CREDITS: Written by Alan Burnett and Paul Dini; directed by Dan Riba, Scott Jeralds (Smurfs, Muppet Babies and eventually, Krypto the Superdog), Curt Geda (graduated from storyboards on BTAS), and Bruce Timm.
REVIEW: The DCAU's Superman is introduced in a mini-movie that shows no one is better than Bruce Timm and crew to re-imagine DC characters, retaining their iconic essence and in many cases, improving upon them. And kids, I've been through enough reboots for that statement to have some weight. The Last Son of Krypton doesn't just distill the essence of Superman into a new and immediately great iteration, but tackles a wide supporting cast and several villains as well, taking more liberties than did the Batman series. And though keeping a recognizable art style, right down to the art deco "timelessness" of BTAS (with added sunlight, which is enough of a different look), it breaks from the previous show's format by clearly being a serial. We seemed to come to Batman in the middle of things, and most episodes could play in any order, at least once a villain had been introduced. This episode not only introduces villains that will come into their own only later, like Metallo and Brainiac, but gives the latter a final teaser that's not even going to follow into the next episode. Superman is more clearly a hero's journey, tracking the Man of Steel from mistake-prone beginnings and infant relationships to the realization of Earth's greatest hero.
Clocking in at three episodes, the first part is entirely given over the Jor-El, action hero, fighting giant cells and running from misled cops, and if Superman's not going to appear (except as a toddler), by all means, make Jor-El a proto-Superman. The episode on Krypton is bold, bright and action-packed, full of strange sites and cool tech, but also the tenderness of two parents. These aren't cold futurians; we can imagine Kal-El growing up to be just as good a man as he became with the Kents, had things been different. They die in each others' embrace, even as their child barrels out of harm's way in a rocket, scored with hopeful music. The DCAU is well known for never killing anyone on screen, so these are Bruce Timm's first deaths, and a whole planet dies. Adds to the shock and awe, I think. Krypton's greatest triumph, however, is Brainiac. Tying the villain more intimately to Krypton (combining him with the Eradicator artifact and treating him like 2001's HAL) is a stroke of genius. Can't wait to see the realization of his villainy down the road.
In Part 2, Clark Kent is found by the Kents and grows up quickly over the course of 20 minutes. And yet, they find the time to do nice transitions, to make him confide in Lana Lang, to make him grow into his powers and learn the truth of his existence. Once Lois Lane makes the scene though, wow, she's just about the only character I want to watch and listen to ("Nice S" haha). Obviously, my forever crush on Dana Delany has something to do with it, but it's a great voice performance regardless of who's behind the microphone, and Lois' twinned toughness and sexiness are pitch perfect. Over the course of this and the next episode, we'll see her give Clark a hard time, but come to respect him too, and of course, name Superman herself (referencing Nietzsche, which is rarely done, but very smart). Those same episodes go for broke introducing a host of supporting characters. Perry and Jimmy, of course, but also post-Crisis characters like Ron Troupe and Bibbo. Hey, I wasn't expecting Bibbo! Inspector Henderson rates a mention, as does STAR Labs. John Corben is introduced pre-Metallo - but just you wait. Oh, and Luthor, of course. This is a great iteration of Lex. He's the businessman from the post-Crisis comics, but more suave, for some reason. Clark gets under his skin by revealing - if not proving - his complex plans, but Superman somehow fails to intimidate him. Infuriate him, yes. But not much more. I suppose it comes with the territory for a man who has a giant penthouse shark tank. I do like that Metropolis' high tech look is a direct result of Lex's work; he's not such a clear-cut villain when you think about it. (May I say? I'm happy the show uses "LuthORE" and not "Luther", but a pet peeve of mine is when they say "LexCORE" for "LexCorp".)
It's not all about introducing characters, of course. There must be action. Some of it recalls elements of other Superman origins, most notably catching a plane in his first public appearance, but usually, they try to do something new. His lifting Lois' entire car before giving her an interview, for example. And they really do keep the best animation for the climax. That fight between Supes and the Lex-suit is terrific. Well-choreographed mayhem, an interesting speed effect the Flash would be lucky to have, the way the cement truck is riddled with bullets, Superman himself throwing bullets back at the bad guys...The show revels in the kind of stunts BTAS couldn't very well achieve. We're off to a great start.
