Friday, May 16, 2014

Superman: The Animated Series, Season 1 Ep. 1: The Last Son of Krypton, Part I (B)

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So Jor-El blows up the door into the room.


Notice how, even though Brainiac is now smaller, the room is still this great vertical chamber, making both Jor-El and the monitor look tiny. This is because they want at least some part of you to pay attention to the room itself. You'll see why.

"This is a breach of security, Jor-El," Brainiac intones. "A violation of statute..." and then he names the exact statute and subsection of the offense as Jor-El looks at the terminal inside to figure out what is going on, because of course he does. From a writing perspective, you need to give him something to do while is Jor-El is taking a few moments to figure it out, but you also don't want it to just be "you shouldn't be here" / "I know" repeated back and forth. And this is a good thing to give him.

Jor-El looks up from whatever he was examining. "You're downloading! You're transmitting your memory to a satellite!"

Remember how I told you it would be important to know that there were satellites orbiting Krypton? And you know how Jor-El mentioned the satellites when he was first talking to Brainiac, and how Eyepatch Council Member talked about Brainiac surveying the planet? Well, here's the payoff for that.

"You're saving yourself!" Jor-El continues.

"I must." Brainiac replies. "After all, am I not the repository of all Kryptonian knowledge? Should I not be saved above all?"

Jor-El levels the gun at Brainiac and we hear a charging-up hum. He calls Brainiac a "self-righteous monster," and the delivery is just a tad off (it's one of those lines that looks all right but is really hard to say, especially just voice-acting--go on, try to say it out loud and you'll see what I mean), but the sentiment is sound.

Temper, temper, Jor-El. If you stop me, there won't even be a memory of Krypton left. All its culture, its wonders and glory, will be dust in the cosmos.

(Jor-El lowers the gun)

Is that what you want?

It should be noted that throughout this scene, fewer and fewer of those sections of the wall and floor are lit up:

It's not always consistent from scene to scene, and once or twice a section is colored in which wasn't before, but otherwise it's a pretty great visual, underlining A) how quickly Brainiac is leaving, and therefore B) how quickly Jor-El's world is dying.

Why did you lie?

If the Council knew Krypton was doomed, they would frantically put me to work calculating an evacuation plan. A futile gesture, given the time remaining.

This is really great, because it makes Brainiac active in the destruction of Krypton and as an opponent of Jor-El. I forget where I read this, but I'm certainly not the first to point out that this episode's version of the origin story makes Brainiac as much Jor-El's enemy as Superman's. It gives Superman and Brainiac a history that Superman probably won't be aware of if they ever meet (spoilers: they meet).

It also gives Brainiac a philosophy: Brainiac is basically Krypton's Super-Wikipedia, and he regards the survival of himself as more important than the survival of any of Krypton's parts--or even its whole. Brainiac is a superior way, he would argue, of storing what Krypton "is." We'll talk more about this when Brainiac shows up again, but you can already see the hints of what I'll be talking about later in this scene. Wait, that sentence was confusing. In this scene, you can already see the hints of what I'll be talking about later. Yeah, let's go with that.

How much time is left?

Hours. This world has seen its last sunrise.

It should be worth mentioning that as brutal and cold as Brainiac's line appears in text, it's even worse (better) to hear Corey Burton's flat-affect delivery running through what sounds like a metal tube to reach you. It's so... final. No wonder Jor-El looks so doomed. The way Brainiac delivers it is cold and uncaring--and even evil--but matter-of-fact.

Now, after Brainiac says that, two guards come into frame, but notice the framing. Each movement in the shot necessarily creates a new composition, but notice how consistently well-composed each stage of the action is on its own:

First we have an angle on a defeated Jor-El.

Then the left guard steps in.

Then the right guard, immediately after.

One of them shouts freeze...

and then Jor-El turns, startled. See how the shot still looks great, even though some of the angles have changed throughout?

The guards lower their weapons upon recognizing Jor-El, and say, "We received an alert from Brainiac. There's an intruder."

Brainiac: "He's the intruder. Arrest him."

It's cut back to the two soldiers by this point, but it's only the right one, as the left one at-eased his stance right out of the frame when it cut to a different angle.

This setup still looks good, particularly when Jor-El is all "uh-oh." This is the kind of sequence that seems like it would be way easier to do in the 1.33 Academy ratio (i.e., fullscreen), which is what Superman: The Animated Series is drawn and shot in (if you have a widescreen version, either your picture is stretched or you're missing part of it at the top and bottom). The soldiers are able to enter the frame suddenly and take Jor-El (and the viewer) by surprise, and they're visually close enough to him once they do enter that they are creating sharp angles towards him. A shot like this isn't impossible in widescreen, but it seems to me, a non-professional, like it would take more time to get right.

