Wednesday, May 14, 2014

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

Written by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini
Directed by Dan Riba

All S:TAS Posts  |  Introduction  |  Next Installment

We start off with a neat minute-long theme song (I'm sorry that whoever uploaded that otherwise nice-looking version of it was an idiot who stretched the frame out) that includes the most dramatic part of this episode right at the beginning. It's a little long, but if it's your first time watching in a while, you don't mind so much, especially if you didn't like Hans Zimmer's music in Man of Steel. I guess minute-long theme songs are a thing on kids' shows for some reason (the more I think about it, the more examples come to mind), and the music is good. Unlike the animated Batman, which used the Danny Elfman movie theme for its intro, Superman gets a new one, courtesy of the late, great Shirley Walker (who also worked on Batman), and while it's not John Williams, there's actually a lot I like about it and a few things I even prefer. The theme song also gives you tons of shots which say, "This is what Superman is about." It does get to you when watching these all in a row, though. At least if you're impatient like me. Also, I don't think they ever update the clips, so it's always shots from like, the first five episodes only.

A really nice touch in the theme song is that (like Batman: TAS) nowhere does it display the title "Superman." It lets the iconic S do all the talking. The last shot is Clark Kent pulling apart his shirt (what would a Superman theme song be without that?) to reveal the S--

--then the screen drops to black as the camera pulls in toward the S and eventually passes through it. Or maybe it's the S that's moving. Whichever it is, it looks neat.

The first shot in this episode is of the planet Krypton and a Brainiac satellite orbiting it (although the Brainiac icon is not visible for very long--it's easy to miss so that when you re-watch it you go "Oh!"). This shot establishes 1) there is a planet, and 2) there is some sort of satellite. It will be important to know these things.

The second shot is of a man (Jor-El, but you don't know that for sure yet) in a hovercar sort of thing going over the ice (this might be a reference to Jor-El being credited with the invention of the Kryptonian hovercraft in the comics). Then there are more shots of that same thing. They show alien animals to establish that we're probably not on a version of Earth where hovercars exist, but are in fact on an alien planet. To be honest, I think some of this stuff could have been cut.

The man steers his hoverthing into a hole in the ice, and goes down and down until he finds his workstation:

His little hoverthing docks with the structure, and then he sends a probe into the hole (no jokes, please) you see in the picture. Almost immediately after doing this, there is an earthquake. Snow falls.

The man examines the data and looks concerned. However, there's no time for that, because an amoeba monster which was frozen in the ice is now bent on revenge or something!

This is probably my least favorite part of the episode so it's good that they get it out of the way quickly. I understand why it's there: you're asking a lot of your audience, especially kids, to invest in a 22-minute period without Superman. So you want to throw in an action sequence or two. One of the rules in the writers' bible for Batman: The Animated Series was that every episode had to have a "set piece" in the third act--a spectacular showdown or confrontation of the kind that would really stretch the skill of whatever animation studio was doing it (if it was AKOM, it didn't take much). One of the reasons the Batman in Batman: TAS is so great is that he has that spectacle side to him, much like an adventure hero, but he is also the brooding detective and relentless physical crime-assaulting machine. The only Batman he's not is the Dick Sprang/Batman '66 kind. Superman borrows that set-piece style structure and uses it to great effect. This is an adventure Superman: the man gets things done. At the same time, as we shall see, he is also a cerebral Superman. The strive towards the "iconic," used so successfully in Batman, can be found in Superman as well, and it really benefits its titular character (more on this later).

So they decide to throw a mini-set piece into the beginning of this episode, to get kids interested right off the bat because Superman hasn't showed up yet. Unfortunately, it's not a great set piece--it's just Jor-El fighting a space leech. There will be other small set pieces spread throughout the episode, and they're actually pretty decent, and very cleverly spaced and plotted and integrated into the episode. This one, though, is just kind of there, wasting time. Again, I understand why it's there, but I wouldn't miss it if it was absent. At the same time, I know that if I'd seen the episode as a kid I'd be convinced that this was an exciting show just from that alone. It certainly isn't so clumsily done that it's very noticeable.

