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Superman: The Animated Series – The Demon Reborn (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.

I’m generally not a fan of excessive continuity in comic book storytelling. I find it insular and exclusive. One shouldn’t need to pick up a twenty-part crossover involving books they’ve never heard of in order to read a story featuring an iconic character, and one shouldn’t feel left out because they weren’t reading comics written twenty years ago receiving an obscure but vital reference in this month’s issue. That said, I do think there’s an element of fun that comes from the idea of all these pulp characters sharing the same fictional space. It allows for a curious mixing and matching of archetypes and ideas, turning old matches into something a bit more exotic. The Demon Reborn finds Superman facing off against Ra’s Al Ghul, and the result is quite fascinating.

The Demon you know…

By their nature, superheroes tend to develop their own iconic selection of foes. Batman has the Joker, Two-Face, the Riddler and countless others. Superman has Luthor, Brainiac, Zod and lots of more obscure characters. After more than half-a-century in publication, those foes stick around because they resonate with the hero – they provide some interesting counterpoint to the iconic character that makes them inherently fun to follow. Luthor is the smartest man on the planet against Superman’s alien. The Joker is chaos to Batman’s order. However, after so many decades of interactions, it’s sometimes fascinating simply to swap partners and enjoy the somewhat exotic mix that results.

Ra’s Al Ghul is one of the last truly exceptional introductions to Batman’s foes. Sure, there have been a lot that followed – Bane, Zsasz, the Ventriloquist – but Ra’s has managed to elevate himself to a very particular place among Batman’s instantly recognisable foes. In fact, Christopher Nolan’s films seem to posit Ra’s as at least as essential to Batman’s mythos as the Joker. He’s a character who provides a unique scale of villainy for Batman to thwart, while also offering a father-figure to an emotionally-damaged orphan. He fills a niche and does so almost perfectly.

More powerful than a locomotive?

However, he also presents an interesting contrast to Superman. Superman is, after all, a character more dedicated to saving the world than Batman is. One senses that Batman is more preoccupied with Gotham than the world around it. Ra’s Al Ghul is also a character who hopes to save the world – through the most sinister manner possible. Ra’s also has a distinctly super-human aspect to him that many of Batman’s foes fail to match. Ra’s has lived for centuries and seems to have an almost eternal life – provided he has access to the Lazarus Pit. As such, feels more than a little super-human, and perhaps in Superman’s league.

The infamous “Bat-embargo” prevented creator Bruce Timm from using any iconic Batman-related characters (save Batman himself) in the later episodes of his Justice League series. The notion was that these characters were now tied up in the on-going animated series The Batman, and featuring two different versions of the Joker might confuse the audience. Because, apparently, they are idiots. To be fair, Batman’s cast weren’t really missed during those last few years, except for Ra’s Al Ghul. Al Ghul feels like perhaps the only member of Batman’s rogue’s gallery who could pose a credible threat to the Justice League as a whole. In fact, I’m disappointed he never appeared. So he’s more than a match for Superman.

Yanking his chain…

Still, part of the joy of The Demon Reborn is watching the fish-out-of-water element of the plot, as Ra’s and his minions seem to have little idea of how to deal with Superman, while the Man of Steel is bemused by their actions. A wonderful early sequence has several members of the Society of Shadows trying to fend off Superman during a train heist, but they can’t even move the guy. They wrap a chain around his neck, and the chain snaps. Bruce would have to dodge their throwing stars. Superman just bats them away.

(As an aside, I can’t help but wonder whether the use of the name “Society of Shadows” inspired the “League of Shadows” in Batman Begins. Here, the name is used because “League of Assassins” would never make it past the censor, but it works in Nolan’s film because… well, there’s no way Bruce Wayne would sign up to something called “the League of Assassins.” It wouldn’t be the first hint of an influence that Bruce Timm had on that film, with Scarecrow’s plot echoing Dreams in Darkness.)

Ra’s has seen better days…

Of course, it’s interesting how Talia counters Superman’s brute strength. After all, it would be a pretty lame episode if Superman spent his time breaking the bad guys’ weapons. Rather than falling back on the cliché Kryptonite, Talia manages to gain the upper hand by presenting Superman with a moral dilemma. “You can stop me, or stop the train. The choice is yours.” Superman’s real weakness is his morality, and Talia ruthlessly exploits it in a delightfully effective manner. (Incidentally, it mirrors Batman’s first interaction with hero in John Byrne’s Man of Steel all those years ago – where Batman uses a bomb to force Superman to let him go.)