Anyway, the guards look at each other, sharing a brief moment of surprise, but that's all Jor-El needs to effect his escape. He brushes past them, pushing them into each other (which is SUPER RUDE, Jor-El), and runs back out into the long vertical tube that we saw in the last update. Then he gets a hoverbike:

So there's a chase, and Brainiac tells more security people that Jor-El is armed, and the use of deadly force is advised. Jor-El manages to lose his pursuers. Brainiac sets a trap for him that is somewhat inconsistent and looks like either miscommunication between animators or a tiny bit of flubbed execution, but either way the trap doesn't work: it's just Jor-El's smoking hoverbike.
It's a filthy habit

I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't at least point out an obvious reference: one of the guards, looking at the wreckage, says, "Great Rao," which was an oath Superman used in the Silver Age comics (and sometimes still uses). Rao is the red son of Krypton and the solar deity worshiped by the Kryptonians. That's as far as my own knowledge gets me. Looking at what the internet is telling me that before the Nu52 (yes I know that looks stupid: it deserves to look stupid, like "nu-metal"), it had been revealed that "Rao" was basically the Judeo-Christian God on Krypton. So there you go. Reference explained. Next time we tackle the mystery of the Caesar in "Great Caesar's Ghost!"

Anyway, Jor-El faked them out. So Brainiac re-locates him, and sends the guards after him.

Meanwhile, Jor-El is near a window, trying to shoot it with his laser beam, which cracks the window but sputters out before it can finish the job.

Jor-El pulls back the slide, and can we just talk about how much thought this show put into this space laser design? It doesn't have some percentage number that would require the viewer to ask, "Wait, why are they using Earth numbers and symbols?" and it doesn't flash the word "EMPTY" for similar reasons.

Instead, it's a neat little bar that's accessed by pulling the slide forward. It blinks red when it's out. It's like the way some of the Blackberry phone keyboards worked, except this product probably has a longer shelf-life. The only thing I don't understand is that it appears that Jor-El's fingers are not on the grip in that other shot, but they are now. Probably a coloring error.

The gun isn't working, and the guards are closing in--you can see their shadows on the wall--so Jor-El just grabs the closest thing at hand (a globe) and tosses it through the window, then jumps through the hole in the glass and slides all the way down the building like a smoother version of this Jackie Chan stunt...

He's the little speck.

and then he tumbles to a stop at the end. And man, he looks rough.

If you look, you can actually see blood dripping from his mouth. Blood. In a children's cartoon. This isn't the first nor the last time the DCAU will get away with this, but it is still noteworthy, and in fact it's noteworthy every time it happens. Usually Broadcast Standards & Practices (BS&P) is all over that. The showrunners must have had a convincing argument ready, like "This is the only way Jor-El can get out of this building, and we're using it to show the consequences so that this isn't an imitatable act." (BS&P is always concerned with imitatable acts on kids' shows, and not, it must be said, entirely without reason.) Because usually blood on kids' shows, even TV-Y7FV shows, doesn't fly, although the DCAU has a history of getting away with things that other shows probably wouldn't (and I'll be pointing them out as we go along!).

So Jor-El hides from another convoy of guards and then he limps home, and the animators do a great job of selling the limp.

Back at the El House, Sul-Van is going over Jor-El's data himself, and is finally admitting that there just might be something to his theory after all as Lara brings him drinks.

And man, I love these drinks. They're in test tubes, to emphasize the science-ness of Krypton. It's a nice little semi-subliminal thing.

Anyway, Jor-El staggers in, giving us some nice framing opportunities from Jor-El's side:

...and I'm pretty sure he's supposed to look much more in shadow than he actually does, because everyone talks normally for a few seconds and then he steps forward, into slightly more light than he's already in, and mutters that "it's too late," and then people react. Lara rushes to her husband and Sul-Van says, "Good Lord!" but still does it in a way where it's clear that on some level he thinks he's above having these sorts of things happen around him. It's some nice voice acting.

Jor-El is still bleeding from the mouth, and he says that Brainiac tried to kill him. And this is where it gets difficult for me because there's really no good place to just stop and take a time-out to discuss the characterization of Jor-El and Lara in this post, but it will actually work out really well if I push it over to the next update, I think. If it doesn't end up working out I'll just make it my next post as a sort of "here's what's up so far" deal. It's difficult to talk about things in one part that have effects in the other two thirds of the three-parter.

The police will be here soon. Remember what I told you what we'd do if worse came to worse?


I'm sorry. I never thought it would come to this.

