Superman: TAS – S1 – Stolen Memories Review

Characters: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Superman/Clark Kent, Angela Chen
First Appearance: N/A

Brainiac has arrived on Earth after making first contact with Lex Luthor. Luthor as always, sees an opportunity to use something against Superman, not knowing the connection that already exists between the two aliens. Meanwhile, Brainiac knowing that Kal-El is on Earth, attempts to emotionally manipulate the Man of Steel with the promise of sharing his knowledge of Krypton with Superman. Superman eventually learns that this is simply a ploy and is forced to take down the Luthor/Brainiac partnership.

“Stolen Memories” ends up being one of the strongest episodes to date for a number of reasons. First, it tugs on the emotional heartstrings. So many heroes from the Golden Age and Silver Age were orphans (Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America), but we need to remember that Superman was the first, and doubly so, as both of his adoptive parents were dead as well by the time he debuted as a hero. This episode plays on the strength of the question; while Superman lives on Earth, is he really of Earth? Raised by humans, yes, but he is a Kryptonian, and as a result there’s another side to his identity that comes with it, its own history, culture and society. This episode may not get into that nitty gritty of the material, but it does show that Superman has another weakness aside from Kryptonite or magic; his humanity. But this episode also demonstrates it is also his greatest strengths, playing with the idea of duality within the characters.

His humanity is what also gives him his greatest strength and his greatest connection to his adoptive home world, which is truly demonstrated in this series for the first time. Superman has vast his first global threat with Brainiac, and this was more than just a test. In addition to the emotional strength, this episodes shows Superman using a lot of brute strength and has some substantial, if generic, fight scenes throughout the episode. I would not mind seeing more of this side of Superman, especially when there are so few story-telling limits in animation.

Despite the strengths of this episode, I have never been sold on this version of Brainiac. The Brainiac that I grew up with in the Post-Crisis universe was the green-skilled Coluan Brainiac, not this mechanical monstrosity (Brainiac has frustratingly had many different iterations throughout the years, and in my opinion, all attempts at trying to consolidate it into a new version of the character have all failed). The cartoon Brainiac provides us with a much more elegant character with a simpler background, which serves the series well, but that does not mean I have to like the character!

This episode not only cements the idea that Superman’s main nemeses in this series will be Lex Luthor and Brainiac, but it also managed to pay a lot of lip service to the comic book fans. Interestingly, Jimmy Olsen refers to Brainiac as being green, and maybe it’s just my television, but this version of Brainiac has always looked more pale blue than green to me. This could be a clumsy reference to the green-skinned Brainiac comic book fans are familiar with, but that would make for a confusing reference.

In addition, we see the beginnings of the Fortress of Solitude, Superman’s Antarctic (but sometimes Arctic, but also sometimes Amazonian Jungle) hideaway. If I recall correctly, it becomes the full-fledged base we know in between episodes, but those beginnings are here.

Superman: TAS – S1 – The Way of All Flesh Review

Characters: John Corben/Metallo, Clark Kent/Superman, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane,
First Appearance: None

John Corben returns, but we see him where we left off in the premier; with him in prison after his attack on Superman and Metropolis. Now stricken with a rare and fatal virus, Corben has no choice but to accept the assistance of Lex Luthor, but that always comes at a price. Turning Corben into a cyborg now known as Metallo, Luthor sends him after the Man of Steel with a big advantage…. his heart is now made of Kryptonite.

As for as episodes go, this one is pretty damn good. The writers attempt to do a little more with Metallo than what’s traditionally done in the comic books. This may have a lot to do with the fact noted film actor Malcolm McDowell voices Metallo in the series, giving the character more than just the dumb brute strength angle to work with, or it could also be a stylistic choice to distance him from a character such as Parasite who is already well established in the dumb brute strength role. In event, it’s clear that based on the success Batman: The Animated Series had in attracting top voice talent, Superman: The Animated Series would benefit from this established precedent.

