There’s no way around it – Superman: The Animated Series is just not as good. It’s not even worse – it’s just that the subject matter, as cool as it is, is, ultimately lends itself far less easily to serious or emotional storytelling. I’m not saying Superman can’t be dramatic – he absolutely can be, and he actually sometimes is in the series. The scope in the series, however, is so wildly inconsistent – ranging from street crime to the cosmic, that I simply never really felt I got a grasp of the intended tone of the series, which left me floundering from one episode to the next.
Superman is somewhat de-powered here, which is actually a positive – his power level has always been variable, and this allowed some more tension when squaring off again an opponent. But the traditional problem of Superman being effectively unkillable and unstoppable remained, despite the fact that the writers came up with plenty of creative ways to provide credible threats to him, as well as inventive ways for Superman to get out of them. Not even because Superman is impossibly fast, but because we actually don’t know how fast he really is. In the first few episodes, when Clark discovers his powers, he’s seen as just a streak when he runs at top speed. There’s even an episode, Speed Demons (which coincidentally introduced the Flash to the DCAU) where he races Wally West around the earth 100 times. I was very surprised, therefore, to rarely see the effect used later in the series. He’s occasionally seen chasing cars, for example, and while he doesn’t necessarily have trouble with them, he does not just zoom down in the blink of an eye and stop them immediately, either. I can see, of course, why this is done, but it does hinder drama. Despite the fact that we know it’s cartoon where the hero will ultimately prevail, it is more exciting to see Batman trying to make a jump, run fast enough, or hit hard enough. Not because the Man of Steel is super-powered, but because we can’t rely on hard limits for his powers. This inconsistency ended up being one of the major problems I had with the series, as a whole.
I also simply did not enjoy watching Superman fight very much in this series. I understand that Clark Kent is not any kind of martial artist, so the fact that his fighting style is very simply is justified in-world, but there are only so many haymakers I can watch him through before it gets simply boring. When he comes up against physical opponents, therefore, it rather quickly becomes a rather uninteresting episode – not to mention the fact that very few of them could even stand up against him before first softening him up with kryptonite (as is the case with Metallo).
This is not to say that I did not enjoy the series as a whole. I did love some of the multi-part episodes. I thought the first few, that established Superman’s origins, managed to bring a few new aspects to the story than I’d seen elsewhere, as well as being simply really genuinely exciting. In fact, even the existence of an origin story is a pretty major contrast to many of the other heroes in the DCAU – we do see origin stories for a few of them, but many of them (most notably Batman) are simply first shown as established crime-fighters. Even the first season also contains over-arching stories and buildup to the confrontation with Braniac, and the coming Darkseid in a way that was not at all present in many of the other shows on DCAU (Justice League Unlimited returned to a similar format a decade later).
Many of my favorite episodes were ones that had Superman team up with other superheroes, allowing him to work as part of a team. I cannot quite put my finger on why, but I really like him as part of a team, as is later seen in the Justice League shows. Something about him racing Flash, helping a young Green Lantern deal with his new powers (In Brightest Day…, DCAU’s only real appearance by Kyle Rayner), or leaving his comfort zone to confront magic with an unwilling Doctor Fate (The Hand of Fate) is simply consistently more enjoyable than having him be on his own. This is tripled by the multi-part World’s Finest episode, which featured great characterizations for both Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent – the scene where the two recognize each other, through different means, is nothing short of fantastic.
The cosmic episodes typically worked well. That side of the DCAU was only explored by STAS, and JL and JLU, and it really worked with Superman. While those episodes were also not consistently fantastic, the Apokalips-themed eps, such as Apokalips… Now! and Legacy were generally very strong.
I also enjoyed the episodes that were more conceptual or had a twist on the usual storytelling. The Late Mr. Kent, for example not only featured a very touching funeral for the mild-mannered reporter, but one of the very first real dangers for Superman’s secret identity.
Generally my favorite aspects of the show, however, dealt with established parts of the character’s history and tropes, some of them rather surprisingly gleefully embracing inherent silliness of the concepts. A perfect example is Mxyzpixilated, which could have been unbearably boring and silly, and actually ended up really fun, in a classic fairy-tale sort of way. Bizarro episodes were similarly enjoyable, with sufficient pathos for the deformed villain.
Much of the voice-acting is really good, but the true stand-out for me is Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor, who brings real gravity to the character’s villainy. His range – from complete sophistication to growling hatred – is truly remarkable.