Sunday, February 27, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Superman: The Animated Series, Season 1 DVD

"Superman is the man," Jerry Seinfeld once said. "There is no other man." The first superhero, first and foremost among them even today. He is the first superhero to come to mind whenever superheroes are brought up. Heck, the term "super-hero" was named for him!

Still, Superman gets a hard time of it. Despite being the most well-known superhero in the world, he's not the most popular. Many comic readers won't read his book, saying there's no point in reading a book based around a hero that is so powerful. "I am Superman. I can do anything," the song says.

Regardless, the same team that brought new life to Batman in 1992 was able to do wonders for the Man of Steel and created a series that was much better than many of the stories being done with the character at that time. (Electric Superman, anyone?) The DVD set of the first season came out recently and I was fortunate enough to finally have some time to sit down, watch the whole thing, and record some thoughts.

Layout and Set-Up

The box art is similar to that of the Batman: TAS set and would not look out of place next to it on the shelf. The menu design is more animated that that in the Batman set. Literally. Whereas the Batman menus were static pictures of Batman, the Superman menus feature two mini-screens of moving pictures. Much more dynamic and exciting, this is a definite step-up from the Batman set. One curiosity; the set is packaged on two DVDs, one regular disc and one double-sided disc. One wonders if the WB was too cheap to spring for three discs, because the double-sided one just looks odd in comparison to the nice label on the first disc.

Disc One

1, 2 & 3. Last Son of Krypton

Told over three rough "acts", this is the origin of Superman. Born on the doomed planet Krypton, he was sent to Earth by his scientist father. Found by Jon and Martha Kent, he is raised as a normal Earthling, discovers his powers as a teenager and goes on to travel the world helping people before settling in Metroplois and taking a job as a reporter. It is here that he first starts wearing a costume, is given the name "Superman" by reporter Lois Lane and comes to draw the ire of millionaire industrialist and secret crime-lord Lex Luthor. This story is familiar enough to most of the world, but the team find a way to make it seem new with some changes to the main story that make it exciting for fans old and new alike. A number of reoccurring characters are introduced here, including head thug John Corben (who would later become the robotic Metallo) and Kryptonian computer Brainiac. All in all, everything you hope for in an opening story and one heck of a movie on its' own. 5 Stars.

4. Fun and Games

Local crimeboss Bruno Mannheim finds himself under siege by a mysterious figure who is attacking his operations and his men... with toys. Superman quickly finds himself protecting one baddie from another, as the mysterious "Toyman" comes looking for revenge. One of the creepier episodes (the Toyman's frozen doll mask gives me shivers), this episode managed to modernize one of the sillier Superman villains but didn't quite make him popular. Toyman proves formidable enough, but too limited in his motivations. Used only once after this episode, probably because the writers had difficulty in figuring out what to do with him once Mannheim got his just deserts. 4 stars.

5. A Little Piece Of Home

After Superman shows signs of weakness when approaching a display of space rocks while stopping a museum robbery, Lex Luthor begins to find ways to use this new "Kryptonite" to keep The Man of Steel out of his business affairs. Kryptonite, probably the silliest super-weakness outside of the color yellow, is introduced smoothly and in a way that makes perfect sense in the context of the world of this series. 4 Stars.

6. Feeding Time

An unwitting accomplice in a robbery of STAR Labs, janitor Rudy Jones is changed by a chemical bath into the energy and memory-draining monster dubbed The Parasite. Another great villain episode, this episode is a lot better than anything I have seen done with the character of The Parasite in the comics. Rudy shows up again in later episodes, but never seems to be a bad guy. Rather just a loser who wants to take advantage of the one break he finally got. 5 Stars.

Disc Two, Side A

1. The Way Of All Flesh

When mercenary John Corben comes down with a deadly disease, his old boss Lex Luthor is all too eager to help by transplanting John's brain inside a robot body made of a new indestructible alloy called metallo. Powered by a Kryptonite heart, Corben sets his sights on getting revenge against Superman... but what cost will his new body have? Yet another great villain episode, Malcom McDowell's voice work here as Corben is amazing. He handles the transition from amoral jailbird to psychotic robot very smoothly so that by the end of the episode, you can't help but feel sorry for him, despite his evil, just because of how masterfully he was manipulated at every step by Lex Luthor. 5 stars.

2. Stolen Memories

Lex Luthor makes contact with alien life; a robot by the name of Brainiac, willing to trade information on countless other worlds in exchange for information on Earth. But as Superman will discover, Brainiac is not nearly as altruistic as he portrays himself to be and he has a connection to Superman's past that nobody could guess at. Somewhat predictable if only because we know from the first three episodes that Brainiac is not to be trusted, having directly prevented the salvation of Krypton. Still, this does set up the character well and leads into a whole host of other stories. Deserves mention as the episode in which we first get a look at what will become The Fortress of Solitude. 4 Stars.

3 & 4. The Main Man

Intergalactic biker bounty hunter Lobo is hired by a zookeeper known as The Preserver to bring in the last Kryptonian (i.e. Superman) for his zoo. When The Preserver decides his menagerie also needs the last survivor of the planet Czarnia (i.e. Lobo, who blew up the planet as part of his high school science project), Lobo is forced to team up with Superman in order to escape. Another Paul Dini masterpiece, this one perfectly balances humor, action and drama. Lobo is voiced perfectly, sounding like a slightly more subdued Randy Savage and played as true to form as he can be on children's TV. 5 Stars.

