Sunday, May 18, 2014

Superman: The Animated Series, Season 1 Ep. 2: The Last Son of Krypton, Part II (A)

Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini
Directed by Scott Jeralds, Curt Geda

Previous Installment  |  Index to All S:TAS Posts  |  Introduction  |  Next Installment

This episode opens with a very brief recap of events from the previous episode, and then launches right into the next part of the Superman origin: being found by the Kents.

In this version of the story, the rocket leaves hyperspace or whatever at some point just outside our solar system, and heads straight for Earth, getting a bit of yellow sunlight on Kal-El's face. Meanwhile, on Earth, the Kents are driving along in a pick-up truck at night. The rocket flies overhead.

A nice touch here is that the rocket has little auto-boosters on it that guide it gently to the ground, and that it lands in the shallow part of a pond/lake. This explains why no one started wondering what was up with a huge, unexplainable crater, and it also makes sense that Jor-El wouldn't design a rocket that couldn't land on its own. His kid's inside there, after all.

Either boosters on the rocket heat up the water in the lake and create a ton of steam, or the rockets turning off create a lot of smoke (the latter idea is supported by Jonathan coughing when he's looking around), or some combination of both, which lends a nice sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. Jonathan gets out of the truck, flashlight in hand, and says, "Holy Christmas! What was that?"

Martha Kent spots something in the pond and makes her way towards it.

As she gets closer she discovers that it's a rocket, and then walks up to it, which seems a little foolish on her part, since this is the Cold War and everything, but we'll give her a pass on that one. Perhaps it was just her motherly instinct. (I would have preferred that the rocket popped open to reveal Kal-El earlier or that the cockpit was transparent and she could see him from the edge of the lake).

Interestingly, in the first issue of Superman her name is Mary, not Martha (she's also called "Mary" in 1948's Superman #53, in a story I've seen credited to the unfortunate Bill Finger). Jonathan isn't given a name at all, and the Kents are described as "an elderly couple."

Man, this Comixology edition looks a little washed-out. I'm going to scan the panels in myself for the next post.

She's not called anything in the newspaper comics because I don't think the Kents are mentioned there even a single time. It's some random guy on a road who finds Kal-El (well, it would be "Kal-L" in the newspaper strip) and turns him in to a nearby orphanage, and then suddenly a panel or two later Kal-El's being called Clark Kent. In the novel, the 1940s serials, and the black-and-white TV show, the Kents were called Eban and Sarah. "Jonathan and Martha" were, thankfully, established in Action Comics #158 (1951). Interestingly, Batman's mother is named Martha as well.

The cockpit window pops open automatically. Martha gently lifts Kal-El out of the rocket and brings him up to where Jonathan is standing. Jonathan says a couple things to the effect of "You don't know where that thing has been," and they wonder if this is part of a Soviet or NASA experiment. "Do you think NASA's missing a kid?" Jonathan asks. And that's funny and silly, but honestly, that's probably the only thing he could think of. I mean the baby looks human enough, so your mind is obviously going to try to work with as sane an explanation as possible. And if you ask me, it seems more speculative than it does 100% serious.

I should point out that the Kents do a lot of moving in this simple scene. In cheaper shows, or anime, usually characters don't change positions or use as much body language as the characters in the DCAU shows, and this will be a level of detail kept throughout the series: characters move around when they don't, strictly speaking, need to, in the same way that flesh-and-blood people do. It's quite well-done. Each little movement is reflective of the things the characters are saying or talking about and the way they feel.

Anyway, Martha says that it's a child and it needs their help. Jonathan is slow to come around until she hands him the child. Jonathan comments on how strong the baby's grip is, and then we hear a sound like knuckles popping.

Martha takes the baby back, then starts brainstorming names as she heads back to the truck. Jonathan tries to keep Martha from getting ahead of herself. She runs through a list of K-sound names, and then decides to use her maiden name. "What do you think of..."

We then transition to a teacher calling out "Clark. Clark Kent!" as a Clark looks out the window at a passing bird, which is a nice little touch (he'll be really excited about flying later).

