Season One, Episode Five — “A Little Piece of Home”
By Jarrod Jones. One of the more intriguing aspects to the animosity between Superman and Lex Luthor has always been the nature of how they do battle.
I mean, let’s face it. For Superman, it can’t be easy to be constantly bombarded by a human who can scarcely lift an armchair over his head, let alone leap tall buildings in a single bound. Lex Luthor is too clever to be caught, and too savvy to let Superman get anywhere near him. And since standing for Truth and Justice makes sinking two heat tunnels through Lex’s skull an impossibility, that ostensibly makes the Man of Steel a flying target for Luthor to persistently aim his cunning, his resources, and his undivided attention. (For a chilling look at how Luthor perceives his otherworldly nemesis, you should check out Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo’s Lex Luthor: Man of Steel.)
But how does a mere mortal do battle with what is essentially a god? Introduced in the Superman radio serial in June of 1943, Kryptonite was presented as an irradiated hunk of meteorite that flew from the cataclysm of Krypton that somehow found its way to Earth. Its radiation was harmless to humans, but Kryptonite’s rays proved fatal to anyone born of the planet, meaning bad news for the man known as the Last Son of Krypton. (As far as deus ex machina goes, there have been less inspired ideas.) Shoehorned into comic books at the beginning of the fifties – possibly because writers were frustrated with the then all-invincible Man of Steel – Kryptonite became the bottom line for any crook, mad scientist, or ex-girlfriend with a grudge who wanted to take Superman down, effectively making “Achilles’ heel” synonymous with “lazy-ass writing”.
So it’s telling that the braintrust of Superman: TAS ultimately used this glowing green rock sparingly in the series, following John Byrne’s minimizing of the concept: there would be a finite amount available, and you could only get it in one shade (green, the most recognizable hue; in the Silver Age, there were at least twelve varietals of the substance, each with its own unique radiations, affecting humans and Kryptonians differently). In its premiere episode, Kryptonite was used more as a MacGuffin, there but for the grace of intrigue between Luthor’s machinations and Superman’s innate ability to overcome.
Pitting Luthor against Superman has proven to be a silly trifle in various other mediums, but in Superman: The Animated Series – and this episode in particular – the dynamic is aced beautifully. By the episode’s finish, Superman’s victory only steels Luthor in his conviction: Superman will die, and yes, it will be by his hand.
WHAT WORKED: What makes “A Little Piece of Home” work so well — not just as an episode of a children’s cartoon, but as a Superman story overall — is that we’re given an insightful, if unnerving, glimpse into how Lex Luthor operates as a villain. He doesn’t bellow at henchmen, nor does he cackle maniacally; with his dispassionate demeanor, his volatile temper, and his old intellect, Superman: The Animated Series‘ interpretation of Luthor is a character so fully realized that it feels perfectly natural to witness him doom men to die on a Saturday morning cartoon. (He orders hits in a manner not dissimilar to ordering a cup of coffee.) Clancy Brown brings his booming baritone to this thoughtful performance, smoothly laying out plans to his agent of death (House‘s Lisa Edelstein), while spouting rhetoric for his adoring public out of the corner of his crooked grin. It’s one of the finest vocal performances given to an animated series.
I love when a writer finds the perfect balance to Clark Kent’s life as a reporter and as a superhero. In “A Little Piece of Home” that balance is on full display: no matter where Clark goes — whether he’s chasing down a squad of rocket-powered thieves or hitting the pavement with Lois Lane — he keeps running into another chunk of Kryptonite. (The best bit: Lois brings a piece of the irradiated rock to lunch.) The peril of Kryptonite is always present, but the episode finds opportunities to inject the danger with a bit of cutting humor: a slightly depowered Superman has everyone thinking that poor Clark is just under the weather. Priceless.
The fact that Luthor can have Superman over a barrel in a way no other villain can — and make it seem plausible — is just another testament to the stupendous writing team on TAS. The late Hilary J. Bader scripted one of her best for the show, and she even went to the trouble of squeezing in a giant mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex into the proceedings.
WHAT DIDN’T: Ha. If I issued star ratings to these episode recaps, this sucker would have had five. A flawless episode.
“You work for me, Peterson. Don’t forget that. There shouldn’t be an opinion in your head that I didn’t put there.” – Luthor.
“Does Perry know you’re playing basketball on his time?” – Clark.
“Don’t call me ‘baby’.” – Mercy.
“Metropolis can be such a dangerous city, Peterson. I’d hate to wake up tomorrow and find out that something terrible had happened to you.” – Luthor.
BEST MOMENT: No contest. The aerial chase scene, where master thief Joey (Thomas Wilson) leads Superman towards a trap, might be the single greatest sequence the series ever conjured. Bright, blue skies, a snappy, Gershwin-esque score from Kristopher Carter, and a test of mettle for our Man of Tomorrow — all while Luthor smirks in the shadows — is pure, undiluted majesty, a moment that sums up how engaging, cool, and downright fun a Superman story can actually be.
EPISODE’S MVP: Lex Luthor. Once again it’s Clancy Brown’s demented philanthropist who steals the show out from under his hovering foe, and even though Luthor’s plans go pear-shaped under the deterministic willpower of Superman, it’s Luthor who keeps our attention rapt and our knuckles white. (Lex’s Best Line? “See that they’re dealt with,” delivered with an aristocratic sneer.)
– Gotta hand it to casting director Andrea Romano: Thomas F. Wilson — who will forever be cemented in cinematic history as Back to the Future‘s main heavy, Biff Tannen — as the cocky master thief who enjoys beating up Superman just a little too much was a flash of casting genius.
– “Wanna feel?” – Joey, Flexing bicep. “Feel what.” – Mercy, badass.
– Wait, wait, wait. A fire alarm goes off in a gigantic building during business hours, so all of the entrances and exits have been sealed off? Isn’t that completely against the law? Cartoons.
– Watching Luthor stew is fascinating thing to behold. Even in animation, you can tell when the wheels are turning in his head.
– “I don’t make deals with criminals.” – Superman. Luthor: FACED.
10 out of 10
Next: “Feeding Time”, soon.
Before: “Fun and Games”, here.