A Look at ‘Superman: The Animated Series’ – Part One

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I was (and still am) a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series. I was 14 years old when that series premiered in 1992 and to say that it hit my friends (and comic book fandom in general) like an atomic bomb would not be stating things strongly enough. I remember going to the local comic book store the day after it premiered and that was literally all anyone was talking about. It was a game changer.

Four years later came Superman: The Animated Series. As a big fan of Superman I was equally excited to see him receive the same smart, more adult-oriented treatment that Batman got. Unfortunately, two things happened. Number one, was that it premiered during my freshman year of college where cartoon time tended to give way to girl time and beer time. Number two, in my view Superman: The Animated Series stumbled out of the gate. Not badly; the show wasn’t bad in the beginning. It was just very uneven. As I would come to find out, it took a while for the series to find its legs (and oh, boy did it ever – but I’m getting ahead of myself), but in that critical period of time when a show first premieres (and in the age before TiVO and DVRs) you had to make choices about what you were going to do with your time. After watching a few episodes I chose girls and parties. You’ll notice that no where in there is the word “class” found. Stay in school, kids!

Earlier this year there was much discussion on the iFanboy forums about the greatness of the DC Animated Universe, or the Timmverse, and I felt left out because my dirty little secret was that I had only seen (most of) Batman: The Animated Series, some of Superman: The Animated Series, and maybe an episode here and there of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. After days and days of fawning testimonials for Justice League Unlimited I impulsively ordered the entire set on DVD from Amazon as well as the entire set of Justice League. And as I sat on my couch reveling in my animated contentment, I then read on the forums that some of the storylines from Superman: The Animated Series were touched upon in Justice League Unlimited and being the crazy, impulsive completist that I am, I ordered all of Superman: The Animated Series as well.

Well I have finally finished the entire run of Superman: The Animated Series. I was very excited to find out that I loved this show. After I finished the final episode I was sad. I wanted more. So much more. What I’d like to do is to give you some of my general impressions of the series as a whole and examine some of the highlights from each of the three DVD volumes.

If you haven’t seen the series there will probably be some spoilers ahead.


Putting aside Christopher Reeve’s untouchable, iconic performance as Superman in the live action films, this version of Superman is probably the best and truest version I’ve seen in any media, including most of the comics that he has appeared in. He is not as powerful as he is shown to be in many instances – he gets slapped around a lot and strains to lift extraordinarily heavy things – and this was a smart choice on the part of the producers as one of the biggest complaints that many people have about Superman is that he is too powerful as to be not-relatable. This Superman is smart. He has a bit of a sense of humor. He gets angry. He has emotions. He is not just a Boy Scout Automaton. Despite a much more lively personality he remains somewhat detached and remote from those around him which is a quality essential to the character. At the end of the day Superman is always alone, and that plays in subtle and not so subtle ways here. When you watch this entire series in short period of time like I did it really helps you appreciate the nuance in this Superman.

At the heart of the success of Batman: The Animated Series was the exemplary voice casting and Superman: The Animated Series is no different. Tim Daly is Superman as much as Kevin Conroy is Batman. Superman is very tricky casting. He has to exude a certain amount of authority without sounding too much like your disapproving dad. And he can’t come off as too stodgy. He has to be inspiring. Tim Daly pulls if off perfectly. He is a revelation in this role. I don’t want to say that all other voice actors portraying Superman to come after him are destined to fail, but they certainly have their work cut out for them. If there is one failing in Tim Daly’s performance it’s that there isn’t much difference in vocal characterization between Superman and Clark Kent. But that a minor quibble amongst so much good.

Hey! It’s Lex Luthor! It may seem obvious now but this was really the first time that we got to see the post-Crisis Lex Luthor absolutely nailed outside of the comics. John Shea came really close on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, but this Lex Luthor is just about perfect. He is both charming and terrifying. He is the ultimate corporate villain, but he is not pure evil. He’s jealous of Superman and wants the people of Metropolis to look up to him and not the interloping alien. He wants money and power. He is willing to do basically anything to achieve these goals. Seductive, powerful, egotistical, megalomaniacal, arrogant, brilliant – that’s Lex Luthor in a nutshell and that is Lex Luthor here. Just as he should be.

As important as Mark Hamill’s The Joker was to Batman: The Animated Series, so is Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor is to Superman: The Animated Series. Brown’s Luthor is more menacing than previously seen versions in television and in the movies. He has that singular deep voice that can manifest itself as a seductively low growl that scrapes over the back of your neck or as a booming shout that blasts out your eardrums. Brown has a public voice for Lex that is not at all unpleasant, then he drops down a bit for private, scarier Lex, and then he drops down even further for angry, private, scarier Lex and that’s the voice that is probably the last sound ever heard by many a failed flunky. Before Michael Rosenbaum would own the role in Smallville many years later, Clancy Brown best embodied the most faithful adaptation of the comic book version of Lex Luthor. It’s hard to believe that Brown originally auditioned to voice Superman. What a different show that would have been.

