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Superman: The Animated Series – The Way of All Flesh (Review)

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

Although it was quite clear from The Last Son of Krypton that Superman: The Animated Series was going to be quite a different beast than Batman: The Animated Series, there were times when the show borrowed a trick or two from its older sibling. Particularly early in the show’s run, there were a number of “villain origin” episodes which seemed to emulate the more successful villain-centric stories from Batman: The Animated Series.

Fun and Games, the origin episode for Toyman, could easily have been adapted for the other show with a minimum of fuss. It was probably too similar, and a demonstration that Timm’s approach to Batman couldn’t be expected to work perfectly for Superman. Feeding Time and The Way of All Flesh are two single episodes designed to introduce two of Superman’s second-tier bad guys, the Parasite and Metallo.

While they retain a stronger sense of serialised storytelling than many of the Batman stories, there’s a very clear attempt on the part of the writers to humanise and almost empathise with these villains. The Way of All Flesh is probably the most successful, in part because Metallo has a great hook for writer Stan Berkowitz to mine, in part because he’s an interesting villain is his own right, and in part because it does this without seeming too much like an attempt to copy Batman: The Animated Series.

The real man of steel...

The real man of steel…

I’ll confess a certain fondness for Metallo as a character concept. I don’t think the character has always been used to his maximum potential. He’s often shuffled into the middle of the pack when it comes to Superman adversaries, frequently used whenever a story needs a heavy for Superman to knock around a bit. Grant Morrison’s Action Comics used him in that way, so did Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin. It makes sense to use him like that, because the character has a nifty visual and the capacity to go toe-to-toe with Superman.

However, he’s a fairly grounded character. His capacity to cause destruction is relatively large for a supervillain, but he stands in the shadow of Luthor, Brainiac, General Zod and Darkseid as a threat to Superman. Since Superman stories tend to focus on large-scale spectacle, Superman isn’t a character who favours his second- or third-tier villains in the way that Batman can. While the Scarecrow might be able to anchor a Batman film, it’s hard to argue that Metallo or the Parasite could do the same for the Man of Steel. So I don’t think that we’ll ever see a Superman movie focused around Metallo as a villain.

All fired up...

All fired up…

And that’s a bit of shame, I think. Here, Berkowitz zones in on what makes the character work. During his first confrontation with Superman, Metallo boasts, “I think you are jealous of me, because I’m the real man of steel.” Metallo is a character who can almost match Superman for strength, and who represents something “beyond” basic humanity. However, he’s different from Superman in one pretty important aspect: he doesn’t feel.

Superman is an alien, but he feels compassion and sensitivity. It’s what tempers the character’s sheer and unyielding might. The thought of a Superman who loses his connection to humanity is a terrifying concept, and that’s what Metallo represents. He’s all that strength, but trapped inside a cold metal body with no capacity to feel or empathise, nothing to help balance that sheer strength. He is completely disconnected.

Testing his mettle...

Testing his metal…

It helps that I really like the visual. I think Metallo is a much more striking opponent than the Parasite or the Toyman. I’m not talking about the original iteration of the character, but the design which suggests he’s just human flesh pasted over a metallic skeleton. It does seem a little bit too similar to The Terminator, but I like the idea of Superman going head-to-head with the Terminator. It provides a necessary element visual spectacle. But this is clearly secondary to the concept of the character.

And, to be fair, Berkowitz also seems to realise that this lack of feeling also makes a pretty nifty character hook. One of the things which really worked on those villain-centric episodes of Batman: The Animated Series was the sense that these villains were somehow deeply tragic and broken figures. They were pathetic and emotionally broken-down. They did horrible things, but they had also witnessed and experienced horrible things themselves. It made them seem sympathetic and more nuanced than they might otherwise have appeared.

He certainly rose to the challenge...

He certainly rose to the challenge…

To be fair, Berkowitz doesn’t go too far with Metallo. The Last Son of Krypton established Corben as a mercenary willing to deal with terrorists, and he never gets too much of a sob story here. He’s a vicious and sadistic killing machine, and it’s hard to feel too sorry about the guy rotting away inside an island prison. He’s a pretty corrupt scum bag of a character, one who feels no real hesitation putting hundreds of lives at risk so he can go toe-to-toe against Superman.

