Tuesday, June 3, 2014

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

Previous Installment  |  S:TAS Index  |  Introduction

If you're just now joining us, I'm currently examining every episode of the criminally under-discussed and under-appreciated Superman: The Animated Series, because I think it's the best moving-pictures version of the collective Superman mythos that has ever been done. Here is a link listing all of the posts so far.

Also, because I'm discussing certain animation touches in this post more than normal, I've added some .GIFs! There were some technical difficulties in doing this that delayed the post more than my being sick did. You'll notice that there are little black bars around the .gifs and that they look to be in a slightly squashed aspect ratio, which I promise bothers me more than it does you, but if I spent any more time trying to fix it I'd never get it done. Also, I set the .gifs to output at the frame rate of the source material so that they'd be as smooth and accurate as possible, and then I remembered that some browsers will slow .gifs down if they exceed a certain amount of frames per second, so they may look a little weird in, say, Internet Explorer.


We left off with Superman flying away after saving a plane, and there's a nice transition involving a man recording Superman. We're shown the footage as his camcorder is displaying it, complete with blinking red "REC." Then the show zooms in on the footage until you can't see the "REC" anymore, we hear Perry saying "freeze it!", and the show pulls back out and we're at the Daily Planet, where Perry, Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are watching the video. And the "pause" effect is done really well--and, again, like many details in this show, was not, strictly speaking, "necessary," but it really helps sell it.

"What is that?" Perry asks, gesturing to the screen.

"Looks like a flying guy," answers Jimmy. Perry swipes the remote from him in exasperation. Jimmy has now had his remote privileges revoked. Maybe next time he'll be more helpful.

"No kidding," says Perry. I'm so glad no one is making the viewer sit through a five-minute discussion about "No! It's just too unbelievable! Let's talk about how astonished we are and how impossible this is!" Instead, these are reporters, and if a man is flying, well, they're going to figure out what's what. It's a lot better than what most people probably would have written here, so much praise is due to Alan Burnett and Paul Dini.

Lois walks over to the screen, but notice how the show is careful to keep her in frame so that you always know where she is relative to everything else.

If instead it went, say, like this:

but the next shot was framed so that Perry blocked her...

and then we cut to her...

it would probably be a little jarring. It might not be, but why not keep the audience in the loop as much as possible?

I'm convinced this next little exchange only got past Broadcast Standards and Practices because it probably looked pretty innocent on the page:

Lois looks at the picture on the TV and says, very approvingly: "Nice S."

..."Excuse me?" asks Clark, mishearing her.

"Right here," Lois says, pointing. "He's strong, he flies--he's the Nietzschean fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape. ...Superman." I like that in this series, Lois is responsible for the name (I don't remember if she is in other interpretations), and that her reasoning is backed by an association with Nietzsche--something at odds with what Superman actually is. If the first conversation between Lois and Superman had happened before this scene, I'm not sure "Nietzsche" would have leapt to her mind so easily.

Clark repeats "Superman" in a tone which suggests that he is not sure what he thinks about all this. And don't worry, guys, I'll be talking about Tim Daly's work on the series in a second.

"Hey, I like it!" Perry says.

Notice, in this next image, the buildings in the background. They could have put more buildings in between the ones in the front and made it look more "New York"-ish. They didn't do that, and I'm guessing it's because they wanted to leave openings for you to see other distant skyscrapers, which emphasizes how BIG Metropolis is. If you imagine more buildings between the ones in the front, you'll realize it would actually take something away from the shot, even if it did make it more like the "reality" of downtown Manhattan. Also, because this show pays attention to detail, Perry's still holding the remote he snatched from Jimmy a couple shots ago--I probably would have completely forgotten about it if I was drawing the show.

Of course, if I was drawing the show it would look more like this:

Perry continues: "It's catchy, sticks with you... the kind of name that looks great splashed across three columns--make it four. Provided one of you can get an interview with him."

Perry's right about the name. No Superman movie or TV show should hold off on using the name "Superman." It's a great name! It's only corny if you make it corny. There are a lot of awkward or silly things in comics (villains whose names always seem to match up with their eventual accident or gimmick or accident-gimmick, for starters) but surely the name "Superman" is not among them. As Lois has established, it is a pretty reasonable name.