However, one other thing the scene does is demonstrate that Kryptonians are not super-powered on their home planet, an issue which comes up in the next episode, and the first three episodes were aired as one episode when they first came out (more on that later).

One of the really interesting things, which is significant of much of the show's outlook and methodology, comes after that. Jor-El walks into a room with a computer and calls it "Brainiac."

Brainiac was apparently originally just some robot guy from a random planet in the Superman comics, and he had picked up the habit of shrinking cities and putting them in bottles and just generally being a robot. Eventually he did more stuff, but comic-Brainiac is very different to what I thought comic-Brainiac was from watching this show and extrapolating. Just from a cursory overview, I feel like something is missing from comic-Brainiac. But that's because I'm coming at it after seeing animated-Brainiac.

Even if you disagree with me about comic-Brainiac (and again, I'm not making any claim to being completely informed about the comics here) the way the show's writers incorporate Brainiac is still a very good idea, and one that hadn't been used before in the comics. My point isn't that one is better, is' that what the show's writers did here was really clever and efficient. For this review, I'm going to leave my vague, distant impressions of comic-Brainiac by the wayside and just talk about what is objectively different in the animated version and why I think it works so well.

Whether or not the various previous Brainiacs were compelling, the animated Brainiac definitely is. Batman: TAS transformed Mr. Freeze from a clownish C-rate villain into an interesting character, and Superman similarly elevates Brainiac (and some other villains). The show's approach of streamlining and condensing (and sometimes changing or ignoring) all the representations of a character into one iconic, dramatically interesting vision is here from the first episode.

Jor-El has a brief conversation with Brainiac. In the span of about thirty seconds, we learn several things. Here's the dialog.

Good afternoon, Jor-El.

Brainiac. What an unpleasant surprise.

I'm awaiting your data.

Have you been spying on me with your satellites again?

The Planetary Council demands that I analyze your data as soon as you obtain it.

You know, Braniac, somewhere in those trillions of file clusters there's got to be one that says that people don't like being spied upon.

Then why did they create me?

A question I often ask myself. Transmission sent; it's feeding time.

Data receieved. Ending transmission.

(Brainiac's screen shuts off)

You're welcome. Glutton.

It's not the first lines of Hamlet--some of the dialog here is a little clunky and awkward--but in that short span of time we learn that:

1. Brainiac is probably an omnipresent AI in Kryptonian daily life.
2. The Planetary Council is a thing that exists, and an organization that Jor-El is apparently subordinate to, and they trust Brainiac, probably definitely more than they trust Jor-El.
3. Jor-El does not like Brainiac.
4. Brainiac is a creep who spies on everyone, particularly with satellites.
5. Brainiac's attitude, and the reason he gives for spying on people, seems dangerously close to one of those movie AIs who misinterpret Asimov's laws or whatever, so the audience should be even more suspicious of Brainiac than Jor-El, or at the very least agree that something is up. Because the show conveys that sense, Jor-El doesn't seem like such a jerk.
6. Brainiac seems to have some sort of thirst for information, according to Jor-El's "glutton" comment.

That is a very efficient use of screen time. Well done, show.

Then there's a sort of jarring edit (I think it has to do with the timing and when the music starts) and we see, for the first time, Kal-El.

Jor-El is instantly cheered up at the sight of his son. Kal-El wanders off, and then Jor-El greets Lara, his attractive wife with an attractive accent.

They talk about how long they've been out here in the snowy part of Krypton while Jor-El did his research, and how Jor-El will go over the data when he gets home. Lara is worried the data will "support [Jor-El's] theory." Jor-El tells her that "the truth can only help." She stares out at the Kryptonian landscape and says, "Oh, Jor-El. Such a beautiful world, even up here. It's hard to believe it could all come to an end."

