You don’t really need to overthink Superman. He has complexities, but he’s not complicated. He charges headlong into conflict, but he’s not conflicted. He’s invincible, but he’s not invulnerable. And yet recent film adaptations of him, in particular, have insisted on bringing to bear the same tools and methods used to shape more modern heroes, in ways that are detrimental to the character. Simply put, Superman isn’t a Christ allegory. He isn’t Batman, or the Punisher. He isn’t angry, or violent, or aggrieved, or traumatized. His superpower isn’t that he has superpowers. It’s that he has superpowers and is still a good guy, because he was raised right.
DC and Warner Bros. actually had a great handle on this back in the ’90s, when the creators of the much-loved Batman: The Animated Series in turn created Superman: The Animated Series. As the entire show recently became available in crisp HD for the first time courtesy of HBO Max, it’s a great time to look back at why it really might be the best and most true-to-origin adaptation of Superman.
Lois: “I’ve lived in Metropolis most of my life and I can’t figure out how some yokel from Smallville is suddenly getting every hot story in town.”
Clark: “Well, Lois, the truth is I’m actually Superman in disguise, and I only pretend to be a journalist in order to hear about disasters as they happen and then squeeze you out of the byline.”
Lois: “You’re a sick man, Kent.”
You can tell an awful lot about a Superman adaptation by its Lois, and if we’re judging Superman: The Animated Series solely on Dana Delany’s hard-boiled metro reporter, there’s simply no contest. The series starts with an all-time great cast, centered on the trio of Tim Daly’s Clark Kent, Delany’s Lane, and a Lex Luthor portrayed by Clancy Brown, whose every line reading indicates he’s having the time of his life. Just as with its precursor, the show was ably guided by voice director Andrea Romano, whose efforts elevated cartoon shows for decades.
It’s all in service to stories that put new spins on classic Superman plot elements and characters. Superman: The Animated Series doesn’t assume its viewers haven’t ever seen a Superman story before, but it also understands that every adaptation needs to lay out the ground rules and do something new with them. The show’s first season is a master class in bringing everybody up to speed on the Man of Steel. The epic three-part pilot “The Last Son of Krypton,” sees the fall of Superman’s homeworld, the discovery of his powers and heritage as an awkward teen in Smallville, and his emergence as the hero of Metropolis and a nemesis of Lex Luthor. The show swiftly follows up with episodes that establish Kryptonite, the Fortress of Solitude, and big baddies like Brainiac.
The series’ latter seasons went bigger and more epic, introducing more classic villains and upping the stakes. The Kryptonian criminal Jax-Ur (Ron Perlman!) makes an appearance, and of course, the one and only Darkseid (Michael Ironside) is set up as Superman’s ultimate foe.
The latter’s portrayal, particularly, ranks among the most dramatic story arcs in any superhero show in recent memory. After an arrival that establishes him as a warmongering tyrant and killer, Darkseid makes another play at enslaving Earth by using brainwashing on Superman. It leads to a final conflict that sees the two dragging each other across the surface of Apokolips. It’s one of the best arcs in any DC comics-based show, period.
The show also benefited from (and in turn bolstered) the broader “Diniverse” continuity, the shows named for head writer Paul Dini that began with Batman and ended with Justice League Unlimited—or, if you want to be a stickler for chronology, Batman Beyond. Daly’s Superman and Kevin Conroy’s Batman introduced an entire generation to the idea of the two heroes being besties in a number of crossover episodes, and the villains and concepts introduced in Superman returned again and again in the larger continuity.
For all its great qualities, it seems like Superman: The Animated Series never quite rose to the same level of acclaim as its immediate forebear set in Gotham City, and it’s hard to really say why. The ’90s weren’t a great time for comics, and despite the fact that this and the extremely popular Lois & Clark were briefly airing at the same time, it felt like younger fans were in something of a backlash against the Man of Steel. We wanted Spawn, I suppose.
It could also have been a perceived dip in quality between the two shows. Superman’s animation never quite popped like the Batman show, but this also seems unfair: At one point, the same creative team was simultaneously producing this, the original Batman show, and the first season of Batman Beyond. Despite the rush, all three shows feature unforgettable portrayals of classic DC characters and stories, and arguably some of the most iconic portrayals of their heroes and villains.
The one failing of the series, and it’s hardly unique to it, is that Superman: The Animated Series becomes a show much more about Clark punching stuff super hard and fighting aliens as the seasons go on. The show never misses an opportunity to show him rescuing somebody in danger or being nice to kids and pets, but it doesn’t really focus on real-world problems all that much, and some of Superman’s most compelling stories are ones where that’s front and center. In the 80 years since Superman was conceived, the world has changed a great deal less than anybody might be willing to admit: We still are fighting fascism, still in conflict with overbearing corporate overlords, still reckoning with crime and random violence. And we still want to believe that if somebody with the power to win a fistfight with an aircraft were just raised by two kindly Americans, he would use that power responsibly.
Does that seem like a lot to put on a kid’s show, or a CW series, or blockbuster movies that want to draw in all demographics? Maybe. But Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes the Klan, the 2019 graphic novel with bright-eyed illustrations by Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano, adapts an older story that is about Superman, well, smashing the Klan (or a very thinly veiled stand-in for it). It’s kid-friendly, full of superpowered superheroics, and explicitly centers Superman as struggling with his identity as an immigrant. No punch, no bullet, no dumbass in a white hood has anything on the guy, but what will he do if his adopted home rejects him?
There’s another bright spot in the CW’s Superman & Lois show, and specifically Tyler Hoechlin’s Clark Kent, who is introduced cheerily responding to a compliment about his super-suit by telling the kid that his mom made it, and who is worried about how banks are fucking over Smallville residents with reverse mortgages. Watch the first few episodes of that before taking a dive back into Superman: The Animated Series, and for the first time in a while, you’ll see two shows that operate from the apparently mind-blowing premise that the Man of Steel is someone who only needs one reason to do the right thing: It’s the right thing to do.
Superman: The Animated Series is now streaming on HBO Max.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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