Lois Lane here is probably given the shortest shrift of all of the icons. She’s about what you expect — the tough-as-nails, hard-nosed ace reporter for the biggest mega metropolitan newspaper around. She gets in trouble a lot. She needs rescuing. She finds clues. She yells at Jimmy Olsen. Beyond that she doesn’t have a lot to do. There isn’t a lot of depth to her character. The thing that I found most surprising with Lois, and perhaps most surprising about the entire series, was that she was virtually no romantic chemistry with Superman, or with Clark Kent. Romance is almost completely absent from this series and one of the Superman mythos hallmarks – the Superman/Lois Lane/Clark Kent love triangle is completely absent. Sparks only fly where Lois is concerned when Bruce Wayne shows up.

Dana Delaney has the right amount of no nonsense in her portrayal of Lois Lane. She sounds tough. She sounds like she could cut you down to size and leave you a whimpering mess on the floor, just with the bite of her words. She almost sounds like she’d be right at home on the city desk in a newspaper movie from the 1940s. She’s got that “I’m smarter than you and I see through your bullshit” sarcastic reporter tone down cold. The only thing she does not pull of convincingly is she doesn’t sound like she’s in her late 20s like the character is supposed to be here. Her voice has a maturity to it that is probably ten years too old for Lois Lane.

I was going to break this down by season, but that’s not the way the DVD sets are delineated, so I’m going to do this by DVD set. Volume One contains season one and part of two, Volume Two contains most of season two, Volume Three contains part of season two and seasons three and (a very short) four.


Volume One

One thing that I discovered was that to my great surprise I had actually already seen much of Volume One, if not all of it. Within five minutes of almost every episode I found myself saying “Oh, yeah! I remember this one!” That pretty much ended after this set, though.

The first volume of Superman: The Animated Series is somewhat uneven. As I said earlier the writing and characterization is a bit rocky in the beginning as the producers/writers find their footing with the characters and storylines and the overall tone of the series. But once they do in Volume Two it is smooth sailing for the rest of the show. We just have to endure a few bumps along the way to get to the really good stuff.

There are definitely glimmers of the coming greatness in this first volume and it’s important to start at the beginning because, like any well constructed and planned out series, there are threads here that are followed all the way through to the end and events are set in motion early on that pay off big time at the end of the show.

Notable Episodes

The Last Son of Krypton – Part I, II & III – The nigh-universally familiar origin of Superman is fleshed out here over the course of three episodes. The entire first episode takes place on Krypton, with the tragic destruction of the planet taking place in the final scene. This allows us to connect more with Jor-El and Lara and makes Superman’s story all the more tragic. We are also introduced to Brainiac, the Kryptonian supercomputer that will show up later on in the series in badass robot form. The second part is half teenage Clark’s emerging powers in Smallville and half neophyte Clark Kent in Metropolis. This episode introduces us to the Metropolis cast – Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Perry White and the near mulleted Jimmy Olsen. The third part features the apparently now standard-since-John-Byrne’s-Man-of-Steel big airplane save by Superman and the naming of Superman by Lois Lane. One of the best villains of the entire series, a pre-Metallo John Corben, is also introduced.

The Way of All Flesh – Villains could be hit or miss on this show but one of the big time successes was John Corben, Metallo. Four episodes after he first appeared, Corben pops up again, the victim of a rare disease that causes him to transfer his consciousness into the body of a Kryptonite-fueled cyborg. His tragedy comes from no longer being able to experience simple human touch, and that his disease wasn’t natural, rather he was secretly infected by Lex Luthor in order to turn Corben into an anti-Superman weapon. This was one case where Superman: The Animated Series was very successful in applying the Batman: The Animated Series method of infusing tragedy in their villains to make the struggle of good vs. evil less starkly black and white.

Stolen Memories – Lex Luthor is Superman’s universally recognized arch-enemy, and later on in the series a certain other worldy despot will become his greatest threat, but if you dig down deep, Brainiac should be the one that Superman hates the most. In the revised three part origin we learn that Brainiac let Krypton die – going so far as to assure the government of Krypton that all of those earthquakes were totally fine and normal – because he felt that as long as the vast Kryptonian wealth of knowledge was stored in his circuits the actual people of Krypton were superfluous. He let Krypton, and by extension Superman’s parents, die for his own selfish reasons (the fewer peoplle who have knowledge the more valuable it is). If there is anyone that Superman should want to pound into dust it should be Brainiac.