The teacher tells him that he's "daydreamed his way to another perfect score." A girl sitting beside him says that "once again, the boy genius performs to his usual standards." "And so did you, Miss Lang," says the teacher, putting down a paper with a red D-minus. "Ooh..." says Lana, for of course that's who it is.

This is a nice little way to introduce the name. For one, it's a neat dialog-based transition in the grand tradition of neat dialog-based transitions (the most famous is in Citizen Kane: "Merry Christmas..." / "...and a Happy New Year."). For another, we didn't actually learn Jonathan and Martha's surnames in the previous scene. Each called the other by first name, as you'd expect. The only way to introduce the surname at that point would have been to either follow them back to their home and focus on a mailbox that said "The Kents," which might have been a nice shot, but a waste of time, or for them to call each other by their surnames playfully, and that sometimes just comes off as aggravating or awkward or like you're in a fifties sitcom.

So you can kind of see the thought process here and how things fall into place when you're carefully plotting out a story. You think, "Hm, we want them to know Superman's full name as soon as possible. His friends at school would use his first name, and so would his parents... and dang, teachers usually do as well unless they're frustrated or trying to get a student's attention... oh, I've got it! We transition off of Martha saying they'll call him 'Clark' to a teacher trying to get his attention by using his first name and then his full name. So in order to do that, he needs to be distracted. Maybe he could be watching something out a window? Oh, how about a bird, that's a nice little tie-in to his eventual ability to fly."

Another point in favor of this method is that it moves them right into the world of Clark's school. If they had used, say, Martha calling him by his full name to get him up for school, that would have taken precious seconds away from the rest of the episode and delayed the point.

Okay, try this experiment at home: right after it cuts to Lana waiting outside the school, press mute and see whether or not you can tell what's going on and whether or not it's static and uninteresting or it's interesting, tense, and exciting. Go on, I'll wait. Un-mute it, like, any time you want, but try waiting until after Lois meets Clark (you can skip the flying scene). As you continue reading this post, see how much came through without the sound. When watching, pay close attention to body language and context.

Anyway, Lana is waiting outside the building after final bell, and once Clark walks out she catches up to him. And this is something that I think is really neat: Clark, after prompting from the self-described "girl who's had a crush on you since we were three," starts talking to her about what he's going through and how his abilities are heightened. (This is a point where I'm sure the gist of what was going on would come through, with the way Lana gestures to herself.)

And when you think about it, it makes sense. Depending on which comic you read, Superman is so strong because he was soaking up yellow sun rays all the time while he was a child, but this show is further adding the restriction of puberty, when the body's processes change/strengthen, as a secondary condition which must be met before Clark starts getting serious powers. This is in line with the 1939 newspaper comic strip, which stated that Clark only received his powers when he reached "maturity." This is good because we are able to join Clark in this period of discovery; he doesn't already know that he'll be receiving powers, so it makes sense that he would talk to someone (and therefore, us, the audience) about it. Notice how trusting he is: he doesn't know what's happening to him. As far as he knows, he's human. Of course he would talk to his friend about it. And it gives us some nice little moments, too.

Another point in favor of the "Superman only got his powers sometime when he was a teenager" version is that it avoids awkward questions like "Wait, when he was three, how did he play with other kids? Did he understand he had to hide his powers even then? At what point did the Kents say 'hide your powers?'"

That's not a conversation anyone needs to have with a kid Clark Kent, so just don't force it into the origin. You don't want his parents to be figures of secrecy and gloom; they should be figures of understanding and encouragement--people who encourage Clark to use his powers for the good of humanity. But a five-year-old Clark wouldn't be able to make that distinction, which would require the parents to at some point say "just hide your powers for now, kid," as they do in Superman #1. And that muddies the characterization of the Kents. So just don't make it necessary. To be fair, they also say he "must" use his powers "to assist humanity," which is getting a little too close to "Hey buddy, be Superman 'cause I said so" territory for me.

Siegel was just trying to get to the next panel, clearly.

"It's just... in the last few months, I've been hearing things. Things I couldn't before," Clark says. "Like over there--Jenny's telling Pete Ross her folks are going out tonight." This is followed by a neat little sort-of-zoom shot, a visual technique which mimics, essentially, what Clark's hearing is doing.

"That little tart!" exclaims Lana, immediately following with: "You heard that?"

