DCAU #126: The Last Son of Krypton

IN THIS ONE... The secret origin of Superman, from Krypton's destruction to his first confrontation with Lex Luthor. (Three-parter)

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is my favorite Superman cartoon, bar none. Things I like:

- As you point out, Krypton is painted as a place with technology, but also people who are recognizably human. Every now and again someone comes along with a take on Krypton or Kryptonians that suggests they simply don't think the way humans do, and it's a mistake. The point is that Superman is one of us, differing from us only in his physical abilities.

- This is the smartest version of Jor-El we've yet seen. Not only did he have an audaciously smart plan that could have saved everyone -- put everyone in the Phantom Zone, then send a pilot to another world to let them out -- but Kal-El's ship didn't crash on earth, it came to a soft, controlled landing. Well done Jor-El! (This of course also served as justification for the phantom zone projector which would be seen in later episodes.)

- Part 2 is my favorite thing of all favorite things. The Smallville sequences hit all the notes it needed to efficiently and effectively. We saw Clark grow up, do his first daring save (and, we must remember, without even knowing he was indestructible), his horror at learning he was "cursed" and that curse becoming a blessing as soon as he realized he could fly. Man, his delight in flying. They totally sold it. And once they'd hit the notes they needed to and lingered on them for the right amount of time, off to Metropolis.

- Notice the black funky Phantom Stranger in purple when they're debating "friendly pigeons".

- Superman's first save of Lois ... we knew it was coming, but try to watch it with fresh eyes, because it really captures how weird Superman is. She's tripped, she knows a girder is about to squish her, and when it doesn't she opens her eyes expecting that maybe the girder stopped a few inches from her face. Nope, turns out there's a guy in circus tights holding the girder over his head; then he throws the girder and flies away. Jesus, that is plain nuts, and the cartoon makes you feel it.

- Another moment of weird: Superman looks at Lois, his eyes glow red, and the ropes burn. That is freaky.

- Good fight with the robot suit, even if it has me screaming every time: "Use speed and heat vision! Use speed and heat vision!" Of course, if Superman actually used his powers effectively, he wouldn't have long battles, so perhaps I expect too much.

I think the episode after this one is the one where we discover kryptonite, and unfortunately after that, the series quickly declines. It turns into Villain Of The Week and/or Guest Hero Of The Week, it rarely tries to build or explore Superman's world the way BTAS did, ultimately the series doesn't have much to say. Still, I will always be gratefl for giving us "The Last Son of Krypton".

Siskoid said...

We'll see if that's a fair cop or not, but though BTAS had many character exploration episodes, it also delivered a large number of villain of the week episodes as well. Superman feels more epic and thus less personal, perhaps. Reevaluation under way.

LiamKav said...

STAS would probably be remembered as one of the best cartoons of the 90s (and possibly ever), were it not for the unforgivable crime of having it come out right after BTAS. Being "not quite as good as BTAS" is a crime almost every other cartoon suffers from, but STAS gets it worse than most. Even Justice League doesn't get compared in quite the same way.

It is interesting to look at the differences though. As Siskoid points out, it seems the writers are embrassing the ever increasing continuity of BTAS and baking it right into the structure of STAS. Or maybe they thought thought that Superman's origin hadn't been as overplayed as Batman's had. This is a good version of it, and as Anon says it hits all the right notes and moves on. I will pick up on one of his points:

"As you point out, Krypton is painted as a place with technology, but also people who are recognizably human. Every now and again someone comes along with a take on Krypton or Kryptonians that suggests they simply don't think the way humans do, and it's a mistake. The point is that Superman is one of us, differing from us only in his physical abilities."

Your final line is exactly the point Byrne and Wolfman were trying to make in MoS... Superman is one of us. He is human. No more "Great Krypton", no more constantly references it. The Post-Crisis Superman's parents were Jonathan and Martha Kent. His home was Smallville and Kansas. By making Krypton so alien, it emphasised the nurture over the nature, and makes him upbringing the most important thing about him. (Even in that version, Jor-El and Lara express affection for each other, showing that Kal-El still came from love, even in such a repressed society). I don't often have a preference as to how Krypton is shown... I like the Byrne MoS approach, and I like the STAS approach. The only thing I hate is when Superman pines for Krypton, or constantly thinks of himself as alien. In the contact of the story, and especially in the context of him being the American Immigrant's story, I think it's wrong. And if I never see bloody Jor-El's floating head show up in another version, I'll be ecstatic.