The Main Man – Part I & II – Ugh. Guest stars from the DC Universe weren’t a very common occurrence in Batman: The Animated Series, but we were promised some in this series. I remember being so excited just thinking about seeing other DC heroes getting the animated treatment. And then they announced the first (and only guest star in the first year), and it was Lobo. Wait… what? Seriously? Lobo? Of all the… why would… Lobo? And for two episodes? I generally can’t stand him in the comics and the same could be said here. To add insult to injury, Lobo makes in appearance in the show’s opening credit montage, mocking me with every episode.

My Girl – We briefly met Lana Lang in “The Last Son of Krypton – Part II” back in Smallville during the high school years. Here we are introduced to grown up Lana, who is now a big time fashion designer (known, somewhat annoyingly, as “L.L.” to the general public) in Metropolis dating Lex Luthor, but not truly over Clark Kent. This is a case of truly inspired character reinvention. Lana’s fun, she spunky, she’s flirtatious, she’s sexy, she knows Clark’s secret and she wants in on the crime fighting fun. Basically, she’s everything that Lois isn’t. With the exception of Smallville where my feelings are reversed, I’ve always thought that Lana was a much better match for Clark than Lois.

Tools of the Trade – Upon first glance you probably wouldn’t even realize it, but this is the most important episode of the entire DVD set. One of the more brilliant decisions made by the producers was to incorporate Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters into the Superman mythos. Realizing that the traditional rogue’s gallery just wasn’t going to cut it and with the desire to give Superman something a bit more meaty to go up against, they brought in the New Gods and the hellscape of Apokolips. In this episode Intergang boss Bruno Mannheim suddenly has a lot of extremely deadly toys to play with in his war on the Metropolis police force, including Captain Maggie Sawyer and Inspector Dan Turpin, two characters who will become quite important by the time the series is through. Where did Mannheim get these weapons? It’s revealed in the final, chilling scene of this episode — Mannheim’s secret benefactor is Darkseid, Lord of Apokolips and the events set in motion here shall continue to be felt right up until the final scene of this series.

Livewire – This episode is a prime example of one of the weaknesses of the show, especially in the beginning – too many lackluster villains of which Livewire might be the lacklusterist of all. There was nothing compelling about the character and certainly nothing that drew you into her story. Without those elements one would look for a clever confrontation with Superman or an interesting fight, but nothing doing there either. She was an annoying shock jock who, for reasons completely unknown, hated Superman. Shock jock shockingly gets turned into a being of pure electricity and goes after Superman. They fight. That’s about it. It certainly didn’t help that she was voiced in over-the-top screechfest fashion by Lori Petty who can make her voice really hard on the ears if she tries. Sadly, this is not the only time Livewire shows up in the series.

Speed Demons – Finally! A real guest star! The Flash! Not to be confused with the version of the The Flash that shows up later on in the Justice League cartoons. It’s not the same character, but similar enough that it’s not too jarring (except for the inexplicable black circle around his chest emblem, and his early bad attitude). Here we get the classic scenario – The Fastest Man Alive Charity Race between Superman and The Flash with a little globe-trotting super heroics (that involve thwarting the Weather Wizard) thrown in. I remember watching this episode when it first aired and the feeling of pure joy to see Superman and The Flash together in the animated world. This is a really fun episode with some valuable lessons for all the kids out there – just because you have super speed it doesn’t mean you should be a jerk; it’s time to man up and be a hero.


Next week — The second volume of Superman: The Animated Series!


  1. Great rundown of volume one. I agree with you that Livewire was a pretty dull character, but I really like the sequence with the crane falling out of the sky, in that episode.

  2. Nice overview Conor. Looking forward to the rest.

  3. Would it be too much to ask for the same treatment for Batman Beyond? As a Batman fan I would be interested in your thoughts of the series.

  4. Would it be too much to ask for the same treatment for Batman Beyond?

    It’s definitely possible. I have a few more series to make it through first, but Batman Beyond is on the list. If people like these rundowns I’ll definitely do more.

  5. Just like Angel and Buffy are getting a new ‘season’, it’s nice that JLU seems to be getting the same treatment based on Dwayne McDuffie’s first ish of JLA. Superman was a fun show, and so many years after Batman, it’s hard to remember how in contrast it was to the early darkness of that show.

  6. Great rundown. Like Conor, I remember having seen many of these when they first ran and haven’t seen them since. Don’t think I ever made it past the first season – graduating college, finding a job and living with a real live woman put a damper on my cartoon watching. May have to actually pick these up sometime in the near future.