Perry talks about how everyone in town is freaking out. "Look at these faxes," he says, handing a few out to Lois. "If we don't get some answers soon, there could be a full-scale panic!"

There's a fun little bit where Jimmy tries to reach for some faxes too, and Perry puts his hand down to keep Jimmy from getting any of them. The movement is quick and the camera cuts almost right away, so it's not necessarily the kind of thing you'd notice on first viewing, especially because the first time through you're probably focusing on Lois, the center of the shot.

For some reason, this .gif turned out the worst. Sorry.

And by the way, look at how well everything is framed here. In this shot, you've got Perry, Lois, and Clark, and then Superman in the background serving as a visual reinforcement of the discussion. Additionally, Lois's position underlines her comfort and natural fit with this environment. Clark's position in the background emphasizes the idea of his being a bit of an outsider and observer. Remember, he just got hired about a day ago. So far, all of the shots in this scene have been framed so that when Clark is in the shot he is in the background or at the edge of the frame or both.

Then, after the camera pans to include Jimmy, everyone is still in frame. It's very careful staging/blocking, and it's even more impressive when you consider that this shot ends up fitting five (counting Superman) people into a 4:3 frame without making it feel too crowded.

Clark looks over Lois's shoulder at the faxes, and, off his expression (to put it in TV script terms), we fade to an article about Superman in a scrapbook. Clark is back home in Smallville. His mother tells him, "Every time we read a story about an invisible angel helping someone, we knew our Clark had to be nearby." The reason Clark is back home, it becomes clear, is that he is uncomfortable with all the increased attention, being called "Superman," and the idea that he'll have to cede his life to being "Superman."

He asks, "Does this mean I'm going to have to give up my life?" I'm not quite sure about that line, because I think some viewers could take it to mean that Clark resents helping people, and Superman genuinely wanting to help is pretty much the defining aspect of his character. If I could tweak it a little, I might prefer something like "Does this mean I have to give up being Clark Kent?" (Though I'm not saying my version is perfect.)

That being said, the dialog does a good job of conveying the sense that Superman and Clark Kent are two different things. (In later posts I'll be talking about this show's portrayal of the Clark/Superman dynamic.) So the line could be worded a bit more clearly (in my opinion), but it does all right, and this next part is quite well done, emphasizing that despite being born on Krypton, Clark is human: Jonathan tells him, "No, son. It doesn't matter where you were born, or what you can do--you'll always be Clark Kent. Superman just helps out now and then."

By the way, it's a nice touch that Clark doesn't wear his glasses when he's at home.

"Still, it wouldn't be bad if people knew more about Superman," Martha adds. "I don't want anyone thinking you're like that nut in Gotham City." Pa Kent looks thoughtful: "There must be some way to get the word out." Clark smiles, having figured out what to do next.

We transition to Lois driving a sporty-looking sedan and talking to Perry on her car phone, and the car phone actually doesn't seem outdated, since this series is set in a decade that is in some way every decade, like Batman: TAS or Archer. After a quick reference to S.T.A.R. Labs, which sets us up for seeing it later in the show, Lois hangs up the phone.

Suddenly, a voice speaks up, and even a voice as calming as Tim Daly's is still startling when it pops up unexpectedly in a moving car with only one occupant: "Excuse me, Miss Lane, I believe I'm the one you want to talk to," says what seems to be a disembodied voice. Lois's gasping/startled animation is great here:

It turns out that Superman is under her car--I guess he was waiting to speak until she'd finished her phone call? Superman is polite. It makes for a cool visual moment, so the reason is not a big deal. He lifts her car up out of the city and takes it to the outskirts of town, as seen in a nice little vertical pan.

Lois really seems to have taken the whole thing in stride by the time we join their conversation.

By the way, it makes a lot of sense that he'd take her out of town to talk about this. Superman feels uncertain about people seeing him right now, and he realizes he might scare some of them, so if he's going to be revealing personal details he probably would feel a lot more comfortable farther away from the city and its people. Additionally, his growing up in a farm on the outskirts of Smallville probably has something to do with his thinking of this location as safer and more calming.

And there's really no way for me to do justice to the voice acting in this one just by talking about it, but guys, Dana Delany and Tim Daly work really well together, both as Superman-and-Lois and Lois-and-Clark. For now, let's talk about this show's Superman.