So as they leave the frozen landscape, we have learned in that last bit that Jor-El is a devoted father and husband, that he has a "theory" that, if correct, means that the planet is unstable, and that Lara knows about this theory. We also learned the names of Jor-El's family members (at least, all the ones we've seen so far). And we learned that Lara has a great accent. This show does not like to waste time if it can help it.

We cut to the home of Jor-El and Lara. Jor-El types some things into a computer and watches a holographic projection of  Krypton blow up. He looks up at the sun, and then we cut to a different part of the house (another rough edit), where Sul-Van, Lara's father, is talking about how if Jor-El doesn't shut the heck up everyone will think he's the worst. He points out that people already avoid Jor-El in hallways, that this will be the end of his scientific and political career, and that no one on the Council supports him. Sul-Van is on the Council.

Sul-Van is an ass

Jor-El walks into the discussion and Sul-Van accuses him of having "an ego the size of Argos," referring to a planet that we will see later in the series. Jor-El makes it clear that he thinks Sul-Van's the one with the ego problem, saying, "I never let my ego get in the way of the facts." Then there's a shot of Kal-El playing with a very Krypto-looking dog.

At the end of the episode, the dog is not in the rocket with baby Kal-El. You can assume that Jor-El just sent Krypto to Earth off-screen before the planet collapsed. I certainly do.

Sul-Van tells him that he had better hope Brainiac supports his theory or else it would be the end of his career, which tells us a lot about how dependent on this machine their society has become. I imagine Sul-Van goes running to Braniac to ask if he can go to the bathroom.

"Toilet Brainiac denies your request."

Immediately after that, an earthquake happens. It... gets pretty bad.


Sul-Van walks up to Jor-El and looks at him like it's his fault. "You'd better be wrong, Jor-El," he says--again, as if it's Jor-El's fault. "You'd better be dead wrong."

Then Jor-El meets with the Council, and this one shot tells you everything you need to know about the power dynamics of that relationship:

The Council asks Brainiac what he thinks. Again, there's a shot establishing the dynamics of the relationship.

Brainiac says that Jor-El put in a lot of effort, but is totally wrong, and maintains that the quakes are simply tremors caused by "a slight polar shift."

He's wrong! He doesn't know!

Nonsense! There's not a square foot of this planet Brainiac doesn't know!

Oh, wait, I... uh-oh, I just put something together.


Jor-El tells them, rightly, that their "faith in [Brainiac] will be the end of us all!" Jor-El reveals that he has a plan to save everyone if they act quickly enough. When asked, he reveals that his plan is to store everyone in the Phantom Zone.

This is actually a really smart idea, and as far as I know it's unique to the show. The Council refuses to recognize the brilliance of it, though, because the Phantom Zone is kind of where Krypton stores its most dangerous prisoners and it's not the safest place to hang out. To be fair to the Council, Jor-El doesn't really have an answer for that, but to be fair to Jor-El, A: Kryptonians don't have superpowers, especially not in the Phantom Zone, so it's not like the entire non-convicted population of a planet couldn't beat the shit out of every criminal in there, and B: the Council probably just wants to avoid the hellish experience that is the Phantom Zone (more on that later in the series) and so they're being total babies about it. It would be a lot harder to blame them for that if they weren't rejecting a solution that could save everyone.

For anyone who doesn't know what the Phantom Zone is, it's basically a dimension. You have to have a Phantom Zone projector to access it, though, and the projector must be operated from outside the Phantom Zone, making the Zone an incredibly effective jail. It's also, as mentioned, a hellish experience.

The Council walks out, not listening to Jor-El as he explains that if you just left one Kryptonian out, it wouldn't have to be permanent, because you could put that one Kryptonian in a rocket and send him or her to a planet where he or she could use the projector to bring back all the non-convicted Kryptonians. This actually adds a couple more points in favor of his plan. For example, C: we see later that the rocket has a wormhole generator to shorten travel time, so Jor-El is talking about a matter of, say, weeks-ish at the most, provided they picked their destination wisely and plotted the course safely.

