SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, VOLUMES 1-3

(DC COMICS CLASSIC COLLECTIONS/WARNER HOME VIDEO; 2005-2006; Original Television Series, 1996-2000)

Superman TAS

With MAN OF STEEL an unqualified hit, I thought it was time to examine one of my favorite non-comic book versions of the Last Son of Krypton. The three volume DVD collection of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES is once again gracing the shelves of your local box store and readily available for a sweet lower price (there also exists a SUPERMAN – THE COMPLETE ANIMATED SERIES, which is exactly what it sounds like. It just isn’t available at the box Mart in my neighborhood). So, we concern ourselves with the three separate volumes: all 54 episodes of the now-classic cartoon are here, as well as plenty of bonus extras that delve into the characters and the creators.

For the 3 volumes of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, rather than giving us a more traditional season-by-season release, Volume 1 offers the first season and the first five episodes of Season 2 (which is 28 episodes, more than double the Season 1 total). The second volume features the next 18 episodes of Season 2, while Volume 3 features the final five episodes (including two 2-part arcs), all 10 Season 3 episodes and the last 3 episodes, which make up the entirety of the fourth and final season. Why only three episodes in that last season? Well, producers Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had intended a full season story arc initiated with the two-parter “Legacy.” The WB network (which aired this series, the BATMAN animated show, as well as the BATMAN BEYOND series), however, wanted the team to focus their creative energies on the newer BATMAN BEYOND. Interestingly enough, BATMAN BEYOND was also put on hold two years later to allow Timm and Dini to work on the new JUSTICE LEAGUE series, allowing everything to come full circle, as that series utilized elements and plot threads from all previous DC animated universe shows (including STATIC SHOCK). But, for now… let’s go back to the beginning.

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Clark Kent changes to Superman (publicity still)

Debuting in September, 1996, this new, animated SUPERMAN took its cues from BATMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES, with a very stylized approach to the artwork and with stories that stuck very close to the source materials. That made comic book geeks extremely happy! The production team, headed up by Bruce Timm, gave us fairly traditional takes on Martha, Jonathan and Clark Kent, Jor-El and Lara, Lois Lane, Perry White and the major villains (Brainiac, Metallo and – of course – Lex Luthor). There’s also an updated, hipper Jimmy Olsen, as well as retro-versions of a few second-tier baddies like the fifth-dimensional imp, Mister Mxyzptlk and the Toyman. Throw in the nearly forgotten Jim Shooter/Al Plastino creation, Parasite, add a healthy contingent from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (New Gods, Darkseid, Granny Goodness) and some new blood, in the form of Livewire, and you’ve got a party. Heck, even Bruce Wayne, Tim Drake, Arthur Curry, the Flash, the Joker and Harley Quinn show up in various episodes.

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

Lois Lane and Clark Kent meet with Daily Planet editor, Perry White (publicity still)

As with the BATMAN series, this show works on a myriad of levels, one of the most important being the use of great actors. From the lead characters (Tim Daly as Superman/Clark Kent, Dana Delaney as Lois Lane) to secondary characters like the Kents (Mike Farrell and Shelley Fabares) and the wickedly evil Granny Goodness (played to the hilt by – are you ready for this? – Ed Asner!), the cast of SUPERMAN – THE ANIMATED SERIES reads like a producer’s rolo-dex of some of the most recognizable and well-loved voices in Hollywood. In fact, most of the actors are so spot on that they were asked along for the ride when Timm and company launched JUSTICE LEAGUE (and its later incarnation, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED). I believe the only actor who would have had overlapping roles in both this and the JL/JLU series not to appear in the latter show would be Supes himself, Tim Daly, who was already under contract to star in another (live action) series. That these talented individuals made themselves available to reprise their roles (often quite small, especially in the JUSTICE LEAGUE shows) speaks volumes about production standards and the top-notch, knowledgeable writing staff.

Every good super-hero story should start with an awesome origin story and, Superman’s is the one that every creative team since 1938 have been using as a template, to varying degrees of success. As it should, this series begins with an awesome three part story called “The Last Son of Krypton,” which is heavy on the Kryptonian lead up to Kal-El’s arrival on Earth, offering new insights into the societal hierarchy of the doomed planet, as well as an intimate look at the lives of Superman’s birth parents, Lara and Jor-El. A major divergence with the comics is the revelation that the evil mind-construct Brainiac started out as the “brains” behind Kryptonian science, culture and politics. The seemingly benevolent computer is seen as the dispassionate destroyer of the planet, preferring to collect all pertinent information on the planet and its inhabitants rather than offering a solution to its ultimate demise. In short, the ultra-rational Brainiac puts knowledge (and his own survival, as the conservator of the history and knowledge of Krypton) above life. While the comic book version went through various incarnations and minor adjustments in his origin since his debut 45 years ago, this version just seems right. I am rather surprised that DC didn’t adopt this storyline when they deconstructed their entire universe with the New 52 (of which, the less said here, the better). I mean, there is precedent: Harley Quinn, arguably one of DC’s most popular villains, made her first appearance in the BATMAN animated show. A later episode of SUPERMAN introduced Livewire, who went on to appear in various DC titles, as both villain and reformed hero.