Tim Daly's Superman is a "Big Blue Boy Scout" Superman. And my saying that might sound like criticism to some people, but trust me, it isn't. Most people think of the "Boy Scout" label as meaning he's corny or goody-goody (and to be fair Superman is kind of the latter, but without the pejorative sense), and I have definitely seen people use that nickname negatively. That being said, the Boy Scout comparison is totally accurate--just not for the reasons most people would imagine.

Let's think about what a Boy Scout usually actually is: confident and resourceful. When I picture a Boy Scout, I picture someone who could be stranded in a forest and escape by making a biplane out of branches and leaves, although I might also be thinking of MacGuyver, or the Professor from Gilligan's Island. My point is: if you're a Boy Scout and you're in the woods at night with your troop, then I'd imagine you feel a lot more secure than the campers in The Blair Witch Project. I mean, if a forest ghost shows up, big deal: you learned how to tie seven different types of ghost-catching knot in the first year. You are fine. And then when you leave the forest you help old ladies cross the street.

No joke: I think this is in one of the actual Boy Scout handbooks.

And a comparison with that sort of attitude is really the best way I know of to describe Tim Daly's work in this series: his voice is confident but gentle, self-assured but reassuring, dynamic but steady. He is a Boy Scout who is also a young Mr. Rogers: throughout the course of this show he says things that, coming from most other people, would sound too sincere, but coming from him they sound perfectly natural and believable, and you trust that he knows what he's doing. He will lead you out of the forest.

I'd like to think I've done a pretty good job conveying the kind of work Tim Daly does with Superman, but it's much better if you watch the conversation:

Daly's gentle, sincere Superman is a great contrast to Delany's tough, worldly-wise Lois.

The way this conversation is presented is interesting, because it seems like we're at the end of it, yet the dialog isn't really end-of-conversation as far as content goes, such as Superman saying he comes from the planet Krypton (I feel like that one would come up within the first couple of minutes). It's interesting--you rarely want characters to spend a lot of time telling other characters things that the audience already knows, so the way this scene handles it is:

1) It makes it seem like it skipped all the parts we already know (even though it hasn't) and like we're coming in at the end. This may have been a carefully calculated effect, it may have been a happy accident, or it may just be me who feels like that's the tone of the scene.

2) Lois's participation provides a direction to the conversation and adds something new to keep us interested ("How will she react to finding out he comes from the planet Krypton?").

3) It uses old information for a new purpose: to set up what the general public knows or doesn't know about Superman. It's also important to show he will not, and did not, reveal his secret identity (which is what Lois's question at the end is there, in part, to establish). In the next scene, Luthor reacts cynically to the "alien" being "civic-minded," but we'd miss out on that quick insight into Luthor's personality if the show's writers weren't able to justify his knowing these things about Superman's origins and mission statement. Fortunately, they were.

4) This scene isn't that long: it's only a few lines of dialog.

So let's go through this scene. It is, after all, the first conversation Lois and Superman have had together.

Superman tells Lois that he comes from the planet Krypton. Lois's reaction is a drawn-out "O... kay..."

"You don't believe me," Superman says, and I don't know whether the line was written as a statement or if Tim Daly chose to read it that way, but either way it's a good call.

"It's a little much," Lois replies. Superman thinks about this and nods. "Fair enough. All I ask is that you tell the truth about me."

"And that is...?"

"I'm not here to scare anyone. In fact, I've always tried to help people whenever possible." This is one of the types of lines that I said Daly is really good at delivering. It's a Boy-Scout-Mr.-Rogers line, along with some of the sense of the Biblical "be not afraid." (Not that I'm trying to imply that I necessarily buy into the "Superman-as-Jesus-allegory" idea, because that's a topic for an entirely different post.)

"You sound too good to be true," says Lois, and Delany delivers the line in a way that suggests she's had some experience with things that sound too good to be true. "What's your secret?"

"What do you mean?" Superman asks.

"Well, you don't go around in blue tights and a cape all the time, do you? What do you do in your off hours?"

