With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.
Due to his sheer power and folksy demeanor, Superman generally gets a bad rap from certain pockets of modern superhero fans. One of the most persistent complaints against DC’s Man Of Steel is that his rogues’ gallery kinda stinks. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The release of Warner Bros. Pictures’ latest supervillain jamboree, The Suicide Squad, has brought DC’s cadre of super-baddies rampaging back into the pop culture discourse. Scan the blockbuster’s roster of rowdy ne’er-do-wells and you’ll find at least two Superman villains who have blighted the brimming Metropolis skyline on more than one occasion: Bloodsport (Idris Elba), who first appeared in 1987’s Superman #4, and Mongal (Mayling Ng), the daughter of alien despot Mongul, who first popped up in Showcase ’95 #8. An argument can be made that King Shark (Steve Agee and Sylvester Stallone) began as a peripheral Super-family villain (he made his debut in the très-’90s Superboy series). But for a big-budget film featuring what is largely agreed to be a parade of second-string jackasses, Superman’s rogues make a rather impressive showing in the film. The Suicide Squad ends up placing at least two of these nobodies on the same pedestal as DC’s mayhem maven supreme, Harley Quinn, and damn if they don’t look really good up there. (King Shark for president.) And those are supposed to be Superman’s second fiddle bad guys. His main roster stacks up far more impressively: Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Metallo, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Parasite, Zod, Darkseid, and more; each of them heavy hitters, each formidable enough to get the Justice League alarms blaring by simply rearing their heads.
Superman’s major foes have gotten the short shrift on the big screen, but TV has more than made up for it—in particular, Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm’s Superman: The Animated Series, which was the optimistic counterpoint to the broodier progenitor of the DC Animated Universe (or the DCAU), Batman: The Animated Series. Where BTAS boasted “dark deco” backgrounds painted on top of jet-black paper, STAS depicted its unabashedly colorful adventures in vivid daylight. Naturally, the mood between these two series differed as well: Episodes of BTAS, which took a mature approach in terms of its subject matter, were melancholic, while the attitude of STAS was decidedly more upbeat. Keeping things hopeful meant taking a different approach to Superman’s rogues gallery than the slate-gray noir approach offered to the likes of Harley Quinn, Mr. Freeze, or even Killer Croc.
Considering that Superman’s adversaries are more often considered to be omega-level threats, STAS had an opportunity to go bigger, bolder, more bombastic than anything we had seen from the DCAU before. Escalation was a crucial ingredient of the series. If a baddie like Parasite got tossed into Iron Heights Penitentiary before his campaign of power-sapping terror even began, he’d take his chances with a villain team-up, like he did with punker Livewire in “Double Dose,” or Machiavellian Earl Garver in “Two’s A Crowd.” When Bruno Mannheim wanted to horn in on the serious action of Metropolis’ gun trade, he went to Michael York’s criminal sophisticate, Kanto, who hailed from a far away place called Apokolips. Even Lex Luthor, whose schemes were trounced time and again by Tim Daly’s Man Of Tomorrow, decided to hire the services of Mark Hamill’s Joker in the nigh-legendary Batman/Superman crossover, “World’s Finest.” Besting Superman took smarts on top of strength, and if there was an ambitious criminal who wanted to take a crack at Superman, it was wise not to enter Metropolis city limits intending on going halfway. In Superman: TAS, villains came correct.
They would have to; Superman is a brilliant guy on top of having invulnerability, super-speed, heat vision, etc. Navigating his power set has always been the trickiest part of writing the character, though inversely, coming up with villains who can take him on punch-for-punch is about as simple as it gets. (Doomsday, anybody?) There would inevitably come a few tough guys who’d show up just to give Superman a hard time, like Michael Dorn’s Kalibak or Brad Garrett’s Lobo, but testing the hero on an intellectual level, or even a moral one? That was an entirely different story.
Timm and Burnett worked with Glen Murakami, James Tucker, and Paul Dini to mine that rich ore: Luthor could vex Superman by evading criminal prosecution through privilege and status. (“I own Metropolis,” he told Superman in “The Last Son Of Krypton, Part III.” “My technology built it, my will keeps it going, and nearly two-thirds of its people work for me whether they know it or not.”) Brainiac could test his humanity by keeping the secrets of the hero’s Kryptonian origins at arm’s length (as he did in “Stolen Memories”). Let’s not forget Metallo, whose innate sleaziness and smug superiority (plus his absolute hatred for the hero) often put the Man Of Steel’s good nature through its paces. And Darkseid, the despot of Apokolips, pushed the inherent goodness of Superman to its absolute limits. Episodes like “Apokolips… Now!,” where Darkseid put Superman through an emotional thresher as well as a physical one, had dramatic ripple effects that resonated throughout the DCAU, all the way to the finale of Justice League Unlimited.
