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Superman: The Animated Series – Knight Time (Review)

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

It’s always fun to compare and contrast Superman and Batman, partially because they are two of the oldest and most iconic superheroes in popular culture, but also because the lend themselves to contrast. Superman is all smiles and primary colours, while Batman is shades of grey and shadows. It’s fun to see the worlds of the two superheroes overlap, if only because they are so radically different in tone, atmosphere, mood and content.

While World’s Finest brought Batman and the Joker to Metropolis to play with Superman and Lex Luthor, Knight Time sees the Man of Steel substituting in for an absentee Batman in Gotham.

I gotta get me one of those...

I gotta get me one of those…

There’s a massive difference in scope, of course. World’s Finest was a three-part epic which rejoiced in putting these two icons together. Knight Time, in contrast, is a single episode where Bruce Wayne is more of a plot device than a character, and the last act is devoted to a throw-down between Superman and one of his own most powerful villains. It feels like just a bit of an anti-climax, as if the writers are short-changing the fun of having Superman come to Gotham.

To be fair, there’s a lot to love here. It’s the little touches which make the hour, from Superman’s inability to lower his chin (even while posing as Batman) through to his exaggerated performance with Batman’s cape as he skulks off into the night. It’s nice that Gordon doesn’t seem to be fooled by the disguise, despite Superman’s delightfully Silver Age “super-imitation” super-power. It’s fun to see the Man of Steel playing at being the “bad cop”, and the episode has a great deal of fun exploring why Gotham isn’t necessarily a city suited to Superman’s style of heroism.

WayneTech stock rockets!

WayneTech stock rockets!

Confronting the Penguin for information that might save Bruce Wayne, super!Bats makes an appeal to the crook’s better nature. “A man’s life is in danger, isn’t that enough?” he pleads. It’s only with Robin’s helpful prompting (“kick over the desk”) that super!Bats begins to make headway in his investigation. It’s clear that this isn’t the type of heroism he’s used to. After all, you don’t have to hide in the shadows when you’re immune to bullets. “All this sneaking around isn’t exactly my style,” he confesses to Robin.

And yet, he does. Superman comes to Gotham in his regular attire, but once he figures out that Bruce is missing, he dons the familiar cape and cowl. It’s interesting what that suggests about Superman as a character. Of course, it’s a necessary plot point for a comedy episode, but it does tells us a great deal about who Superman is. He is an immigrant who came to Earth from a dying planet, and didn’t use his power to control or to conquer. Instead, he integrated – retaining some of the trappings of his home planet (proudly wearing the colours), but respecting human traditions and customs and laws.

There's something not quite right here...

There’s something not quite right here…

That relativism seems to hold true here as well. Superman doesn’t try to stop Gotham’s crime wave in his bright costume or using his super-strength. He doesn’t try to impose his own style of heroism over a city that is markedly different from Metropolis. Instead, he respects Bruce by keeping Batman alive. It’s a nice indication that – despite his protestations that he’s not “friends” with Batman – he does respect the Caped Crusader. Going to such an effort to maintain the illusion of Batman’s presence is an affectionate tribute to the hero.

Superman tends to come off a bit worse in the crossovers between the characters, as if the writers have to compensate for the fact that Bruce doesn’t have any super-powers. Although both characters acquit themselves well in World’s Finest, it’s Kevin Conroy’s determined, foolish, stubborn and stand-off-ish Batman who steals the show. (And, incidentally, almost Lois’ heart.) As if aware of that, Knight Time consciously sidelines Bruce Wayne, as if making room to explore Superman’s relationship with Batman without the threat of Batman stealing the show.

Talk about floating an idea...

Talk about floating an idea…

It’s telling that Bruce is immediately and unequivocally beaten by Brainiac before he can even realise that he’s under attack. There’s no heroic moment at the climax where Bruce casts off the mind-control or brainwashing. He’s rendered completely helpless. It makes sense. Brainiac isn’t a crazy inventor or a theme villain. He’s an alien intelligence who has crossed the cosmos. Even the Mad Hatter (who steals from the best) can’t really compete with Brainiac’s technology. This is a foe Superman has beaten several times, and Bruce can’t even put on a good fight.

In contrast, none of Batman’s villains can prove a match for Superman. The Riddler’s mental puzzles are meaningless when Superman can just break out of them. Who needs a battle of wits when you can just flex your chest muscles? Bane – the most physically imposing of Batman’s bad guys, one of very few top-tier Batman bad guys who poses a credible physical challenge to Bruce – is handily cast aside by Superman without a second thought. And that’s with his new super-improved venom.

Apropos of nothing, man do I hate the Riddler's body stocking...

Apropos of nothing, man do I hate the Riddler’s body stocking…

As an aside, it’s interesting how little Bruce Timm and his fellow producers and writers seemed to think of Bane. His first episode, Bane, was less than a success – feeling more like a cynical attempt to cash-in on a popular villain than a compelling story. While he was used well in Over the Edge, Knight Time sees Bane used as a one-dimensional punching bag who seems fixated on recreating that iconic panel from Knightfall.