5. My Girl

Clark Kent's high-school sweetheart, fashion designer Lana Lang comes to town and quickly winds up on the arm of Lex Luthor. She has ideas about becoming Superman's sidekick and quickly winds up in trouble when her efforts to spy on Luthor are discovered. One of the weaker episodes of the first season, but not bad by any means. One does wonder how Lana continues to draw breath after the failed attempt to kill her at the end, given Lex's usual ability to hold a grudge. Still, a funny little episode that tells us more about Clark Kent's past. 3 Stars.

6. Tools of the Trade

Bruno Mannheim's gang starts receiving high-powered technology from a Mr. Kanto and his mysterious employer. Beloved by Jack Kirby enthusiasts because of focus of Dan Turpin (who was modeled on The King of Comics himself), this episode is rather slow to get started and slow to finish. The introduction of Intergang and the New Gods should have been handled with more grace. Still, this is somewhat redeemed by the appearance of Darkseid at the end. 2 Stars.

7. Two's A Crowd

When a mad bomber goes into a coma before revealing where his bomb is, The Parasite cops a deal in exchange for his help in reading the terrorist's memories. But when something goes wrong, and Rudy Jone's personality is overpowered by the charismatic bomber, what hope does Metroplois have with a bomb in hiding and a more cunning and crafty Parasite stalking the streets? A bit slow in points but still faster-paced than Tools of the Trade. It's a nice little follow-up for Parasite, but strictly typical as far as episodes go.
3 Stars.

8. The Prometheon

Superman and his friend Professor Hamilton of STAR Labs must race to save the world after the actions of a trigger-happy general release a heat-absorbing monster on the Earth. Another favorite of the Jack Kirby fans, I still find this one to be little more than twenty-minutes of Superman slapping around and being slapped around by a big dumb monster, beautiful though the design is. While the character of General Hardcastle would play a major role in later episodes as well as the Justice League cartoon, his "stupid alien" attitude here seems a little too exaggerated for the realistic standards this show usually sets for its' characters and enters into the realm of stereotyping military men as unthinking grunts. While this kind of character works well in Spider-Man, it doesn't work here. Still, this episode could be used well as part of paper discussing the anti-authoritarian aspects of the Superman mythos. 1 Star.

Disc Two, Side B

1 & 2. Blasts From The Past

Experimenting with a device found in the rocket which brought Superman to Earth, Dr. Hamilton and Superman discover a portal into The Phantom Zone and an imprisoned criminal, Mala, who claims she has served her sentence. When Superman finds her to be too uncontrollable to be an effective crime-fighter and considers returning her to the Phantom Zone, she steals the projector and releases her former commander Jax-Ur, a general whom she seconded in a plot to take over Krypton which was stopped by Superman's father. Superman must now face down two criminals with power nearly the equal to his in order to save his adopted homeworld from their tyranny. Liberally based upon a dozen old comics and the second Superman movie, this one manages to seem different from those works but does not surpass them. Still, it is a serviceable enough two-parter. 3 stars.

3. Livewire

Superman-hating radio-starlet Leslie Wills is turned into a literal shock-jock after a lightning strike during an outdoor concert turns her into pure energy. The first original villain created for the series, Lori Petty put more energy into her performance than Evan Dorkin and Sara Dyer did into the script. Still, despite this being a rather "seen-it" villain origin story, it does manage to be more amusing than most of the episodes. 4 Stars.

4. Speed Demons

Superman agrees to race speedster superhero The Flash around the world 100 times for charity. But both will find themselves at the most uncharitable hands of a new villain called The Weather Wizard. The first Animated Series appearance of The Flash, this episode is fun but nothing really special. 3 Stars.

Special Features

In what is becoming a trend for the set, there are very few extras to be had in this DVD set. There are two documentaries and four commentaries on 18 of these episodes.

Thankfully, things are a little more lively this time. I don't know if its because this time we have Paul Dini for all the commentaries (he was an executive producer, rather than just a story editor this time around) or because we also get executive producer Alan Burnett, directors Dan Riba and Curt Geda as well as art director Glen Murakami in the room as well. Regardless, having five people talking about the episodes gives us a lot more information and a lot more liveliness than the rather stoic two-person conversations that dominated most of the Batman commentaries. In fact, the commentaries this time have a running gag with Paul Dini commenting on how much better every episode would be if he had been allowed to put Mr. Mxyzptlk in it. 4 Stars.

Superman: Learning To Fly

Short and sweet, this documentary discusses the many difficulties in designing the show and bringing it to the small screen. Lots of opinions from the creators and art designers, this is a must see for all fans of the Man of Steel. 5 stars.

Building the Mythology: Superman's Supporting Cast

A basic introduction to the thought that went into the characters. We don't learn much we couldn't have told from the episodes and there's next to nothing said about the comics that inspired the show. Still, it is entertaining on its own. 4 stars.

Overall, I'd give the Superman: The Animated Series Season One set a solid 4 stars out of 5. Not all the episodes are great and the whole series of WB Animated Series DVD sets would benefit from more commentaries by the creative minds behind the show AND the actors. Still, for what it is, this is a more than worthwhile investment for Superman fans old and new.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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