The Definitive Superman: A DCAU Retrospective

In the end, the world didn’t really need a Superman… just a brave one

-Superman

The DC Animated Universe is one of the greatest achievements from DC and WB. Spanning 7 animated shows, 4 feature films and the most complete collection of definitive interpretations, the DCAU’s legacy stands on its own. Starting with the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, an iconic show that set the standard for what Batman and his world should look and feel like, the DCAU immediately had a strong foundation. Directly continuing from that was Superman: The Animated Series. In many ways, the equal to what BTAS did for Batman, STAS brought the most definitive version of Superman ever portrayed on screen. The two series were popular enough to bring forward Justice League,  Justice League Unlimited and Static Shock, series that further explored the DC Universe that was built with STAS and BTAS. Finally, shows like Batman Beyond and The Zeta Project gave a look into the future of the universe, focusing on Batman but also having many appearances by JL members. When looking back at the DCAU as a whole, many would rightfully place Batman as the center of this universe. Considering he has appeared in every series of the universe, they wouldn’t be wrong. While Batman is the center of the DCAU, I would argue Superman is the heart. Superman’s arc from STAS to Batman Beyond is one of the most layered stories seen in any comic book medium on screen. Here, we will analyze the journey of DCAU’s Superman, the definitive versions it created and the impact it has had on the legacy of Superman as a whole.

Superman first appeared in the DCAU with Superman: The Animated Series. His debut episode, The Last Son of Krypton, was built with originality in mind. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini wanted to create a version of Superman that did not borrow from Donner’s version. Immediately, the first episode gives you a strong indication of a brand new story.  It is worth noting that Superman: The Animated Series never felt like a kids show. It had very mature themes, did not hold back on dark moments and did not spoon feed the overall narrative, much like its Batman counterpart. The entire first episode of STAS did not even feature Superman. Taking a full episode to feature Krypton, its culture, its politics and characters like Jor-El and Lara gave the planet’s demise real weight. The aesthetic of Krypton, designed by James Tucker, avoided Donner’s feel. Instead, he went with a lush, vibrant landscape with unique architecture and a very futuristic feel. This was not only aesthetically pleasing on an animation level, but brought a sense of culture to the dying planet. The episode ended with baby Kal-El being rocketed off into space as his parents share one last kiss.

The second episode of STAS largely features Clark Kent as a high school student. Knowing he feels out of place among his classmates but also knowing there is something special about him, Clark spends a majority of the episode confused, angry and frustrated, especially when Jonathan and Martha Kent reveal he is not of this world. Jonathan and Martha are shown to be extremely caring, constantly giving good advice and not afraid of Clark’s powers. All of Clark’s fears and frustrations leave during his first flight sequence. A beautiful score elevates a scene where young Clark is flying around Smallville with a grin on his face. The third and final origin episode features Superman’s first reveal to the world as he saves a plane from crashing into Metropolis. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini made a conscious decision to weaken Superman in this universe. While still more powerful than the rest, this Superman is weaker than most comic versions and will have to struggle when facing foes with advanced weapons or above average strength. While Superman fans will have a tough time using DCAU Superman in “Who would win” debates, it was never the point for this series. Saving one plane from crashing felt like a huge deal to audiences because they spent two episodes learning and caring for Clark. Superman even says “nice one Clark” when he made a mistake during the process. A line as small and mundane as those three words makes such a difference in grounding Superman into being just like us. Tim Daly did a fantastic job bringing Superman to life for the series and gave a sense of youthfulness but growing maturity to both Clark and Superman. Daly is not doing a Reeve impression, and this Clark does not have the same goofiness and clumsy act that Christopher Reeve mastered. Instead, this is a Clark that genuinely likes to be a reporter and his rivalry with Lois to get the best story makes him the best version of Clark Kent yet. The final of the three origin episodes has Superman meeting Lois Lane for the first time both as Clark Kent and as Superman, as well as Superman having a very stern talk with Lex Luthor, the man behind the plot line of the episode. These three episodes set the stage for the journey that is to come for Superman in the DCAU.

Throughout STAS’s three seasons, Superman battled practically every single major villain in his lore. From Lex Luthor, to Brainiac, Metallo, Bizzaro, Parasite, Livewire and more, each episode felt important and gave ample screen time for both the villain to be fleshed out and for Superman to feel important. One of the characters who had a great role throughout the series was Lois Lane. Lois Lane in the DCAU was the best reporter in the business, did not care what danger she must put herself in because she is strong enough to get the story. It is clear that Lois has broken huge stories before Superman arrived and knows how to fight for herself. There are many episodes in the series where she does the saving and is an equal to Superman. Her friendship with Clark Kent is very genuine and her eventual love for Superman is the same. That dynamic was fun to witness throughout the show’s run. Dana Delany brings a strong and caring performance as Lois Lane for the entire DCAU.  Another character that is not only important to STAS but to the DCAU as a whole is Lex Luthor. Once again, avoiding Donner comparison, Clancy Brown plays a very cunning, serious & powerful Lex Luthor, who has genuinely helped the city grow and prosper, even while running shady businesses on the side. This is a Lex who doesn’t even want to kill Superman unless he has to, many times even working with Superman to take down a larger foe like Brainiac. As will be mentioned later on, Lex’s role in the DCAU is very layered and spanned multiple shows.

