DCAU 3: Superman: The Animated Series


STAS

There’s no way around it – Superman: The Animated Series is just not as good. It’s not even worse – it’s just that the subject matter, as cool as it is, is, ultimately lends itself far less easily to serious or emotional storytelling. I’m not saying Superman can’t be dramatic – he absolutely can be, and he actually sometimes is in the series. The scope in the series, however, is so wildly inconsistent – ranging from street crime to the cosmic, that I simply never really felt I got a grasp of the intended tone of the series, which left me floundering from one episode to the next.

Superman is somewhat de-powered here, which is actually a positive – his power level has always been variable, and this allowed some more tension when squaring off again an opponent. But the traditional problem of Superman being effectively unkillable and unstoppable remained, despite the fact that the writers came up with plenty of creative ways to provide credible threats to him, as well as inventive ways for Superman to get out of them. Not even because Superman is impossibly fast, but because we actually don’t know how fast he really is. In the first few episodes, when Clark discovers his powers, he’s seen as just a streak when he runs at top speed. There’s even an episode, Speed Demons (which coincidentally introduced the Flash to the DCAU) where he races Wally West around the earth 100 times. I was very surprised, therefore, to rarely see the effect used later in the series. He’s occasionally seen chasing cars, for example, and while he doesn’t necessarily have trouble with them, he does not just zoom down in the blink of an eye and stop them immediately, either. I can see, of course, why this is done, but it does hinder drama. Despite the fact that we know it’s  cartoon where the hero will ultimately prevail, it is more exciting to see Batman trying to make a jump, run fast enough, or hit hard enough. Not because the Man of Steel is super-powered, but because we can’t rely on hard limits for his powers. This inconsistency ended up being one of the major problems I had with the series, as a whole.

I also simply did not enjoy watching Superman fight very much in this series. I understand that Clark Kent is not any kind of martial artist, so the fact that his fighting style is very simply is justified in-world, but there are only so many haymakers I can watch him through before it gets simply boring. When he comes up against physical opponents, therefore, it rather quickly becomes a rather uninteresting episode – not to mention the fact that very few of them could even stand up against him before first softening him up with kryptonite (as is the case with Metallo).

This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series as a whole. I did love some of the multi-part episodes. I thought the first few, that established Superman’s origins, managed to bring a few new aspects to the story than I’d seen elsewhere, as well as being simply really genuinely exciting. In fact, even the existence of an origin story is a pretty major contrast to many of the other heroes in the DCAU – we do see origin stories for a few of them, but many of them (most notably Batman) are simply first shown as established crime-fighters. Even the first season also contains over-arching stories and buildup to the confrontation with Braniac, and the coming Darkseid in a way that was not at all present in many of the other shows on DCAU (Justice League Unlimited returned to a similar format a decade later).

 

Many of my favorite episodes were ones that had Superman team up with other superheroes, allowing him to work as part of a team. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but I really like him as part of a team, as is later seen in the Justice League shows. Something about him racing Flash, helping a young Green Lantern deal with his new powers (In Brightest Day…, DCAU’s only real appearance by Kyle Rayner), or leaving his comfort zone to confront magic with an unwilling Doctor Fate (The Hand of Fate) is simply consistently more enjoyable than having him be on his own. This is tripled by the multi-part World’s Finest episode, which featured great characterizations for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent – the scene where the two recognize each other, through different means, is nothing short of fantastic.

The cosmic episodes typically worked well.  That side of the DCAU was only explored by STAS, and JL and JLU, and it really worked with Superman. While those episodes were also not consistently fantastic, the Apokalips-themed eps, such as Apokalips… Now!  and Legacy were generally very strong.

I also enjoyed the episodes that were more conceptual or had a twist on the usual storytelling. The Late Mr. Kent, for example not only featured a very touching funeral for the mild-mannered reporter, but one of the very first real dangers for Superman’s secret identity.

Generally my favorite aspects of the show, however, dealt with established parts of the character’s history and tropes, some of them rather surprisingly gleefully embracing inherent silliness of the concepts. A perfect example is Mxyzpixilated, which could have been unbearably boring and silly, and actually ended up really fun, in a classic fairy-tale sort of way. Bizarro episodes were similarly enjoyable, with sufficient pathos for the deformed villain.

Much of the voice-acting is really good, but the true stand-out for me is Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, who brings real gravity to the character’s villainy. His range – from complete sophistication to growling hatred – is truly remarkable.

DCAU 2: Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated SeriesI was inspired to finally begin watching the show by Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast. While I was aware of the show’s reputation for greatness, I did not begin until I heard the show, the early episodes of which were filled with creative and voice talent behind the show. I always knew Kevin Smith to be a big fan, and largely trusted his opinion when it came to Batman, and when I heard his hyperboly-filled talk of the show’s virtues that I jumped in, initially becoming obsessed with the Batman: The Animated Series intro before even watching the show. While I initially only intended to watch that original series, it became quickly apparent that my completist nature would not allow that.

