Monday, August 30, 2010

'Superman: The Animated Series' Vol. 1 (1996)

Starring Tim Daly, Dana Delaney and Clancy Brown
Developed by Bruce Timm

Following the success of the excellent "Batman: The Animated Series" (which, for my money, is the best incarnation of that character, including the recent Christopher Nolan films and even the comics), Warner Bros. commissioned a companion Superman series in the same style.

The series is much more in the vein of the John Byrne, post-Crisis interpretation of the character, but mixed with an artistic style heavily influenced by the 1940s.  Clark Kent (Tim Daly) is less goofy, more confident and competent, often beating out Lois Lane (Dana Delaney) for by-lines in the Daily Planet.  Jimmy Olsen is updated into a more 90s-style teenager, a copy boy with aspirations of becoming a photographer.  Lex Luthor (Clancy Brown) is a suave businessman hiding his vast, evil criminal empire beneath a massive network of legitimate businesses.

Each episode is a mostly standalone adventure, often beginning with a villain doing some kind of nefarious deed which will eventually entangle the lovely Lois Lane, requiring Superman to rush in at the last moment to save her.  However, there are a few story threads that run through multiple episodes, helping to build a larger canvas for the show to play in - Intergang, for example, run by shady gangster Bruno Mannheim (Bruce Weitz), appears several times.  John Corben, aka Metallo (Malcolm McDowell) and Rudy Jones aka Parasite (Brion James) also have multiple appearances that build on what happened previously.

One of the best things this interpretation does is in building more of a world around Krypton and its legacy, not just for Clark.  The entire first episode is spent on Krypton before its destruction, revealing scientist Jor-El attempting to convince the populace to leave the planet before its too late.  The planet's computer system, Brainiac (the excellent Corey Burton) decides to save itself, downloading all the knowledge and history of the planet and escaping just before the blast.  Its warped programming sends Brainiac on a mission across the universe, collecting all information from a planet and then destroying it.  "The fewer people with the knowledge," Brainiac explains, "the more precious it is."  This interpretation of Brainiac is one of my favorite aspects of this series.

The episodes are pretty simple, with a heavy focus on action.  Thanks to being animated, it's possible to do much more in terms of superheroic spectacle than "Lois and Clark" was ever able, due to its budgetary limitations.  Superman will fight robotic dinosaurs, alien bounty hunters, cyborgs and other crazy villains, but he'll be able to do much more than stand there and take their abuse.  Entire buildings crumble, villains and heroes are often punched through walls, hit with telephone poles, cars, trucks, etc.  It's all pretty impressively animated, some episodes better than others depending on which animation house works on any particular episode.  Stylistically, it's much brighter than "Batman," with more time spent outdoors during daytime hours, and a brighter, more primary color palette overall.

Tim Daly is alright as the voice of Superman and Clark Kent, though like Dean Cain, he does better as Clark than Superman.  He has a fine voice in general, but his delivery is often flat, as though he's unused to doing voiceover work, or uncomfortable.  But it's a perfectly serviceable performance, at times even great.  Dana Delaney is great as Lois Lane, however, exuding intelligence and gusto.  She's often capable of saving herself just as often as she gets into trouble, it's only when the danger goes too far that she's required to scream, "Help!  Superman!" and he'll come barreling through walls to save her.

Possibly the best of the bunch is Clancy Brown's menacing Lex Luthor.  He's intelligent, arrogant, and when provoked, as dangerous as they come.  His deep voice is a pleasure to listen to as he taunts Superman, snarls the name "Kent" when dealing with Clark, or attempts futilely to woo Lois.  Much like Kevin Conroy has ingrained himself in my mind as the best Batman ever, Brown beats out all the other actors to have played Luthor, even Gene Hackman's hilarious performance.

Simple, but smart and fun, this first volume of "Superman" episodes is a fine collection, even if it ends with a bit of a whimper.  Animated shows at this point didn't really have "seasons" the same way live action shows did, and were simply produced in batches - especially when they didn't have an over-arching story with a clear progression of beginning, middle and end.  This collection ends with a fun, if unremarkable, episode wherein Superman and the Flash participate in a charity race to see which is the fastest man in the world. 

But I do love Superman.  There's something very comforting about watching his adventures - they're fun, brightly colored and optimistic.  And I can't argue with that.