“But I am Clark. I need to be Clark! I’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time!”

Superman: The Animated Series always made a concerted effort to make you care about Clark most of all. This is a contention point with Superman fans and often debated in comics, films and pop culture. Who is more important, Superman, Clark Kent or Kal-El? Which one is the mask, which one is the the real person? The answer differs depending on the version. In Donner’s Superman films, it is clear that Clark Kent is the mask. Reeve’s version of Superman feels most comfortable when he IS Superman. In Snyder’s Superman films, he is most comfortable as Clark Kent, though also identifies heavily with his Kal-El side, especially after encountering Jor-El. STAS Superman does not wait a second without letting the audience know Clark Kent comes first. His experiences in Smallville, his concentrated effort to be a great reporter, and his absolute anguish in the episode, The Late Mr. Kent, where Clark Kent was “murdered” leaving Superman no options. This episode was incredibly potent in showing the point of view Clark uses to separate his two lives. At his core, Clark is just a kid from Smallville, even with his powers and responsibilities, he has identified with being Clark his whole life. In the episode, a car bomb is placed in his car and it goes off in the presence of others. Clark knew he couldn’t fly away at the scene or his secret is found so he goes back to his parents for help. The Kents both tell him that Clark can’t come back, especially after his funeral. This is where Superman says, “But I am Clark. I need to be Clark! I’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time!” indicating how important this is to him. For the large part of the DCAU, knowing how much this Superman values being Clark humanizes him greatly and more than any other versions of the character. The episode also fleshes out the importance of Lana Lang, Clark’s old friend and ex, someone who knows his secret, to him even years later.

Superman: The Animated Series actually established the DCAU. The first three seasons of Batman: The Animated Series took place before Superman’s first appearance so the idea of combining universes was not a thought. The episode World’s Finest, changed the landscape of how superheroes shows are made. This was the first time a full crossover happened between two superhero cartoons. The iconic Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series came together and brought the Batman and Superman of both shows face to face, setting up a friendship for years to come. As expected, tensions are high in their first meeting, even resulting in a little battle and a test of wits. It ended with Clark and Bruce shaking hands and starting an alliance. This was just the first of many heroes appearing in the DCAU through Superman. Like the glue that holds them together, Superman continues to have adventures with Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Doctor Fate and more, setting up the stage for Justice League. As the series went on and Superman continued to grow and mature, Supergirl made her debut. Supergirl provided Superman with real family and established a brother/sister relationship with her. Under Superman’s training and advice, Supergirl quickly flourished as a hero, and aside from a couple of team-up episodes, operated alone thereafter.

To wrap up Superman’s legacy in Superman: The Animated Series, you can not ignore the Darkseid arc. Out of all of Superman’s villains, foes and trials, none hold a candle to what Darkseid did to Superman and the hatred the two have for each other. Over the course of a multi season arc, Darkseid was made clear to the be the most formidable foe to Superman. In the episode, Apokolips.. Now, Darkseid launches a full-scale invasion of Earth. He quickly takes Superman down and props him up as a trophy to show Earth that their savior is broken. He kills thousands of people and there was no hope for the world until the New Gods showed up and threatened Darkseid with war unless he retreated. It was here that Darkseid killed Dan Turpin on his way back to Apokolips, Superman’s longtime friend and a longstanding character in the series. Superman is tested unlike ever before in what is the darkest episode of the series. He cries and lets out his anger at Darkseid’s abandoned war ships. The combination of the score, the characters and the performances make this episode one of the most heartbreaking of the series. This establishes Superman’s hate for Darkseid which would be tapped into many times after.