I was not instantly impressed. On Leather Wings, the first episode I watched had Man-Bat as the cool, yet not overly interesting or dramatic villain. The first few appearances by the Joker, initially in Christmas with the Joker, were definitely fun, and Mark Hamill is consistently fantastic, but it was not yet the psychopath you love to fear. I’d be curious to review those early episodes again at some point, with the love I have for that version of Bruce Wayne now. It’s tough to say now when I became completely convinced of the show’s worth. Episodes like Nothing to Fear (first appearance of the line “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am Batman!”) and The Forgotten (Bruce Wayne surviving without his suit, gadgets, or even memories) had glimpses of what was to come. So did fantastic villain origins – the Two-Face two-parter and Heart of Ice

The episode that made the show simply undeniable to me, however, came even later than that – though I was already thoroughly enjoying the it by that point. It was I Am the Night, written by Michael Reaves, which portrayed Batman in a dark depression, wondering whether he is doing any good. The amount of story that was told in those 22 minutes staggered me. Batman faces a villain, saves a kid from a life of crime, mourns his parents’ death, confronts the possibility that he is putting others around him in danger, and, of course, broods… All in the span of a standard cartoon episode. Here was animation that really went there. That was every bit as dark and complex as anything in the Nolan movies, if not more so for the added benefit of the remarkable sensitivity the show always had a knack for. The writers always knew just where to hit an audience member to produce a sudden burst of emotion, and nowhere in the show was that more apparent until that point than this episode. After it, I was hooked. I began watching the show with much more care, picking apart how the plots were constructed, and what these wizards were doing to transform me, a grown man, into someone who cries while watching a cartoon.

Also of special note were Robin’s Reckoning where Batman, enraged by the injustice done to his kid sidekick, goes darker and more brutal than I’d have ever thought possible in children’s animation. It also really showcased the special relationship that Bruce has with Dick – his desire to avenge Dick’s parents almost certainly reflects in no small part his need to avenge his own. In Trial, Batman is forced to face a court of criminals in Arkham Asylum, for being responsible for their turn to villainy. It puts to test the long-standing theory that he is indirectly responsible for the crimes he fights. I also enjoyed House & Garden, a truly creepy episode where Poison Ivy appears to have truly gone straight, despite crimes being committed that all lead to her. I don’t want to spoil it, but the moment of revelation of how Poison Ivy is doing it is chilling, to say the least.  Joker’s Favor is probably the scariest Joker story of the show – where a man incurs a debt to the Clown Prince of Crime, and is then forced to carry out crimes for him.

The Man Who Killed Batman has very little Batman in it, and while you know that he couldn’t possibly actually be dead, watching the poor loser who thinks he’s, quite accidentally, killed the Caped Crusader struggle with the other big names in Gotham crime is interesting for several reasons. First, it explores the relationship the villains have with Batman, and the jealousy they have over the coveted position of being known as the person who finally took out the Bat. More importantly, it gets across the idea that any stray bullet, a single false move could end it all for Batman – being the best isn’t enough, when you’re consistently fighting against the odds.

I’m certain there are other favourite moments and episodes that people have that I didn’t mention it (such as The Demon’s Quest), and I’m not getting into The New Batman Adventures in this article yet. What stood out to me, however, where always the episodes where a new, unseen or under-examined angle of a familiar character is exposed. This does not mean that the other episodes aren’t fantastic – the entire show is consistently great genre television. There are more serious noir episodes, some with sillier or more fun, legacy villains. Even a fantastic episode where Adam West’s voice makes an appearance to hint at the character’s past. Throughout, the wonderful writing staff, led by Paul Dini, along with Michael Reaves, Len Wein, Alan Burnett, Gerry Conway, and the others shined throughout.

What made the show fantastic was more than just the story, however. I already talked about the creation of the visual style in the previous article on DCAU, and nowhere is it more apparent, than in this fantastic series. The voice acting also brings so much more to the show than I would have otherwise thought. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman, not only for me but for entire generations of Bat-fans, as he’s still providing the voice to the Dark Knight in the current Arkham video games. When I read comics, I hear his voice. Mark Hamill is similarly iconic as the Joker, bringing an unprecedented range and character to his laughs, ranging from silly and genuinely joyful, to incredibly dark and unsettling. Other members of the cast are, sadly, now passed away. Michael Ansara, who brought life to the famous Mr. Freeze line “It would move me to tears, if I still had tears to shed,” died just last year. This year, we lost Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. whose Alfred managed to be even more formal and drily funny than any other seen on the screen. And finally, just this week, the voice of Commissioner Gordon himself, Bob Hastings, left us at the age of 89.