"And I can see things, too. Like, in the gym..." Clark takes a moment to concentrate. "Miss Stevenson's inside, putting up decorations for the dance. Someone should really be holding that ladder."

I will say that as much as I love this show, I really don't think the "someone should really be holding that ladder" line should be in there, because 1) nothing comes of it, and 2) almost every time I watch it, I expect Miss Stevenson to fall from the ladder and Clark to run and catch her, but that never happens. If Superman notices a wobbly ladder, he helps out. On the other hand, Miss Stevenson doesn't end up falling, and Clark is a teenager and preoccupied. It just seems a little out-of-character. The best way to avoid any of this would just be to animate someone holding the ladder. The point of this moment is that Clark can see through walls, not that his teacher is lax about ladder safety.

This discussion of his abilities leads to one of the best "defining Superman moments" of all time, and I'm not joking. Lana asks, "You're saying, you can see through walls?" and then follows it up with a sly: "So, how many times have you peeked into the girls' locker room?" And Clark's reaction is a scandalized "Lana!"

Pictured above.

Now obviously, you can do that "press mute" experiment for any movie or show, but I'm wondering if you picked up on the sense of the locker room question, even if you thought it was Lana asking if Clark had ever tried it on her personally or just making some sort of off-hand remark along those lines. And even if you didn't, you can look back and see how there's enough information to make the guess that that's what's happening.

"I'm just kidding! Geez," says Lana, realizing she has shocked the poor lad. Chris Sims said once (or, more likely, several times: the dude writes a ton) that his friend defined Superman as "someone who could use his x-ray vision to look at girls naked but never does."

I should mention that throughout, Lana discusses these new, shocking abilities as if they aren't anything to be frightened about--as if Clark has just told her he learned how to juggle or make a perfect souffle--and it's clever, because you can interpret it two ways: either 1) she doesn't believe Clark but is humoring him because he certainly thinks these things are true and maybe there's a slight chance that he's right, or 2) she completely believes what he says because that is the kind of person Clark Kent is--if Clark is telling you something is happening, that something is indeed happening, and while it's shocking, her friend needs her to not flip out right now. Either way it's a great bit of characterization for Lana. It's hard to give "listening characters" any development when they're fulfilling that role unless you express it through how they respond, and this show eagerly takes advantage of that opportunity. Whichever way you read it (I prefer the second way), Lana comes off as someone who is a true friend and absolutely worthy of the trust Clark places in her. You also see how she deflects or softens problems with humor (like the locker room comment), which is a nice way of differentiating her from the show's Lois, who would probably just ask a bunch of questions.

Then the show completely kicks Man of Steel's ass. I'll go to it in more detail in another post, because right now I'm trying to focus on this show. Rest assured, however, that we will return to this topic. So Clark's new super-hearing picks up the sound of distress, and the way the show switches gears involves a great bit of framing and a skillful bit of musicking.

So this shot looks like pretty normal conversational-style blocking, as Clark finishes the line "I thought if anybody'd understand, it would be..."

But then, as Clark's head turns and his eyes narrow in response to what he's hearing, it becomes a dramatic shot because his face is now so close to the camera, dominating the frame. It's excellent, and a very smart conservation of movement.

Everything is in the same place, but suddenly the atmosphere is completely different, all in that one little shot. Of course, the music plays a large part in this as well, and it shifts gears just as skillfully. It's very, very well done, and I can't say enough good things about it.

So we cut to a camper which is out of control (gee, kind of like a certain bus in Man of Steel)--a tire blows out and it starts skidding off the road.

Clark leaps right into hero mode.

"Call an ambulance! There's gonna be an accident!" he tells Lana, and while she starts asking questions he shifts into super-speed and races off camera-right. It's, again, incredibly well done.


Look at all of the angles of action. Everything is dynamic, urgent, and accented. I'm sure you'd be able to tell almost exactly what was going on even if you muted it. (This was the point in writing this blog post at which I first thought of the "try muting this episode" experiment, if you're curious.)

Meanwhile, the camper has turned on its side and slid into an oil truck... which is filling up at a gas station (like the one that Superman thoughtlessly blew the hell up in Man of Steel).

