In the end, the world didn’t really need a Superman… just a brave oneSuperman
The DC Animated Universe is one of the greatest achievements from DC and WB. The DCAU encompasses 7 animated shows, 4 feature films and the most complete collection of definitive interpretation. The DCAU’s legacy stands on its own. The critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Seriesset the standard for animation in general. It also displayed what Batman and his world should look and feel like. With that, the DCAU immediately had a strong foundation. Directly continuing from that was Superman: The Animated Series. This retrospective will look at why the DCAU created the most definitive Superman.
The Birth of the DCAU
The spiritual equal to BTAS, STAS brought the most definitive version of Superman on screen. Justice League, Justice League Unlimited and Static Shock were direct spin-offs that further explored the DC Universe. Finally, shows like Batman Beyond and The Zeta Project gave a look into the future of the universe.
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. Here, we will analyze the journey of DCAU’s Superman.
Superman: The Animated Series
Superman first appeared in the DCAU with Superman: The Animated Series. The Last Son of Krypton immediatly showed the promsise of the series. 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 and did not hold back on dark moments.
The entire first episode of STAS did not even feature Superman. Krypton’s culture, politics and characters were instead given the spotlight. 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 style. This was not only aesthetically pleasing on an animation level, but brought a sense of culture to the dying planet.
A Darker and Grounded Origin
The second episode of STAS largely features Clark Kent as a high school student. Knowing he feels out of place among his classmate, Clark spends a majority of the episode confused, angry and frustrated. Jonathan and Martha are caring parents; 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.
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. He struggles when facing smaller enemies. While Superman fans will have a tough time using DCAU Superman in debates, it was never the point of the character.
The Inspirations in creating DCAU’s Superman
Tim Daly did a fantastic job bringing Superman to life for the series. He brought 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. Instead, this Clark genuinely likes to be a reporter.
Throughout STAS’s three seasons, Superman battled practically every single major villain in his lore. From Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, Bizzaro, Parasite, Livewire and more, each felt important. Every episode gave ample screen time for both the villain to be fleshed out and for Superman to feel important.
Once again, avoiding Donner comparison, Clancy Brown plays a very cunning, serious & porful 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.
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.
“But I am Clark. I need to be Clark! I’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time!”
The Importance of Clark Kent
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. 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. Kent was received murdered after his car exploded. 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. 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.
Meeting Batman and Creating a Universe
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.
The Darkseid Arc
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. In the episode, Apokolips.. Now, Darkseid launches a full-scale invasion of Earth. Darkseid 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. 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.
An Unprecedentedly Dark Finale
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.
Ending Superman’s First Arc
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.
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.
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.
Justice League: The Animated Series
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. 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.
Darkseid vs Superman: Round Two
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
Superman during Justice League Unlimited
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.
Superman’s role in The Cadmus Arc
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
The Finale of Justice League Unlimited
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.
Superman Post-JLU & Batman Beyond
It is assumed Superman continues to have adventures and save the world for decades to come. He appeared in Static Shock, where he mentors a young Static. There are also 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 of the DC Universe.
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. After Lois Lane passed Superman decided to make the change into full time hero. Despite this, Clark Kent remains inside. 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.
The Definitive Superman: A DCAU Retrospective
The legacy of DCAU Superman is spans almost 70 years of Clark Kent’s life. From birth to his senior years, the DCAU creates the definitive Superman story. You follow him as a kid in Smallville to a leader of hundreds of superheroes.
Bruce Timm and Paul Dini were able to accomplish a ton with Superman. In many ways, they created the definitive Superman and a world around him that felt believable. Donner made the world believe a man can fly, and Snyder brought an immigrant figure, Bruce Timm simply brought Superman. Together they complete the three most important Supermen ever translated outside of the comic book medium.
The Impact of the DCAU
From Superman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond, Clark Kent goes through an arc of discovery. By facing the most harshest trials and overcoming them, he becoming a leader, and a universal symbol. For me, the DCAU Superman will always be the definitive Superman. Having the opportunity to grow up with the entire universe was an incredible experience. It is one I personally carry with me as a lifelong fan of Superman.