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Superman: The Animated Series – Stolen Memories (Review)

This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.

Superman: The Animated Series gets a bit of a hard time among the Bruce Timm “DC animated universe” shows. I think it’s fair to say that the show never reaches the highs (or even the average consistency) of Batman: The Animated Series, and it never matches the scale of Justice League, the pace of Justice League Unlimited or the ambition of Batman Beyond. However, it actually does a fairly wonderful job working with a character who has proved quite difficult to handle. I think Superman: The Animated Series was at its strongest when it distinguished itself from its direct predecessor, Batman: The Animated Series, and I think that Stolen Memoriesis the perfect example of that.

He’s got the whole world, in his hands…

There are several factors that make Superman a very difficult character to write for an extended period of time, let alone three seasons of an animated television show. The first is the delicacy required with the character himself. He’s more of an icon than a character, a mythical figure in a shared American pop cultural consciousness, one embodying truth and justice and so forth. That’s grand when treating him like a symbol, but it makes him difficult to write. After all, if you write a guy with that sort of power as a regular, flawed human being… you end up with Superman Returns.

Superman can’t be too perfect, because that makes for bad drama. People often complain that there are seldom any stakes in most Superman stories, because the character is practically immortal and has crazy powers that mean any fight he enters should be over before it begins. On the other hand, he can’t be too flawed, because he needs to be comfortable with his powers. An insecure guy with x-ray vision or the ability to level city blocks? That’s terrifying. Superman: The Animated Series actually did a pretty good job with this aspect of the character, and I think that the writers don’t get enough credit.

They’ve got him pinned down!

The second problem, and one that arguably has a greater impact on the structure of Superman: The Animated Series, is that Superman has a fairly crap selection of bad guys. And by “fairly crap”, I mean “Lex Luthor, a talking computer and Terrence Stamp.” Before anybody protests that I clearly don’t know anything about the character, I can rhyme off villains like the Parasite or the Atomic Skull, but the fact is that he has no bad guys outside of Luthor, Brainiac and maybe Zod that can measure up to the Joker, Two-Face, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, the Mad Hatter, the Scarecrow, Ra’s Al Ghul, Bane, Poison Ivy, or even Mister goddamn Freeze.

I love Metallo. I think there’s a truly fantastic story to be told featuring the character, and The Way of All Flesh comes pretty close, but there’s no denying that Superman’s bad guys simply don’t measure up. Despite being the most iconic superhero ever created, only four of his bad guys have entered popular consciousness – Luthor, Zod, Brainiac and Bizarro. I suspect people using terms like “Brainiac” and “Bizarro” might not even associate them with the character, while Zod is Terrence Stamp. Stamp’s performance is the first truly exception comic book villain performance, and one that stands alongside Ledger’s Joker, McKellen’s Magneto or Hiddleston’s Loki – all the more impressive when you consider his movie was arguably more significantly flawed.

Hm. Lois better watch out!

The result of this simple fact is that there’s really no chance for the writing staff to turn out episodes like the stand-alone villain-centric instalments of Batman: The Animated Series. There’s no real opportunity for Heart of Ice of The Clock King or Mad Love in the bottom of Superman’s selection of iconic bad guys. This shaped the way that the producers had to approach the show, and I think that the challenge made Superman: The Animated Series much more distinctive than it might otherwise have been.

With a fairly limited selection of truly workable bad guys, the writers had to structure Superman: The Animated Series into more dense arcs around those villains. Batman: The Animated Series had loose arcs around its villains (Mister Freeze, for example), but nothing as intricate as the work here. With Luthor, Brainiac and Darkseid as “key” villains, the show was forced to structure the arcs around the characters. It led to a more cohesive feel, and a sense that this was really an on-going story. Each Brainiac episode leads into the next. Darkseid is built up quite a bit before he appears. You could watch Batman: The Animated Series in almost any order, but Superman: The Animated Series was best watched chronologically.

Last computer of Krypton?

The result was that the interactions between heroes and villains felt more personal, more developed. In Batman: The Animated Series, it just felt like this was the umpteenth time that Batman was escorting the Joker back to Arkham. Here, Superman grows to truly loathe Brainiac and Darkseid over the course of the series, with the hostility deepening with each and every encounter. It’s quite an interesting structure, and I think it’s something that is often ignored when discussing Superman: The Animated Series.