While the entire DCAU is a wonderful accomplishment, and many of my favourite Batman episodes were actually from the re-branded The New Batman Adventures, none of it would have happened without the fantastic work on display in this show.

10 Awful DC Superheroes Who Were Successfully Reinvented

My newest (and, coincidentally, longest) article! What started as a regular list article ended in a journey through the DC universe; I learned a ton writing this one!

DC Comics’ Flash Is In Development As An Arrow Spin-Off TV Show

Barry Allen, the Flash Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

Barry Allen, the Flash
Image Courtesy of Wikipedia

CW’s Arrow, in teasing their second season, revealed news which will likely eclipse, in terms of audience interest, anything else they could possibly do during their run. Namely, Barry Allen, better known as the superhero Flash, will not only appear on the show, but will also have his own series, episode 20 of Arrow’s Season 2 evidently serving as a de-facto pilot for the spin-off.

To viewers of this show, this may come as a shock, as while other famous DC characters, such as Deadshot, the Huntress, and Deathstroke, have made an appearance, Flash is the first confirmed super-powered addition to the roster. CW President Mark Pedowitz confirmed the character will not be introduced as such: “Well there’s a big DC universe of super-powered characters who do intersect and don’t intersect. But most importantly, remember, it’s an origin story! So he may not come in with super powers.”

Confirmation was received later that Barry Allen will, indeed, first appear as a forensic scientist in episodes 8 and 9 of the series, finally receiving his iconic super-speed in the 20th episode.

While much of the show played with making known characters more reality-based, meaning toned-down costumes and codenames to replace superhero identities, the Flash will apparently definitely remain recognizable to fans of the character. Writer Andrew Kriesberg said that “It will be fun for the audience to see how we do our take on The Flash’s powers. Some will feel very familiar to those who know the comics, and other stuff will feel different yet fresh and exciting. ” Fellow writer on the series Greg Berlanti added that “That said, he does need powers to become The Flash. And he will be The Flash. He will wear a red costume, and he will go by that name.”

The character will be a noteable departure from the dark and grim tone of the Arrow show, as the Flash is by no means a brooting vigilante.

This comes along with bad news for fans of Wonder Woman, as Amazon, CW’s proposed show about her early days on her island of birth, Themyscira, is now evidenty “on pause,” according to Inquistr. Evidently, a pilot had been made, but the reception at the studio was not what was expected, and the show is being retooled. ““Amazon is on pause (as) the script is not exactly what we wanted, and with an iconic character like Wonder Woman, we have to get it right,” Pedowitz explained.

How I Switched to Marvel Comics

Over the past year, I have found myself reading more and more Marvel comics. Part of it is simply increased familiarity with the characters, I admit. I know enough to be able to separate between the movie and comic universes, but simply have not had enough access to the reading material to really familiarize myself. In that sense, me reading much more Marvel comics is a success of their cinematic universe. I don’t know that any particular marketing grabbed me, but to the extent that The Avengers could be considered advertisement for the far less lucrative comics market, it succeeded.

That being said, I did not run out immediately after watching a movie to buy a bunch of Captain America back issues. Marvel, just like their competition, do suffer from the painful issue of having such deep backstories for all of their characters, that the barrier of entry is simply too high for most. That same history is, of course, what makes it enticing, and I’m certainly not advocating reboots. I AM making strides in understanding and appreciating more of that history, but the true revelation for me was that I can, and do, enjoy certain pockets of the Marvel universe as standalone stories.

From Hellblazer #1, Art by John Ridgway and Lovern Kindzierski

From Hellblazer #1, Art by John Ridgway and Lovern Kindzierski

First of all, I’d like to address why I wasn’t reading Marvel comics to begin with. When I initially started reading comics, I simply wasn’t into superheroes; or at least the traditionally colorful ones. The first graphic novel I read was James O’Barr’s The Crow, which suited my teen angst well. I then transitioned into Sin City, following the 2005 release of the movie. I enjoyed comics, but I was fearful of being stereotyped. Comics, I had decided, weren’t for kids as a whole, that was just the Spider-Man stuff. I was wrong, I know, but give me a break – I was 16, the main interest in my life at the time was Metallica. Later that year, I saw the Constantine movie, and realized I simply could not get enough of this mage who so skillfully defies Lucifer himself. Or, at least, I wasn’t getting enough from the movie, so I was excited to find out it was based on an ongoing series! The first issue, drawn by John Ridgeway, seemed… old. But cool, like a chronicle of magic in the late eighties. At first, I thought Constantine was a bastard, and of course he was; but he was my bastard, and I knew he’d do the right thing in the end, great personal sacrifice be damned.