Other stellar episodes from that first season (a total of 13 episodes, airing during1996-1997) include “Feeding Time,” which introduces Parasite, a little used character from the comics, turning him into a force to be reckoned with in the Superman animated universe; a two-part story called “The Main Man,” guest-starring – DUH! – Lobo, the loud-mouthed galactic bounty hunter; and “Tools of the Trade,” in which recurring gangster boss Bruno Mannheim signs a deal with the devil… Jack Kirby’s ultimate DC creation, the evil megalomaniac Darkseid (deliciously voiced by Michael Ironside), who from this point forward is the focal point of the series as Superman’s main nemesis. Darkseid casts a huge shadow over the DC animated universe, as the ultimate climax of the massive storyline isn’t realized until much later, in the final episode of the JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED series.

Livewire (publicity still)

Livewire (publicity still)

Standouts from Season 2 (probably THE standout season of the entire series) include “The Prometheon,” in which a giant alien android is unwittingly loosed by Superman, to wreak havoc, Godzilla-style on high-tension wires and nuclear generators across the world. The Flash shows up in “Speed Demons,” featuring a plot right out of the comics, with Supes and Wally racing around the planet for charity. When the Weather Wizard decides to hold the climate hostage to get a little respect, hilarity and a tag-team beatdown ensues. The aforementioned “Livewire” is born when a shock jock with a mad on for the Man of Steel is hit by lightning before Superman can save her. Obviously, the fact that he showed up late to the electrocution meant that Kal was to blame and Livewire would become a constant thorn in his side throughout the series (and beyond, in the final season of JLU). Two recurring characters from the comics debuted in this second season: Bizarro (a failed attempt by Lex Luthor and others to clone Superman) and Mister Mxyzptlk, the latter splendidly voiced by the abrasive comedian, Gilbert Gottfried. Often used in the comic books as a comedic foil for Superman, Bizarro’s appearances here are more poignant than funny, as he – like Kal-El before him – seeks his place in a world (and universe) that mocks and shuns him.

As you can see, guest-stars and old school villains abound in this season, including the Dark Knight and his most crazed protagonists, the Joker and Harley Quinn, who all show up in a three-part episode called – what else? – “World’s Finest.” Doctor Fate is called upon for mystical assistance in “The Hand of Fate.” John Henry Irons becomes the hero Steel in “Prototype” and returns in “Heavy Metal” to help Superman against Metallo. The final four episodes prominently feature Jack Kirby’s Fourth World creations, including Granny Goodness and Darkseid. The last two episodes are called “Little Girl Lost” and serve as an introduction to Kal’s cousin Kara, better known as Supergirl, as she and Jimmy Olsen infiltrate a teen gang who are actually being controlled by Darkseid’s evil minion, Granny Goodness.

Darkseid (publicity still)

Darkseid (publicity still)

The most stunning piece of writing and animation comes with episodes 25 and 26, a two-parter called “Apokolips.” With Superman beaten and captured by Darkseid and his armies, the people of Metropolis, led by Detective Dan Turpin (whose character and appearance are based on Jack Kirby himself), rise up and refuse to surrender. As Turpin turns the weapons of Apokolips on Darkseid and uses one to free Superman, Darkseid uses his powers to make an example out of the policeman, vaporizing him with his gaze. Now free, the Man of Steel begins crushing both weapons and parademons alike, forcing Darkseid to retreat, vowing vengeance. The final funeral scenes are some of the best television moments ever. Yeah… I just said that!

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Superman consoles his damaged clone, Bizarro (publicity still)

Season 3 is not as dramatic as the previous… how could it be? There are, however, a couple of episodes that are – if nothing else – pure and simple super-hero/comic book fun. Robin (the Tim Drake version) appears in “Knight Time,” covering for a certain Darknight Detective. Once Clark Kent realizes that the Batman has gone missing, he swoops in to lend a hand, much to the chagrin of the Dynamic Duo’s junior partner. The Legion of Super-Heroes show up in “New Kids In Town,” Kyle Raynor makes a rare DCAU appearance as Green Lantern in “In Brightest Day” and Aquaman is captured by Luthor in “A Fish Story.” “Little Big Head Man” finds the fifth dimension imp, Mxyzptlk, tricking a contented Bizarro into returning to Earth to confound Superman with a double whammy of lunacy.