The finale of Superman: The Animated Series is called Legacy. Another dark episode and an incredibly somber way to end the series, Darkseid brainwashes Superman and turns him into his slave. After taunting him Apokolips.. Now with “If you will not be my night, you will be my pawn”, Darkseid tortures Superman into believing an alternate history of his story. An extended nightmarish flashback shows baby Kal-El being launched into space and landing on Apokolips. Here, Darkseid raises Kal-El as his own son and makes him his general. With this history in mind, a deranged Superman goes on concurring planets for Darkseid and Supergirl and Lex Luthor try to solve the mystery of Superman’s disappearance on Earth. Martha and Jonathan Kent try to keep the peace and help Supergirl in making sure Clark Kent’s excuses are in line. Darkseid sends Kal-El and his army to take over Earth once again, embarrassing Superman by using his own shield as the symbol of Darkseid’s rule. Superman causes mass destruction, even beating Supergirl in a battle. Lex Luthor sees the opportunity at hand to kill Superman and save the world and has a Kryptonite missile ready to fire. It is here that Lois Lane comes right up to Superman to stop him from killing Supergirl. With Lois’ voice, Clark snaps out of his brainwash but not before Lex fires the missile at him and captures Superman and Supergirl. The world is against Superman at this point and the government has both Kryptonians. While Darkseid did not capture Earth, he has broken Superman completely. Towards the end of the episode, Superman escapes and has only one person in his sights, Darkseid. He goes into Apokolips alone, shreds through armies of Parademons and minions before meeting Darkseid for a one on one battle. The episode ends with Superman defeating Darkseid and throwing his body to his slaves to finish. To his surprise and to the credit of the audience, the slaves do not turn against their master, instead help him and take him to heal his wounds. Clark is completely bewildered and full of anger for everything that happened, but Supergirl encourages him to go home.

The series concludes on a somber note. A montage of the people of Earth mostly saying they will never trust Superman and even longtime friends like Emil Hamilton losing faith in him. The finale ends with Superman and Lois on the Daily Planet rooftops and Lois assuring Clark that he will gain the trust of Earth again, one person at a time.

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I once thought I could protect the world by myself. But I was wrong. Working together, we saved the planet. And I believe that if we stay together, as a team, we would be a force that could truly work for the ideals of peace and justice.

-Superman

Superman: The Animated Series ended in 2000 but Superman’s story in the DCAU did not. Justice League picked up where STAS left off in 2001. With a slight time jump, it takes place after the public opinion of Superman was restored. An alien invasion causes Superman and Batman to team up with multiple heroes like Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl. Superman is more mature than he was in STAS and much more battle tested. This made him the perfect leader for the Justice League and established the team for future adventures. As the leader of the team, Superman keeps them honest, keeps them focused and serves as the first person to jump into battle. Though, he still has room to grow, and the fallout from Superman: The Animated Series did not end with the show.  The episode Twilight of Justice League picked up where STAS left off. Darkseid returns to Earth, this time asking for Superman’s help to defeat Brainiac. Superman responds in pure anger and emotion and almost destroys the Watchtower in an attempt to kill Darkseid. The league had to hold him back just to keep them all safe. In the end, Superman’s suspicions were correct as Brainiac and Darkseid had been working together to kill Superman. Another double-cross by Darkseid leads to a rematch of Superman vs Darkseid on Brainiac’s home base with the planet ready to explode. All of Superman’s emotions from the finale of STAS were present here and Clark is only set on killing the titan, even at the cost of his own life. It was not until Batman literally dragged Superman through a Boomtube to safety that Superman stopped. Darkseid and Brainiac both perished with the moon’s explosion. Even as the leader of the team and with years in between their last encounter, Superman and Darkseid continued to hate each other in Justice League.

With the Justice League, Superman continued to lead the team and go through intergalactic threats. The symbol of Superman became one that inspired hope not just on Earth, but around the universe through these adventures. Despite this, events from his past and with the league continues to create distrust between factions of the government and Superman. The Justice Lords were introduced as a parallel universe counterpart to the league in the episode A Better World. In this universe, Lex Luthor became president and Superman killed him after the death of the Flash. Our Justice League defeated their league and their Superman with the help of Lex Luthor. Lex was given a full pardon for all his crimes and after finding out the origins of the Justice Lords, decided it was time for him to make a run for the presidency as well. At this point, Justice League had spun off into another show, Justice League Unlimited. JLU had the team go from 7 heroes to hundreds as virtually every hero wanted to join this new team. At the center was Superman and as time went on, his outlook became more cynical. A radical offshoot of the government, Cadmus, was established soon after Superman turned rouge in STAS. This faction wanted to make sure Earth was protected should Superman turn evil, and at this point, to counter the League’s growing power. Amanda Waller enlisted the help of scientists and generals from both Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series, including Emil Hamilton, Superman’s friend from the animated series. Their only goal was to make sure they are ready to destroy Superman and the Justice League should the Justice Lords event comes to pass.