In my later reading, I got really into, and really sick of Spawn, became a die hard Gaiman fan, began worshipping Miller and then was decimated to find out about his personal views… When it came to superhero comics, however, my choice seemed to be spelled out to me and were static: 1. A lot of my favorite comics were from Vertigo, and I knew DC owned them; 2. Batman. In the competition between the big two, I sided with DC not because I read many of their comics, but because I read any of their comics: Batman, and their indie imprint Vertigo’s titles. I knew about mainstream comics, I thought, but really didn’t read them much at all.

DC’s New 52 offered me a way in to their main universe, however, and I jumped in. Reading from 1 to 5 monthly titles since the reboot. While I really like Snyder’s Batman, and Swamp Thing certainly has very cool moments, my faith in DC began wavering with, once again, my original favorite comic character – John Constantine. I found out he was in the Justice League Dark team, and naturally had to check it out. I tried, I really tried to like that version of Constantine. I’m not a negative guy, I actually thought the Keanu Reeves version was descent, aside from the obvious differences. I realized very quickly, however, that this was no longer the character I loved. I like the idea of the magical character being in a superhero world, but he can’t himself become a superhero, and unfortunately in his current comics his powers are pretty much akin to Zatanna’s – “Denialpxenu gninthgil morf sregnif!” There’s no real reason why Constantine fights the Cult of the Cold Flame in those comics, except that they’re bad guys. Once again, I appreciate the need for some background knowledge in most comics, but this is New 52, everything should be explained, right? Satisfied to continue reading the Hellblazer monthlies, therefore, I promptly dropped JLD. Imagine my dismay, when I found out Hellblazer was being cancelled and replaced with Constantine, a DC Universe book. I tried to remain optimistic, even picked up more of the JLD comics to try and get into this version of the character, but none of those comics grabbed me. For about a minute, I wasn’t sure I would continue reading any mainstream comics at all, prepared to retreat to the indies, where it’s safe…

Variant Cover of Young Avengers #1, Art by Bryan Lee O’Malley

What changed that, is me seeing the Bryan Lee O’Malley variant cover for Young Avengers #1. I was already a huge Scott Pilgrim fan, resulting in me purchasing the comic solely for the cover, which is the only time I had ever done this. I’m really glad I wasn’t lead astray, because I now strongly believe that comics like Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen represent the future of comics. The characters, while being respectful of the old guard of superheroes they are emulating, are modern, and have modern relationships amongst them. Which is why, despite me having not previously had absolutely any awareness of who the characters were, I was engaged completely from reading the first issue. I love that the comic’s lineup is not exclusively male, and that it is definitely not hetero-normative. I love that gay characters are given the space to just be a really adorable couple, without their relationship being a major stumbling point for the plot. I love that Captain America’s counterpart in the comic is a latino girl without that being overexplained or publicized and discussed by the media at large. I got the sense that these characters were people, living their lives (as super-powered as those lives may be). And the story, and the storytelling is REALLY COOL! I keep seeing things in that comic that I had NEVER seen in comics before, both in Gillan’s writing and the art by Jamie McKelvie;and while I’m not, as I’ve established, an expert, I have read a lot of comics since 2005. Reading this comic is almost akin to watching a modern music video, having only seen pre-eighties cinema before. It’s jarring, and you can question the value of the content all you want… But it’s vibrant, and I feel alive when I read that comic.

I have found similar experiences in Deadpool and Hawkeye, for completely different reasons.  Deadpool is funny to the extent that superhero comic have no right being, and a friend just told me he teared up two pages into Fraction’s Hawkeye #1. Fraction’s FF is similarly wonderful. I understand if I end up being mocked at my shock, but I actually didn’t realize that could be done in Marvel superhero comics, which is why I haven’t been reading them! I’ve since gone back and have been systematically familiarizing myself with the Marvel universe at large, and while it isn’t all gold, the characters and stories are actually really interesting and complex. I can follow, understand, and empathize with these characters, which I had found increasingly difficult to do in DC.

So there it is. I did not mean to put down DC comics with this article in any way, because I certainly do still enjoy a lot of DC comics. Vertigo is putting out more Sandman, which I can’t wait for. Snyder’s Batman is, once again, great, and there is nothing DC is currently getting wrong they couldn’t fix by hiring, and keeping the right writer; the key to which is, I believe, let them do interesting, character motivated stories. And I’m sure there are many great titles I’m just not reading! So, let this be an assignment to my readers – what else should I be reading, on either of the big two, that makes me excited about comics? Because let me be honest – I just don’t have the time and money to be reading comics I don’t love.