Superman battles one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, as Ra’s Al Ghul brings his Society of Shadows to Metropolis in “The Demon Reborn,” the first episode of the unfortunately aborted fourth season. Darkseid returns for the series two-part finale, “Lagacy.” The Lord of Apokolips brainwashes Kal-El into believing that he was raised on Apokolips as Darkseid’s son. With Superman reappearing on Earth after a long absence, the citizens of Metropolis are appalled at his destructive actions. By the time he regains control of his own mind, the populace of his adoptive planet are in total fear of the Man of Steel and, as a result, have turned against him. Had the series not ended, this story would have arced across the season, as Superman worked to regain the trust of the people of Earth. Thankfully, this thread is picked up later in JUSTICE LEAGUE and JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED.

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

Superman confronts his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor (publicity still)

There is so much neat stuff going on in this series (and, in fact, all of the other DCAU series) that any comic book geek should find and watch it in any form available (DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, whatever). If you find the DVD/Blu-Ray collections (either the three separate volumes or the complete series), buy them, if for no other reason than to have the cool bonus features, including creators’ commentary on several key episodes, lending insight into the series and the characters. It is well worth the investment, especially at these new, cheaper prices.


BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION

(SONY PICTURES HOME ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA PICTURES; 2005) A REVIEW FROM THE VAULT

BATMAN 1943 cover

The 1943 Columbia Serial Release of BATMAN is given the DVD treatment in celebration of the DVD release of the highly successful Christopher Nolan reboot, BATMAN BEGINS. Actually, it’s more like a monetary feeding frenzy, with every company with anything even remotely related to Batman throwing it against the commercial wall to see what sticks. Thus, the tag-line for this two-disc set is, “See how Batman really began.” Which, I suppose, is an accurate assertion if you’re speaking about filmed versions. While the character debuted in DETECTIVE COMICS in 1939, this cheaply made serial was the first film to feature the Batman and his young protoge, Robin.

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Lewis Wilson as Batman (publicity still)

Cheaply made,” did you say? So, we should probably avoid it like the plague, right? Nope… not at all! Cheap doesn’t always mean bad. In the case of BATMAN, while there are some dubious directorial decisions and some cringe-worthy dialogue that definitely wouldn’t pass any kind of censor in this day and age, overall it is a fun ride and a look back at a movie Batman that’s more in line with what creator Bob Kane had envisioned in his early comic book appearances. If you’re far too politically correct to take it as a piece with some historical significance, realizing that it is very much of a different time, you may want to give BATMAN a pass. If you look at it as a period piece, the racial references may not sting as much… doesn’t make ‘em any more right then than it does now, but it was quite a different world 60 years ago. The most blatantly egregious comment comes from the narrator beginning at about the halfway mark of Episode 1: “This was part of a foreign land transplanted bodily to America and known as ‘Little Tokyo.’ Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street… “ There is so much wrong with those lines but, again, we have to remember that Japan was one of the Axis powers that the United States and its allies were fighting then. The “rounding up” that is referred to is our government’s solution to the hysteria that gripped most of the country: They forced approximately 110,000 American citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent (mostly on the West Coast) into “War Relocation Camps,” as possible saboteurs or enemy combatants. Anyway… history lesson over. We all understand how bad this stuff was.

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson as Robin and Batman (publicity still)

Aside from the obvious “rah-rah, we’re the good guys” war mentality, the 15-part BATMAN serial did feature some cool sci-fi elements, some over-the-top action sequences and the first appearance anywhere of the Batcave (herein called the “Bat’s Cave”). Batman is working for the government as a secret agent while, as Bruce Wayne, he affects the lazy, disinterested attitude of the filthy rich. Lewis Wilson looks the part, rather it be Bruce or alter ego, Batman. The costume is pretty good, even if the cape and cowl are a bit problematic, particularly in the fight scenes. Likewise, 17-year old Douglas Croft is solid as Wayne’s ward, Dick Grayson, and his masked crime-fighting persona, Robin. The two work off each other quite well, the odd changing in and out of costume together in the back seat of a car aside. Shirley Patterson, her high hair and big hats play Bruce’s love interest, Linda Page. She’s pretty hot except for the fact that she’s something like 85 years old and has been dead for 10 years. But, I digress, as is my wont regarding such things.

