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Superman: The Animated Series – The Late Mr. Kent

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. With the review of Superman: Doomsday yesterday, I thought it might be worth taking a look at some of the other times Superman has “died” in these animated stories.

Superman: The Animated Series wasn’t quite the huge success that the earlier Batman: The Animated Series had been. It was still a superb animated adaptation of an iconic comic book property, but perhaps Superman is just a tougher character to get a handle on than the Dark Knight – there’s no denying the popular perception that Superman is “boring” by virtue of the fact that he can do just about anything. We can debate that idea back and forth, but I’d argue that the a really good Superman story makes his powers irrelevant by avoiding (or at least downplaying) the physical threat. The character isn’t necessarily defined by how hard he can hit things or how fast he can fly, but by who he is. (Of course, this doesn’t really excuse the “emo-Superman” approach DC seem to be so fond of with Superman Returns and all that.) The Late Mr. Kent is – for my money – one of the most fascinating episodes of the animated series by virtue of the fact that it finds a rather interesting and deeply personal angle on the Man of Steel, without feeling the need to be “grand” or “epic”. Sometimes it’s enough to be intimate.  

Clark was blown away by the story he uncovered...

The episode in question is essentially a superhero noir tale. Of course, there’s another major DC superhero who has the market cornered on such things – and it’s weird to hear Tim Daly as Superman narrate about “luck” in a style that sounds like it was pulled from a pulpy detective novel. Its central plot concerns the execution of an innocent man, and Clark Kent’s attempts to exhonorate him before he goes to the gas chamber.  

There are no aliens, no robots and no supervillians – just a ticking clock. Indeed, the story itself seems better suited to the Caped Crusader than the Man of Tomorrow, but that’s why the story works. It takes the character out of his comfort zone and plays with the audience’s perceptions and expectations.  

Speaking of which, it’s strange to see a show like this dealing so explicitly with capital punishment and the justice system. There are cynical refrences to “public defenders” and it being “an election year”. Indeed, the execution chamber becomes a (very) grim punchline to the episode’s final joke – certainly not something I was quite expecting from the show.  

Clark Kent is “killed” by a car bombing that nobody human could have survived, which leaves Superman unable to do anything as his alter ego is declared dead (we open on the memorial service). By taking this interesting line, the script is able to ask a question which is pretty essential to the character, but has never really been thoroughly explored: why does Superman need to be Clark Kent? why put on glasses and pretend to be a reporter when you can be a superhero all the time? This is the type of question which must give Bill nightmares.  

A funeral for a friend...

One of my favourite pet theories about the Superman mythos is that the only reason that Lex Luthor hasn’t found Clark is because he isn’t looking for him – the idea being that Luthor believes that Superman is Superman all-day everyday, he believes that when Superman isn’t flying around Metropolis, he’s kicking back at the Fortress of Solitude, putting his feet up. The idea being that the fact Superman has a secret identity is only really self-evident from the side that we frequently see of the story. If Superman really existed, would we really figure out he spent his spare time pretending to be one of us? Doesn’t that seem almost counter-intuitive?  

Here we’re offered the image of a Superman who likes being human. This is a Superman who likes grabbing dinner with Lois and Jimmy not because he needs to eat (although he does get hungry – “old habits die hard”) but because he wants to. Hell, he even concedes to being a little driven by “ego”. When considering why Clark and not Superman made the trip to the Governor’s office, he admits that “I wanted this to be Clark’s victory, not Superman’s”. When Jonathon Kent observes that the only real impact of Clark’s “death” is that “he just can’t be Clark anymore”, Superman explains that “I am Clark, I need to be Clark. i’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time.”  

For Superman, Clark is an opportunity to be human, rather than Kryptonian. He isn’t – as Kill Bill would suggest – a parody or sarcastic commentary on humanity, but a desperate attempt to feel included by an outsider. In fact, despite coming from another planet, Superman is arguably more human than Bruce Wayne – the latter sequesters himself in his mansion and generally isolates himself from society, while Clark enjoys socialising and hanging out and even driving around in a car.  

The episode unfortunately doesn’t get quite the opportunity to explore the repercussion’s of Clark’s passing, but that’s likely the price of a twenty-two minute narrative. It would have been nice to get an even better idea of how important Clark is to Superman, but the episode as is offers a wonderful take on the character, and an illustration of how versitile the character is (despite what his detractors might say). The Late Mr. Kent is perhaps the finest episode of Superman: The Animated Series, and serves as an example of just how well this bunch of creators “get” the characters they are working with.

8 Responses

  1. Great review. I agree with you, just saw this episode tonight on DVD. Probably the darkest punchline i ever saw in animated form. Superman TAS really deserves a closer look.

    • I think Superman: The Animated Series is somewhat overshadowed by Batman: The Animated Series, just because that show was so freakin’ awesome. Still, though, Superman: TAS is one of my favourite adaptations of the character.

  2. I just saw this episode tonight for the first time in a LONG time. I remembered that it was one of my favorite episodes of the series from when I first saw it well over a decade ago. After just seeing it again tonight, I’m breathless. This is easily the best episode of any Superman series I’ve seen. Amazing storytelling and another example of how good this and “Batman:TAS” were able to get once WB loosened up the S&P a little bit in comparison to FOX.

    I loved your review and commentary, you really put great thought and insight into this. Kudos.

    • Thanks, Quincy! It’s a great little episode. And you’re right, one of the better Superman stories ever.

  3. Yes, “The Late Mr. Kent” was the single best episode of Superman: TAS, almost Batman-ish in a way. I have always thought that the DCAU Superman was one of the better interpretations of the character, from the way he was presented as Boy-scoutish and human in this series to how he progressed to a somewhat more moody more intimidating character by JLU.

    • Yep. The JLU version definitely has an edge. I suspect that was the whole point of Legacy – to add that to the character.

  4. Just came here to say the same thing. I saw it tonight for the first time and I was staggered by how good it was (and I went in knowing this series is good).

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