IN THE COMICS: Many of the details mirror the then-several years old post-Crisis version of Superman's story. Lana Lang, the childhood crush who knows his secrets. Ma Kent keeping a scrapbook of his adventures as a mysterious guardian angel (so no Superboy). Lex as a crooked businessman that leaves no evidence lying around. Lois and Lex having once dated. Ron Troupe as a member of the Daily Planet staff, and Bibbo the halfway-reliable contact down on the docks (things may change once Superman becomes his favrit). And Superman saving a plan as his first truly public deed. Some references don't yet come to fruition, but we do see Krypto as a puppy on Krypton (so did he die with the planet, then?); Pete Ross in the school yard; Inspector Henderson is apparently leading the police force; and STAR Labs is a thing. The show also makes clear that this version of Superman is Clark Kent FIRST, and the Man of Steel merely an assumed identity. This too is straight out of the post-Crisis era and made a break from previous versions that made Krypton a more important influence in his life.
But there are important differences too. Krypton is a far less austere world than Byrne's re-imagining would have had it, and with its crazy animals and landscapes, closer to the Silver and Bronze Age versions. Jor-El and Lara are correspondingly warmer characters and had the chance to hold baby Kal-El in their arms (Byrne's Kal was born on Earth from a gestation machine on the rocket). There's mention of the Phantom Zone where criminals are imprisoned, so expect some of those villains eventually. Lara's father was Lor-Van in the comics, not Sul-Van. Brainiac is very different, as in the comics he is a superintelligent Coluan tyrant who is only eventually turned into a machine. Though he'd taken the Kryptonian city of Kandor at some point, he had no real connection to the planet the way he does here. They've amalgamated the character with the Eradicator, an ancient artifact that contained all the knowledge of Krypton and in a story arc called "Last Son of Krypton", affected Superman's mind so that he wanted to restore Krypton on Earth. Later, the Eradicator manifested as a humanoid being trying to do the same, which is where this Brainiac is headed. Angela Chen is an invention of the animated series, likely a stand-in for the Bronze Age Lana. The rogue nation of Kaznia is too, and has since been adopted by the CW live action shows. Corben the mercenary is someone we'll discuss in more detail once Metallo appears.
SOUNDS LIKE: Superman is played by Tim Daly (Wings, The Fugitive), Lois Lane by the incomparable Dana Delaney (China Beach, Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof), and Lex Luthor by Clancy Brown (Highlander, and having rejoined the DCU as General Eiling, The Flash), though the physical model is obviously Telly Sevales. John Corben (eventually Metallo) is voiced by Malcolm "Clockwork Orange" McDowell (and is HE based on James Coburn?). Recognizable character actor Christopher McDonald (Darryl in Thelma & Louise) voices Jor-El, while Lara is Finola Hughes, who last played a superhero in Generation X as Emma Frost. Her father Sul-Van is Tony Jay, whose Superman connection is playing Nigel St.John on Lois & Clark. As Brainiac, Corey Burton, Shockwave from Transformers (and many many DCAU roles from this point on). On Earth, Mike Farrell plays Pa Kent; he was B.J. Hunnicut on the series M*A*S*H; Ma Kent is voiced by Shelley Fabares, Farrell's real-life wife, best-known for Coach. For Perry White, they got George Dzundza, the Ventriloquist's voice. David Kaufman plays Jimmy Olsen; he also doubled for Michael J. Fox on the Back to the Future cartoon. As Angela Chen, Lauren Tom, who was Ross' girlfriend Julie on Friends. Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond plays Bibbo. And Ron Troupe is voiced by Dorian Harewood (Full Metal Jacket's Eightball).
REWATCHABILITY: Sky High - A brilliant reinvention of the Superman legend, with just enough that's familiar, and just enough that's new. A template for how to "reboot" a superhero universe.