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Superman: The Animated Series – Blasts From the Past, Parts 1 & 2 (Review)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Blasts from the Past feels like it should be a better episode. After all, Superman’s relationship with his Kryptonian heritage should be fodder for good drama. If you read Superman as a parable for the American Dream – the story of an orphan from far away who comes to America and makes something of himself – it’s always fascinating to look at that story from the other direction. What are Superman’s ties to Krypton, a planet destroyed before he could speak? Does he define himself as Kryptonian?

Some versions of the character’s mythology suggest that his outfit is Kryptonian armour. Most recent takes on the character suggest that the famous “S-shield” is the emblem of the House of El. There are a lot of interesting questions about how an alien from a dead world who has become the protector of Earth must see himself. Is he one or other, both, or neither? Most interpretations seem to opt for “both”, although the suggestion is that Kal-El leans more heavily towards Earth.

Blasts from the Past should be a vehicle to explore this, bringing back two Kryptonian characters and allowing Superman to interact with them. At the very least, perhaps it could be an exploration of how much a childhood on Earth changed Superman. Instead, it feels like a rather bland rehash of Superman II, just with some names changed.

Red sky in the... well, eternity, I guess...

Red sky in the… well, eternity, I guess…

 

Blasts from the Past centres around escaped Kryptonian prisoners from inside the Phantom Zone. Of course, following the success and impact of Superman II, it’s tempting to guess these characters would be some combination of Zod, Non and Ulsa. Thanks to Terence Stamp’s performance, Zod has managed to anchor himself among the very top-tier of Superman’s rogues’ gallery. The performance is so iconic and influential that many comic book writers have tried to incorporate Zod into the shared DC universe.

Different versions of the character have been presented in Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee’s For Tomorrow, Geoff Johns and Richard Donner’s Action Comics run and even Grant Morrison’s Action Comics reboot. That’s to say nothing of misguided early attempts to introduce “Russian Zod.” It’s hard to think of a comic book villain who has endured so many attempts to weave him into the tapestry of an iconic hero. And a huge amount of that is down to the impression that Terence Stamp made in the role.

We are not alone...

We are not alone…

Perhaps because Stamp was so iconic in the role, Bruce Timm and his fellow creators veer clear of using Zod in the cartoon. Instead, they opt for the villain Jax-Ur. Of course, Silver Age comics featured all manner of evil Kryptonians for Superman to go head-to-head with, but it does seem strange that Blast from the Past would go out of the way to use a character who wasn’t Zod in a role clearly emulating his part in Superman II.

The comic book version of Jax-Ur was a rogue Kryptonian scientist, who was bald, chubby and moustached. In contrast, the version of Jax-Ur presented here rather pointedly resembles the film version of Zod. He’s a military leader whose “thirst for power” inspires him to launch a military coup on Krypton. Much like Stamp’s Zod, Jax-Ur harbours a grudge against the House of El. “Where is Jor-El?” he demands. “Does he not have the backbone to face his condemned? Bring me Jor-El! Let me spit at him with my final breath!”

To El and back...

To El and back…

It feels weird that the show goes out of the way to avoid using Zod, when the characters are so clearly based on Zod and his followers from Superman II. Indeed, the role of Mala would be played by Sarah Douglas in the later adventure Absolute Power. Douglas is most famous for playing Ulsa in Superman II, Zod’s female sidekick. It seems like the producers are going out of their way to invite comparisons to Superman II.

A lot of the set pieces look familiar. Early in their confrontation, Kal-El ties up Jax-Ur using a flagpole. “Let’s see if anyone salutes,” he remarks. This recalls Superman’s iconic entrance to the Daily Planet during the climax of Superman II, standing on a flagpole. (“Care to step outside?” or “haven’t you heard of freedom of the press?” depending on the version you’re watching.) Indeed, Blast from the Past even features an explicit homage to that scene as Jax-Ur and Mala invade the Daily Planet.

The plot never gets off the ground...

The plot never gets off the ground…

Other similarities abound. During a massive brawl in Metropolis, the Kryptonian criminals figure out that Superman’s weakness isn’t Kryptonite, it’s compassion. They target civilians to turn the match to their advantage. Jax-Ur asserts his control of the planet by smashing iconic monuments, although Blasts from the Past does take a more global approach. Rather than laying siege to the White House, he takes the General Assembly. Which, for some reason, is built near the outside of the building here.

So Blasts from the Past succeeds at being a fairly mediocre imitation of Superman II. However, there’s none of the additional nuance or depth that the writers bring the stronger Superman: The Animated Series episodes. One of the problems with Superman: The Animated Series was that Superman simply doesn’t have the same depth of bad guys to draw on as Batman did. Another problem, which became quite obvious over the run of the series, was that – with the exception of Luthor – none of Superman’s adversaries really had the same sort of psychological depth as Batman’s.

The man who be Zod...

