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Superman: The Animated Series – World’s Finest (Parts I, II & III)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. What with reviewing Superman/Batman: Public Enemies earlier, I figured it might be worth our time to take a look at the original Superman/Batman animated team-up. 

Thank you. I couldn’t have saved Lois without your help. 

I’m aware of that. 

– Superman and Batman share a moment of mutual Batman appreciation 

Superman: The Animated Series meets Batman: The Animated Series. How is that a tough sell? 

You can't outglower me, boy... in one of these animated movies I was played by Billy Baldwin...

I have to admit, I’m just not convinced that Batman and Superman really work as a partnership. Don’t get me wrong, I accept comic book crossover teams like The Avengers or The Justice League without so much as batting an eyelid, but the two characters are so ridiculously huge and yet so vastly different that it strikes me as near impossible to produce a team-up that works out well for both partners. Even the two Jeph Loeb stories that have been adapted into animated form pairing the duo – Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse – are essentially just Superman stories with Batman shoehorned in as his partner. 

The simple fact is that the two characters simply don’t bring a lot to the table for each other. As complex and warped as Batman’s iconic selection of foes may be, Superman could easily mop the floor with them. On the other hand, Batman isn’t really a match for the sheer brute force that Superman’s foes pack. As the stories inevitably find themselves rounding up – Batman being the partner competing way above his weight, rather than Superman “slumming it” – it’s hard to treat the two as equals in any real sense. I am really with Christopher Nolan on this one – I think the two characters work better alone than they do together. 

So, with that bias in mind, I must confess that I’m a little bit less fond of this particular episode (which as also been cut together and sold as the Batman/Superman movie) than most. I am skeptical of Batman’s role in the Justice League, in any form, because… well, they are basically gods in the style of the Greek pantheon. The famous “Bat embargo” (which I’ll get to later on when reviewing another DCAU selection) made Batman’s isolation even more obviously standout. 

Still, if you’re going to do it, this is about as good a way as any. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a live action adaptation managing to pack in quite the amount of fun that this selection of episodes does. And – from the outset – it is clearly pitched as “fun”. It’s an adventure populated with giant robots and love triangles and even puts Mark Hamill back behind the steering wheel of a “Lex-Wing”. It’s clear that the writers were having the time of their life writing the story – given the chance to play with these two iconic characters. 

The show does well not to take itself too seriously. It’s heavily populated with genre awareness – from would-be terrorist hijackers identifying Lois Lane  as “the one Superman always saves” to Joker instructing his goons to actually check that Bruce is “street pizza” after falling from the rooftop (and isn’t it strange that the Joker doesn’t find it odd that both Bruce and Batman followed him to Metropolis?), the episode is full of characters well versed in the tropes and clichés that surround these types of stories. Even as they’re played out (Superman does save Lois and Bruce isn’t “street pizza”), they feel fresher for being pointed out. There’s something hilarious about Bruce swooping into the Daily Planet pursued by a giant robot, only to find Lois (who Bruce is dating) working late. “Let me guess, you’re the only one here?” he asks, certain of the answer before he gets it. 

Partners in crime...

However, the episode does acknowledge something of a difference in stature between its two leads. One is more powerful than a locomotive and faster than a speeding bullet and the other… works out a lot is Batman. The episode plays up Batman’s gifts to the point where he may as well have superpowers (it would be “being honest”) as he flies around on jetpacks and such. When Luthor mocks the Joker for not being able to take out “a mere mortal”, the Clown Prince of Crime replies “there’s nothing ‘mere’ about that mortal”. I’m not complaining – it’s a necessary storytelling tool – but Batman’s humanity is what makes him appealing rather than his supercool jet packs. 

That said, the story finds a way to be more than just fistfights and jet packs. In fact, some of the more interesting interactions of the episodes come from introducing Bruce Wayne to Superman’s supporting cast. He shares scenes with Luthor and courts Lois (maybe he can’t resist the voice of Dana Delaney, who voiced the love interest in the superb Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm), much to Superman’s chagrin. It’s a novel take and one which illustrates just how carefully the animated version of this universe is constructed: it’s built on character as much as action. Years later (in Batman Beyond), an elderly lonely Bruce would keep pictures of Lois, so obviously the courtship meant quite a bit to him. 

Batman's badassitude makes Superman green with envy... well, that or Kryptonite...

