Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Superman: The Animated Series, Season 1 Ep. 3: The Last Son of Krypton, Part III (A)

Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba, Bruce Timm

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The good news first: I have storyboards for the opening sequence!

Okay, now for the bad news: I have been feeling really sick recently and I think I'm coming down with something. I didn't want to go without an update for the next day, so I'm going to write up as much of this episode as I can before I need to start crawling into bed to try to head whatever-this-is off at the pass, and I'll schedule this post for publishing just in case I end up oversleeping.

Anyway, when last we left our hero, he had dodged a missile so successfully that it flew off in another direction and ended up hitting a plane's wing. Superman was... not thrilled about this turn of events.

The plane rescue sequence in Superman Returns was justly praised, and is one of the few universally-admired things in that movie. That being said, there's one aspect of the animated plane-rescue that I prefer. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I think it's that the plane is closer to the ground and so Superman has to worry not just about saving the plane and the people on board, but about keeping everyone in the city safe as well. Don't get me wrong, the plane scene in Superman Returns has a different goal in mind, and it's still probably one of the best "Superman rescues people" scenes in live-action. I just like that the animated plane sequence has that added dimension.

In case you're wondering what the best "Superman rescue" is in the comics, I actually wouldn't pick any sort of big action set-piece (though again I am far from the foremost expert on comic-Superman). I think this one is the clear choice to lay odds on (from All-Star Superman by Morrison and Quitely). I'm not going to lie to any of you: I tear up or cry every time I read that. It's even better in context.

Anyway, at this point in his life Superman, it becomes clear, has never really had to stop a plane before. We know this because he goes right for the tail and tries to hold the plane back by pulling on it, which, as anyone can tell you, is the classic mistake of a first-timer.

Of course, the tail of the plane breaks off instead.

Superman berates himself with a biting "Nice one, Clark." Then he heads to catch up with the plane.

It's just three words, but it accomplishes a lot and I love it so much. Tim Daly's delivery is spot-on (I'll be talking more about Daly's voice-acting soon--I've got a whole series to cover here, I don't want to say everything at the beginning), and it's just a great little character moment. It really humanizes the super-human. I don't think I'd ever heard Superman talk to himself in the middle of a rescue before (I certainly can't think of anywhere else).

In the storyboards for this sequence (done by Butch Lukic), the tail of the plane doesn't break off: it's going too fast for Superman's fingers to do anything but dig grooves into it.

So Superman flies up to the front of the plane, and we get a nice shot from inside the cockpit--though if you look closely, you can see that somehow the co-pilot's monitor is basically a hole in the plane, showing the passing cityscape. It looks like a greenscreen mistake, but since as far as I know you don't need to do much chroma keying in cel animation, I think it's just a part of the plane that someone forgot to paint, leaving a transparent patch.

Though actually, now that I look at it even more closely, it looks like almost every button on the console has the same problem, along with some panels on the top of the cockpit interior. Maybe they were all on a separate cel that someone forgot to put down.

Superman realizes that he's going to need to try to steer the plane away from the buildings, so we see him struggle to force the nose into a turn, saving a window-washer in the process.

That Superman has to struggle here brings up a very interesting discussion about how strong Superman is or is not in this show, but like I said I'm feeling sick and I just know that is a road that will lead to easily 500 more words at least. I'll find another place to talk about it.

For now, I'll just say that the Superman on this show has to visibly spend more energy than probably any other Superman, and that's not a criticism, just an observation.

In the Superman Returns plane-rescue, you never really get the sense that there's a chance he won't be strong enough. The chance is that he may not have enough time. This Superman has a lot more difficulty with the plane itself. As far as I remember, movie Supermen are not really shown struggling very much (unless there's green Kryptonite around). Feats of super-strength are more taxing for animated Superman. There's nothing wrong with that, I think both versions work equally well. But they do require a slightly different approach to set-pieces. Unfortunately, that is one of the things I don't have the energy to talk about right now. Now, I'm not saying I'm a hero for valiantly struggling to write a blog post, but I can really identify with Superman in the above image. And the one below.

 The window-washer bit, seen in storyboard form:

It's almost exactly the same except, I believe, for an added shot of the window-washer in the final product. If I were writing this post under normal conditions I'd stop everything and go back to double-check, but I'm too worn-out, though I might come back later and correct this if need be. (Part of that sentence was originally written as "I'd go everything and stop back to double-check." I almost didn't catch it before calling it a night. Man I am tired.)

This next bit, with people in front of a bookstore, isn't in the storyboards I have. I really like this shot, and I'll tell you why. When you first watch the episode you're watching it as a whole--looking at the behavior of a crowd. When you watch it closely, though, and look at the behavior of individuals, there's actually a really nice little moment here, and another example of the amount of thought and detail put into these shows.

We see this couple (let's call them Reginald and Tina) meeting in front of a bookstore.

Different people in the crowd react at different times, so one of the people who's seen the plane is too busy panicking to realize that he's about to back into the oblivious couple. Once he does bump into them, Reginald glares at this disrespect of personal space:

And as the person who bumped into them takes off, Reginald's glare and Tina's gaze follow him off the screen:

And then they join the growing number of people who realize what's going on.

That part with the person bumping into them is brilliant, and Reginald and Tina react exactly the way that people react to being jostled by strangers in real life. And remember, it was more work to do this part than it would have been to just animate the couple hanging out until they realize the danger. This is a series full of nice touches.

Superman has, by this point, managed to level out the plane, and is guiding it as much as he is able to towards what I'll just go ahead and call a park, even though it's not labelled in the show (though it is in the storyboards).

The plane starts crashing through the trees, and it's clear Superman won't be winning any awards for landscape preservation, but getting the key to the city isn't a bad trade-off. Not that Superman is in this for the rewards.

We cut to a couple out in a canoe on the lake. I like to imagine the guy brought her out there to propose and he's just about to pop the question, but I have absolutely no reason to think that.

Anyway, we start from a point of view that will allow us to pan up and see the approaching danger (note the tall storyboard panel at the bottom left), which is more economical than cutting between two different angles. It's a lot smoother. That part is in the storyboards exactly, although there's an added bit, which was needed, showing the couple diving out of the boat and the plane landing on the ground just past the pond. Maybe that bit was in the storyboards, but if it was I don't have it (as you can see above).

The part where Superman finally stops the plane is basically the same: once he gets to land, he digs his heels into the ground.

The plane still needs to burn off speed, though, so there's a really close call that results in a sort of visual gag with a mime.

The mime is doing mime stuff, with his back turned to the danger, and people start running away from him but he doesn't react, I guess because mimes are used to people running from them. Then he turns around to see the plane get right up to him, and he falls backwards in fright with a little "ahh!" sound. I don't really think it adds much to the sequence, but it doesn't hurt, either. The plane's doors open and the yellow slides roll out toward the ground.

Superman flies off into the air, a scene captured by someone holding a camcorder. There's a really nice transition here... but I'm afraid that's all I can manage for right now.

Yeah, sorry, I hoped I'd be able to carry on for longer but I'm feeling wiped out and I haven't even added the images to this post yet. I'm going to do that, schedule this post, and then try to rest for a little bit. Sorry this update was so short! Maybe I should have just waited until I could write more. I will try to make up for it with the next one (I definitely had some stuff I didn't get to talk about during this sequence), but this episode may just end up being reviewed in three parts. There are worse things.

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