Indeed, he has he first real breakdown after attempting to force himself on Lois Lane. The script is quite clear about what his intentions are. “I can’t even feel a kiss,” he observes, but one suspects that he wasn’t going to stop with a kiss. Corben is nowhere near as sympathetic as Victor Fries or Arnold Wesker or Harvey Dent or even Jonathan Crane. His life was probably never going to have a happy ending, but you’d be more inclined to describe it as “poetic justice.”

More powerful than a locomotive...

More powerful than a locomotive…

It’s nice of Berowitz to avoid emulating the parent show too closely and resisting the urge to give Corben a sob story or to soften him as a villain. And yet, despite that, his situation does feel tragic and does evoke pathos. “I can’t feel anything,” he observes early on. “It’s like I’m controlling my hands from outside my body.” It’s hard not to feel a bit sorry. Losing all sense of feeling – the ability to touch or taste or smell the world – is something which seems like torture, recalling Tantalus reaching for the fruit. Metallo can reach and even grab, but he can never touch.

Corben also seems sympathetic because he is manoeuvred into this situation by Luthor. One of the nicer aspects of The Way of All Flesh is the way that it feels like a Superman: The Animated Series episode. Metallo gets an origin and a sense of tragedy, but it’s all contextualised within the grander scheme of the conflict between Lex Luthor and Superman. In a way, that serves to make his story seem almost tragic. Corben never had any control or influence on how things played out, trapped inside the machinations of another.

I'd buy that for a dollar...

I’d buy that for a dollar…

Of course, this also helps make Luthor seem like a more effective villain. I like how Superman: The Animated Series kept Luthor around even in episodes not entirely dedicated to him. There wasn’t a sense that he disappeared into his tower for weeks on end to leave Superman alone. Instead, he seemed like a constant foil to Superman, and that he was always watching and scheming and planning in the background.

His manipulation of John Corben underscores what makes Luthor such an effective adversary for Superman. Superman works in the light, with his bright costume and public heroics. Luthor’s villainy is more corrupting and subversive. Superman can’t just arrest him and send him to prison like Batman could with the Joker. There’s something more insidious about Luthor as a villain. Here he makes his plan to turn Corben into an unfeeling killing machine feel like a blessing. “You could have implicated me the Lexor suit affair, but you didn’t – and for that, I am going to reward you.”

Kickin' it old school...

Kickin’ it old school…

“This doesn’t feel like a reward, Luthor,” Corben notes, prompting Luthor to point out that he doesn’t really have a choice. Corben suspects he’s a victim of circumstance, but Luthor’s hand is at work. For all Corben’s arrogance and pride, he has allowed Luthor to put him exactly where the billionaire needs him. “What do I have to lose?” Corben finally concedes, admitting that Luthor has subtly manoeuvred him to the point where there is only the illusion of choice. Forcing others to act in your own interests without even realising it? That’s why Luthor is such a brilliant villain.

Bonus points for underscoring just how ruthless Luthor actually is. He doesn’t get his hands dirty here, and he’s much physically weaker than either Metallo or Superman. However, the episode underscores just how vicious Luthor can be, for all his fondness of crackers and caviar.

Lex is more...

Lex is more…

When Clark investigates the doctor who infected Corben, he discovers the man came into money and left quite quickly. One would assume (as Superman does) that Vale is living on an island somewhere with a boatload of money. When Superman confronts Lex and points out that it’s only a matter of time before the authorities apprehend the doctor and make him talk, Luthor casually responds, “What makes you think there’s anything left of him to find?” That’s pretty hardcore for a cartoon.

The voice cast is pretty top-notch, as we’ve come to expect from a Bruce Timm cartoon. Malcolm McDowell makes a suitably sinister Metallo, his arrogance dripping from every word. Clancy Brown is – as ever – a wonderfully manipulative Luthor. And Dana Delaney makes for one of the strongest Lois Lanes in any medium.

This character has depth...

This character has depth…

The Way of All Flesh is a very strong instalment of the show, and a demonstration that it is possible to give Superman villains compelling back stories. It’s something the the series moved away from in the following seasons, favouring cosmic epics and spectacular showdowns. While that approach undoubtedly plays to Superman’s strengths, The Way of All Flesh makes me sorry that we didn’t get too many more of these attempts to re-contextualise and to develop classic Superman villains.

The Way of All Flesh is – at its best – a demonstration that Superman: The Animated Series can handle the same humanity and character-driven storytelling of its direct predecessor, even if the series ultimately went another direction.

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