The man who be Zod…

Jax-Ur and Mala are just shallow and insane would-be dictators. There’s no nuance to them as characters. There’s no attempt to suggest that Jax-Ur might be the hero of his own story. I quite liked the suggestion – by Johns and Donner – that Zod’s coup had been motivated by a desire to save Krypton from a Science Council which would not listen to Jor-El’s predictions. There’s nothing like that here. Jax-Ur is just another dictator, complete with visual reference to Triumph of the Will and even a line about how the Council thought Mala “was only following orders.”

Mala is just as bad, as the script makes the decision to play her as something of a psychopathic jilted would-be lover. Despite the fact that she has overheard Superman planning to put her back in the Phantom Zone, she only really freaks out when Superman tells the press that they aren’t “an item.” She goes completely ballistic, “You would spurn me? The last woman of your own kind?” It really makes it sound like Mala’s biggest career ambition is to hook up with the strongest alpha male around. Lois’ subsequent one-liner (“talk about high maintenance!”) doesn’t help.

Because this is the face of a multi-faceted villain...

Because this is the face of a multi-faceted villain…

It might work better if Mala were more developed as a character in her own right, or if she was given a bit more definition, but she just winds up as a jilted lover. The cliffhanger of the first part even revolves around the idea that Mala on her own really isn’t that big a threat. She needs a big strong man around to pose a credible problem for Superman. It’s not the ideal portrayal of the first female Kryptonian we’ve ever met. It makes Lex Luthor’s racist and sexist sci-fi b-movie fears (“no doubt they plan to populate the Earth with Kryptonians, reducing us to slaves or pets!”) seem less like a joke and more like awkward foreshadowing.

And there’s never a sense of what all this means for Superman. It might as well be just another day at the office. He has just found another of his kind. And yet they never talk about Krypton. Sure, Superman has Brainiac to tell him about home, but reading the best travelogue is not the same as talking to a flesh-and-blood person who has experienced the culture and the world. There’s never a sense he’s been emotionally compromised by this, and there’s never a hint that he really wants to share his world with her. One suspects the only reason he brought her crime-fighting was because he thought it best to keep an eye on her.

A General disagreement...

A General disagreement…

It feels like there’s something missing from all this. At the end, reflecting on his experience, Superman considers the ‘fortress of solitude’ nickname that Hamilton has given to his Arctic retreat. “Although I am the only Kryptonian. Lately, I’ve been thinking maybe it’s better we keep it that way.” However, there’s never any indication he ever thought otherwise, and that home never really called to him. It just feels very shallow.

Superman II was hardly the most nuanced of Superman stories, but I think it worked a lot better. The reappearance of the Kryptonian criminals was juxtaposed against Superman’s own identity issues. There’s a reason the movie spends an hour watching the Kryptonians advance across America while Clark tries to decide what he’d give up in order to live with Lois – it is a crisis of identity, however blunt, between Clark’s human and Kryptonian halves. Blasts from the Past lacks a hook like that.

"I'm makin' it work for me..."

“I’m makin’ it work for me…”

If Blasts from the Past demonstrates the weaknesses that Superman: The Animated Series has when compared to the more successful Batman: The Animated Series, it also demonstrates some of the strengths unique to this show. I like, for example, the decision to include even one line from Lex Luthor showing how he reacts to this. I also like the way that all of this ties in together. This show always had a firmer grasp of continuity and arc-based storytelling.

The discovery of the projector in the ship makes sense given Jor-El’s original plan in Last Son of Krypton. Similarly, the presence of Brainiac and more exploration into Kryptonian history and culture are also welcomed. It gives the story just a bit more weight than it might otherwise have. However, these little touches don’t help the story stand on its own two feet.

"You think I should use my X-ray vision to discover if the emotionally-volatile super-woman I'm planning to double-cross is in super-hearing range?"

“You think I should use my X-ray vision to discover if the emotionally-volatile super-woman I’m planning to double-cross is in super-hearing range?”

There’s also some pretty lazy writing from Robert Goodman, who is generally quite reliable. On top of the somewhat dodgy character work, there are several sequences which seem particularly convenient. Early in the second part, for example, Mala and Jax-Ur walk through a crowded Metropolis in their battle armour without drawing comment. They only attract attention (and are recognised instantly) when Mala trips up a cyclist. I know Metropolis is the City of Tomorrow, but those outfits are pretty distinctive.

Similarly, Superman’s contingency plan to send Mala back to the Phantom Zone makes sense. I do like that Timm’s version of Superman isn’t quite a naive buffoon. However, it seems a bit strange that he wouldn’t at least scan the area for her before telling Hamilton to get ready to send her back. After all, he’s smart enough not to threaten her with the punishment, so he knows she wouldn’t react well to it. Given she can fly, travel at super speeds and likes to be around him, it seems weird that he doesn’t even offer a routine scan of the area before giving the instruction.

Care to step outside?

Care to step outside?

Blasts from the Past should be a lot stronger than it actually is.

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