I won’t deny that “Batman: The Animated Series” isn’t one of the greatest animated series of all time. As a capsule of the nineties, it was a bold and daring new vision of the Dark Knight free of camp and void of pandering to kids with mature storylines that were never overly violent. Timm paved the way for his version of the DC Universe, and with it the demand for Superman came very soon after. “Superman: The Animated Series” did not last as long as “Batman” nor was it as widely revered, but we prefer it over the former, mainly because Timm’s vision of Superman was also bold and daring. It was light without being joyful, it was dark enough to give Superman an adult edge, and it enlisted some of the most brilliant voice cast of all time from Tim Daly, Dana Delany, Clancy Brown, and Lisa Edelstein. “Superman: The Animated Series” fizzled out once “Batman” ended mainly because DC wanted a younger “Batman” world that became “Batman Beyond” and “Superman” was just not a priority anymore.
After the demand for “Justice League” arrived, “Batman Beyond” also fizzled out, but the imagining of “Justice League” in animated form brought Superman back to the fans where he was allowed to lead a group of super titans in to hell. But for a moment, Superman was granted a moment in the spotlight, and Timm introduced some elements in to the lore that would be used later on. A more suave less geeky Clark Kent, a Lex Luthor who became a corporate tycoon, and the birth of his assistant Mercy Graves, a spitfire bodyguard and chauffeur for the bald baddie. It continues to be one of my favorite animated series of all time, and of the nineties and these are fifteen of my favorite episodes counting down to the best episode of the entire series run. Most of the information and stills for this list were compiled with the help of DCAU Wiki Page.
* Aired in Multiple Parts, Counted as One episode
15. A Fish Story
Yes, I’m one of those individuals who thinks that no matter what DC does, they can’t make Aquaman cool. His name sounds like a German disco band, his costume may as well be a color scheme for a high school mascot, and he’s just dull. And when you compare him to Namor? He just doesn’t stack up. What “A Fish Story” does is try to make Aquaman something of an interesting character that centers around the king of Atlantis’ same old song and dance. Lex Luthor is engaging in mysterious experiments and has captured Aquaman. Now with a looming war between Atlantis and the world, Superman and Lois venture out to rescue Aquaman who becomes another bonafide enemy of Lex Luthor and his minions by the time the episode ends.
While I’m not a big fan of Aquaman, I do enjoy his interplay with Lois Lane, and Miguel Ferrer is very good as the King of the Sea. The episode is made much more interesting when the “Justice League” series managed to reference it and continue Aquaman’s storyline in to his own episode where he’s ultimately is forced to endure the backlash from his people, and be subjected to death by his brother Lord Orm which forces him to sever his arm to save his son turning him in to Captain Hook of the sea. I kid, but Timm did as much justice to Aquaman as possible, and “A Fish Story” is an entertaining episode.
14. The Hand of Fate
This episode confronts one of the few things Superman is vulnerable to. Magic. Yes, Superman is powerless against magic. Hence why sometimes he consults with Zatanna and why this episode features a Superman without the ability to do much for the Daily Planet when it’s consumed by demonic entities that can possess their human hosts. So in spite of his best efforts to break in to the strong hold, he turns to his friend Dr. Fate! While the episode doesn’t make too much sense, the appearance of Dr. Fate is a welcome turn of events from the usual tone of the series that takes a darker side. Humans are possessed by demonic overlords! Metropolis can do nothing about it.
But Dr. Fate comes out of retirement at the last moment to help Superman who valiantly enters in to the demonic fortress and risks life and limb to help his friends. Dr. Fate intervenes when all else fails and fans are able to see how superheroes can be mystical and kick enormous amounts of demonic ass with knowledge. Dr. Fate is one of the more underrated superheroes of the magical realm to date, and here he’s given a crisp and wonderful vision that makes him a hero who can entice viewers in to checking out his comic books and appearances in DC Universe. Fate thankfully played a much more crucial role in the “Justice League” series helping many of the lost villains find their way back to their humanity and forming his own kind of rehabilitation center that proved a key plot point in the future seasons of the Timm spin-off.
