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All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Will Harris
henever the holiday season rolls around, you can count on the studios to package as many complete series sets as they can possibly get away with, and 2009 is no exception to that annual rule. On the superhero front, we spoke to you last week about Warner Brothers’ new “Justice League” set, which is no less brilliant because it’s only a single featurette short of being the same thing that fans of the show have already purchased in individual season sets. And just to keep the comic book geeks’ wallets from getting too full, they’re presenting another collection this week which follows the exact same format.
The DC Animated Universe has been a sight to behold ever since the premiere of “Batman: The Animated Series,” but the inevitable follow-up, “Superman: The Animated Series,” always seemed to get short shrift from fans, many of whom dismissed it on the basis that, because it wasn’t as dark, it wasn’t as cool. Here’s the thing, though: just because the Dark Knight is more consistently awesome than the World’s Most Powerful Boy Scout doesn’t mean that “Superman: The Complete Animated Series” isn’t extremely enjoyable. Indeed, it was able to build upon the accomplishments of its predecessor and bring several classic DC heroes into the mix that we’d never seen before. But in fairness to the grumpy Superman purists, it must be said that the series did rub them the wrong way right out of the gate when the producers decided to tweak Superman’s origin by tying it into the history of one of his oldest villains. And no, it wasn’t Lex Luthor.
In the three-part premiere of “Superman: The Animated Series,” entitled “The Last Son of Krypton,” we were given a retelling of the now-classic tale of how Jor-El and Lara saved their infant son, Kal-El, from the destruction of the planet Krypton by placing him in a rocket and sending him to Earth. Although most of the story remained the same, with Jor-El attempting to convince the leaders of Krypton that their planet was doomed, the new ingredient was the explanation for their refusal to believe him: they’d been assured by the planet’s sentient computer system that Jor-El’s findings were inaccurate. The computer’s name? Brainiac. The added twist, however, was that Brainiac actually did concur with Jor-El’s findings, but the computer had decided to claim otherwise in order to prepare his own method of escape. (His argument, you see, was that if he’d agreed with Jor-El, then the elders of Krypton would’ve wasted his time by having him try to save them.) Let the purists bitch and moan all they want, but as a story device, the rewrite proves to be a brilliant one, adding a personal connection to Brainiac where none had previously existed.
Beyond Brainiac, we also see Superman doing battle with the Toyman, Bizarro, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and several villains from the Phantom Zone, but when you get down to brass tacks, there are really only two predominant villains within “Superman: The Animated Series.” First and foremost, of course, there’s Lex Luthor, his businessman design taken directly from John Byrne’s 1980s reboot of the Superman comic mythos, and as a billionaire industrialist, he’s able to surreptitiously participate in the funding of criminal activities even when he isn’t the principal villain of an episode. The other villain, however, is far more menacing: Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips. There are precious few bad guys in the DC Universe who are capable of the sort of evil that this guy can manage (his spiteful dispatching of Dan Turpin is downright contemptible), and after the shabby treatment he received during his run in a later season of “Super Friends,” he finally gets the chance to shine here, along with other characters – both heroes and villains – from Jack Kirby’s so-called Fourth World saga.
Yes, the DC Universe palate was expanded considerably with “Superman: The Animated Series,” offering up episodes that featured such guest stars as the Flash, Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, Aquaman, the Legion of Super Heroes, and, of course, Batman, thereby giving Superman the opportunity to do battle with the Joker, Bane, the Riddler, and, perhaps most impressively, Ra's Al Ghul and his League of Shadows. The show also introduced Supergirl later in its run, but sadly, we never got a chance to see Krypto. We do, however, get the expected amount of face time with the standard Superman characters: Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Ma and Pa Kent, and Lana Lang. (It feels a bit weird that they’ve made Lana into a high-caliber fashion designer rather than the small-town girl who was always Lois’s polar opposite, but the reinvention of the character doesn’t really do any damage.) The greatest shame about the series is that it feels as though it ends just as it was hitting its stride, with its two-part finale, “Legacy,
easily one of the strongest outings in its run.
There are two reasons why “Superman: The Complete Animated Series” doesn’t get a better rating, and the first is the fact that, frankly, it’s the worst-animated of all of the DC Animated Series. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s awful, but one definitely gets the impression that the artists had spent so long working in the shadows of the Batman series that they didn’t realize that they’d need to step up their game considerably for the better-lit lifestyle of Superman. The other reason, however, has nothing to do with the show itself. It’s with the presentation of the series by Warner Brothers, putting half of the set on double-sided discs. Given the quibbling nature of comic book fans, they really should’ve known better than to cheap out and release it that way.
Special Features: As per usual, the creators of the DC Animated Universe have little problem with stepping into the studio to contribute special features, but as with the recently released “Justice League” set, the majority of the bonus material is simply what’s been carried over from the previous “Superman” DVD releases. You get audio commentary on selected episodes from Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, Dan Riba, Glen Murakami, Curt Geda, James Tucker, and Butch Lukic, along with an enjoyable video commentary for the “Mxyzpixilated” episode. There are also several featurettes, including “Superman: Learning to Fly” (exploring the creation of the series); “Building the Mythology: Superman’s Supporting Cast” (showcasing the supporting players in the Superman saga); “Menaces of Metropolis: Behind the Villains of Superman” (the origin and evolution of Superman’s adversaries); “Superman: Behind the Cape” (David Kaufman takes you behind the scenes with the show’s creative team); and an excerpt from “Look Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman.” Exclusive to this set, however, is “The Despot Darkseid: A Villain Worthy of Superman,” which delves into Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and how it was adapted for inclusion within “Superman: The Animated Series.”