When I first re-watched this episode in preparation for these posts, I got the distinct impression, beyond the line and the way it was delivered, that she was being flirty right here. You probably noticed it too. It wasn't until I watched through the episode for the final time to grab screencaps that I realized why that was:

Watch Lois's facial expression. Either the directors or an enterprising animator added a quick eyelash-flutter as she finishes speaking. In fact, I'm not even sure you could call it a flutter: it's just two successive blinks. It's probably subconscious on Lois's part; I'm not sure she's aware of how flirty she's being. Then again, maybe she is. And that's just a fascinating level of detail. I can't think of any other subtle-eyelash flutter in animation, and it's one of my favorite moments in this episode.

Superman deflects her query with, "I think that's a question for another time." And that's probably the best way he could have handled it. If I remember correctly, in the Christopher Reeve movies, people don't even realize Superman has a secret identity, so it kind of sucks for the animated Superman that this show's awesome Lois figured him out like that already. The best thing he can do is just avoid confirming that piece of information.

Lois watches him go, and we fade to a picture of Superman in the Daily Planet. We pull back from the newspaper, and it turns out that we're in Lex Luthor's office.

"Well, well, an alien in my own backyard... and such a civic-minded one, too," sneers Clancy Brown, perfectly. The man is a brilliant Lex Luthor and the only thing stopping me from talking more about him is that he's actually not in this episode very much. We'll talk about him more when we get to the episode "A Little Piece of Home."

"I think he means what he says, Lex," says Lois, walking into the shot (along with Clark). By the way, if Lois Lane is convinced that someone is being earnest and you're not, you are waaaay too cynical. Like, in an unhealthy way. You've exceeded the recommended EPA levels of cynicism.

So let's talk about what Luthor's doing in this scene. He's getting a massage. Before Lois walks into the frame, the viewer thinks maybe Luthor is talking to his massage therapist (as they prefer to be called these days, because it makes the off-color jokes sound like the boring, creepy attempts to demean people that they actually are), but then you realize that he's having a conversation in front of people while he's basically naked. So why, dramatically speaking, is he getting a massage and not, say, just hanging out in his office?

Well, there's a couple reasons, but first I want to talk about why they bothered. In his book Essentials of Screenwriting, Richard Walter talks about how if he never sees another restaurant in movies, it will be too soon. And while that may sound silly, he's got a great point. In movies and TV shows, restaurants very rarely have anything to do with what's going on. They're just there to make things a little more interesting and to give the actors something to do. It's no coincidence that a lot of exposition happens in diners, dives, delis, and... dinner... places. Whatever, I tried to make the alliteration work. Anyway, Walter's point isn't that anyone who writes a scene in a restaurant is a hack, it's that if you have the characters in a location that isn't integrated with the story or characters, you're wasting an opportunity.

Movies and TV shows have ways to convey information to the viewer, the most obvious of which are the general categories of "pictures" and "sound." But under those general headings are multiple opportunities for the film's or show's staff to keep working, to always have something going on that conveys information to the viewer in an efficient, streamlined manner. If a character is a bad guy, he or she is shot in ominous light. If a character is in a delicate or stressful situation, the music might get a little tense.

Walter uses a former student's project as an example (if I'm remembering correctly--I can't find where I placed my copy of the book at the moment). In the example, the student had written a fairly typical scene involving a detective and his superior officer, which played out in the chief's office. Walter told her to find something else, which she did. In her next version, the older, superior officer is swimming, as he does every day at this time (which tells us he's determined to stick to routine), because he's concerned about his health (which humanizes him). The younger policeman is wearing expensive shoes, and the splashes from the pool keep putting them in danger (which tells us he's fancy, perhaps overly fussy or sensitive, and maybe he allows himself to be distracted from what's important).

See how much better the second version is? It's the same concept here. TV shows generally don't get to just create an endless amount of sets, and that's a restriction that holds true even in animation (not only do you have to design each new setting almost in its entirety, which actually means doing multiple designs, but a different background has to be painted for each unique camera setup).

So what writers often try instead, as a substitute, is to have the characters do something interesting while the conversation is taking place. It's no different here. We've seen, and heard, Luthor before, but now we're actually meeting him. So what does Luthor getting a massage tell us?

1) It tells us that he's busy. He's getting a massage while reading the newspaper while talking to reporters. The idea is probably that even his free time involves him doing something else.