Stolen Memories is an early episode, but already we can see the pieces building. Like a lot of the first season, it builds off the events of Last Son of Krypton, creating the impression that this is just one chapter in an on-going narrative. Certainly, Brainiac’s next appearance would build directly off this one, and the one after that would build off that, and so on. It’s interesting, because it gives the half-hour story a great deal more depth than it might otherwise have had, as we see that events have consequences, and that things are building off one another.

He’s a little spaced out…

I’ve confessed before that I never really warmed to the sleeker aesthetic of the revamped look that Superman: The Animated Series ushered in. I prefer the grittier and murkier look of Batman: The Animated Series. That said, I think this approach can work very well for Superman as a character. The production design of Batman: The Animated Series was heavily informed by German expressionism and film noir, two concepts that play well with the lead there. At its best, the new aesthetic evokes a bright fifties science-fiction look, something that I think works almost as well for Superman.

Stolen Memories deploys this aesthetic especially well. Flashbacks to Krypton reveal flying cars like something out of The Jetsons. The sight of Luthor meeting an alien in the desert evokes classic science fiction films. There are gigantic fighting robots. Even Brainiac is a bit of throwback – he looks like a fifties robot that could be played by a man in a suit, rather than a more modern take on an artificial construct buried inside the machine. The episode even finds room for a quick shot of what might be described as “the planet of the Lizard-men!”

To be fair to Timm and the other creators, Superman: The Animated Series actually does an exceptional job with Brainiac. The character has a bit of a convoluted history in comic books, despite being a relatively late addition to Superman’s rogue’s gallery. It’s telling that the version of Brainiac seen here in Stolen Memories would be adopted into the canon of the comic books by Geoff Johns during his run on Action Comics. Grant Morrison’s later Action Comics run would even adopt a version of the “Luthor Brainiac team” that evoked the set up here.

There are quite a few nice touches here, not least of which the idea that Brainiac isn’t just a random alien – that he and Kal-El are “twin sons of Krypton.”If Superman’s primary bad guys provide funhouse mirrors to him, as Batman’s baddies do to the Caped Crusader, than Brainiac is very much a hostile invader to Superman’s hopeful immigrant. Superman comes to offer what he can to the planet. Brainiac comes to take whatever he can get away with. Superman comes to help, Brainiac to hurt. (Of course, Zod provides a similar counterpart. Superman is democracy to Zod’s fascism.)

Thus spoke Brainiac…

More than that, Brainiac is a distorted reflection of the hero. Superman is renowned for his power, but it’s also tempered with compassion. Brainiac, on the other hand, is all that strength without any compassion. When Superman accuses him of genocide of countless cultures, Brainiac responds coldly, “Only their knowledge is important.” It is very much the opposite of Superman. Superman may collect the knowledge of his father in his Fortress of Solitude, but he uses it for good. Superman consults, learns, applies. Brainiac just locks it away in a vault.

That said, I’m a bit disappointed with how Brainiac explains the decision to wipe out civilisations after taking their knowledge. He suggests, “The fewer beings who have the knowledge, the more precious it becomes.” It reflects a collector mentality, perhaps a sly jab at the sort of speculators who would buy comics not to read them, but to drive up the market – keeping them tucked away in a vault not unlike Brainiac’s orbs.

Intel inside…

It’s not a bad motivation, but I though a more dispassionate one might have worked better. After all, if he wipes out a civilisation, he never has to worry about needing to collect more information. If he journeys through the cosmos, it is physically possible for Brainiac to eventually know everything, by virtue of being the last living organism. Still, it’s a relatively minor complaint in an otherwise efficient adaptation of an iconic character.

I also like the decision to anchor Brainiac to Krypton, if only because it gives an edge to the interactions of the pair. It’s often tough for writers to deal with Clark’s legacy as the last son of Krypton. After all, his defining trait is that he’s an alien who came to Earth to help us. Wallowing in the loss of his family and the destruction of his planet can lead him to disconnect from what makes him so appealing in the first place, which is part of the reason that the New Krypton arc was so disappointing. You only get one chance to do a “Superman goes home”story, and it wasted it by failing to explore what that meant to Clark Kent, rather than Kal-El.

“Have I been sleep-flying again?”