That said, you can tell from the types of fights and how the story is paced, that the writers are trying to do a fresh spin on a character without necessarily re-inventing the wheel from scratch. At the end of the day, it is still Superman facing off against a Kryptonite powered villain, and with all things Kryptonite, usually requires some sort of deus ex machina to wrap up the plot (it is a cartoon, after all), but this time around it’s done with a bit of humour, and left the viewers with a credit end scene hinting at future encounters.

So how does the episode stack up?

Remarkably well, and after Parasite’s appearance in the previous episode, it’s perhaps the first signs that the series may finally be hitting its stride. Two classic villains have been introduced, we are continually exposed to the machinations of Lex Luthor (which I have issues with, but that’s for the next Luthor-centric episode). I will say this though: it should not come as a huge surprise to the viewer that Luthor double-crosses Metallo and still tries to pin it on Superman; a couple of cliches we could do without for a while.

Fans of the comic books, specifically John Byrne’s take on the character will appreciate the joking scene, a great example of how Byrne loved to play off Clark Kent as bumbling buffoon to further separate the dual identities of the character. Fun stuff, and a great wink and a nod to the comic book mythos that actually helped advance the plot of the episode.

Overall, just the sort of episode that I would expect from a series such as this

Superman: TAS – S1 – Feeding Time Review

Characters: Clark Kent/Superman, Professor Hamilton, Jimmy Olsen, Angela Chen, Lois Lane, Perry White
First Appearance: Rudy Jones/Parasite, Ron Troupe
 

I learned that just because a character is classic does not mean that their debut will be a classic. I have also learned that even when an episode of this series does not meet my expectations, I still end up finding considerable enjoyable out of watching them, thinking about them, and now writing about them. So, I guess I am already hitting one of the major goals of this project.

Parasite happens to be one of my favourite Superman villains. Parasite falls into the brute strength column for villains, but that does not mean he is a joke character; Parasite is a credible threat, in that his powers are not only energy absorption based, but Parasite literally needs to feed of the life-force of people, animals and plants to survive, and someone like Superman is the equivalent of an all you can eat buffet.

While one would probably see Parasite as a one-note villain (he is), he is also a character that when written properly, is still a compelling character even if his motives are often two dimensional. His origin in this episode is taken straight from the comics and simplified, which is to say, they somehow managed to simplify an already fairly simple character. That said, the series did give Parasite a very iconic and menacing look for the Parasite, in a very streamlined version of his origin comic book visual. It is worth noting that Parasite has been drawn quite differently since the 1990s in the comic books, making him even more grotesque and menacing, but considerably less appropriate for a cartoon-watching audience.

There are a few odds and ends worth mentioning for this episode. For one, Parasite is not the only character to get an introduction. During a Daily Planet staff meeting, we see an African American man. He does not have a speaking role, but we do hear Perry refer to a “Ron Troupe” off-camera at the end of the scene. Ron Troupe is a Daily Planet reporter who debuted shortly before the classic Death of Superman storyline. A mainstay of 90s Superman comics (especially under writers Dan Jurgens, Louise Simonson and Roger Stern), Troupe would go onto marry Lois Lane’s younger sister Lucy, breaking up what was traditionally considered a Jimmy/Lucy dynamic.

Speaking of Jimmy, he gets the supporting character spotlight in this issue, and it seems to be at the expense of Lois who only appears in one scene. Unfortunately, nothing of depth is done with Jimmy, and his role in this episode could have easily been done by Lois Lane, or even Professor Hamilton. Jimmy does get the spotlight though, and in a twenty-two minute long cartoon that should still count for something.

Finally, from a narrative perspective, this is the first episode where there seems to be a tangible attempt at serial storytelling. Superman has found another piece of Kryptonite since the last episode (the connection). Professor Hamilton has created a suit that Superman can be used o block out the Kryptonite, and it obviously serves a purpose in this episode more. Which, when you consider it comes across as merely coincidental, but the writers actually slipped in a narrative device known as Chekov’s Gun. It broad strokes, Anton Chekov suggests that if a gun is show prominently in the first scene of the story then it must be used before the climax of the story. As a kid, I used to think it was just a convenient plot device. In university I thought it was a deus ex machina, but now, I see it far more like a Chekov’s Gun. While it would take a lot more to argue cartoons as high forms of literature, but there are certainly some great dramatic devices used, if you know where to see/hear them.