2) He's at least a little self-indulgent. The impression is that this is part of his daily or weekly routine (an idea reinforced by the newspaper, an object linked to the very idea of a daily routine). And I don't know if daily massages are a common CEO thing (and "massages" is just one of those words you don't google), but it's almost like talking about how busy you are when you schedule two hours out of the day for Business Golfing. It's a little forced. It's also a little rude to be involved in two other activities while talking to reporters. Lex getting a massage in his office is the perfect I'm-busy-but-also-I-do-whatever-I-want sort of activity. It's understandable if you think it feels almost like a performance, like he's trying to be impressive. "Yeah, I live in the world of daily massages and huge offices, no big deal, I'm sure I can find time for you."

3) He's confident. As we shall see, the man is wearing possibly the shortest towel in the Lexcorp offices, and half of his office wall is window.

Responding to Lois's judgment that Superman "means what he says", Luthor replies, "Well that's just dandy, Lois. All I know is, your hero did nothing to help me. I'm the one who's out a billion-dollar battlesuit." Notice that Luthor and Lois are on first-name terms. Clark walks over to Luthor's desk and picks up the model of the Lexosuit--which, if you'll recall, we saw being stolen in the previous episode. Notice how careful the show is to keep Luthor in the shot.

It's a nice touch having the model here, for a couple reasons. The most important one right now is that it reminds you what the Lexosuit looks like, because you'll be seeing it again soon.

"Actually, this could end up a silver lining in your pocket, couldn't it?" asks Clark, suggesting a manipulative element of Luthor's business practices with the "lining pockets" imagery and a construction which parallels the phrase "feather in your cap." I definitely didn't appreciate this line when I was younger. It just manages to avoid being too clever for its own good, and that's fine by me. Good job, Burnett and Dini.

"What's that?" Luthor asks Clark, snatching his hand away from the massage therapist in irritation.

Clark sets the model down and walks back toward him. "Now that the terrorists have your prototype, the Pentagon is undoubtedly going to want you to build a bigger and better version for them. When all is said and done, this could net you a multi-billion-dollar windfall."

As he speaks, Lex stands up, and we see how tiny his towel is as he puts his robe on (or, rather, has it put on for him).

Lex's response is to chuckle dryly. And it's great, because he sounds really unconvincing, and yet Luthor sounds so dismissive (in everything he says, really) that it would still probably be convincing to any non-reporters in the room. Notice, also, that the half of Luthor's office that isn't "window" is "aquarium, with at least one shark in it."

I love his office so much, and I am definitely going to talk about it later, when we have a better opportunity to take a look at it (which we will later in this episode). For now, just notice the Art Deco entrance. (Well, and the shark, obviously.)

I will say, though, that Luthor's robe is probably too close in color to Lois's sportcoat. Honestly, I didn't notice it until I was re-watching this episode for about the third time (I... watch these episodes a lot in order to write these posts). Now that I have noticed it, I probably would prefer a redder color on him to contrast with all the blue-purple in the shot. You don't want it to be a Superman-type red, obviously, but I think something like a cranberry-ish color wouldn't go too amiss:

or, a bluer color might be nice:

I think that could work out all right. It's not that it's terrible by any means, it's just something that sticks out when you examine the show as closely as we are right now (not that this is a rigorous scholarly article or anything...). Since I'm such a fan of the show, I try to be honest and point out little bits that bug me, as a sort of balance--but since this series gets so much right, all these little details end up being essentially just nit-picking. Also, I'm not the world's foremost color expert, so if my suggestions end up looking terrible, we'll know I should just shut up. I'm not entirely satisfied with the way any of my mock-ups turned out, but if I keep tinkering with them I'll never get this post finished.

Anyway, Lex gives that dry, dismissive (and yet, at least to reporters and us television viewers, not quite convincing) chuckle and says, "Lois. It almost sounds as if your friend here is suggesting I should be glad my suit was stolen. You're very amusing, Mr.... Kent, is it?"

"Yes. I'll remember that."

Look at Clark's awesome Art Deco profile.

After he says that--and it's a detail I only caught just now--Lois smiles, a sort of triumph-by-proxy, aware that Clark has scored a point. (And you may think I'm reading too much into slight movements, but remember that every movement a character makes in an animated show must be consciously planned and drawn.)

So we cut to Clark's car on the road, where Lois is congratulating him: "Nice work, Smallville. You're only the second person I've ever seen get under Lex's skin."

