WF Editorial: In the Shadow of the Bat - Remembering "Superman: The Animated Series"

James Harvey

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Joseph "Karkull" David returns for his third The World's Finest editorial, this time digging into the animated adventures of Superman: The Animated Series! With the acclaimed series set to debut in HD on HBO Max later this week, now seems to be the opportune time to look at the history and legacy of this under-appreciated gem! Click here or on the image below for more!


What are your thoughts on Superman: The Animated Series?
 

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That was a great editorial and a really interesting dive into STAS and how it was handled by KidsWB around that time. Despite a lot of this stuff being known and out there on different websites I thought Karkull did a great job of bringing everything together into a great, cohesive article. It's really worth reading! Thank you and it's nice to see you around Karkull!
 

Yojimbo

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Agreed, an excellent editorial on STAS and great idea publishing one to coincide with the series coming to HBO Max tomorrow. This article adds to my desire to build a time machine and go back in time then convince Paul Dini and Chip Kidd (and the publishing company) to do a Superman Animated book.

I totally forgot Dorkin and Dyer were hired to write a Funky Flashman & Goody episode. Whereas Bruce Timm's story about the toy company wanting a talking car with a Jor-El voice chip is burnt into my memory.
 
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Pfeiffer-Pfan

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Huh, I never realised that about the episode count, but you're clearly right. WB really did leave Superman to the side a bit once it got it's golden goose back.

Excellent article... and it's still my favourite iteration of Superman and his world.
 

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This is a very comprehensive overview: not only an editorial but also a short history. It shows how STAS triumphed as a vision of Superman and his world. A very important point is made about STAS succeeding in revamping Superman's dull rogues gallery and presenting a tough but ingratiating Lois Lane.

There's also an important point in how network decisions helped shortchange STAS. The DCAU was an artistic success because took advantage of three networks at times when each was receptive to innovative, risk-taking programs. And each DCAU show ended when the networks began relying on formula and rid themselves of shows that thought outside the box.

Fox wanted to establish its credentials in animation and took chances with BTAS, a darker cartoon than anything it'd handled before. After the show was established Fox started playing it safe by asking for more supervillains and insisting on Robin being in every episode of the second season.

Then Warner Brothers started its own network and gave STAS and TNBA more freedom from censorship than at Fox. But as the corporation consolidated it became more restrictive. WB decided it wanted a teenage Batman, eventually leading to the end of TNBA and STAS. Batman Beyond staved off the executives for one season by giving them a teenage Batman, but in the second season the executives meddled yet again and imposed Max and more high school storylines.

Eventually the network ossified and didn't want Batman at all. Cartoon Network was entering higher budget cartoon production at the time and willing to take risks, hence Justice League, greenlit by the same executive who presided over the creation of Adult Swim. But once again, the network found a formula and lost its nerve. Cartoon Network developed an allergy toward serious action cartoons and wanted comedic fantasy.

I'm not sure if network mandates on TNBA played a part in watering down STAS's second season, since their effect on TNBA is not straightforward. Yes, Two Face was just a villain-of-the-week in "Sins of the Father," but he received a psychologically themed episode in that season's "Judgment Day." I agree Evan Dorkin's original script ideas for Superman and Batman Beyond sound better than what was originally produced, but this might also be a case of a writer not gelling with one of the producers.

But there's no doubt that the DCAU team was over-extended by having to produce STAS, TNBA, and BB simultaneously.

The New Batman Adventures fared slightly better, in my opinion, but this era still produced “Critters,” so make of it what you will.

I think "Critters" was a better comic relief episode than, say, "Make 'Em Laugh," so I wouldn't use it to make a point about TNBA's last 11 episodes. I think the only duds in the bunch were "Cult of the Cat" and "Girls Night Out." If Superman's episodes from the same period fare somewhat less well, that might partly arise from the crew's hearts being more with Batman. In an ideal world the WB would have delayed requesting Batman Beyond.

Getting back to STAS...

...the presence of the supporting cast on the series was relatively thin

Agreed. This was also a problem with Batman Beyond. An excellent but sorely underutilized supporting cast in both shows.