This episode has the makings of being a classic episode, had all of the classic ingredients to make it happen, but falls just short of making it a classic episode. Instead, it serves as a solid introduction to what we know will be a recurring character, and one that hopefully improves on his first appearance.

Superman: TAS – S1 – A Little Piece of Home Review

Characters: Lex Luthor, Mercy, Lois Lane, Clark Kent/Superman,
First Appearance: Kryptonite, Professor Peterson, Professor Hamilton

With this, the fifth episode, we start to get into some dangerous territory: the series is becoming boring and pedestrian. This is something that I actually do remember from the initial run; it started off with a pretty decent three part origin story, then gave us… Toyman as a follow-up, and now… an episode that introduces Kryptonite to the cartoon series.

Now, Kryptonite is an essential part of the mythos (not bad, considering it was first created for the 1940s radio serials, and not the comic books), and is pretty much known as one of two things that will guarantee stop the Man of Steel in his tracks (magic being his other big weakness… and bad writers, if you want to count a third). It is necessary to introduce this harmful meteorite first, because we will eventually be get to Metallo, and his robotic body is powered by Kryptonite. But, this episode first? Why not give us a bigger named villain that can be introduced in a single episode (Parasite?), and then give us Kryptonite? The sequence that these episodes were released in could really benefit from a change in pacing and order.

The probable answer to why we got this episode: because we need to have a proper episode where Lex Luthor is the antagonist plotting behind the scenes. Superman as a character has always been steeped in science fiction and technology, but he is also a character that requires villains that can either go toe-to-toe with him physically (Metallo, Parasite, Darkseid), or in the case of Luthor, an intellectual “superior” (I will come back to these themes a few more times, especially the next time Brainiac makes an appearance).

This does seem to be the gist of the problem with this series though; there is a lot of ground to cover and Superman’s villains are widely varied (so are Batman’s, but at least you can argue that they all are rooted in psychology and psychiatry in some form or another; psychoses, obsession, etc.), and there is often a need to introduce something/someone before you can introduce someone else; we cannot have Metallo until we have Kryptonite, but you may not be able to cover that all in a single episode (at least not in a way that would do both concepts true justice). So, in the end, that leaves us with filler episodes like this, and the placement in the production order really disrupts the overall quality of the series. 

Even the basic premise of the episode is mired in tired plot devices. Lex Luthor is opening a new museum, ‘cause he is such an upstanding citizen (cliche). Lois and Clark happen to be covering the event, and surprise, there are some thugs inside trying to steal rare gems (coincidence). Clark excuses himself to change into Superman to stop the heist and in the process is exposed to Kryptonite (coincidence) and is stopped dead in his tracks. Luthor finds out about this, tries to use the Kryptonite against Superman in an elaborate trap (cliche), that Lois springs (cliche), but also manages to save Superman from (coincidence). The Kryptonite is dealt with, Luthor gets away with the whole thing, and an end credits scene shows us there’s still Kryptonite on Earth (cliche).

Like I said, pedestrian, too many coincidences and honestly, just not a particularly good episode.

The episode is not without some decent moments, though. Lois Lane again is shown to not be the hapless damsel in distress, and really saves the day in the end. This is a strong, confident depiction of Lois Lane (despite plot cliches), and sadly it is probably a huge missed opportunity, because I doubt many little girls were watching this cartoon at the time.

For the comic book fans, you will recognize Professor Emil Hamilton from the pages of the various Superman series. He is a background character for this episode, and while I remember that he makes more appearances, I cannot remember if they ever gave him a backstory similar to the comics (I suppose we will find out).