As is the case with any character (looking at you, Polka-Dot Man), all it takes to make any comic villain great is the right creator and the right project. In the hands of Timm, Dini, et al., Superman’s bad guys never had it so good. (And we haven’t even gotten to the villains they made up for the show yet!) With September 6 marking the 25th anniversary of Superman: The Animated Series, here are the 10 strongest examples of Superman’s rogues’ gallery, a collection of skulking killers, parasites, live wires, fifth-dimensional imps, and tyrants who hit untold new heights in one of the most underappreciated superhero animated series.
The complete Superman: The Animated Series is streaming on HBO Max.
Winslow Schott went from a mad marionette monstrosity to a bespectacled nerd who liked to stuff teddy bears with clockwork bombs, and later, for some damn reason, he became an unrepentant child killer in his post-Crisis incarnation (and the less said about that, the better). STAS reworked the villain into the son of Schott and stuck him underneath a giant ventriloquist dummy’s head, which cut an eerie figure and caused Bud Cort’s childlike voice to rattle around inside. Here, Toyman goes after the gangster Bruno Mannheim with his toy gimmicks (he blames Bruno for the death of his father), but he made sure to pack an animation-friendly arsenal just in case the Man Of Steel came flying by, including the the creepiest “toy” of all: a lethal biogenic organism Toyman calls “Dopey Doh” that asphyxiates whoever it comes in contact with. Imbued by shadows as much as its crayon-box visuals, “Fun And Games” is one of the few truly unsettling episodes of the series.
If you’re going to do an episode about Kryptonite, the easiest and cheapest way to get one over on Superman, you’d better make it fun. “A Little Piece Of Home” is fun. From its Gershwin-tinged score to its aerial chase sequence between Superman and a jet-packed crew of criminals, this Hilary J. Bader-written episode is an early example of Lex Luthor’s demented war with Superman, and how Luthor’s hubris was beginning to spill onto the streets of their beloved Metropolis. It also gets messy when Lex, armed with a lethal chunk of Kryptonite and a giant robotic dinosaur, decides to offer Superman his version of an olive branch: complete subservience to Lex. This twisted gambit showed how Clancy Brown’s brutish Luthor wants to make this fight personal. Naturally, the episode ends with his defeat, but we know Luthor’s revenge is already in the works. Somehow, some way, Superman is going to get hurt.
DCAU casting director Andrea Romano has always had a gift for finding the right voice for the right character. Casting Malcolm McDowell as the sleazy John Corben was a spark of brilliance. In “The Way Of All Flesh,” Corben transforms into the Kryptonite-powered Metallo, and neither McDowell nor writer Hilary Bader held back in accentuating Corben’s various base impulses, the driving force of the episode. In willfully transforming into an unstoppable killing machine, Corben unwittingly sacrifices the only thing he ever revered: pleasure. So the sworn enemy of Superman becomes the sworn enemy of his maker, Lex Luthor, which sets Metallo on a higher rung of villainy. It’s a shame the series didn’t explore Corben’s hatred for Luthor in future episodes, but the final exchange of “Flesh” at least insinuates that both Superman and Lex might endure plenty of sleepless nights so long as Metallo remains switched on.
The Last Son Of Krypton lost his people through catastrophe and the Last Czarnian fragged his people because he is a catastrophe, so Superman and Lobo were destined to scrap. The STAS braintrust saw Lobo as a perfect foil for the Big Blue Boy Scout, and the casting of gravel-mouthed Brad Garrett sealed the deal. Part I of “The Main Man” is a wild, gnarly glimpse into the deeper DC Animated Universe, where Lobo gets commissioned to purloin Superman for a strange alien collector called The Preserver, which ultimately leads to a tenuous team-up between the hero and the dingus in Part II. All the while Lobo continues to take jabs at Superman (both figuratively and literally) in an irreverent series of events that quietly nudged some of DC’s R-rated material to Saturday mornings in a mildly transgressive package. (As has often been writer Paul Dini’s wont, bless him.)
When S.T.A.R. scientist Earl Garver (malevolently voiced by Brian Cox) goes rogue and threatens to bomb Metropolis, Superman and S.T.A.R. have no choice but to call on Rudy Jones, the Parasite (Brion James), to use his absorbing powers to extract the bomb’s location from Garver. Rudy might be a nuclear-grade baddie but he’s also a yutz, so Garver’s cunning easily works its way into Rudy’s mind. This episode is a curious one; more than a race against time, it subtly examines the consequences of unchecked power. A dim bulb with awesome abilities is frightening on its own, but a shrewd monster with the power to kill Superman at his fingertips? “Two’s A Crowd” plays with the incalculable possibilities of the Parasite; we catch a glimpse at what level of destruction could have been brought to the world had Rudy Jones been just a little bit smarter.