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

Gus Gillmore (in helmet) and J Carroll Naish as Doctor Daka (publicity still)

J Carroll Naish, as the evil Doctor (or Prince, depending on the episode) Daka, is as inscrutable as most “occidentals” seem to think all Asian master criminals or detectives are. Of course, you couldn’t use a real-live Japanese actor for the role, seeing as how they couldn’t be trusted. Before I start getting hate mail from the humorless politically correct among you, that was sarcasm! Anyway, the one remaining business in “Little Tokyo” is a “Japanese Cave of Horrors,” which purports to show scenes of Japanese atrocities heaped upon the world and their own people. It’s really a front for the good… uh… the not-so-good doctor’s spy organization, his “League of the New Order.” This League is populated by a bunch of felons and wrongly accused parolees (’cause they’re mad at the justice system for putting them in prison, naturally) to undermine several key US industries. If the innocent (or a patriotic crook) refuses to join the cause, Daka turns them into electronically controlled living zombies (and everybody knows that those are the best kind). Except in the case of interchangeable stooge number three who, after one screw-up too many, decides that patriotism is the way to go and stands up to the mad doctor. After a couple of racial slurs and a guarantee that the good ol’ US of… will prevail, he turns his back on the evil… well, maybe ornery is more apt… cabal and ends up alligator food. Such is life (or death)! Speaking of “interchangeable,” that’s as apt a term as any, because I couldn’t tell them apart if my life depended on it: dark hair under a hat, thin little Erroll Flynn moustache, the standard hood-speak of every crime movie of the time. If so many of them didn’t have to be in one room at the same time, I’d swear that they were all played by the same guy. By the way, the maniacal little giggle that emanates from from Daka when the guy drops in on the ‘gators is awesome!

So, we’ve got radium-powered ray guns, remote control zombies, a trap door with alligators on the other side, a self-painting car and a public phone booth with a secret door and a poison gas nozzle. Those are the least of the Batman’s worries, though, as he’s tossed off a skyscraper, dropped down an elevator shaft, has a mine collapse on his head, is trapped in a burning building, sealed alive in a casket and is generally ill-treated at the end of every cliff-hanging episode. This ain’t rocket surgery, kids, but it is fun!

BATMAN Serial Poster

BATMAN Serial Poster

Now, a couple of oddities that you may enjoy watching out for: Wilson and Croft use the other’s character names rather randomly. In the span of less than a minute, Batman calls Robin, “Dick” and Bruce calls Dick, “Robin”; Robin hardly ever uses “Batman,” it’s almost always “Bruce.” Alfred is a putz, used for comic relief. He is, nonetheless, very involved in the Dynamic Duo’s escapades, usually as chauffeur (the Batman uses the same ride that Bruce Wayne does, so I guess it just makes sense that they should also have the same driver, huh?), but occasionally as bait. Batman loses his cape more than once in the fight scenes, only to have it reappear when the camera angle changes; it also causes him trouble by wrapping around his arm or head while he’s throwing a punch. That’s probably why there are so few Marvel super-heroes who actually wear capes (I can think of Thor, the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Storm of the X-Men and, occasionally, the Black Panther). Also, while the costume is really fairly accurate and looks good (most of the time), it isn’t exactly form fitting and tends to droop and sag in areas. Probably the weirdest thing about the Batman suit is the Underoos – they start right under the bat insignia, making our hero look like a 90 year old with his pants hiked up to his chest. The entrance (and exit) of the “Bat’s Cave” is a grandfather clock. Bruce and Dick use it often to sneak up on Alfred and make his life miserable. Bruce appears to be not only lazy, but shiftless,as well. Even so, his attractive, hard-working girlfriend sticks around and seems to generally like the guy. Must be the money (or whatever he’s packing in them giant-size Underoos). You’ll also notice that a lot of the stunts (I’m assuming they used actual stuntmen) look awfully painful! Remember, kids, they didn’t have CGI back then – that wall that Robin slammed into was a real, solid wall. I bet they had a gopher on set just to pass out aspirin after a fight scene.

Like I said before, this ain’t rocket surgery, so disengage your brain for a little while and enjoy a trip back to a simpler (if less tolerant) time with BATMAN – THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL COLLECTION.


THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY

(WARNER VIDEO, 2012)

the-dark-knight-trilogy-blu-ray-set-little

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t thrilled about BATMAN BEGINS. So much so, in fact, that I never even deemed it worthy of my time to watch it! I think it may have been the title. Maybe, I just didn’t want another BATMAN AND ROBIN (I still have nightmares over George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell’s costume nipples… and often wonder why Alicia Silverstone’s costume was nipple-free). Could be that the truth lies more with me being more of a Marvel guy. Whatever the reason, I have avoided it until now. And, whatever that reason may be, it has also caused me to avoid – plague-like – SUPERMAN RETURNS (apparently, the only thing that one had going for it was a completely nipple-less costume!).