I should also note the exception vocal performances by Clancy Brown. Lex Luthor was not a huge part of the comic books during this time period, having been taken out of the series in 1994 (by the end of the 90s, he was back to being a full-time thorn in Superman’s side), and the only other depiction we have of Lex Luthor from that decade was John Shea on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman…. the less said about this the better. Brown as a result, becomes one of the more faithful portrayals of Superman’s most famous villain, in a decade where he did not get a ton of exposure. It is also worth noting, that the only actor who has depicted Lex Luthor more than Clancy Brown, was in fact Michael Rosenbaum on Smallville!

Superman: TAS – S1 – Fun and Games Review

Characters: Clark Kent/Superman, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen
First Appearance: Winslow Schott/Toyman, Bruno Mannheim

After the three part debut which gave us a lot of characters and established three villains (Brainiac, Luthor & John Corben who will become Metallo), we slow down considerably with…. Toyman.

Something I have always appreciated about the various Timmverse cartoons is that they really tried hard to incorporate as much of the mythos into each series that they could. Everything from the best and most obscure to the more mundane. That of course means I was inevitably going to get an episode from a third stringer villain, I just did not necessarily expect it in the fourth episode of the series. In fact, I have had this recollection all along that the first non-origin episode was actually Metallo’s full on introduction, but not only was I wrong, it turns out my memory is really bad, because he does not return until the seventh episode!

There have been three Toymen throughout the years in the comic books, but this episode focusses on the original, and most known, Winslow Schott. Toyman, coincidentally is one of the few Superman villains created in the Golden Age (he debuted in 1943) that has survived to this day. While a very gimmicky villain, there is something to be said for an almost eighty-year old gimmick that still gets pulled out and used in various mediums. It also turns out that Toyman has a bit more versatility in a cartoon than another Superman villain, Prankster, who let’s be frank, suffers from being too similar to Toyman, but even less recognizable. That is not to say that Toyman’s introduction to the cartoon is not appreciated. He is a great addition to the series and this episode is not terrible, I just would have preferred a more heavy hitter type villain first.

It is also worth noting that Bruno Mannheim is introduced in this episode as well. For fans of the comic books, they will recognize him as the mob boss running Intergang on Earth for none other than…. Darkseid! Mannheim was a staple Superman villain in the 1970s to early 90s, but has been largely forgotten since then. In fact, a quick web search tells me that Mannheim is used in a lot of cartoons/series but has not been in the comic books for over a decade.

The episode itself is a pretty standard revenge plot where a character (Toyman) does some questionable things to punish someone (Mannheim) who wronged them in the past, and Superman is obviously caught in the middle. Interestingly, Lois Lane gets considerable screen time in this episode, and not as the typical damsel in distress. She is certainly awarded many heroic moments, a trend that I hope continues throughout the series as it is in line with her comic book counterpart, and it is far more empowering to see a Lois Lane who kicks ass and takes names, and is not always in need of rescue. It is a neatly compact story that focusses in purely on the main plot. No subplots, and even character appearances had to be strongly justified; we see Jimmy Olsen in a few scenes, but there’s no sign of Perry White, for example. There is a scene where we see Lois talking to Perry on the phone, but we never hear his side of the conversation.

Other noteworthy easter eggs include a police scanner message referring to a crime occurring at “Third & Shuster”, an obvious reference to Superman co-creator Joe Shuster. This is something that is done often in most mainstream comic books, and is perhaps the best known type of in-joke or easter egg. I would also surmise that aside from intentionally drawing someone from real life in a comic book, naming conventions for streets and buildings in comic book cities is the first instance of easter eggs in the medium.

This is also the first time Lois Lane refers to Clark Kent as “Smallville” (a reference to his hometown). Actually, I think it was in the pilot episodes, but it is worth noting now. If memory serves, the cartoon was the origins of the Smallville nickname (unless Teri Hatcher did in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but I know for certain not any earlier than that point). Since then, the Smallville nickname has been used in other cartoons, live action movies and television series. It would first appear (again, if memory serves) in the comic books in 1999 once Jeph Loeb took over the Superman title as writer. This continues to demonstrate how little things from this cartoon series can and did influence the comic books.

In the end “Fun and Games” ends up being just an average episode that unfortunately suffers from poor placement in the production/release schedule of the series.