"Who's the first?" Clark asks.

"Me," Lois replies, as you knew she would. "When I dumped him." (Okay, that part is a bit unexpected.)

"Whoa," says Clark.

Lois brushes it off. "Ancient history."

You get the sense that it was a couple of dinners and maybe a show or two at the theatre at most. In background material for the show that was published on the WB website and which may or may not have been taken from the series bible (which I would give almost anything to be able to read), this little detail is elaborated on. Apparently (keeping in mind that this is probably not canon), Lois realized fairly quickly that Lex just wanted her to write pieces praising Lexcorp, and that's why she dumped him.

I'd imagine there are people who find this Lex thing to be the most significant detail about this show's Lois, but personally, I think pretty much everything else she does is more important to her as a character (for instance, what she does later in this episode). Her previously dating Lex is not that big of a deal, and I'm not sure it's ever really mentioned again (but I haven't finished re-watching the whole series yet). It does give Lex and Lois a little bit more of an underlying conflict, but most of that conflict comes from Lois being the one who usually covers Luthor and Lexcorp, as Perry told us last episode. So I don't mind this detail, or the way it is presented, at all. I can see Lois going for that sort of guy, and I can also see her dumping him almost immediately. And keep in mind that the first-season finale of Lois and Clark was (spoiler alert) Lois accepting Luthor's proposal, only to turn him down at the altar, and then, when everyone found out Luthor was a criminal, he jumped off of a building. So... yeah.

"Anyway," Lois continues, "what makes you think Lex might have been an accessory to the theft?"

"I don't think it was a theft," says Clark. "I think he gave it away."

We fade to black for the commercial, then fade back in on the Daily Planet building. The camera pulls in slightly, which is, obviously, more work than just a still image (you have to move other elements in the shot to make it seem like the camera is actually moving and not just zooming in). This show takes every opportunity to not cut corners.

We cut to the morgue, which is what newspapers call (or used to call) the archives/records room, especially at the time this style of architecture was being designed, and it is surely the most beautiful records room ever. Just look at these fantastic Art Deco stylings.

I want this room. I want a house that is all rooms like this. Anyway, Clark tells Lois that he was looking up information on Luthor and "found this photo of him at last year's International Industrial Conference."

He tosses down a stack of photos. On top of them is a picture of a shockingly off-model Luthor shaking hands with someone in a military uniform.

"Recognize the guy with the medals?" Clark asks. Lois replies, "The region of Kaznia. So?"

Obviously, one man is not the region of Kaznia (I assume, anyway), so I'm pretty sure there was more to this line that just got cut for time, or she's just identifying where his medals are from (her father is a military man, after all, but new viewers don't know that yet).

Just as an aside, Kaznia (also spelled Kasnia--it's like Brazil/Brasil, I guess) is a fictional place in the grand tradition of DC's fictional places (in one DC/Marvel crossover, it turns out that the DC Earth is slightly bigger than the Marvel Earth to account for all of the fictional cities and countries, although Marvel has its fair share as well). However, this one is not from the comics; it was made up for this episode. And whoever named it did a great job, because you can tell without checking that it's supposed to be in Eastern Europe, and therefore, sadly, still topical.

Lois and Clark talk about how the U.S. has broken diplomatic ties with Kaznia, and Clark points out that this "means Luthor couldn't sell the regent a warsuit without it being a deliberate act of treason." You know, for all the (dumb and wrong) talk in our pop culture today about Clark Kent/Superman being silly, naive, and cheesy, this one is pretty dang shrewd.

Clark says, "It works in theory."

"In theory, maybe," Lois replies, "but Perry White doesn't run theories." And, by the way, the dialog mixer (or whoever) did a really good job here making the sound echo-y (they're in a large room, after all), but not too echo-y.

She walks off. "Where are you going?" asks Clark.

"I'd tell you," she calls back, "but you'd have to share the byline."

Obviously, this is referring to Clark's snagging a shared byline in the previous episode, and it's a nice touch. It's also where we'll stop for right now. I'm actually going to update tomorrow or the day after,* just so we finish up with the pilot, since illness/technical difficulties have delayed it for so long. To make sure you don't miss any updates, follow me on Twitter

*This ended up being a lie.

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