So Clark races to the camper, but there's an explosion, and it knocks him back--you need to remind viewers that this is still difficult and challenging. He shrugs off his backpack and places it on the ground, then runs to the edge of the circle of flames and leaps up onto the camper.

He rips the door off and offers his hand to the couple inside.

He gets them to safety, but in true Superman/comic book fashion, it turns out there's a child in danger as well!

Clark has just gotten the couple to safety (notice how his body language conveys the idea of shielding them)...

....when he hears a little girl calling out from the camper.

He rushes back to her, rips the glass panel out, and then BOOM! another explosion; clouds of smoke.

Lana has reached the scene of the accident by now. "Clark...?" she asks. A figure emerges from the wall of flame.

It's Clark! And he's got the little girl!

The little girl reunites with her parents, and Lana runs to Clark, astonished that there's not a mark on him. Neither of them has a clue as to why that could be.

So we're only a couple minutes in and already Clark Kent has done a typical Superman thing--rescuing not just a couple but their child as well--and passed with full marks.

This show does get a little Smallville-y in that Clark is going through things--but here, he doesn't understand what's up. He's confused and upset, and a little weirded out by his own body. We've all been there (unless you are a child and you are reading this). With the way they set things up in this show, that's completely understandable because no one has any clue about his potential yet. What doesn't work in Smallville works perfectly here. Part of that is the context and the set-up that I just talked about, but a lot of it is skill. The angst is applied in a thin, watercolor layer, not a thick, clumsy slab of gouache. It is also a brief period, not ten seasons long. Superman doesn't need to be cheerful all the time, especially as a teenager, but the audience should always be rooting for him. When Superman is done right, people do NOT get sick of him. They want more. So if your teen Superman (or Superman at any age) is turning people off of the show or character, you've screwed up.

Luckily, as I said, this show is well-done, so that doesn't happen here. Instead he goes to his parents with his concerns, because he loves his parents very much and trusts them. First, Clark demonstrates his strength, and Pa Kent's response (this is great) is a low whistle of appreciation.

Then, Clark demonstrates his heat vision. At this point in the show, heat vision is portrayed by a slow zoom of Superman's eyes, and then a fun little beaming sound, and then whatever he's looking at melts.

There's none of the red laser stuff. That does happen later, though. When you're in the middle of a fight, cutting to his eyes really slows down the action and can become repetitive. I don't know if they wanted to never show red beams in order to illustrate that his heat vision is invisible, or if they always intended to switch over at some point once they were sure you understood. Either way, interesting choice, and it works. If they had kept doing the "cut to eyes" bit it would have been awkward. Smallville had an interesting interpretation (at least for the few episodes I saw) that was kind of an in-between: the heat vision had a sort of directional shimmer, like the air above a grill. In theory this was a good way to do it but in practice it never seemed to work out in any of the episodes I saw. The execution was clumsy, and they combined it with a weird fireball-ish effect, which kind of defeats the purpose of the clear heat-wave version. (Okay, after looking at Google Images, it appears the effect changed over time/was visually inconsistent. Great job, Smallville!) I don't remember what Returns did for its heat vision because I barely remember anything about Returns. I think it tried the "invisible heat vision" too, and it just looked boring and lame. But I could be unfairly biased in my vague memory because I thought almost everything about that movie was boring and lame.

So yeah, the show's approach of not showing a beam the first couple of times, along with dialog such as, "It's getting hot--all you did was look at it," and then later just using the visual as a shortcut is, I think, probably the best approach, so whether it was planned or not it all worked out.

There's a nice detail here where Martha steps outside and mentions that Lana just called for the third time that night. If all the things that happened to Clark in the last couple of hours happened to you, I'd imagine you wouldn't be sure how to talk about it with a witness-friend either. And if you were that friend, I'd imagine you'd be really concerned for Clark's well-being.

So Jonathan tells Martha that he thinks "it's time." And man, Jonathan is totally dedicated to being a dad, even though he was initially hesitant about the whole thing. I love that he has really taken to this parenting business.

So they take Clark out to the shed and unlock a large crate, which has apparently been here all this time and yet Clark didn't know anything about it because it had a lock on it and he doesn't like to pry. That's great. The crate turns out to house the rocket.

