Friday, September 3, 2010

'Superman: The Animated Series' Vol. 3

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

This third volume of "Superman" cartoons from Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and the gang really ups the ante in a big way.  Darkseid (Michael Ironside) casts a huge shadow over the proceedings, with his episodes dominating the first and last discs as Superman's (Tim Daly) rivalry with the dark god of Apokolips coming to a head.  The universe expands further, including the arrival of Supergirl, more appearances by Brainiac, Ra's al Ghul, Batman, Green Lantern and the Legion of Superheroes of the 30th century.  But the stories that bookend this volume, Superman's epic battles with Darkseid, are really the big points here.

The set opens with "Apokolips...Now!" a two-part episode that turns Metropolis into a war zone between the forces of the Special Crimes Unit and Darkseid's legions of Parademons.  Intent on dominating the Earth, Darkseid parades the beaten, bloodied Superman before the frightened citizens, and is shocked to discover that the humans of Earth are not easily cowed.  This two-parter ends in the series' most mature moment: the out-right murder of Dan Turpin on screen, which is a huge thing for what is ostensibly a children's cartoon show. 

Immediately following this excellent two-parter, we're immediately in another two-parter, bringing Supergirl (Nicholle Tom) to Earth and her first encounter with Granny Goodness (Ed Asner), Darkseid's vicious underling.  She also runs afoul of the Female Furies, Granny's team of assassins.  In the second part, Granny gets the drop on Superman, dragging him in chains back to Darkseid, forcing Supergirl to go after him alone.

Other highlights of the set include two more crossovers with Batman, including "Knight Time."  An extremely fun episode, Superman discovers that Batman (Kevin Conroy) has gone missing, and teams up with Robin to find him.  But to do so, and to combat a surge in Gotham's crime rate, he ends up pretending to be Batman!  He takes on Bane, the Riddler and the Mad Hatter and even gets to shakedown the Penguin.  The second crossover, "The Demon Reborn" is fine enough, but not nearly as much fun.

The set is loaded with other great episodes, though, such as "The New Kids in Town" which sends the 30th century Legionnaires to Smallville where Brainiac has traveled through time to try and kill Clark Kent as a teenager before he becomes Superman.  Mxysptlk (Gilbert Gottfried) returns to make more trouble for Superman, bringing Bizarro along with him in "Little Big Head."
The set ends with another two-parter, bringing bringing the series to a close as Darkseid manages to brainwash Superman into leading an invasion of Earth.  With Superman on his side, Darkseid is nearly unbeatable, and Supergirl must try to break that control to save the Earth.  Ultimately, it leads to a final confrontation between Superman and Darkseid (in this series, at least).  This two part episode might feel slightly anti-climactic to me now, if only because it would be followed up on in future episodes of "Justice League" and "Justice League Unlimited."  In fact, the events of this episode actually ripple down through the next several years of the DC universe cartoons, a brilliant move on the part of the producers.

Lois Lane doesn't appear much in these episodes, however, nor does Lex Luthor.  The producers are so focused on the threat from Apokolips and in expanding their fictional universe that there's not much time left over for the hints at a forming relationship between Lois and Superman that they had been dropping heavily in earlier episodes.  It's unfortunate, since Dana Delaney is often great as Lois, but given the general quality of these episodes, I'm not sure I can complain too much.  Still, the relationship between Superman and Lois Lane is a key part of the Superman mythos, and it's sad to see it missing (and Lois would appear even more rarely in "Justice League.")

 This third volume presents "Superman" at its most mature.  The storylines are pretty intense, and more adult-oriented than ever before.  Well-animated (on average) and featuring a spectacular cast, it marks a great end to a great show.  And yet, it's still only the beginning, as Superman's adventures would continue in "Justice League," and story threads from this series will figure heavily in long-running storylines of that show.