with their abilities. But Darkseid, man. If Lex Luthor is the perfect foil for Superman’s outlook on humanity and use of power, then Darkseid is the pure antithesis of Superman. I’ve already wrote about “Apokolips…Now!” but Darkseid never stopped finding ways to beat Superman throughout the DCAU and even going as far as brainwashing Superman in the series finale “Legacy”. Even when Superman does break free and finally beats Darkseid on his planet of Apokolips, Darkseid still manages to undermine Superman’s victory when his meek subjects chose living in fear than being free. It’s a powerful and shocking to see Superman with his strength fail to truly bring Darkseid down without stooping to his level. After all, Superman doesn’t kill.
While never reaching the iconic status of its predecessor, Superman: The Animated Series is a truly well crafted show that holds up after twenty years. The revisions made to Superman’s world don’t ruin the simplicity of what makes that character great. The supporting cast and the villains have the right amount of complexity to stand on their own. The impressive world building, character exploration, and smooth animation set a precedent that other series would follow. Batman: The Animated Series started the DCAU and its legacy is undeniable. But Superman: The Animated Series justified the existence of an expansive cartoon superhero continuity with the kind of fun and fantasy that would reverberate into the DCAU. It’s definitely worth rewatching and you can check it out on various DVD set and streaming on Amazon Prime (at the time of writing).