Come to what? What are you talking about? What's this nonsense about Brainiac?

 Sul-Van, if you love your grandson, and care one whit about his future, you'll kindly shut. Up.

And then, before anyone can access citizenkane_slowclap.gif on his or her smartphone, we cut to Lara in Kal-El's room. She uses a little sleeping-ray device on him and picks him up in her arms and says some motherly things that almost don't work but totally work because the actress hits the intonation right.

This is almost where the whole thing gets heartbreaking.

Not quite yet, though, because Sul-Van's still arguing with Jor-El. He thinks Jor-El's nuts to send his kid to another planet, because apparently (Sul-Van thinks) there's a chance that Krypton could still make the saving throw. Or maybe it's just that Sul-Van's automatic reaction appears to be to object to any idea Jor-El has. The latter is probably more likely; we've already established that he is an asshole.

Anyway, Jor-El reminds us why he has the rocket ready for his plan, which could be read like he's taking the time to just passive-aggressive the crap out of Sul-Van if you have a low opinion of Jor-El, but honestly, Jor-El's just concerned about his kid and wants to make sure the viewer is at least on the same page as the characters. While they're discussing this, we cut to a shot of Lara stepping out onto the balcony and holding Kal-El, looking down at her husband and father-in-law arguing.

This shot's in here to 1) shake things up a little, and 2) to establish where Lara is spatially, because in a second she's going to be coming down the stairs and on the floor with Jor-El. These little details are important. If this shot isn't here, it would just be too abrupt when she comes back down. At least, that's what I think.

Anyway, the police are here! And Kryptonian houses are very big on the "window" component, so after Jor-El gets Lara we get a really nice action-y shot of them running through sweeping lights:

Jor-El tells Lara to start prepping the rocket. Lara says she can't do it all by herself, and Jor-El assures her that he'll be back after he leads the police away from their house. Sul-Van enters the frame like a jerk and says, "Lara, please! This is madness!" (do not reference 300 in your head or out loud). Lara replies, "Father. I love you dearly, but this is my baby's life." Sul-Van says that Jor-El can't outrun the police, and Lara asks if he has a better idea.

So then there's a little chase scene with the police, but it turns out they were chasing Sul-Van, a duplicity that ends with a subtly-impish Sul-Van saying, "Good evening, officers. Is there a problem?"

Now is when the episode gets heartbreaking.

Lara gently places a little box into Kal-El's rocket (we'll see it again soon), then kisses her fingertips and rests them lightly on Kal-El's forehead for a brief moment. Jor-El says that he's "got the hyperspace coordinates locked in. Once he gets to Earth, he'll be safe." In this version, clearly Jor-El intended his son to go to Earth all along, instead of just randomly firing off a rocket. This "Jor-El selected Earth" idea has been around for a while. Notice the ring on the floor; it will come up in a second.

Lara looks at the rocket. A tear runs down her cheek.

Jor-El says that if she wanted, he could alter the calculations a little to try to fit both of them in there. He says it's risky, but if he had enough time... Lara stops him, telling him her place is beside him. She presses the button which starts the launch procedure. A small protective blast-shield rises up from the ring in the floor. It will also serve as a handy visual trick of sorts: the design of the shield makes it look like the two are standing in a spotlight:

We cut back to Brainiac Central for a moment. "Patrol's reporting in," one of the guards says. "Jor-El's escaped their perimeter." He turns to Brainiac. "They're requesting further instructions."

Brainiac: "It doesn't matter anymore. Farewell, Krypton." His screen shuts off and the place is plunged into darkness.

Above the planet drifts a Braniac satellite--either the one we saw at the beginning of the episode or another one just like it. The Brainiac symbol on it glows and it detaches and races away.

On Krypton, an earthquake starts. "Not another one!" says one of the policemen. "No," says Sul-Van, finally understanding. "The last one."

Then the music (which is fantastically done) gets even more emotional--but it doesn't crowd the viewer out at all, it invites him or her in--and we see the rocket prepare to take off. Lara clutches Jor-El as he says good-bye and then presses the ignition button.

The propulsion system ignites.

The rocket speeds into the sky. From their home, Lara and Jor-El watch until they can no longer see it.

They kiss.

 Krypton rumbles and tears.

There are glimpses of buildings toppling, the whole planet swirling, jets of green erupting into the sky, past the atmosphere.

Kal-El's rocket almost gets caught by one, but passes through. The mindless vessel carries him out a little farther, and then opens up a wormhole as pieces of the planet float beside it, coming along.

A few frames of Kal-El's face, and the episode closes.

Click here to proceed to the next installment!

1 comment:

  1. Fuck you Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for being so good.


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