Ask Chris #258: Why ‘Superman: The Animated Series’ Is The Underappreciated Gem Of The DCAU
Q: How do you feel about Superman: The Animated Series? A faithful adaptation that distills the Superman mythos the same way as Batman: TAS? -- @Trilby64
A: Superman: The Animated Series is great, which is one of the reasons that it's so weird that nobody ever really talks about how great it is. Even here at ComicsAlliance, when I was looking for things to dive into for an in-depth episode guide, it never even came up for consideration --- but to be honest, a lot of that was because there's not a whole lot to make fun of in that series. It synthesized one of the best versions of Superman ever brought to any medium, and it did it with an incredible style that was well done on pretty much every level.
There's just one big problem: It's not Batman.
That probably sounds facetious, but it's true. As good as the show might've been --- and it was very, very good --- it has the misfortune of falling into this weird pop-cultural No Man's Land between Batman and Justice League, and because of that, it's always the one that doesn't get the attention that it deserves.
With Justice League, the appeal speaks for itself. It was the first time that we'd seen DC's biggest heroes teaming up since Super Friends, and while I think we'd all gotten used to the standards in animation that Warner Bros. was putting out by that point, it's still a pretty beautiful and visually engaging --- even if Green Lantern did have a tendency to use a power ring that can do literally anything to make laser beams and bubbles. And when it rolled over into Justice League Unlimited, and they had a mandate to feature everyone? Forget about it. Never mind that there was a (great) Booster Gold episode; that show had the dang Seven Soldiers of Victory on it at one point, and when you're going that deep, that's a selling point that trumps pretty much everything.
Batman, on the other hand, was an entirely different beast. I don't want to blow anybody's mind here, but BTAS was groundbreaking, to the point where there are episodes of its original run that still feel fresh and innovative today, 23 years after it first premiered. It had a moodiness to it that you just didn't see in kids' programming in 1992, with takes on villains --- visual and narrative --- that would become the standard.
The thing is, that visual style that made BTAS such a huge hit didn't come out of nowhere, and as talented as Bruce Timm is --- pretty talented, as you probably already know --- it wasn't just him inventing the look out of thin air. There was a huge, huge influence from Max Fleischer's Superman cartoons from the early '40s. Just watch that first one and compare the Mad Scientist's death ray to the one Maxie Zeus builds in "Fire From Olympus."
Also, watch that first one and just try telling me that Superman literally punching out a death ray --- not the gun, but the ray itself --- is not still the hardest thing you've ever seen.
Anyway, the point is, what worked for Superman in the '40s --- those moody Art Deco backgrounds and sweeping adventure scores --- ended up working for Batman in the '90s. When it came time to adapt that visual back into Superman, though, we'd already seen it. The ground had already been broken for a new generation, and so instead of feeling like Superman getting back to his animated roots and reviving a a great style that had been a hit in the years that launched him to success as a household name, it just felt like a spinoff from Batman that didn't have as many cool villains.
It also doesn't help that it lacks the kind of opening sequence that made BTAS so instantly iconic. I've written before about how that intro might be the best 57 seconds in television history, and getting something similar for Superman would've been amazing. Instead, it's just a bunch of shots from the show itself that have been repurposed like a sitcom. It's frustrating, but to be fair, BTAS is kind of the anomaly. Justice League had that weird squeedly guitar thing going, and even once we got to Brave and the Bold, it was just Batman climbing around on the names of all his friends.
Put these things together, and you've got a show that just doesn't feel as big as B:TAS or Justice League, and I suspect that's why you don't usually hear people mentioning it whenever the conversation turns to how great those DCAU shows are. And really, that's a shame. As much as Superman might have been the next logical step towards taking the animated aesthetic and applying it to the larger world --- and as much as it was the show that formed the basis for an expanded universe with guest appearances by characters like Dr. Fate and Green Lantern --- it went beyond just filling up time and doing its job. It's a really good show.
At the start of this column, I mentioned that S:TAS was a synthesis of some of the best Superman ideas from the comics, and that's one of its defining qualities. If Batman was built around stripping things down to the bare essentials and letting them work, then Superman was about taking pieces of what had already worked and combining them into the best possible versions. They did it right at the start, with a Krypton that felt like it was a perfect mashup of the Silver Age version and John Byrne's post-Crisis take.
Just look at Supergirl:
The Kara Zor-El who appears on the show is probably my favorite version of the character, because of how well they were able to filter different versions into something that worked. They took the Silver Age origin of being the last survivor of Argo City and combined it with a more modern relationship with Superman --- and that costume that I've always liked, even though I will freely admit that it's about as 1998 as the Batgirl of Burnside is 2015.
Compare that to the comics at the time, where Supergirl was an Earth-born angel inhabiting the body of a synthetic Lana Lang from a pocket dimension where General Zod committed genocide. That's a little complicated, even for a series that was willing to introduce the world to the Fourth World saga.
And it was like that for the rest of the major cast as well. The Luthor of the animated series was the ultimate expression of the idea of Businessman Lex, and adding Mercy as his bodyguard and sounding board was almost as brilliant as casting Clancy Brown, who owns that role nearly as much as Kevin Conroy owns Batman. He's a charming schemer fueled by hate, an untouchable industrialist who will still go down to his basement and turn a man into a Kryptonite-powered robot if it will help him regain control.
And Dana Delaney as the show's violet-eyed Lois Lane? Perfect.
That moment in the World's Finest movie where the bad guys try to hijack her plane and then realize that she's that Lois Lane, right before Superman shows up and flips the plane over while she's cheerfully taunting them, safely belted into her seat? That's got to be in my top Lois moments of all time, and the show's full of great little touches like that.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Olsen gets the short end of the stick yet again, but, well, nobody bats a thousand.
The villains were a great mix, too. I mentioned above that there aren't as many cool ones as there are in Batman, but the ones that Superman does have tend to be done pretty well. There's Lex, of course, and the show's Frankenstein'd-up version of Metallo that comes along with him, but there's also the almost-too-creepy version of Toyman that the show had, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, who brings in some really great Silver Age fun.
And then there's Darkseid.
I'd stack "Apokolips... Now!" up against anything in the DC Animated Universe for sheer action and emotional content, and as I've said before, it's one of the best Darkseid stories ever, across any media. And it's not just that it's good on its own, but that it was built up in previous episodes as well --- and the fact that S:TAS managed to do stories that were a little tighter with continuity than the (mostly) purely episodic stories of its darker counterpart speaks pretty highly of how well that show was structured.
Plus, it's worth noting that that was the episode that showed Maggie Sawyer being visited by her girlfriend in the hospital, without leaving any ambiguity about who she was. Unless, of course, you were willing to believe that your Very Good Friend would not just sit with you after an injury but also hold your hand during very emotional moments you were both watching on television, I suppose. Point being, while it was a pretty mild and pretty minor thing in the grand scheme of the show, that was a bold move for 1998 --- over a decade before we'd get stuff like Legend of Korra and Steven Universe --- and something that we still don't see enough today.
So yeah: Superman holds up, even if it's not quite the distillation that Batman was, and even if it's overlooked as the middle child of the DCAU. It's a highlight, both in terms of what made it to the screen and the stories that it inspired in Superman Adventures. If it's been a while since you've gone back, it's well worth watching again.
Ask Chris art by Erica Henderson. If you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris.