Superman: The Complete Animated Series
December 7, 2009

Review by KC Carlson

This time, it’s personal!

Yes, I’m a little biased when it comes to the WB-produced Superman: The Animated Series (TAS), spearheaded by Bruce Timm and much of the Batman: TAS crew following that groundbreaking animated series. While I have no direct link to the show itself, I do have a (tenuous) connection — I was editing the Superman line of comic books for DC Comics during part of the time that this show was in production. Because of that, I got the privilege of reading (and approving for DC) many of the scripts for the series in advance. Occasionally, I even got the chance to kibitz a bit, as when one of the writers phoned my office to pick my brain on which members of the Legion of Super-Heroes (which I also edited) might be ready to make the leap to animation in the Superman episode “New Kids in Town”.

Even without this minor connection to the series, I would still say that this Superman series was the best Superman animation project ever made for TV. I would even go so far to say it was the best animated Superman ever. The original 1940s Fleischer cartoons are obviously amazing to watch — mostly because there was a lot of time, money, and effort thrown at them, especially early on. But I would say the WB version still has the overall edge, based on the quality of the writing of the series. (Some of the Fleischer cartoons are beautiful, but dumb.)

Although not known while the series was in production, this Superman series would eventually be known as the middle point of the trilogy of great DC superhero projects headed up by Timm, preceded by the groundbreaking Batman: TAS (and follow-ups). Then everything they learned on both Batman and Superman culminated in Justice League/ Justice League Unlimited.

Superman: The Complete Animated Series cover
Superman: The Complete Animated Series
Buy this DVD

There was a lot of wonderful experimentation during the Batman years, but Superman: TAS was the lynchpin in opening up the entire DC Universe to this type of animation project. While the Batman series had a huge cast of supporting characters and recurring villains, very few guest stars actually appeared — and those tended to be on the quirky side, like Jonah Hex or Zatanna or the Demon. The Superman show, however, really opened up the the DCU in introducing Justice League members (The Flash) and science fiction concepts like the Legion of Super-Heroes and the GL Corps. Other DCU characters made their animated debuts, such as Lobo, Dr. Fate, and Aquaman. Plus, characters important to both the Superman “family” and the DCU — such as Steel and Supergirl — were also first seen in animated form here.

Significantly, many of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World concepts (Darkseid, Intergang, and the New Gods) are as strongly connected to this animated series as they were to the original comic books. As an added touch and tribute, Kirby himself becomes a part of the animated series as the visual basis for the Detective Dan Turpin character, another of Kirby’s creations. Turpin’s storyline throughout the series is one to watch for, cumulating in the episode “Apokolips… Now! Part II”, one of the series’ most moving and shocking moments. (And unfortunately edited in this DVD presentation, as Timm and company snuck in visuals of some non-DC Kirby characters, as well as some real-world Kirby fans and co-workers, who were altered or edited out after the episode first aired.)

The Presentation

Superman: The Complete Animated Series presents all 54 episodes in the exact same disc configuration as they were originally presented in separate sets: six discs (with three of the discs double-sided, so handle carefully!). The discs — rather than being labeled Discs 1-6 — are still labeled as Discs 1 & 2 (three times over), although the booklet lists the discs as 1-6. So if you’re looking for Disc 5, you are actually looking for Disc 1 of Volume Three. This is annoyingly sloppy.

The discs still contain all of the original material from the previous DVD presentation — including all of the previous special features and commentaries. Plus, there’s a seventh Bonus Disc in this collection, containing a brand-new 17-minute featurette. The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman features Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Rich Fogel, Alan Burnett, James Tucker, Stan Berkowitz, Glen Murakami, and others all talking about how much the Kirby Koncepts of Darkseid and the New Gods characters really brought something special to Superman, both in the animated show and the comics as well.

It should also be noted that the World’s Finest storyline where the animated Batman first met the animated Superman (later released as a separate video and DVD called The Batman Superman Movie) IS included on this set as three regular episodes of the Superman series. However, the Direct-to-DVD movie Superman: Brainiac Attacks is NOT a part of this collection (nor even really considered part of the overall DC Animated Universe continuity), despite its stylistic similarities to Superman: TAS and the use of many of the same voice actors (most notably Tim Daly and Dana Delaney). Today, Superman: Brainiac Attacks stands alone as a sort of forerunner to the current “series” of DC animated films, including Superman: Doomsday and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, but not really a part of them either. (Note: The latter two films are also not a part of the Superman: The Complete Animated Series collection.)

The Legacy

While Superman: TAS often seems like the lesser of the three great Timm-produced DC superhero series, it’s really an unfair label. Batman: TAS is held in high regard for being the first and blazing the trail, locking down the style and substance of how the DC Universe would look animated (and done right). Justice League simply wouldn’t exist at all without the development and “heavy lifting” that these Superman shows provided. Superman provides the key (as always) to unlocking the secrets and magic and majesty of what the DC Universe actually is. It’s cliche’ to say it, but Superman provides the light to balance Batman’s darkness, and without the two of them together to inspire, there simply aren’t any other DC heroes.

Looking at them critically, I think is fair to say that all three shows had their ups and downs: There are just a few too many Batman episodes which are leadenly paced, something that also happened with too many of the early one-hour Justice Leagues (although masked brilliantly with some spectacular action sequences). When you dig into them, I think that you might just find that some of the very best moments of the DCAU occur throughout Superman: TAS, whether is the pitch-perfect origin reenactment in the early episodes to the first meeting of the two icons in “World’s Finest”. The strength of the Superman character is that you can do the wacky episodes like “Mxyzpixilated” or “Bizarro’s World”, and they tend to counterbalance the more solemn events such as in the two-part “Apokolips… Now!” episodes or the super-charged series finale, “Legacy”. “Ghost in the Machine” is just a great episode — and the basis for a huge storyline in Justice League Unlimited. And the “Little Girl Lost” episodes are both touching and offer a starting point for Supergirl/Kara’s long-term growth as a character (also more fully developed over in the Justice League series).

The voice work in Superman: TAS is one of the series’ high points, including the wonderful acting from all three of the leads — Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delany as Lois Lane, and Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor. I love the fact that real-life couple Shelley Fabares and Mike Farrell play Ma and Pa Kent, and who can forget Gilbert Gottfried as Mr. Mxyzptlik or the amazing Ed Asner as Granny Goodness!

Superman’s Rogues Gallery isn’t as strong or unique as Batman’s, but some Superman foes — like Toyman in “Fun and Games” or Metallo in “The Way of All Flesh” — actually improved as villains in a way that the comics seemed incapable of doing. Live Wire was a great new villain developed on the show and later incorporated into the comics. And, of course, the animated version of Lex Luthor developed into another classic series character.

The animated versions of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen did well by staying away from most of the annoying traits of the characters over the years (and many awful incarnations of same in other media). They turned up the spunk for them both here, making them active participants in the action. I really like their designs, although Lois’s very cute but extremely impractical (for the amount of flying and falling she does throughout the series!) pleated miniskirt makes her look more like a cheerleader than the top reporter of a major metropolitan newspaper! At least she’s not the frump she is traditionally portrayed as in the comics, and Jimmy is no longer the bow-tied geek boy.

Of course, we finally got to see the Legion of Super-Heroes animated. And done right. A dream come true for many of us long-time Legion fans. Thank you.

While Batman: TAS may have stranger villains and more moody gloom per square inch, and the Justice League may have the power and glory and more capes per capita, Superman: TAS has got them all beat in in one important area. This show has heart. (And not just the Kryptonite-powered ones either!)

(The studio provided a review copy.)

10 Responses  
Sean writes:  

Lois’ pleated mini-skirt making her look like a cheerleader is nowhere near as bad as casting her to come off like a sorority girl in Superman Returns! :)

Prankster writes:  

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of Batman: TAS, which I still think is the best of the animated DCU offerings, despite some early growing pains; it absolutely nails the right balance between the “dark ‘n’ gritty street-level urban avenger” Batman and the surreal, imaginative, fun elements of the comic. Timm and Dini and co. understood that you can allow Batman and (especially) his rogues gallery to be weird and candy-coloured, but if you handle them right there’s always going to be an underlying menace to them, sort of a more adult version of how creepy and primal a lot of kid’s cartoons can be.

When the animated Superman came along, I felt like it was missing the boat a little. The surrealism of Batman becomes redundant when you have characters with literally fantastical, SFnal powers (yes, I know some aspects of Batman’s world employ comic-book science, but it was always seriously underplayed on the show) and the Superman show seemed to be compensating with blandness. I’m not one of those guys who says “Superman is boring ’cause he’s a boy scout” but based on the three-part pilot, the animated folks did seem to have a bit of trouble striking the same compelling tone they had for Batman. So I skipped it.

After over a decade of becoming a more serious comics nerd, I recently caught up with S:TAS and found it to be wonderful. I still find the pilot a little bland, but the show found its feet fast. I was impressed to find them applying the same level of wit and shrewdness to the mythology of Superman that they did to Batman, allowing a lot of characters to work in ways that they didn’t on the page. Props in particular to Toyman, who’s legitimately creepy, and Mxyzptlk, who was used almost perfectly. And their take on Bizarro was genius (though I did miss the “opposite speak”). Having Kandor be a virtual reality construct was a masterstroke as well. And, and, and…the Fourth World characters. I don’t think anyone who isn’t Kirby is ever going to properly do justice to them, but this show came darn close. Anyway, a wonderful late discovery for me.

kjchen writes:  

Among its many virtues, I’ll always appreciate Superman: TAS for introducing Starro the Conqueror (albeit in cameo, not very conquering form) to the animated DC universe so that it could make a triumphant appearance in the superlative Justice League episode of Batman Beyond.

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