13. * Legacy
This two part episode ended up having an immense importance to the scheme of not only the Superman animated series, but in the future “Justice League” series. These final episodes where Superman became a rogue war commander for Darkseid’s forces of Apokolips ended up deciding the welfare of his friendship with Emil Hamilton and STAR Labs consideration toward Superman and his protégé Supergirl. The events that occur basically unfold the worst fears of many of Superman’s detractors when he’s taken in by Darkseid and brainwashed in to becoming his very best agent in the war to take over the galaxy. Superman, unaware he’s been altered for Darkseid’s agenda, proceeds to storm Earth and take over the world, but must then convince the world he’s Superman again once his memory has been restored.
The events that occur here are directly reflected in the events of “Justice League” when STAR Labs managed to grab a bit of DNA from Supergirl after being caught and put in Kryptonite storage. This allowed professor Hamilton to create Powergirl, a clone meant to take down Supergirl. This also prompted the government to built Project Cadmus, and forced Superman to rebuild the foundation of trust and respect he spent so many years earning from the world’s citizens. When we see Superman at the end of his series he is forced to start all over again. His fate is left uncertain in the face of the world. Bruce Timm gladly resolves that with “Justice League” which inevitably becomes about Superman forced to deal with his mistakes, however involuntary, and take on whatever the world thinks he deserves. “Legacy” also helps to fuel his searing hatred for Darkseid who is just unstoppable in his efforts to destroy Superman.
12. Speed Demons
The Flash! The Flash! Need I say anymore? Superman vs. The Flash is one of the best team ups to date and continues to be a classic fan boy debate among the geeks. If Superman and The Flash competed in a foot race, who would win? Of course if you read the comics, you know that The Flash beat Superman by a toe. This episode sadly doesn’t resolve the age old debate. Likely for the purposes of maintaining The Flash’s stock. Nevertheless the appearance of the Flash, animated, in modern television was fantastic, and even though Timm and co. rely on hand drawn animation, the illusion of speed is nearly seamless. Once again the writing team plays the dynamic to perfection. Superman is the curious boy scout, and The Flash is just having a good old time with his superpowers.
This time rather than Mxy antagonizing them in to racing, there’s a more simplified approach for time. Superman has agreed to race the Flash in a charity race around the world. Hey, who says superheroes can’t raise money every now and then right? Needless to say things don’t go as planned as the Weather Wizard has begun conducting experiments around the globe and Superman intends on helping individuals being ravaged by the horrible weather than winning the race. This gives the Flash time to re-assess priorities and we get to see him in action alongside big blue. As I mentioned there’s no resolution to who won the race, but at least it’s not the last we saw of the Superman and Flash storyline, right? But deep down the fans knew who would win. The Flash of course. Sorry Supes, but… he’s the Flash. The name says it all.
11. In Brightest Day…
Superman was always a lot of fun whenever he teamed up with other superheroes or helped a new superhero earn his wings and learn to use their abilities to help others. That’s why “In Brightest Day…” continues to be one of my favorite episodes of the series. Around the time when the series was coming to a close, the writers obviously didn’t feel they had a lot left to lose, so they just threw as many guest stars in to the series as humanly possible. This set the stages for the Justice League series, and it allowed them to create seeds for potential spin-offs. There were none, but at least we got to see some great heroes blossom on the small screen. “In Brightest Day” doesn’t have a lot of relevance to the overall scheme of the series narrative, but it’s just a fun self-contained story about Superman accidentally happening in to the birth of a new Green Lantern.
