Heaps of deserved praise surround Batman: The Animated Series, a 1992 cartoon that shaped an entire generation’s perception of the Caped Crusader. Anything you like about Mr Freeze, Clayface or Harley Quinn comes from this show, and its overall quality (both in storytelling and animation / presentation) helped usher in an era of “cool” cartoons that made the Disney Afternoon feel a liiiiitle too childish for 12-13 year-olds.
But where Batman goes, Superman must follow. Four years later Superman: The Animated series debuted 20 years ago on *shuffles papers around* the uh, WB, a network that would eventually fuse with UPN to become The CW – y’know, the current home of Arrow, Flash & Legends of Tomorrow.
Batman’s opening was a thrilling, custom-made sequence that completely shrouded viewers with its noir-y goodness. Superman, on the other hand, offered a soaring assortment of clips from the show itself – makes sense, as Superman will have numerous feats of strength, so why not front-load that cool stuff for increasingly finicky viewers?
LOVE that opening. It’s inspiring, bright, hopeful, triumphant. Everything you want Superman to represent. It’s a colorful, brightly lit, intentional antithesis to Batman and works on the same emotional level as John Williams’ iconic march and Hans Zimmer’s bludgeoningly victorious Man of Steel theme. Even on days when I wouldn’t have time to watch a full episode, I would always watch the opening and get a little extra spring in my step.
Right off the top, the Paul Dini / Bruce Timm team sets out to differentiate Superman from Batman TAS, a show that operates almost 100% at night and in the shadows. After all, Batman can’t be a myth / legend / mystery man if he’s seen in broad daylight, can he? Supes on the other hand draws his very power from the sun, meaning the show takes place almost entirely in the daytime, yet in the same sorta-20s-sorta-50s art style. It’s a clear companion piece to Batman TAS, yet completely distinct.
Like BTAS, STAS also gives DC newcomers excellent introductions to the wider Superman cast of characters. Lois Lane is a headstrong, occasionally arrogant (but frequently correct) reporter, Olsen is a reliable companion who gets intro trouble and the villains alllll come across as genuine threats despite being paired up against friggin’ Superman (more on that in a sec).
While I don’t think STAS redefined certain villains the way BTAS did (see Clayface, Freeze and the introduction of Harley), it still made each and every one interesting and almost scaled back to a relatable level. Braniac’s monotone, detached delivery works well even though his face is static, and his schemes to take over or catalog worlds are elaborate but fit within a 30 minute timeframe. Metallo is a silly cyborg thug, but with the voice of Malcom McDowell, his plight – a human mind who can no longer “feel” anything, trapped in a powerful but senseless shell – rings through the goofy premise.
I could go on about Luthor, Parasite, Livewire, the PERFECT casting of Gilbert Godfried as Mr Mxyzptlk and Michael Ironside as Darkseid… but then I’d be here all damn day. Almost every villain introduced has at least one great episode in which to shine, making the show, like I already mentioned, a great way to learn about the DCU in brightly lit, bite-sized chunks.
So yeah, the supporting cast, villains and art style / presentation are all on point – but what makes this the definitive Superman? Well, I argue that this Superman is a perfect balance of powerful, confident, hopeful, valorous and all those borderline cheesy traits we expect, but he’s also not so strong that he mops the floor with everyone. He’s significantly less powerful than some of his comic and movie counterparts, which means he can have insane physical bouts with his foes, but doesn’t outclass his baddies.
And while you could say the same for most comic renditions, the TAS version of Supes has a “low end” that’s lower than most of his other versions across the past near-century. Basic explosions, sucker punches and all kinds of small ordnance knock him off his game, making him a tough but beatable hero.
Or at least, that’s what you’re led to think across the years, you smarky DC fanboy! What’s actually been going on, however, is a consistent “holding back.” During a battle with a Brainiac-enhanced Darkseid, Superman admits he’s finally able to cut loose, because after all this time (in our years, 1996 to 2006!) he’s finally found someone strong enough to endure an all-out scrap.
So, this Superman has endured all kinds of attacks, traps and plots, and could have laid waste to his foes at any point – AND CHOSE NOT TO. Yes, it’s a bit of a retcon, but it works in two ways. One, Superman totally would eat shit a little while longer just to avoid accidentally killing a foe who could be subdued another way, and two, it explains a power discrepancy fans had been pondering for a decade. He’s not weaker than other Supermen, he’s just a better Superman, one who puts up with less-powerful goons even if it means extra pain for himself.
That aforementioned episode (Destroyer) brings great closure to a version of Superman that helped spawn the DC Animated Universe. Yes, it began with Batman, but until Superman TAS, Batman was simply a great show. Now it was part of a connected universe that lasted for 10 damn years. And that final episode of Justice League Unlimited ended it all in grand fashion, with a battle between a heroic Superman and perhaps the only being he ever tried to kill – a fusion of two genocidal monsters that were literally about to annihilate everything.
No one else could possibly stand up to this enhanced Darkseid. Only then, with the fate of perhaps all humanity (and maybe all the universe) in the balance, did Superman dare to truly finish a fight.
While the show may be eclipsed by both Batman and Justice League, it’s nonetheless home to some great episodes / adventures, and helped me discover a version of Superman I actually enjoyed. He’s not a goody two shoes, he’s not a boy scout, but he’s also not a sad sack who second guesses himself all the time. He’s fun to watch and more importantly, he’s fun to root for.
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