Martha tells Clark that "there wasn't much inside, just some blankets and--this," referring to the item we saw Lara place inside in the last episode. Jonathan correctly speculates that although they could never get it to do anything, Clark might be able to. Once Clark holds the device in his hands, it reads his DNA and begins activating and unlocking, represented by the famous S-shield lining up.

Whether or not this means that the show is going with the idea that the S is the El family crest, it is suggested that this is the reason for Superman's insignia, since there's really no other place it could have come from. Even if it's not his space-family's symbol in the show (like, say, it's the Kryptonian symbol for hope), it is a symbol which represents his space-family to him. And that's a nice touch. There are some people who just want the shield to mean "Superman." That will always be the primary meaning attached to it, but understand that it's usually not so much about forcing symbolism into it as it is giving Clark a reason to wear the S on his chest in his first appearance. It would be kind of cocky of him to call himself Superman.

So the thing turns out to be a little projector-box, with a pre-recorded message from his family.

Now, there is almost no one--no one--who is a greater fan that I of the deservedly famous summary-origin given in All-Star Superman:

"Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." Then BAM--the next page is in the present day, and Superman is flying in space.

All-Star Superman knows you know the story (the only notable difference from the usual pop-culture distillation is that Lara is also called a scientist). It doesn't need to waste your time. Superman can speak for himself.

Don't think the TV series disagrees--remember, nowhere in the theme song does it in fact tell you the name of the show or the main character, it just shows you the S--but there is a reason that they're spending so much time on the origin story. There's a couple reasons, actually.

The first is that they're doing a lot of different things, and setting up this future story with Brainiac. Brainiac originally had nothing to do with Krypton in the comics. I've already talked about how I like this show's take on Brainiac, and I'll talk about it again and in more detail as we go along, but that take on Brainiac means that they need to spend some time explaining what was going on, since even people who read the comics would be like, "Wait, Brainiac was invented by the Kryptonians? What?"

Additionally, they probably needed to fill a certain number of minutes (I'm guessing the idea was that in case the series wasn't picked up, this three-parter could be repackaged as a TV special or a direct-to-VHS movie).

Remember, too, that the comic books had a few different specific tellings of the origin story before Superman: The Movie offered another take, and the 1939 newspaper strips--not that anyone had those in a collected edition at the time--offered still another (which we will talk about). I forget what the official origin story was in the comics by the time this series aired in 1996, but John Byrne's Superman came out in the 80s, and that was one which really changed a lot. For example, Byrne tried to come up with a way for Superman to actually be "born" on Earth by way of some sort of "birthing matrix." It's a neat idea (if you can get past the weirdness of the "birthing matrix," which I'm not sure I can), but an unnecessary one. So if you're coming into the show in 1996 with the Byrne Superman in your mind, or even a question of whether or not that's the version this show is going with, Superman: TAS wants to make it clear that it is going back to (relative) basics. It has to take as much time to tell you what it's not doing differently from the "classic" version as it does to tell you what it is doing differently.

The last reason is that this is a show that is meant for children to be able to appreciate (I'm not going to say it's specifically "for children," because parts of it--including a fun moment in the next episode--are definitely for adults), and so for many of them it may be their first introduction to Superman. Even if they know the general outlines, this show wants its viewers to have a solid understanding of what and who Superman is going forward. The three-parter is basically just "Here's Superman, here's what his deal is." Remember, too, that these three episodes all aired on the same day, right in a row. If they had aired separately, I'd agree that an entire first episode without a glimpse of Superman was a little lame.

So now that that's out of the way, we need to talk about the other thing: Superman's biological parents show up after they die. This has been a huge problem with various Superman movies (namely I, II, Returns, and Man of Steel) and the Smallville show. Superman is a good person because his Earth parents raised him that way, not because Hologram Ghost Space-Parents tell him to be one so that he can be Comic Book Space Messiah.


And it's even worse if you include hologram Jor-El only because you found a bunch of parts on the cutting-room floor that you could kind of piece together for your movie.