The story is altered somewhat to fit the series needs, so Superman discovers the former Green Lantern lying dead in a wreckage which inspires an attack from Sinestro who pummels Superman mercilessly and narrowly misses the ring. This new Lantern is played by the hotshot of the decade Kyle Rayner who is a struggling artist for the Daily Planet. He ends up with the ring and hilarity ensues. He learns the sub-conscious properties of the ring, the will that makes its power burst, the abilities that give you the costume you desire, and everything else and oddly enough these moments are entertaining. Rayner is depicted as a comic geek whose dreams become reality when he faces off against Sinestro who is not a normal villain with monologues and master plans. “In Brightest Day” is one of the more epic episodes of the end of the show with a wonderful moment where Rayner recites his oath, we get a glimpse of all the Corps characters, and Superman welcomes him to the fold as a new protector of the galaxy. For folks wanting Hal Jordan, he appears voiced by David Boreanaz in a two part episode in “Justice League” but only for a moment before being transformed in to Jon Stewart again.
10. Blasts From The Past *
Many of the fans I’ve spoken to over the years have deemed Superman as utterly moronic for bringing Jax-ur and Mala in to Metropolis out of the Phantom Zone, but this episode only further serves a point in introducing Superman’s need for companionship. Even with friends and family, Superman is just an orphan who can not connect with anyone about his god-like abilities. So his resorting to bringing two criminals out of the Phantom Zone is understandable and a bit sad. He doesn’t know who his father was or the circumstances of these two military goons from Krypton’s imprisonment, so his releasing of Mala results in something of a difficult choice. He thinks he can rehabilitate her. He knows deep down he can change her and help her to grasp her newfound abilities. This is Superman at his core. He knows he can help someone turn their wicked ways in to beneficial advantages, and sadly… he fails. Mala loves her abilities and begins to take advantage of them, putting people’s lives at risk.
And he makes the only logical choice of possibly putting her back in. But before he can, Mala releases her general Jax-Ur. We never saw Zod in this series, but Jax-Ur is about as close as we got to his mold. Jax-Ur is of course a man whose cold and calculating ways lead him in to potentially ruling over Earth. “Blasts from the Past” is a treat for Superman movie fans since Sarah Douglas gives a very enthusiastic performance as this villainous soldier who is intent on ruling over the inferior Earthlings once she convinces Jax-Ur he is no longer a mere general, but a super-being, leading in to a rather shocking fight between Superman and both mercenaries that is very reminiscent of the four way battle in “Superman II.” The ultimate resolution is that Superman may just be alone in this world, even if he has friends and family. He just wants to belong. And turning to the Phantom Zone will not grant him satisfaction in the end.
9. The Late Mr. Kent
This is one of the greatest single episodes of the series for the simple fact that it leaves Superman absolutely powerless. And there’s nothing here involving Kryptonite or magic! What if a human serial killer decided to assassinate Clark Kent? Not Superman, but Clark Kent? And what if he was successful? What would Superman do without his key identity? How would he get back in to the general population and re-build his life? Could he ever let the people in his life know he’s not dead without destroying his identity as Superman? This episode is not only an interesting exploration in to the importance of secret identities of superheroes, but it’s also a statement about the crucial importance Clark Kent’s identity has to Superman. If Clark Kent’s persona is killed, Superman can not exist in the world as a normal entity, thus he’d lose everything.
“The Late Mr. Kent” shows Superman trying to solve a murder case that involves a petty thief being accused of murdering a woman, and what happens when Clark gets too close for comfort. The entire episode is narrated by Superman who is struggling to find the killer of this woman even though the odds of him re-claiming Clark are slim. The murderer has killed a man even if Clark was Superman, and now he’s anxious to foil this murderer leading in to a climactic chase and battle, the killer’s own secret identity being revealed, and a great final moment where Lois angrily learns Clark has been found by Lana Lang. True, Lana knows Clark is Superman, but the jealousy on Lois’ eyes makes for some prime entertainment value. If that’s not the cincher, the killer figures out Clark Kent is Superman. Just as the gas in the gas chamber is about to spew and end his miserable life. Later in the “Batman Beyond” episode “The Call” we learn that no matter what, Clark Kent had to die. Superman is immortal and Clark was a mortal. Superman’s worst nightmare is realized.