So it’s impressive how the writers handle this version of Superman’s birthright. It gives Brainiac something to tempt him with. “Go ahead, touch your legacy.” At the same time, writer Rich Fogel never loses sight of the fact that Superman isn’t really “of Krypton” any longer. As he tells Brainiac, “Earth is my home now.” It’s very important to stress that, and Fogel’s script does an excellent job explaining how Superman’s attachment to Earth differentiates him from the predatory Brainiac.

Brainiac sees Earth as “a single infinitesimal dot” against the tapestry of space. it’s easy to imagine, were he in a similar position, that Lex Luthor would have a similar perspective. However, Superman doesn’t see it that way – that’s why he’s Superman. Being Superman isn’t about having the power. It’s about having the power and using it for good, retaining the best of humanity while transcending physical limitations. “I am offering you the universe,”Brainiac promises Kal-El at one point, and it’s an offer that Superman would never accept.

Well, this reunion’s been a blast…

There are other nice touches as well. Superman: The Animated Series used Lex Luthor remarkably well, realising his more than just “Superman’s Joker.” Luthor constantly appears throughout the show, and develops as a character in his own right. He’s always in conflict with Superman, but the show wisely takes care that it’s not always direct. After all, a villain can’t afford to continually lose and still remain a threat. Here, for example, Luthor is more fixated on Brainiac than on Superman, and so he gets to develop a bit without being humbled at the end. In fact, Lex plays a significant role in winning the day and saving the Earth, allowing us to appreciate just how powerful he can be.

Of course, everything he does here is perfectly in character. There’s the wonderful arrogance than contrasts so perfectly with Superman’s humility. “I presume you speak for your planet?” Brainiac asks on their first encounter. Luthor skirts the question. “For all intents and purposes,”he replies, vaguely. Although he’s not foolish enough to be entirely taken in by Brainiac, there is some arrogance in his planned response to the alien.

Of Super-human bondage…

“I never trust anyone completely,” he assures Superman. “Since Brainiac arrived I’ve had him targeted from land base platforms with a payload of six and a half megatons. Enough firepower to incinerate Metropolis county.” Of course, Luthor is shrewd, but there’s still an element of arrogance there. If not for Superman, his missiles never would have had a chance against Brainiac. And it’s Luthor’s communications that allow Brainiac to harvest Earth for information.

But, of course, Lex isn’t concerned about the Earth – he’s only concerned about his own advancement. The military rightly challenges his authority to make first contact. “In case you haven’t heard, there’s a thing known as national security.” Luthor gets incredibly self-righteous in response. “There’s also a thing known as free enterprise. It was LexCorp that scanned the heavens, it was LexCorp that made contact, and it will be LexCorp that reaps the benefits.” He suggests the technological advancements that Brainiac might offer, but it seems quite clear that he doesn’t plan to share them with the planet free of charge.

“Everybody remember where we parked…”

There’s also a nice little moment where Luthor tries to win over the military using Superman. It’s a shrewd move, exploiting the hero’s credibility for his own ends, but his reasoning is interesting. “Let Superman talk to him, alien-to-alien,” he suggests. He doesn’t know about Brainiac’s Kryptonian origin yet, he just seems to assume that they will be able to communicate better because they are both aliens. To Luthor, there’s no sense that humanity is one of countless different voices in the cosmos – it divides neatly to “us” and “them.” Both Superman and Brainiac are “them”, so they should have no difficulty communicating.

There’s also a nice moment inside Brainiac’s ship when Superman is attacked by a bunch of killer robots because… well, killer robots! It’s quite tough to write Superman in action. You can’t make him too meek or too aggressive. If he’s too timid, he seems like a shrinking violet, a problem the character encountered in the first season of the Justice League. If you make him too strong, there’s no threat. Fogel makes Superman just a little adversarial, as he tears through the robots. “Who else wants a piece?” he demands. “I’m waiting.” It’s a nice characterisation that Grant Morrison would use during his Action Comics run.

Bear with me…

Finally, as an aside, I did like that the final sequence at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude included a polar bear. It’s undoubtedly a coincidence, but I’m reminded of Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives! script, which would have been developed at around the same time, where the producer demanded that Superman’s Fortress of Solitude be guarded by polar bears. The timing seems too tight for it to be anything other than a coincidence, as both were developed in synch, but it’s a neat little coincidence, and one that made me smile.

Stolen Memories is a great little episode, and I think it plays to the strengths of Superman: The Animated Series, helping to distinguish it from its very successful predecessor.

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