It's like if you wrote a story where Peter Parker's dad recorded a video saying "Son, I know you're capable of great things. Always do the right thing. If you ever happen to have great power, know that with it must come great responsibility" and then, after Peter tracks down Uncle Ben's murderer, finding the video is what convinces him to be Spider-Man.

It's unnecessary, redundant, cheapening, and forced. It's hack work. I'd imagine it also really robs children growing up in non-traditional familes. Comic book heroes are all about fragmented, non-traditional families--back in the 1940s this was the case--and yet today we seem to be going backwards. In most of Superman's post-1970 appearances outside comic books, it's clear that you need to know what your real parents thought of you and wanted you to do, or else it doesn't count. And that's all a bunch of crap.

That being said, I feel like the parent-hologram actually works here, and there's a couple reasons for that, which we'll talk about in just a moment.

So the projector is basically like a holodeck, but beamed into Clark's mind.

Clark's surroundings are replaced with a room in his parents' house, where they are recording something that they hope will never be needed. It's unclear in the sequence if Clark's movements are also in his mind. Most of the time it appears they are, but then at the very end they are not. It's a little sloppy, but probably not something you'd notice the first time through.

So his parents tell him that that they're his parents, his name's Kal-El, he's an alien, and the yellow sun will give him powers. Also, that even though some people on the planet they're sending him to may fear him, he must "never use his powers in anger." At some point in this little conversation, Clark moves closer to his parents. When he was standing farther away it looked kind of like they were talking to him, but when he approaches them they keep staring at that same point in the distance.

It's a great touch and it really underlines that this is in fact basically a voicemail. It isn't an AI or anything of the sort. It is one-way communication and does not respond. It cannot hear Clark at all. It's a letter, not a phone call.

The message ends as Lara stretches out her hand. Clark tries to hold her hand, but he goes right through it.

As a nice transition (even though it muddles the "is he moving in his mind" question), the camera remains on Clark's arm as the message fades away and his surroundings fade back in.

So let's talk about the reasons why I think this works.

The first is that back in the previous episode, they planted the idea that launching Kal-El into space was always the fallback plan, so it makes sense that they'd want to record a little message.

The second is that that's exactly what this is--a message. It's not some weird Computer Ghost that is basically a full-fledged character in the story. That idea would be dumb, and stupid. In fact, as I mentioned above, this version goes out of the way to show itself as ultimately detached from any kind of notion that his parents are still able to contribute to the story in a meaningful way (the staring into the distance at the "camera," the hologram hand, the brevity of the message).

The third is that this is a very quick way to mention the yellow sun thing, which is important to know, and also a way to let Clark know exactly where he comes from and why he has powers. Otherwise I'm sure he'd feel a little lost and spend a lot of time trying to find an explanation. Basically, it's there because Clark needs to know what's going on in order to have some closure on the whole "WHAT IS UP WITH ME" deal so that we don't have to spend, like, an entire season on it. In the next episode Lois will interview Superman, and it would be kind of boring if all he had for her was just "I don't know anything about my history, I guess I just have powers for some reason. See ya."

Anyway, Clark is a little disturbed, and insists that he's normal and not a freak. In frustration and angst, he punches what I hope was not a load-bearing beam (he doesn't mean to break it) and leaves.

He runs across the countryside and jumps a gorge that I hope he knew he could jump. He steels himself up to jump it again, but this time, he flies. Immediately, he feels much better. There's a short-ish sequence of Clark just having some dang fun with this power, and then he comes back to his parents. The members of the Kent Family hug each other. "It's okay," Clark says.

And that's where we'll stop for now. Don't worry, there's only about eight minutes of the episode left; the next update won't be nearly as long.


  1. Aside from all the needless shitting on Man of Steel you're doing, this is a greatly entertaining series of posts so far, I particularly like the 'press mute' bit that's gotten me considering body language in the DCAU. Well done! :-)

  2. Thank you very much! I hope you continue to read it. There will probably be one more post where I explicitly compare the two, but I am certainly trying to examine Superman: TAS on its own merits and to avoid doing direct comparisons, even though part of me really wants to.


Your comments are always appreciated (sometimes), and possibly mandatory.

Also, I know the blog has been screwing up logins, so if you aren't able to login, please write a name or something at the end of your post. Or whatever.