8. My Girl
Pinpointing that age old love triangle of Superman’s women, “My Girl” features a fun and fascinating appearance by Superman’s first love Lana Lang. And of course Lex Luthor is one who makes the affairs between them very difficult. Lana is very much like Lois, a gorgeous and adventurous doll who has a bad habit for investigating and sticking her nose in to other people’s affairs. This gives us an insight as to the initial attraction to Lois by Clark and why they get along so well. “My Girl” is almost that classic tale of Lana Lang getting in to trouble and Superman being forced to bail her out while she catches up and reveals some shocking facts about their past relationship. Like the fact that she knew Clark was Superman all along. Of course Lex grows more and more jealous thanks to surveillance by Mercy who helps to manipulate Lex in to a fit of rage, and the episode spirals in to a series of catastrophes including a shoot out, a derailing, a rescue on an elevator, and Superman having to look for Lana in a lead covered factory where she is doomed to be burned alive by pools of Molten lead forming around her. Joely Fisher is wonderful as the happy go lucky and sexy Lana Lang providing a glimpse in to the youth of Clark Kent, conveying the strong women Clark has experienced in his life, and setting the stage for future love triangles in the series. Sadly this is the last of fun Lana Lang once “Smallville” aired on television…
7. Brave New Metropolis
A bit of George Orwell injected in to the storyline, “Brave New Metropolis” is a look in to what would happen should Superman be able to acquire control over Earth without defiance of rebellion from other forces. Still a generally fragile being with the potential to place an immense importance on his emotions, “Brave New Metropolis” explores the consequences of Lois’ death. After being sucked in to a parallel dimensional machine from STAR Labs, she’s warped in to a Metropolis where Superman and Lex Luthor have turned the city in to an Orwellian Police state where no one is safe from the clutches of Lex Luthor’s empire, and Superman. Now donning a black suit in the vein of a Gestapo officer, Superman is very grief stricken and angry leading him to take hold of the world and become its self-proclaimed ruler thanks to Lex’s help. Assuming Superman had any defiant forces from the outside, Superman basically grabbed hold of this planet after the death of his beloved Lois Lane from a car bomb he failed to save her from, and this allowed Lex to manipulate him in to holding a firm corrupt stance convinced he is taking hold of Metropolis for its own good. In the end we learn that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Superman is still a force of supreme power who can be corrupted and bent for the purposes of evil if we’re not careful. As we later learn in future episodes and “Justice League,” this is only one possible reality where Superman became a vicious tyrant.
6. Identity Crisis
This episode not only introduced a new version of Bizarro, but it also managed to convey the twisted lengths Lex Luthor is willing to go through to not only defeat Superman, but to feed his own god complex in the process. Tim Daly who voices Superman does a marvelous job of voicing Bizarro as well, and “Identity Crisis” is the classic Frankenstein tale where a twisted creation gains a consciousness and sadly is injected with the persona of someone else building a great confusion within the being over their purpose in life, their direction of their souls, and what use they can serve in a world where they’re just not wanted.
Bizarro is a menacing and often times dangerous foe whose own jealousy of Superman turns him in to a juggernaut of brute strength that can challenge Superman whose own wits and clever logic strategy rarely manage to keep Bizarro reluctant to damage property and put lives at risk to convince himself that he’s in fact Superman and Kal El is the impostor. Foreshadowing future confrontations with the pale beast, Bizarro’s own sense of importance makes him a foe to be feared, and “Identity Crisis” dabbles in themes of life and death, especially when Bizarro discovers he’s nothing but a science project while his own creator chooses instead to destroy him rather than accept and embrace him. “Identity Crisis” is a grim but entertaining episode that provides a unique twist on the Bizarro character many will enjoy.
5. Stolen Memories
This is the episode that foreshadowed “Ghost in the Machine” and the future bonding of Lex Luthor and Brainiac in the “Justice League” episode “Divided We Fall” where The Flash played a key role in stopping their horrible bonding as one. “Stolen Memories” is a further exploration in to Superman’s ever constant mission to preserve and gather information from his home world and find some sense of identity and purpose in a world where he lacks one. As we see in the first episodes, Brainiac is a super computer whose entire survival relies on his ability to collect crucial information from alien planets and then retreat with its more important assets once the planet ceases to exist, and he sets his sights on Earth.