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Christian Bale) (Publicity still)

Okay, while I’m feeling confessional, I’ll also tell you that the only reason that I went to see THE DARK KNIGHT (at a real, live drive-in, no less!) was because my niece and nephew wanted to see it and I wanted them to enjoy the drive-in experience at least once in their lives. By then, of course, everyone was talking about Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker and Academy Award in the same sentence. Even though Mister Ledger was dead, I knew that even a “pity Oscar” was out of the question for an actor in a “super-hero” flick. A lot of people were even going so far as to say that he absolutely personified the Joker. When friends and acquaintances heard that I’d (finally) seen the film, all I heard was, “What did you think of Heath Ledger’s Joker? Wasn’t he awesome?” To which I replied, “That wasn’t the Joker! Sure, he played a really great psychotic murderer, but that character wasn’t the Joker.” On this point, I was adamant. Why? Comic book tradition and origin stories: The origin story given for this guy wasn’t the origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. It was a story that would make almost anybody criminally insane and homicidal. It simply wasn’t what made the Joker who he was. I didn’t seem to mind that the origin of Two-Face was actually closer to the Joker’s than his true origin. But, I digress!

Next, of course, came the trilogy’s climax, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. What can I say? The Bane character never thrilled me and… Anne Hathaway as Catwoman? No thanks! Not interested! Plus… the thing was like 27 hours long or something. But, then along came Christmas in the year of our Lord 2012. With it came THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY COLLECTOR’S GIFT SET and a really sweet price for all three movies. I’m a sucker for a good deal, so…

Anyway, this is where the kicking of my own butt begins! BATMAN BEGINS wasn’t BATMAN AND ROBIN, PART DEUX. Batman’s origin story wasn’t exactly like the comics, but it was close enough. Christian Bale made an okay Batman and a great Bruce Wayne and iconic characters from Batman lore were treated with respect to their importance to the mythos (particularly Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow). Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as the Wayne family butler, Alfred, were almost spot on and both performances were definite highlights. Even at two hours and 20 minutes,I was pleased with the movie overall.

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY (Heath Ledger and Christian Bale) (publicity still)

Bale’s throaty take on Batman begins to deteriorate in THE DARK KNIGHT and I just wanna give the guy a lozenge! That’s a minor complaint, but one that takes on larger proportions in the final film. Heath Ledger shows up early on and, after much consideration, I must say that – origin story aside – he really does make an excellent Joker! Aaron Eckhardt is dutifully solid as hot-shot District Attorney Harvey Dent and dutifully tragic as Two-Face… an acting job that, unfortunately, gets lost amid the manic performance of Ledger. Director Christopher Nolan gets even darker here than he did in BATMAN BEGINS, a portent of things to come (and a fitting homage to writer/artist Frank Miller, whose 1986 comic book mini-series, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, is the basis for Nolan’s vision on this trilogy). This movie takes the Batman to a very dark and violent place… and I like it!

Clocking in at just over three hours, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES takes place ten years after the last movie and sees Bruce Wayne in retirement (or, more precisely, his alter-ego is in retirement) and a Gotham City in desperate need of a hero. Bane (played by Tom Hardy and almost incomprehensible beneath that mask) is brought in to taunt the Batman out of retirement so he can kill him and assure victory for organized crime. I’m not gonna give you any spoilers (I’m sure that there are still people out there who haven’t seen these movies) but, let’s just say that hilarity DOES NOT ensue! Christian Bale’s Batman is even less understandable than in the last flick, but we muddle through. His Bruce Wayne is still good, though. Caine and Oldman are still rock solid as Alfred and (now) Commissioner Gordon, but… Holy Bat-Crap, Adam West! Anne Hathaway is… oh, just to be nice, I’ll merely call her horrible as Catwoman/Selina Kyle! Her take on this iconic villain even makes that turd with Halle Berry look good! Ra’s Al Ghul is back (and a major part of the storyline), but Ken Watanabe has been replaced in the role by Liam Neeson. Toss a coin to decide who delivered the better Ra’s. This finale definitely ups the violence factor, but also adds more of a comic book feel, which I, as true comic geek, certainly appreciate.

The whole thing is nicely packaged and, at right at eight hours of content (not counting special bonus material), a great value. Plus… the fact that the movies are fantastic doesn’t hurt.