I respect the decision to make Clark Kent a hardboiled reporter with no romantic interest in Lois, but I don't think it truly paid off, except in parts of special episodes like "The Late Mr. Kent." The traditional Superman-Lois-Clark love triangle was twisted but that's what made it interesting, whereas the Clark-Lois relationship in STAS was a bit bland. There needed to be something more, whether it was antagonism, romance, or the playful sparring found in His Girl Friday and other classic newspaper comedies. Part of what made "World's Finest" so memorable was Bruce Wayne one-upping Kent and Superman by acting suave and threatening to steal away Lois.

Superman himself was a static character for a few too many episodes of STAS. "Last Son of Krypton" stood out as an origin episode partly because of the teenage Superman's conflicted emotions toward his superpowers and origin. I wouldn't have wanted a mopey, serious Superman, but perhaps a more conflicted one.

Goofy as they often were, the Superman comics of the late 50s and early 60s were from the last period when Superman outsold Batman; they were genuinely popular because they succeeded in world building and had high emotional stakes. Superman was regularly challenged by the recurring loss of his powers (though this ultimately led to Kryptonite overkill), haunted by his lost world (most memorably in "Return to Krypton"), and engaged in romantic relationships (not only with Lois but female characters out of his past).

An equivalent sense of high emotional stakes didn't fully arise in STAS until Darkseid stepped in. That's when the series really came alive. For the first time a villain was truly testing Superman, not just physically but morally. Superman was brought face to face with his limitations and made to re-evaluate and recommit his morals. In those episodes Superman finally became a character as alive as Batman in BTAS.

I think for many people STAS remains the most pleasing version of the character in any medium partly for its indubitable high quality, but also because so many modern Superman comics, films, and shows are underwhelming. By contrast, BTAS stood out even in a field of excellence. So while STAS is definitive, I don't think it's as definitive as it could have been. But eventually the show strengthened its grasp on Superman and this prepared the ground for his character arc in Justice League.
 
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Yojimbo

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Superman himself was a static character for a few too many episodes of STAS. "Last Son of Krypton" stood out as an origin episode partly because of the teenage Superman's conflicted emotions toward his superpowers and origin. I wouldn't have wanted a mopey, serious Superman, but perhaps a more conflicted one.
An equivalent sense of high emotional stakes didn't fully arise in Superman until Darkseid stepped in. That's when the series really came alive. For the first time a villain was truly testing Superman, not just physically but morally. Superman was brought face to face with his limitations and made to re-evaluate and recommit his morals. In those episodes Superman finally became a character as alive as Batman in BTAS.
It stung a bit more to learn, it was supposed to have a total count of 65 episodes but TNBA "took" some and what would have been one more season might have had the elevated emotional stakes and dynamic change in an arc of Superman trying to repair his reputation if the finale of "Legacy" Part 2 was any hint of what we were going to get. We also got close to having Supergirl and Lobo spin-off series but they never came to pass (although, sure the latter got "salvaged"(?) as an adult Flash animated series - unless this Lobo spinoff and the Lobo Flash series were two completely different things).
 

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Part of what made "World's Finest" so memorable was Bruce Wayne one-upping Kent and Superman by acting suave and threatening to steal away Lois.
To be honest that hasn't aged as well for me when looking in hindsight at how many times the DCAU creators took an established DC female character and either had them kiss or express interest in Bruce. Like Zatanna is one thing, but Lois, Wonder Woman, Cheetah...the Babs thing wasn't as explicit as Killing Joke but it was still there and really should've just been left as a schoolgirl crush Babs had.
 

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Fantastic article - I know from experience how long these type of things take to write, and you have clearly not spared on research.