Lex is of course welcoming of this being since he knows Brainiac can grant him power, not only over the whole of information on Earth, but likely information on Superman, while Superman’s entire purpose is revealed when Brainiac manipulates Superman with the spheres of information and documents chronicling his home world that can open up new corners of his mind that can further help him grasp his heritage. Brainiac is a cold and remorseless sentient computer, but one who also has the keen ability to devise methods of betrayal and deception that can always grant him the upper hand, and in the final moments of the episode, not only does Lex leave with something to take home, but Superman also clings to one final shred of his home world, the only bit of solace he can hold on to that can keep him close to the parents he never really knew.
4. The Last Son of Krypton *
When the animated series premiered I had basic television which meant no cable. Which meant I had to spend forty minutes fixing my antenna to get a proper signal to see Superman. I also recorded the first episodes of the show and re-watched it thirty times a day on my crappy VHS tape to keep myself entertained. The point is “The Last Son of Krypton” was a fantastic and entertaining new vision on the Superman world. Crisp animation, top-notch voice work, an incredible bold new Krypton, and a great direction in the destruction of Krypton. What if… Brainiac knew Krypton was going to die? What if in a last ditch effort it took the information from the planet and bailed instead of helping chief scientist Jor-El figure out a way to help the Kryptonians escape? In either case, “The Last Son of Krypton” answers those questions, and presents its own mini-movie in the process.
Not only does it introduce the world of Krypton, it also turns Jor-El and Lara El in to complex and rich characters, both of whom suffered for their knowledge and sacrificed their lives just to give their son a second chance at a better future. We also get to see Kal-El blossom in to Superman as he’s found by Martha and Johnathan Kent one fateful day. “The Last Son of Krypton” boasts some wonderful iconic moments including Clark’s first flight, his introduction to the Daily Planet, the cameo by Krypto the Super Dog, and Superman’s first battle that would make him the official guardian of Metropolis forever. It’s a consistently entertaining prologue to the animated series and one that set the tone for the overall show that would be adult but light hearted and fun.
3. Apokolips…Now! *
Believe it or not, this two part episode gave me chills after sitting down to watch it. Not just because the final scenes during a funeral for a friend is meant to really be a final goodbye to Jack Kirby, but because it sealed the fate for Darkseid and Superman. Though Superman and Lex Luthor are the worst enemies imaginable, Superman feels a particular disgust and hatred toward Darkseid. The entire series run leads up to this confrontation as Superman is able to confront Darkseid throughout the course of the show watching disbelief as he hurts his own son, and meddles in Earthly affairs. But “Apokolips Now!” is where the fooling around has stopped and Darkseid has discovered an immovable obstacle in Superman, protector of Earth. For thousands of years, Apokolips and New Genesis had a treaty allowing a peace among the warring planets. And Apokolips’ ruler Darkseid took it upon himself to travel in to other galaxies and explore worlds he could conquer. Incidentally enough he found Earth with the help of the planet’s worst criminals, and he thought the planet would be an admirable new stomping ground for his army.
As you can imagine the worst happens as Darkseid’s army is able to set up a massive explosion at a local power plant paving the way for construction of this new Apokolips, and Superman is forced to confront the armies of his world when Darkseid finally descends in to the planet to take over with his legions of monsters and warriors. This is a battle that Superman alone must face as warrior Orion is completely out of reach. But the episode takes a very dramatic turn as officer Dan Turpin manages to rise above the ensuing menace and become a hero for Earth, fighting Darkseid’s minions, saving passerby and proving that he himself is a Superman, with or without powers as his partner Maggie Sawyer lies in the hospital wounded from the first leg of this two parter. The episode plays out wonderfully as Turpin refuses to bow down to Darkseid even after Superman is beaten and strapped down, showing Earth isn’t as meek as the other worlds and it’s quite stunning to see that even after Superman has been brought down, another hero rises up to take his place. The death of Dan Turpin is heartbreaking, especially for fans of the series who watched him from episode one appear to give villains a hard time and help Superman fight crime, so this final “up yours” from Darkseid is heartless, cruel, and inspires Superman to completely lose all sense of restraint as he grieves for Turpin in horrific ways while the world watches a Superman fall, and the Last Son of Krypton lose yet another friend. These two episode made it clear Superman and Darkseid were immortal enemies doomed to battle forever. This feud would leak in “Justice League” eventually.