I'm overall less familiar with STAS than BTAS so I'm looking forward to this. My only real takeaway is that they the show has a great Lois (the 90s really nailed their ancillary media versions of Ms Lane, didn't they?), and like everyone else for the past 40 years they have no idea what to do with Jimmy Olsen.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

Rats. I am soon to fall behind; even with the many days of tie-in comics... well, my wife isn't so big a fan of the redesign era as I am, so it has been slow going allocating our viewing time to the DCAU since we got here. (She is also bored by the fighting, which notably, occupies larger portions of the plot in the short season 1, though season 2 really seems to pick up more character and story moments; basically, 'villain of the week' seldom grabs her).

Regardless, I am very much on the same wavelength with a lot of moments. (Including your statement a few days back about being more a Batgirl fan than a Batman one!)


"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."
Hadn't thought about it that way. I like that!

"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."
Very true. And watching it for the first time as a parent just added to the hammer-blow; this is the most impactful telling of Krypton's demise for me, at the moment.

"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."

So true! My wife doesn't get this at all- I am annoyed by nearly every other Lois I've seen in adaptations- beyond which, I don't care for the particular brand of banter prevalent in modern media that tries to create strong women by making everything that comes out of their mouths snarky and belittling of others (and particularly of anything male; the kind that compares any confrontation- even that between vengeance-obsessed enemies with deep psychological pasts vying for the very fate of the world- to a penis-measuring contest. You know the type.)

To her mind, this version of the character probably combines both, and should push all my buttons. But to me, this is the only adaptation version (no offense to Kidder, Bosworth, Hatcher, Durance, etc.) that actually GETS Lois. Tough as nails- but still in a miniskirt wherever she goes. Snarky, but not belittling; she jibes, but not cruelly. She's self-assured, but not covered in a skin of iron that rebuffs anyone who cares. She balances the perfect combination of strength and vulnerability; embodying all the independence and power that you want to see form a strong female protagonist without pushing it overboard and into the territory of being an obnoxious or prickly know-it-all as so many attempts that this sort of character do in the last several decades. I can't even quantify fully how this performance successfully walks that knife-edge... but to me, this IS the Lois I read in the comics, come to life.

And Clancy Brown, of course, is The Man. (Not the one you fight- that's just who he plays- but 'he's the Man!' in the same sense that... well, that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are. :-) ) No matter how many things I see him in, he will always be Lex Luthor to me... and no matter how many Lexes I see (similar apologies to Hackman, Spacey, Rosenbaum, etc.), there will only ever be one Lex Luthor.

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"(things may change once Superman becomes his favrit)"
Nice. ;-)

"Superman is played by Tim Daly (Wings, The Fugitive)"
...Arrrrggg how did it end was Gerard sspicious enough to be wearing a vest did Richard Kimble sruvive how will he prove his innoence if the one-armed-man is dead...????

...Sorry, stilll haven't gotten over that one.


"We saw Clark grow up, do his first daring save (and, we must remember, without even knowing he was indestructible), his horror at learning he was "cursed" and that curse becoming a blessing as soon as he realized he could fly. Man, his delight in flying."
Yeah, that's one of my favorite parts, too. Just... SUCH a great show!


"Your final line is exactly the point Byrne and Wolfman were trying to make in MoS... Superman is one of us. He is human. No more "Great Krypton", no more constantly references it. The Post-Crisis Superman's parents were Jonathan and Martha Kent. His home was Smallville and Kansas. By making Krypton so alien, it emphasised the nurture over the nature, and makes him upbringing the most important thing about him."
Well said. Which is why 'Superman: Grounded' drove me so crazy...

Craig Oxbrow said...

This is the only version of Superman's origin that ever made me cry, because of the courage and love his family show to save him.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Jor-El and Lara are so human (despite being aliens), it's impossible not to feel something for them.

There's one other twist on the origin that is generally glossed over, that may have had an early formative effect and given Clark visions of a better world:

http://www.supermantv.net/cartoon-brain.htm

 

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