In almost any online ranking of the best animated TV shows of all time, you’ll always find Batman: The Animated Series near number one. And it makes sense. Batman, from co-executive producer Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, pushed forward the medium of serial animation while laying down the definitive interpretation of one of the all-time greatest characters in American literature.
But in the shadow of Batman was another show from Timm and Alan Burnett that starred yet another icon from DC Comics. While it isn’t necessarily forgotten (in fact, one can argue it kept the momentum going to make the “DC Animated Universe” whole), this show is generally less-remarked upon than Batman.
Between Superman: The Animated Series flying onto HBO Max on March 17, as well as the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on the same platform, now is the best time to revisit the Man of Steel and his episodic adventures in Metropolis. Here’s why
Created in 1996 one year after the end of Batman: The Animated Series, animator and creative executive Bruce Timm imagined Superman: The Animated Series with roughly the same principles, diverging where necessary.
Where Batman was a dark hero in a gothic world, Superman was... not. This was more difficult than one might assume. In a 2012 interview with author Eric Nolen-Weathington for the book Modern Masters Volume 3, Timm revealed that figuring out the look of Superman caused creative conflict within the offices: "We couldn't quite agree on a general approach to the show."
Both Batman and Superman are rooted in a visual art deco style. But whereas Batman came from a more gothic style, Superman was “bright, futuristic, optimistic,” as Timm described it to Nolen-Weathington.
The story and interpretation of the Man of Steel came from more modern times, however. 1996 was ten years after the 1986 reboot of the DC Comics universe, when John Byrne left his stamp in a still-popular two-year run on DC’s Superman comics. Free to interpret the mythos as he saw fit, Byrne brought forth new ideas to Superman that are now as indelible as Kryptonite. Such elements Byrne introduced that Superman: The Animated Series took after include:
- A more confident Clark Kent than a bumbling, gee-shucks farm boy from Kansas.
- Clark’s office rivalry with fellow reporter Lois Lane. While Lois crushes on Superman, she has no idea Superman and Clark are the same person. (For a time, at least.)
- Both Ma and Pa Kent are still alive, giving Clark/Superman advice when he needs it.
- A Clark Kent who identifies as someone from Earth despite his alien heritage, which he only learns about later into his adulthood.
- A Lex Luthor who isn’t merely a mad scientist but a razor-sharp businessman whose intellect is about the only thing that can outmuscle Superman.
- A more grounded powerset. While Superman is still more powerful than a locomotive, he demonstrates tremendous effort to pull off feats. Bullets bounce off him, but bigger blasts can cause him to bruise. For the first time, there are limits to an everyday Superman fight.
It was these changes that not only renewed Superman’s importance for modern comic book fans but also made Superman: The Animated Series the millennial classic it is and deserves to be. Grounding Superman with physical stakes not only adds suspense to every episode, it also makes Superman someone we actually want to root for.
Looking like a mid-century classic but telling stories that were modern, Superman: The Animated Series breathed life into an otherwise corny and outdated superhero to let him stand on equal footing to his cooler, brooding colleague. It helped that the Man of Steel himself was voiced by Tim Daly, whose masculine-but-warm voice for Superman gave the character the complex dimensions the role needed.
While Superman has its fans, it wasn’t always popular. In a 2002 interview with World’s Finest, Timm said Superman never found the same audience and acclaim as Batman.
“Batman's darker, edgier, just plain sexier all around,” Timm said. “Even so, I think we did a pretty bang-up job on Superman, and it seems like it will keep finding appreciative audiences in re-runs, and hopefully someday, home video.”
With Superman now streaming on HBO Max, there’s never been a better time to rediscover this deserving classic.
Superman: The Animated Series is streaming now on HBO Max.