Between Lex’s presidential bid and Cadmus actively plotting against Superman and the league, a new layer of Clark’s personality developed. Gone was the more hopeful hero from the animated series and here was a beaten down Clark. He realizes that he never fully recovered from what Darkseid did to him all those years ago, has the growing fear of becoming a Justice Lord and still wants to make sure the team is running smoothly. To truly show how much he has changed, the episode Clash puts it in perspective. Shazam, referred to as Captain Marvel at this point, is much like how Clark used to be: full of hope and joy. He is also very naive and thought Lex might have turned over a new leaf. Superman was Billy’s hero and having the chance to join the Justice League was a dream come true for him. Seeing Shazam and Superman interact is like seeing two eras of Supermen meet. The tension eventually leads to Superman and Shazam battling through Metropolis, and Billy lecturing Superman and the rest of the league on why they lost sight of how to be heroes. All of this was a part of Lex Luthor’s grand scheme with Cadmus’ Amanda Waller to tick Superman enough to make a move to kill him. The Cadmus Arc of Justice League Unlimited was incredibly written with the audience made to see all sides of the argument of man vs hero and government vs league. Superman’s overall struggle is made clear as he continues to develop as a hero and having to deal with new challenges and struggles.

“I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard…always taking constant care not to break something…to break someone, never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment or someone could die.”

Superman

The Cadmus saga ends with Lex Luthor’s plans of presidency being foiled but not before an old Brainiac, one who embedded himself in Lex back in Superman: The Animated Series, takes over Lex’s body, and the two become one incredibly powerful being. The entire league is forced to take Lex/Brainiac on as Superman is faced with two of his most dangerous foes. The episode ends with the Flash sacrificing himself to take down the villain and Superman left with the same temptation as Lord Superman did- to kill Lex Luthor. Eventually, he decides not to and prevents that future as they also save the Flash. Justice League Unlimited ended a season later with the 2-part finale, Destroyer, which was, in many ways, a linchpin of Superman’s arc. A Lex that is bent on bringing Brainiac back and becoming the fusion they were before is shocked when he brings Darkseid back to life accidentally. Darkseid is embedded with Brainiac armor from his last death and goes to Apokolips to gather his army for one final mount against the Earth. Darkseid brings everything he has against Earth and attacks it on all fronts, hundreds of league members and all the Batman and Superman villains they have faced work together to prevent the world-ending threat. A fitting way to end the series, the final battle has Superman, Batman and Lex Luthor working together to fight Darkseid. Eventually, we are treated to a Part 3 of Superman vs Darkseid as Superman finally defeats him soundly. The series concludes with Lex Luthor sacrificing himself to save the universe by giving Darkseid the Anti-Life Equation, his one goal. Both are presumed dead, and the Earth is saved. Justice League ends with an optimistic outlook that Superman, Batman and the rest of the league will continue protecting the world.

It is assumed Superman continues to have adventures and save the world for decades to come. He had a featured episode in Static Shock, where he mentors Static and there are multiple tie-in comics from both the STAS and JL era that flush out his adventures. The epilogue to DCAU Superman comes with Batman Beyond. Batman Beyond takes place 40 years into the future. Mostly focusing on an older Bruce Wayne and Terry McGinnis as the new Batman, the series stayed in Gotham City and dealt with villains and moments that tied into Batman: The Animated Series. The episode, The Call, featured the appearance of Superman. Still the leader of the team, this episode features the oldest and wisest Superman yet. A change in costume makes him feel more alien and more distant. Extra material and interviews suggested that Lois Lane passed away a few years prior and promoted Superman to make the change into full time hero. Despite this, Clark still manages to lead the team with strength and his friendship with Bruce Wayne remains one of his strongest. Supporting comics also had Superman fighting Lord Superman once again and saving the world many times, despite his tragedies. It is understood that DCAU Superman continued to save people for the rest of his life.

I’m not here to scare anyone, in fact I’ve always tried to help people whenever possible.

-Superman

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The legacy of DCAU Superman is vast and spans almost 70 years of Clark Kent’s life from birth to his senior years and creates one of the most powerful Superman stories ever. You get to feel the journey of Superman from beginning to end, see him face all of his greatest foes, fight across space, time and the multiverse to keep innocent lives safe. You see him go from a young kid in Smallville to an up-and-coming Superman to eventually a leader of hundreds of superheroes and the beacon of hope for the universe. What Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and all the writers, artists and creatives of the DCAU were able to accomplish with Superman can not be understated. In many ways, they created the definitive Superman, the definitive Clark Kent and the definitive world around him to make the character feel believable and with the correct amount of weight to give it deeper meaning. While Richard Donner and Christopher Reeve’s Superman made the world believe a man can fly, and Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill brought a Superman that perfectly portrays him as an immigrant figure in a Post 9/11 world, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini created the most complete version of Superman ever translated outside of the comic book medium. From Superman: The Animated Series to Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Static Shock and Batman Beyond, Clark Kent goes through an arc of discovery, facing the most harshest trials and overcoming them, becoming a leader, becoming a universal symbol, and never losing his heart in the process. For me, the DCAU Superman will always be the definitive Superman. Having the opportunity to grow up with the entire universe and see it all play out live on my TV as it aired was an incredible experience and one that I personally carry with me as a lifelong fan of Superman.