Still, Superman doesn’t come across as a patsy or a weakling, like he does during the first season of Justice League. This is his show after all, and it’s Superman who ultimately saves the day, defeating Ra’s and Talia. The most useful thing that Bruce does at the climax is helping to free Clark. He even gets a bad-ass call-back to Talia’s dilemma when he present Ra’s with a variation at the climax. “Punish me, or save your daughter. Your choice.”(While Ra’s will never win father of the year, he does make the right choice. Although quite possibly only because he won’t give up on the idea of an heir.)

She wears her sunglasses at night… and in a cave…

While Ra’s is the nominal villain of the episode, The Demon Reborn paints Talia as a far more proactive force than she is normally portrayed. The skin-coloured two-piece is replaced with a skin-tight catsuit, and it’s very clear that Talia is spearheading the mission to save her father, rather than Ra’s traditional right-hand man, Ubu. In a way, it seems to foreshadow Grant Morrison’s use of the character in Batman Incorporated, but it also speaks to the love of her father. She’s willing to risk everything keep him alive. This makes his later treatment of her in Out of the Past even more of a moral event horizon. She would give her life for him, and – ultimately – he would gladly take it.

That said, it is a bit of a shame to lose Helen Slater as Talia. While Olivia Hussey makes for an effective daughter of the Demon, she doesn’t ooze the same sensuality as Slater did – she seems a lot colder. While that portrayal makes sense in context here, it feels like there’s no real hint of the woman who fell in love with Bruce. It’s really only a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, and there’s no denying that Talia is far more interesting here than she has been in her other episodes.

All fired up…

We even get a nice bit of background on Ra’s Al Ghul. The character has been (repeatedly) shown to have been a part of American history for quite some time, and we learn that the character came to America with the Spanish. Discussing the ruins they are exploring, Talia explains, “Father led the Conquistadors who finally vanquished it. The spoils of that victory formed the foundation of his vast fortune.” This is an interesting comment for several reasons.

Most obviously, it’s strange to imagine the environmentalist Ra’s siding with the visitors rather than the natives. Perhaps he really was only a “young”man at the time and had yet to solidify his insane philosophy. After all, it’s hard to think about the Spanish in America and Ra’s Al Ghul without calling to mind the myth of the fountain of youth. Perhaps that is what the Lazarus Pit was. Perhaps this version of Ra’s is a Conquistador who stumbled across the legendary source of eternal life. It’s not a bad origin.

All in a day’s work…

The Demon Reborn is also interesting as an excuse to see Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly play off one another. They really were my favourite Batman and Superman pairing, and I think Conroy played better off Daly than his successor. Being entirely honest, I just loved the playfully antagonistic interplay between the two, as Batman was basically a dick towards Superman. It’s the kind of attitude that only Batman could get away with, by virtue of being incredibly weaker than Superman. If Superman emotionally picked on Bruce in the same way, he’d seem like a belligerent bully. (I love Superman’s exasperated “what!?” as the Batmobile pulls up. You can tell he’s thinking, “I really don’t have time to deal with this now.”)

The two work well together, and I have to admit I would almost have traded Timm’s Justice League for a simple Worlds’ Finest series treating the pair as vitriolic best buds. No sooner have the pair subdued the threat than they are taking good-natured pot-shots at one another. “Just happened to be in the neighbourhood?” Superman asks. “Do you have any idea who they are?” Bruce counters. Superman puts his foot down. “If you were going to operate in Metropolis, you should have filled me in.” Batman gets downright catty. “Next time I’ll fax my itinerary.”

“And I-ee-I… will always loooove you…”

Still, the pair play well off one another. I also like the relationship between Lois and Bruce, which was first suggested in World’s Finest. Unlike most heroes, Batman doesn’t have a steady “good girl.” He spends most of his time flirting with fetish freaks and sociopaths. So it’s interesting to meet a relatively grounded and decent person who appeals to his better nature. Even when Bruce was flirting with Wonder Woman, it seemed like a courtship more focused on Batman than on Bruce. I think that dynamic works well, and Bruce provides an interesting foil to Lois’ no-nonsense attitude. Clark is too timid to respond to the flirtation, but Bruce is just assertive enough to play along.

It’s a bit of a shame that we don’t get more of Lois. Indeed, it might be nice to see Batman interact with the pair. Talia looks close enough to Lois to fool Superman, so it would certainly suggest Bruce has a “type”, and provide an interesting contrast between “good girl” and “bad girl.” It would also give both characters just a little bit more to do, which would certainly be a very good thing in an episode that is already quite impressive on its own terms.

Stand by your Superman…

I really like The Demon Reborn. I think it captures the spirit of the Superman-Batman dynamic quite well, in much less space than World’s Finest. It also offers Superman something a little bit outside the norm, which makes it interesting enough as is. It’s really just a combination of great elements.

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