He’s about knee-high, wears a derby hat, and can turn anything into anything else. He’s ridiculous, impetuous, and just so happens to be one of the most powerful creatures in the entire DC multiverse. He’s Mr. Mxyzptlk, a fifth-dimensional imp looking to have some laughs, and in “Mxyzpixilated” Superman becomes his own personal straight man. Paul Dini and director Dan Riba tapped directly into the Siegel/Shuster alchemy that made Superman a modern myth and spun it into a pitched battle between madness and order so absurd it’d make Daffy Duck blush. Gilbert Gottfried’s steel-wool-on-a-violin-string delivery becomes a riotous breakdown of sense and stability but you vibe along with the episode’s goofs anyway, enough that it becomes easy to forget that Mxy can turn the entire planet and everything on it into a roll of toilet paper, and the universe would have no choice but bend to his will. Now that’s scary.
After surviving the likes of Earl Garver, Livewire would seem a safer pairing for Parasite. They probably have a few things in common, right? Livewire used to be Leslie Willis, Metropolis’ biggest shock jock—The Queen Of All Media—while Rudy Jones… liked TV? Yeah, this was probably never going to work out for either of them, and it doesn’t, but “Double Dose” at least boosts Lori Petty’s Livewire, a character created whole-cloth for the series, to the upper echelons of Superman’s primetime nemeses by pairing her with one of his oldest foes. Their chemistry never ignites, but their combined power sets do send Superman scrambling to survive his next brush-up with the gruesome twosome. (Livewire, when Superman arrives to the climax covered head-to-toe in rubber: “The Boy Scout brought protection!”) Plus, Hilary Bader’s script and Yuichiro Yano’s direction ensure Livewire’s electric antics get a next-level veneer. Leslie Willis had arrived.
The Brainiac-Luthor Team—in comics, it’s the most feared villain pairing of all. In Superman, they’re the chiefest of enemies. “Ghost In The Machine” sees Brainiac, who was betrayed by Luthor in the episode “Stolen Memories,” infiltrate LexCorp’s computer systems and force the cunning businessman to build him a new robot body. It’s petty revenge, even by Luthor’s standards: Lex is brought low by Brainiac, yet he still confesses a grudging admiration on behalf of Brainiac’s technological superiority, while Brainiac inadvertently ruins Lex on the path to his return until he finally, dispassionately, tries to kill him. Brainiac’s the bigger monster here, Lex. Fear him forever. Bonus: “Machine” features the most character work Luthor’s lethal valet Mercy Graves (Lisa Edelstein) ever got in the entire run of the show. Mercy cracked Brainiac’s subterfuge all on her own and nearly roundhouse-kicked Clark Kent in the dome. Somebody put Mercy in The Suicide Squad 2.
It’s a nightmare scenario: someone imbued with Superman’s powers who has no idea how to control them. Bizarro, the strange, childlike clone of Superman, is clueless. STAS went in lock-step with DC’s post-Crisis origins for Bizarro (Bizarro’s creation, like a lot of things, falls on Luthor) which made him less powerful—he couldn’t, say, create a backwards Earth—but Bizarro’s destructive jaunts were no less apocalyptic. Here, Bizarro discovers Superman’s Kryptonian origins and sets out to make a homeworld of his very own, and what better place to build it than the densely populated Metropolis Cultural Center? “Bizarro’s World” is ultimately a warm-hearted entry (Bizarro gets a home, and his own xenomorphic puppy) but when Biz gets it in his head that his newly made Krypton needs to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb, it’s also a horrifying first-row view of what it would look like if Superman decided to change the world with his bare hands.
From “Tools Of The Trade,” which introduced Jack Kirby’s Fourth World to the DCAU, to “Legacy,” which was a logical if twisted conclusion for the Superman/Darkseid rivalry, Superman: The Animated Series turned out to be a low-key Apokoliptian revenge epic. The trick was making Darkseid’s ambitions to conquer Earth personal, and in the two-parter “Apokolips… Now!,” that’s precisely what happened. Here the cruel alien despot’s well-chronicled pursuit of the Anti-Life Equation is set aside for something more tangible: punishing the lowly Kryptonian who time and again thwarted his megalomaniacal schemes. Darkseid pummels Metropolis in a bid to crater it, and Superman reliably comes out on top. But his victory doesn’t come without sacrifice: blindsided by the series’ biggest casualty, Dan Turpin (who was based on Turpin’s creator, Jack Kirby), Superman was forced to reckon with his greatest failure in the series to date, burdened with the knowledge that one day Darkseid would return.