Still, the real partnership that people are here to see is that of Batman and Superman. It’s fascinating to watch – in the commentary, the producers note that on pairing the two actors together in the voice booth, Tim Daly immediately started lowering his voice to match Kevin Conroy’s sombre tones. Similarly, within the episode itself, it’s hilarious to compare Superman’s awkward attempts to solicit the Joker’s location at a dive bar with Batman’s somewhat more “effective” methods. Indeed, Batman’s presence seems to make Superman more badass, if only to compensate (uttering trademark Batman lines like “I’m gonna ask you one more time!” and “It’s over, Joker!”). If you are going to pair the two characters up, the most efficient way of doing so is to contrast their outlooks: Batman’s smug cynicism against Superman’s blind optimism. 

It’s certainly a rocky bromance – but that’s the way to play it. There needs to be a hint of conflict, even below the surface. Still, there’s that familiar bromantic tension at work. Indeed, on her date with Bruce, Lois notices the billionaire seems more fascinated with the Man of Steel than she is, asking “Do you want me to fix you two up?” When Bruce observes that Lois likes Bruce and Superman, but not Clark or Batman, Superman suggests (in an almost kinky fashion), “Too bad we can’t mix and match.” And yet there’s the same awkward manly vulnerability and bonding between them. “I’m not used to being rescued,” a shirtless Batman confesses to the Man of Steel in his hotel bedroom. That would be the moment where they kiss in a romance. 

"Look, Clark, if you really want to measure stuff, you DO have X-ray vision..."

As an aside, this was the episode where the more “streamlined” versions of the Batman: The Animated Series cast debuted. Batman’s redesign isn’t half bad, but the Joker’s is just terrible. Seriously, he looks like a long-lost Animaniac. Later on – for the Justice League and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker – they’d return a lot of his earlier unique design, but here it’s just hideous. Which is a shame because his animated incarnation has always been difficult to take seriously confined by the age-rating on the television shows. He fared a lot more menacingly in the feature films (seriously, Return of the Joker gave me nightmares), but unfortunately the series played him as, well, a bit of a joke. Indeed, in one scene in this little crossover, Bruce catches a glimpse of a blimp he’s hijacked and remarks in a tone more exhausted than concerned, “What the devil is he up to now?” 

It’s a shame, because Mark Hamill (and the rest of the cast) do a bang-up job. Kevin Conroy is Batman and Clancy Brown is Luthor. Hamill’s Joker sounds great, despite his cosmetic changes. It helps that Hamill’s line deliveries are actually just plain brilliant. As Luthor has Mercy take out his frustrations on the Batman villain (after all, as he observes, “I abhor violence”) with a machine gun, the Joker asks, “Honestly, Lexie, don’t you think I feel bad enough already?” Incidentally (and related to the above observation), did you know that Mark Hamill only got the gig as the Joker after Tim Curry was deemed “too intense” for the target audience? Can you imagine how nightmare-inducing Tim Curry’s Joker would have been? Anyway, Hamill is a perfect fit – and one that I’m glad they invited back for the Arkham Asylum video game. 

World’s Finest would establish a trend in the animated adaptations of DC comics property. It was the first to suggest a shared continuity between the two shows (Batman: The Animated Series and Superman: The Animated Series). Indeed, subsequent episodes would establish a much more populous superhero community (with Superman introducing characters like the Flash or Aquaman or Green Lantern and Batman introducing the Demon), all of which built towards Justice League and (later) Justice League: Unlimited. In fact, even Batman and Superman would go on to share a few more episodes before moving on to the Justice League together. 

All in all, a great little crossover. I’m not convinced it was entirely necessary (then, is any of it?) but I have to concede that the execution was top notch. 

Puddin’! 

At this point, he probably is. 

– Harley Quinn discovers just how good Batman is at counseling people following the loss of a loved one 

4 Responses

  1. I really love this cartoon. Great article

  2. I remember those episodes too, it was when Batman became a Saturday cartoon instead of the after school show it started out as. Once it went to Saturday it lost me back then too bright and The Joker was not just visually different but a bit more abusive to Harley. I was anticipating this pairing up though, the hype they built going into that season was crazy. By the way another good one episode where Superman plays Batman and Robin is helping him play the part is good too.

    • That’s “Knight Time” – it is great, particularly with Superman learning to “play” Batman. I also preferred the Batman Animated Series to the brighter and more streamlined Superman Animated Series – it just looked better.

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