    I actually liked the Lobo episodes! I remember it being something like a collector of rare specimens catching both Lobo and Superman.

    The Flash episode was amazing. Probably one of my favorite animated episodes of anything ever, next to the B:TAS Dark Knights episode (I think that is what it was called). Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to pick up the Timmverse sometime soon.

    Question: Any word on the availability of the World’s Finest crossover movie? I remember the Joker/Luthor team-up being pretty good.

  7. The World’s Finest movie is apart of the first volume of Superman: The Animated Series as well as its own DVD.

  8. It’s actually in volume two of Superman. I can imagine no scenario in which I don’t talk about it in Part Two of this series.

  9. Oh, my mistake. I remember being so pissed off over how Superman learns about Batman’s secret identity. It seemed so distastful. Even unprofessional.

  10. Damnit Conor! I really didn’t want to have to watch all of these again, but now I guess the decision has been taken out of my hands. I’ll be back in a couple hours…

  11. I am very glad that you are doing these Conor. Looks to be a lot of work, but do know that I am very attentive to what you have to say.

    In ’92 I was 21 and well into university life. Beer, girls, and cramming for exams. I missed the boat on these animated shows completely. Well, this might not be entirely true. I may of watched an episode here and there of something, but I have no memory of what it was.

    Fast forward to my boy’s 5th birthday a few weeks ago. My dad gave him a pile of sweet stuff (funny, he never gave me so much at once). Anyways, one item was Superman the Animated Series vol.3. dvd. I sat down with both of my kids every night for a week watching this. It was a blast to experience this. What fun! Now I need to get the rest. Even the Batman and JL ones. The kids want them as badly as I do now. Bonus! Christmas is just around the corner too! 😀


  12. Glad you got through the series, when it came out I was in a similar period of my life. Comic books, and media involving their characters fell low on the list of priorities. I was always glad the series was given same treatment as the Batman series, which I think is not just a fine comic cartoon, but one of the finest cartoons ever made. The personification of Superman, and Luthor in the series were clutch.

  13. Conor, thanks a lot for doing this. I had the same initial reaction to the series that you did and this is really making me want to give it another chance on DVD. I’ll be looking forward to your review of the rest, and I hope you do the Justice League as well.

  14. And the Timmverse continues. I loved the article Connor, and I would be interested in your opinion of the New Superman Doomsday.

    Timm tried to depart as much as possible from the animated series. I think that it worked out quite well. I loved Marsters Luther. A true cold blooded killer. And the Doomsday Fight was almost as good as Supes vs Captain Marvel in JL Unlimited.

  15. Much like Conor I missed out on these shows for much of the same reasons. I had just graduated from High School when Superman started. Now, I’ve gone back and purchased all of them and are going through them. I also have been enjoying “The Superfriends” with my 2 and a half year old daughter. She already loves “Natman”.

    Great article! Keep them coming.

  16. Holy crap. Great write-up.

    I’d actually suggest watching Batman Beyond (at least season one) before going into JLU. It’s not a deal-breaker, but there are benefits to seeing the future first. Prior knowledge of the Beyond series makes for some cool dramatic irony.

  17. I never really got into the Superman: Animated Series. I don’t know why either. I think on some level, I’ve just never connected with the Man of Steel like I have with Batman. I LOVE the Batman cartoon and watch those DVDs regularly. I”m branching out though, and recently picked up JLU, Season 1 after hearing so many good things about it.

    I will say this Conor: you have definitely piqued my interest.

  18. I too missed STAS and never really felt any urgent need to go back and fill in what I missed. Even when things in JL/JLU echoed back to this series. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it was the age I was when it came out. I recognized that BTAS was really, really well done. But even that I only watched casually.

    But this has me seriously considering going back to fill in the gaps.

    Now, how can I get you to give Teen Titans a chance?

  19. If there was ever an argument for corporate ownership this is it. Being owned by WB has kept the DC U characters all under the same studio, allowing for animated series of such high quality, and nearly an unlimited use of any DC character. Marvel’s characters are scattered between so many studios, that sometimes a really good show comes out (the Fox X-Men in the 90s’) and other times not so good (the terrible MTV Spider-Man series that Bendis got roped into).

    This and other factors, Timm/Dini chief amongst them, have meant that DC always has the best animated shows. They also are clever enough to realize that what kids want isn’t just a kids show, but mature and solid storytelling. I remember watching the Batman series when it was on and I was young, and loving it because it was great stories. Coming back to the Timm/Dini-verse on DVD the last few years I’ve been happily surprised that the shows are as good as I remember.

    Great post. I can’t wait for the World’s Finest review, its definitely my favorite episode until the JLA cartoon.