What's brilliant is that this explains why Jor-El had the rocket ready, why no one tried this solution (answer: the Council sucks), why the rocket could only hold Superman (well, it could have held Lara too, but she didn't want to risk it), and why Superman has a Phantom Zone projector when he gets to Earth--it was in the ship with him! (Superman having the Phantom Zone projector, obviously, opens up several story options: that's why, as a writer, you want him to have it).This little plan of Jor-El's nicely catches up about three or four threads and weaves them in all at once.

So Jor-El goes home and sees his son playing without a care in the world. He picks him up. Kal-El is holding a baby rattle shaped like a rocket, which here is a little too on-the-nose for my taste.

Lara comes up and asks, with her attractively-accented voice, if Jor-El thinks they'll be able to "get the baby to bed early." Jor-El says he has to go investigate this Brainiac business instead of putting Kal-El to bed early so they can have some private time. Lara... does not take this well. Clearly it has been a while. They argue.

Jor-El insists that Brainiac's lying. Lara points out that "he's a machine," to which Jor-El replies, "He's still lying. I have to know why." Lara asks Jor-El if it ever occurred to him that maybe Brainiac was right and he was wrong. At some point in this argument, Kal-El starts crying. Lara tells Jor-El to find out once and for all, because she's tired of his theories being "more destructive than you can imagine." In short, their discussion does not end on a good note.

Notice how great that pose is on Jor-El: still defiantly standing alone, against the horizon, but the tilt of the head and its angle to the viewer (a profile of the head hides half the face, so it can make people look withdrawn) make it clear how unhappy he is about it.

There's an establishing shot of a building, then a secondary establishing shot where the camera tilts down a long vertical corridor. This is Brainiac Central.

We see what appear to be (and in fact are) security officers riding hoverbikes throughout. Jor-El sits at a console and activates Brainiac. Again, we see a contrast in size, reminding us which of the two has the superior resources and social standing.

Additionally, there is as small an area of floor under and around Jor-El as possible, further isolating him and placing him in a position where he will have to tread carefully. It also calls back to the little hovercraft docking place from the beginning of the episode:

Jor-El is trying to find answers here just as much--maybe more--as he was there.

Brainiac asks Jor-El what he's up to and Jor-El says he's "just trying to find out why we disagree." "Human error, I'm afraid," replies Brainiac. Jor-El notes that Brainiac is denying him access to the satellite comm data, which Brainiac explains is because he's temporarily moving around some security file clusters. Uh-huh, Brainiac. That's as believable as when my computer tells me it "needs" to update. Jor-El says he's going to try to work around the block, and after he begins attempting to do so, Brainiac shuts off power to his console. Jor-El uses an elevator to ascend to the bottom floor of Brainiac Central, and we get another shot that's a long vertical tilt, reminding us that there are security guards still here.

Jor-El places his (gloved) hand onto a little scanner (maybe his glove has a microchip in it?). Brainiac's voice replies, "Access denied." Jor-El's eyes narrow. "I don't think so," he says, drawing a gun.

Aaaaaaand that's where we'll stop for now. This took way longer than I intended, so I'll finish up with Part I tomorrow. I'll talk about the portrayal of Jor-El, the portrayal of Lara, how Brainiac provides a good story, and whether/why this part of the story needed to be told at all. Thanks for reading!

EDIT: I only ended up doing about half of that; these things always turn out longer than I expect. I'll talk more about Jor-El and Lara in another post after I've finished the three-parter.

1 comment:

  1. Yessssssss, some thorough criticism to go along with Fred Clark's Left Behind articles.

    Also, man, I can't think of a character more screwed over by the mass media than Superman. I know a lot of people in my age group who think the character sucks, and they have good reason to think so: both recent movies and two live-action television shows have dropped the ball so hard.

    -Daniel Link/David Merrick


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