Season One, Episode Three — “The Last Son of Krypton, Part III”
By Jarrod Jones. “You see, ‘Superman’… I own Metropolis. 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.” – Lex Luthor.
For a long time, it wasn’t difficult to see why the casual comic book reader would dismiss Lex Luthor. For decades the arch-villain tossed Kryptonite rays, ugly-ass robot suits, and laughably elaborate death traps against an alien who could change the course of mighty rivers, only to get tossed into jail time and time and time again. With the exception of a few “imaginary” stories, by the late 1970s Luthor had been trounced by the one thing he hated most so thoroughly, so consistently, that it became comics’ most enduring running gag. With an inefficacy so legendary, Luthor had become a bellowing parody of himself. (What’s really sad is that the public perception of the character isn’t expected to improve much in the near future.)
But to the more discerning reader, it’s common knowledge that this all changed in 1986. Once DC Comics had successfully completed its thorough bout of housecleaning (with Crisis on Infinite Earths), they tasked writer/artist John Byrne to catch Superman up with the times. But to effectively modernize the hero, Byrne would have to make his apex nemesis just as relevant. And even though Gordon Gekko was still two years away from storming the cineplex, the concept of the greedy corporate tycoon of the Reagan era was very much at the forefront of the American zeitgeist. And so Byrne’s path was clear: Lex Luthor would be stock madman no more. Instead, he would become an Alexander of finance. An Attila the Hutt.
This innovation turned out to be one of the more successful angles Byrne would concoct for the Superman mythos, and for many years after Luthor settled comfortably into the mold of a cold, calculating titan fit for battle against the Man of Steel. The creators of Superman: The Animated Series understood the strength of this version, and they used it to brilliant effect. Coupled with the ingenious casting of Clancy Brown (Carnivale, The Shawshank Redemption), the true worth of Lex Luthor had finally become apparent to a vastly wider audience. Kevin Spacey’s ham performance in Superman Returns hadn’t yet diluted the character’s potency, and so — for a decade, at least — Lex Luthor enjoyed a renaissance of methodical evil that still manages to resonate to this very day. And it was efforts like “The Last Son Of Krypton, Part III” that made it stick.
WHAT WORKED: As the final chapter to “The Last Son of Krypton” comes to a close, Superman finds himself in a position where his professional life and his superheroics have begun to blend together, and episode writers Alan Burnett and Paul Dini ace the character dynamics beautifully: you can see him mentally piecing together the all-too convenient attack on Luthor’s press conference when he should be focusing on bagging the mercenaries who are making off with the dangerous Lexo-skel suit. Because we’re still so early on in his superheroic career, coupled with the fact that Superman’s intellect requires he look at everything with a journalist’s scrutiny, he ends up botching the job, which leads to a spectacular airplane rescue sequence choreographed beautifully by directors Dan Riba and Bruce Timm. There’s so much information being fed to the viewer in these fleeting moments, but everything contributes to the essence of how a hero like Superman works. It’s pretty incredible.
One of the best aspects to the show is that it wisely kept the Kents alive, so Clark could fly off to Smallville whenever he needed a bit of familial advice. The Kent Farm had always been a safe haven for Superman, a place that’s as vital to his well-being as the radiant beams of our yellow sun. It’s where he can ask the more difficult questions, where Jonathan and Martha Kent somehow make even the most ponderous dilemmas come out so simple and plain. So, if Superman is now known to the world, what use is Clark Kent anymore? The Kents offer up some home-spun counsel: as a journalist, it’s up to Clark to find the truth wherever it lies, and as a hero, it’s his duty to bring the peoples responsible for any crisis to justice. But Pa Kent says it better: “It doesn’t matter where you were born or what you can do, you’ll always be Clark Kent. Superman just helps out now and then.” You see? Simple.
WHAT DIDN’T: It’s really difficult to pick apart such a breathless episode, especially when it sets up an entire world for Earth’s greatest superhero to inhabit, but I tried anyway. And you know what I found? Bupkis. Lex Luthor schemes in the shadows, Superman defies Luthor, there’s a gorgeously animated action sequence between Superman and a giant robot (think of a heightened variation of Max Fleischer’s work), and Clark gets to scavenge for answers as a journalist for the Daily Planet. As far as Superman stories go, it’s perfect.
“He’s the Nietzschian fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape. A ‘superman’.” – Lois.
“Hey, I like it! ‘Superman’! It’s catchy, sticks with you, the kind of name that looks great splashed across three columns. Make it four.” – Perry White. He’d never be this good again in the entire series, sadly.
“It wouldn’t be bad if the people knew a little more about Superman. I don’t want anyone thinking you’re like that nut in Gotham City.” – Ma Kent. And with that, an established animated universe took root.
“Well, well, well… an alien in my own backyard. And such a civic-minded one too.” – Lex Luthor.
BEST MOMENT: The silent treatment. The actual showstopper was not the one that had speeding bullets and wanton destruction, but the face-to-face just outside the main office of LexCorp. The show’s strength would always come from its writing, and this final sequence between the Man of Tomorrow and his Moriarty was a perfect example of that. “A being of your abilities could be very useful to me on a, shall we say, global scale. Why don’t you float on in and we’ll discuss it, face-to-face?” You can tell Luthor is used to getting what he wants, and now he’s met the one being on the planet who can defy him. “I’ll be watching you, Luthor.” And with that, the bald philanthropist has a newly forged purpose: eradicating the Man of Steel.
EPISODE’S MVP: Lex Luthor. It’s really no surprise that one so despicable would be the natural draw of a three-episode arc that otherwise focuses on the origins of the Man of Steel. Yeah, Superman’s awesome and all, but it takes a foe worthy of his mettle to effectively put the asses in the couch cushions every week. Though Luthor would end up not being the end all/be all nemesis that Superman: The Animated Series probably needed (more on that later), he evoked so much potential in this final chapter of the series’ prologue. Clancy Brown’s silky-smooth baritone helped in crafting a character so sinister, that his very presence nearly eclipsed the brimming optimism of the city he claims to love.
– “Nice one, Clark.” – Superman. It’s a subtle flourish that establishes how Superman thinks of himself. Hint: it’s as Clark Kent, which is something I harped about to some length last week.
– “Nice ‘S’”. – Lois. Cheeky.
– “I’ve never seen the city in such a state. Look at these faxes!” – Perry. While the series as a whole does have a certain timeless quality to it, yeah. That line dates it quite a bit. Though it does inspire some rather humorous images of frantic citizens shoving paper through a fax machine just to complain about a flying man.
– I love love love that the show’s writers decided to use John Corben as Kasnia’s hired mercenary. It sets up his story so beautifully, and Malcolm McDowell’s aristocratic and sinister portrayal of the character had me squirming on the living room floor in anticipation for Metallo. Man. This show ruled.
– “Brainiac Systems activated.” Uh-oh.
9 out of 10
Next: Fun and Games, soon.
Before: “The Last Son of Krypton, Part II”, here.