Organising a cadre of supervillains, he explains how the Riddler and the Mad Hatter fit into his schemes. His own role? “Any that stand in our way, I will break,” he vows. When Superman shows up, Bane is happy in the way that only the stupidest or most obsessed supervillains are happy. “I feared you were gone forever, Batman. That would have meant I’d never feel your spine crumble in my hands.”

Talk about a throw-down...

Talk about a throw-down…

It seems like a somewhat sarcastic and biting portrayal of a character who was admittedly introduced as a gimmick in nineties comics. However, it’s strange that the production team on the DC animated universe never really tried to develop or harness Bane as they did with so many other second-tier DC comics villains (as they did with Freeze in Heart of Ice) – especially given the potential of the character as revealed in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises or Gail Simone’s Secret Six. Here, he’s just dumb muscle easily defeated by Superman.

(It is worth noting that the only two Batman villains who could credibly challenge Superman are absent here. The Joker’s unpredictability makes him a viable opponent, but the two confronted each other in World’s Finest. Ra’s Al Ghul is alluded to as a red herring, and the two would meet in The Demon Reborn. But – by and large – Knight Time makes the case that these villains are only really a threat to Batman because he lacks Superman’s powers and strength.)

Birds of a feather...

Birds of a feather…

Still, we do get some nice insights into Batman’s psychology, with writer Robert Goodman taking pains to suggest that Bruce Wayne isn’t quite the paranoid and jerkish loner that nineties comics occasionally made him out to be. Robin is perplexed by Bruce’s disappearance. “He wouldn’t just bail like this without telling Batgirl or Nightwing to fill in,” the Boy Wonder observes, suggesting that the Bat-family is not as dysfunctional as one might suspect. As Superman himself observes at the end of the hour, “For a guy who’s supposed to be such a loner, you sure know how to pick a partner.”

Of course, Goodman doesn’t shy away from the fact that Batman isn’t – by his nature – a happy superhero. As much as his complete disappearance without informing anybody suggests that he hasn’t simply gone off on a mission, his final message to Lucius Fox offers another clue that things aren’t quite right. “See what I mean about acting strangely?” Robin asks after playing back the message for Superman. “He’s smiling.” Batman might not be a sociopathic jerk, but he’s not all smiles and sunshine, either.

You've got to be kidding me...

You’ve got to be kidding me…

The episode comes off the rails a bit once the source of this strange behaviour is revealed. (Although there is some nice foreshadowing when the nanites adopt a familiar pattern after Superman first spots them.) It becomes a rather generic slugfest between Superman and Brainiac, nothing we haven’t seen before. The episode’s middle act, with Superman skulking around in a cape and cowl, is the strongest and it’s a shame that the episode couldn’t figure out a way to wrap up on that note.

That said, it is kinda nice to see Superman interacting with Robin and Gordon. Thanks to the infamous “bat embargo”, Warner Brothers forbade the later seasons of Justice League from using any Batman characters beyond Batman himself, something deeply frustrating. Imagine how fun it might have been to have the League face off against Ra’s Al Ghul, or how much stronger Alive! might have been featuring the Riddler or the Scarecrow or any characters we were invested in beyond Luthor and Grodd.

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

I’m normally not a fan of excessively young teenage sidekicks, because it makes the hero appear either stupid or reckless. On the other hand, I don’t mind the use of a very young Tim Drake in The New Batman Adventures, because it does have consequences down the line. Timm and Dini hold Bruce accountable for his selfishness in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, calling the hero out on the decision to recruit a child soldier for his war on crime. The fact the show is willing to engage in criticism of Bruce’s decisions (instead of passively endorsing them) goes a long way in redeeming the decision.

So it’s fun to see Superman and Robin interact, and it’s nice to see that Robin has been trained well. While Nightwing and Batgirl leaving a teenager in charge while they run off to Europe smacks of stupidity, it’s nice that the show suggests Tim isn’t entirely out of his depth. “You’ve been handling this whole town yourself, in the middle of a crime spree,” Superman notes, impressed. The comedic highlights of the episode feature Robin coaching Superman on how to act more “Batman-like.” I especially like the way that Robin knows his way around Batman’s utility belt. Which came out a lot creepier than it sounded in my head.

A boy blunder...

A boy blunder…

Knight Time is a fine exploration of the differences between two comic book icons, even if the third act does feel a little shoe-horned and the episode never feels like it probes deeply enough. After all, while the show concedes that Batman is no match for Brainiac, there’s no real indication of why Superman couldn’t take a week away from Metropolis and help Gotham sort itself out – rendering Batman completely irrelevant. Is there a reason Superman couldn’t “fix” Gotham with a little time?

It’s a shame that Knight Time never really explores how Gotham isn’t Superman’s city in a way more profound than “Penguin’s a bit of a jerk and the villains are a lot weaker.” Most comic book stories tackling the subject suggest that Gotham’s character is just inherently different, it’s soul a bit more corrupt, and that Superman’s form of heroism doesn’t fit. Knight Time doesn’t ever get to probe too heavily into that. While Superman has a bit of difficulty playing Batman, he breaks up three major-league supervillains easily enough.

Brainiac's science abuse...

Brainiac’s science abuse…

Still, Knight Time is a solid slice of fun, and it’s clear that everybody involved was enjoying themselves, another step towards the Justice League.

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