2. Ghost in the Machine
Mercy Graves was always something of an underrated animated personality in the Bruce Timm DC Universe. What with Batman being Bruce Timm’s crown jewel and work of love, “Superman” went in to the back burner. And with the absolutely successful debut of original character Harley Quinn–the right hand to The Joker, Timm’s debut of Mercy Graves–the right hand to Lex Luthor was greeted with a yawn and a furrowed brow. Who is Mercy? Why does Lex have a chauffeur? Later on as the series progressed we were given so much more to know about Mercy. She had sharp shooting skills, was quiet, and often allowed any competitors of Lex Luthor to back off before attacking them with amazing martial arts skills. Mercy ended up being yet another original character from the Timm canon that was much more complex than we assumed.
Sure, she’s not joyfully psychotic like Harley, but her back story is just as tragic. As we learn with “Ghost in the Machine” is that Mercy needs Lex, for better or for worse. Voiced by the lovely Lisa Edelstein, we garner insight in to her character and see where she stems from, why she became Lex’s chauffeur and bodyguard, and what is ultimately on the line in her career as Lex’s right hand woman. In “Ghost in the Machine” when Brainiac infects Lex Corps blackmailing him in to building another machine shell for the program, Lex is held hostage. Mercy and Clark Kent venture out to discover where he is and if he’s dead. This gives us a chance to see how closely she is bonded to Lex and why she keeps him at arm’s length. Furthermore in a crass attempt for survival, Lex leaves Mercy behind to die in the climax, and Superman watches in disgust as Mercy emerges from Lex’s limousine, ready for another day of work, in spite of her boss’s obvious intentions toward her. Whether the audience likes it or not, Mercy is his aide forever, and she has no choice but to suck it up and do his bidding.
1. A Little Piece of Home
Reasonably I should have included “The Last Son of Krypton” in the number one spot since it is one of the most humanistic stories about Superman’s home world to date, but deep down, “A Little Piece of Home” is the more traditional Superman tale. It garners the more tried and true Superman and Lex Luthor battle, it has the key element in Superman’s downfall and it makes Superman and Lex Luthor in to bonafide enemies bound to battle for as long as they can keep their hearts beating. Lex is a mortal with a god-like mentality who hates Superman for being a god with a mortal thought process, thus the dichotomy of want and entitlement is what keeps them constantly grappling in an eternal struggle for the world and for Metropolis. “A Little Piece of Home” is where the divide begins and where Lex finally realizes that he can and should keep Superman humbled, because while Lex is essentially his enemy, as we find out later in the series, Lex holding a piece of kryptonite will become crucial for survival. For him, for his operations, and for the planet.
This also gives Batman the idea to also hold a piece of kryptonite should Superman go rogue. And later STAR Labs. Though he insists he is in this world to do good–and god help us, we want to believe him–there is no telling who or what could possess Superman to become a pure force of evil. We find out later on in “Legacy” that Lex’s fears come true. So while Lex is the villain, and force of dark, his holding of the Kryptonite will unfortunately save the whole world–and galaxy for that matter–should Superman decide he’s had enough being a savior and should take over our world and change it as he sees fit. “A Little Piece of Home” is basically the Superman episode all the prior episodes were leading to. Superman is officially a guardian, Lois is aware of Superman’s weakness, and Lex finally acquires his Achilles heel and challenges him to either bow to his will, or die by his hands. Superman refuses to bow. Thus the gauntlet has been thrown down. And the war of Man and Superman presses on for better and for worse.