Personal Thoughts on the Animated Series
Today we are celebrating the 25th anniversary of Superman: The Animated Series. Debuting on Kids’ WB all the way back in the fall of 1996. Batman: The Animated Series was a huge hit; it was natural to do Big Blue afterwards.
While BTAS stands as a definitive version of Batman, I don’t think Superman’s show does the same. Yes, there many people who grew up on this show and it was their introduction to the character. But this isn’t the version of the character that other incarnations are compared to like Batman TAS is. Tim Daly was great in the role, but he’s not sought after to do the character 20+ years later like Conroy is with Bats. You can’t swing a stick at a comic convention without hitting a Harley, but I’ve yet to see a Livewire in person. Batman TAS succeeded in being a synthesis of all the best parts of the character with iconic takes on his rogue’s gallery. Superman TAS is one of many enjoyable television adaptations of the character, just not the definitive one.
When the show was new I didn’t faithfully watch every new episode. It didn’t hook me despite being a weekly reader of Superman comics. I purchased the DVD sets as soon as they were released and experienced the show in full for the first time that way. Despite enjoying almost all the episodes, I wasn’t hooked. It didn’t become an iteration of Superman I would revisit over and over. When it came to HBO Max in HD I watched it again to try and come to terms with what is great about the show, and what I don’t love. Here are my thoughts.
What I Don’t Love
My first complaint is the show feels made to sell action figures. Superman gets several costumes all tailor made to sell toys. I get this was a kids show and selling toys was an important part of financing it, but in hindsight it makes the show feel cheap. We already have a Supermobile. Yes, I know it’s ironic for someone with a lot of these toys to complain the show was made for toys.
The second major thing that bothers me are the way so many female characters are designed with the male gaze in mind. I’m not trying to be prude, but there is literally an episode in which Toyman creates his perfect robot woman to control. This dates the show for me and takes away from my enjoyment of it. It doesn’t add anything. I know Bruce Timm is famous for his “good girl” art, which is great. A Superman show isn’t the right place for it in my mind.
My third issue is the reliance on fights. It’s an action show I know so surface level this complaint sounds dumb, but many episodes have their runtime padded out with a giant robot fight. They try to make these interesting with a less-powerful Superman, but they end up repetitive. It leaves less room for story. The best episodes of the show rely less on the giant robot fights and more on story. I feel the Justice League cartoon also relies on this; both of them more than my recollections of Batman TAS.
Finally, Jimmy Olsen is wasted in this show. This is more of a missed opportunity than anything. Jimmy gets little to do until almost the end of the series. This might sound nit picky, but the supporting cast is an important part of Superman. They don’t make this mistake with Lois, thankfully.
What Is Great
Speaking of Lois Lane, this version (and Dana Delany’s performance) is iconic. They nail the look, the voice, and the attitude. I’m glad Superman & Lois took inspiration from her. Brave New Metropolis is a standout episode for her character. It turns the evil Superman trope on it’s head and is one of my favorites. Her “Smallville” nickname for Clark was so true to the character it stuck.
Shirley Walker’s main theme is fantastic. It’s one of my favorite Superman themes and is an awesome example of the music saying the name “Superman” without any words like John William’s theme. Mondo even put out a die-cut vinyl version a few years back. All of the music is excellent and if I ever find the CD they put out a few years back for a reasonable price I’ll need to grab it.
One of the elements invented for the show that has found it’s way into other Superman media was the take on Brainiac. The simplified three dots iconography and the idea of Brainiac on Krypton were inspired ideas. Corey Burton’s cold, calculating performance is still creepy.
There are other villains that get great versions. The Mr. Mxyzptlk episodes are some of my favorites. I assume Gilbert Gottfried is a Superman fan since he not only appeared in the Superboy television show but he also wrote an issue of the comic. Bizarro is sympathetic and a major standout. It’s heartbreaking what Luthor does to him and his connection with Lois is sweet. The second episode with Metallo (Action Figures) gives him a moment to be sympathetic as well. It doesn’t last, but still stands out. Livewire is the best addition to the mythos from the show. It was a clever idea and would hold up today with some of the crappy podcasters we’ve got on Spotify.
Out of all the supporting cast, Turpin stands out the most for me. He gets a large amount of screen time and the tribute to Jack Kirby after his death was a beautiful touch. Kirby is king after all.
I can’t talk about STAS without mentioning Superman’s design. I adore this version. I had several statues and a life-sized cardboard cutout of this Supes. Like they did with the aforementioned Batman this design gets to the core essence of the character. Simple & classic, I have no notes.