I definitely felt the creative team was stretched too thin towards the end of The New Batman/Superman Adventures days and Superman suffered from middle child syndrome as a result, and the changing attitude of Kellnar and WB in general with their teenage mandates that would later become all consuming. It seemed amazing to me how fresh and exciting Batman Beyond was in those early days, before the network watered it down in it's middle season (Max being the most grating example)

I do hope more people get to see Superman now it's on HBO Max.

relevator said:
I respect the decision to make Clark Kent a hardboiled reporter with no romantic interest in Lois, but I don't think it truly paid off, except in parts of special episodes like "The Late Mr. Kent." The traditional Superman-Lois-Clark love triangle was twisted but that's what made it interesting, whereas the Clark-Lois relationship in STAS was a bit bland. There needed to be something more, whether it was antagonism, romance, or the playful sparring found in His Girl Friday and other classic newspaper comedies. Part of what made "World's Finest" so memorable was Bruce Wayne one-upping Kent and Superman by acting suave and threatening to steal away Lois.

This was my take on him. As I recently mentioned in the Darkseid retrospective, I found him to just be there. I thought they did a great job with Lois, despite it not being the love triangle/story that Superman is, at its core, but you could all but eliminate Perry, Jimmy and Ma and Pa Kent and the show wouldn't change much. At the time I remember thinking it was odd, but I was also fairly familiar with them due the Lois and Clark television series, and how the show pretty much revolved around Lois and Clark's work at The Planet.

relevator said:
I think for many people STAS remains the most pleasing version of the character in any medium partly for its indubitable high quality, but also because so many modern Superman comics, films, and shows are underwhelming. By contrast, BTAS stood out even in a field of excellence. So while STAS is definitive, I don't think it's as definitive as it could have been.

This as well. DCAU Superman is one of the few Superman that hasn't either massively divided it's fanbase (Synder's unfortunate take on Kal El) or massively underwhelmed/whimpered by the end of it's shelf life, such as the pitiful end to the Reeve films, or it's failure or a revamp with Superman Returns.

I hope to see more of these please, Karkrull!
 

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It does always kind of stand out to me that we never got the "real" Krypto in the show aside from as a pup in Krypton flashbacks and Bizarro's version of Krypto. I mean, unless you count the Krytpo cartoon as DCAU canon :p.

That and we had a stand-in General Zod for all intents and purposes, unless you read the tie-in comics.
 

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To be honest that hasn't aged as well for me when looking in hindsight at how many times the DCAU creators took an established DC female character and either had them kiss or express interest in Bruce. Like Zatanna is one thing, but Lois, Wonder Woman, Cheetah...the Babs thing wasn't as explicit as Killing Joke but it was still there and really should've just been left as a schoolgirl crush Babs had.

I think the trope is definitely overused but the Bruce-Lois relationship transcends it by having more dramatic validity than most of Bruce's romances. It's not there to be another notch in Bruce's bedpost but for a justifiable, plausible, and effective dramatic purpose. It increases the friction between Bruce and Clark while showcasing the profound difference between them. It presents Clark with a personal challenge. And the double-layer love triangle presents a rich dramatic irony: Lois loves Superman but has no interest in his non-heroic alter ago, whereas the reverse applies with Batman and Bruce. It's not because she's shallow--Superman and Bruce Wayne are genuinely attractive public figures, and as a character in their world it's natural Lois would find them more likable than their alter egos. It's also notable that unlike Cheetah, Wonder Woman, or Batgirl, Lois is attracted only to Bruce and doesn't like Batman at all, perhaps because he's the opposite of Superman.
 

Yojimbo

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I think the trope is definitely overused but the Bruce-Lois relationship transcends it by having more dramatic validity than most of Bruce's romances. It's not there to be another notch in Bruce's bedpost but for a justifiable, plausible, and effective dramatic purpose. It increases the friction between Bruce and Clark while showcasing the profound difference between them. It presents Clark with a personal challenge. And the double-layer love triangle presents a rich dramatic irony: Lois loves Superman but has no interest in his non-heroic alter ago, whereas the reverse applies with Batman and Bruce. It's not because she's shallow--Superman and Bruce Wayne are genuinely attractive public figures, and as a character in their world it's natural Lois would find them more likable than their alter egos. It's also notable that unlike Cheetah, Wonder Woman, or Batgirl, Lois is attracted only to Bruce and doesn't like Batman at all, perhaps because he's the opposite of Superman.
Actually, pre-TNBA, there was a time when Batgirl/Barbara was attracted to Dick Grayson but disliked Robin.
 

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