Season One, Episode Seven — “The Way Of All Flesh”
By Jarrod Jones. When Metallo was introduced to the Superman mythology with Action Comics #252 (published May of 1959), he was billed as “THE MAN WITH THE KRYPTONITE HEART”. It was simplicity itself: an unstoppable, unlikable murderer named John Corben, meant as a one-off pulp villain who blundered into the hands of a scientist with ambitions to turn him into a cyborg powered with Kryptonite. (Seems implausible, but trust me: Things like that happen all the time in the DC Universe.)
And, for a while, Metallo stayed dead. Corben’s smarmy disposition made it easier to accept the character’s death by the end of his introductory story, but the concept of a Kryptonite-powered villain was an idea so easily recyclable (sometimes in the form of an irradiated monster man or a eye beam-firing giant ape), it was only a matter of time that the Man With the Kryptonite Heart would soon return to Superman’s four-colored world. (And yes, there was another character later showcased during the Silver Age using the name Metallo, but we needn’t discuss it).
John Byrne wasted no time pitting the Man of Steel against the adversary in 1987’s Superman #1, mostly as a means to present Kryptonite to the post-Crisis DCU. As far as depth ever went, Metallo was never given much in the way of pathos, though writer Geoff Johns made a feeble attempt in Secret Origin, his pre-New52 reboot, to give Corben a semblance of sorrow by attaching him to Lois Lane’s past (putting him in General Sam Lane’s command, and implying that he and Lois had a thing at one time or another), but there has yet — to this very day — ever been a definitive Metallo tale to grace the pages of DC Comics. And if you put some thought into it (like I obviously have) if ever there was a Superman villain that had the potential to be strictly A-List, John Corben would be it. And wouldn’t you know it? Once again the creators of Superman: The Animated Series were way ahead of the curve.
WHAT WORKED: Since the events of The Last Son Of Krypton, John Corben has been lying low and living well — from prison, of course. Kept in a secluded wing of the maximum-security pen Stryker’s Island, Corben has enjoyed a privileged life of rich, decadent food carted in by turnkeys with manners enough to address him as “Mr.” He sits atop a mountain of contraband with impunity, and has freedom enough to indulge in all of this in a smoking jacket. Yes, keeping his lips sealed after being apprehended by Superman in the LEXO suit affair has paid dividends for the mercenary, and life should be a breeze… if it weren’t for a rare, lethal virus killing Corben from the inside-out. Fortunately, his silent benefactor — Lex Luthor — has a solution.
The last three episodes of this series have each shared in the concept of a removal of power, and “The Way Of All Flesh” takes the tired attempts of de-powering Superman (though there is plenty of that) and moves the focus to the plight of John Corben. Before, he was a mercenary who made a decadent living off the misery of helpless people. When faced with his own mortality, he is given the opportunity for absolute power. When that power is achieved, his cold, callous mind is replaced with white-hot anger and his malice is magnified, but with all that fury nothing can ever be achieved to satisfy his desire to feel again. Where that would take Corben as a character is explored in future episodes of this series, giving a character that was never really given a chance to shine a new life. Now if only someone could get it on paper.
WHAT DIDN’T: As a debauched thug depicted in a children’s cartoon, Metallo’s baser desires get tamped down considerably. As a lout who has grown accustomed to getting what he wants — including, it would seem, whoever he wants — the episode’s writer, Stan Berkowitz, has to keep his vile baddie on a very, very tight leash. (Even when Corben explains his, erm, numbness to a doctor, Corben’s delivery of the line “pleasure” is uttered through clenched teeth.) But this is not so much a negative as it is an understanding of the limits that were placed on the show. Which is why it’s that much more perplexing that a comics creator hasn’t taken this character and made him as potent as he actually could be; a smirking killer who is every inch the Anti-Superman.
“Well, whaddaya know: parking validation.” – Lois. “Now there’s a page-one headline.” – Clark
“It’s so BIG, Mr. Luthor.” – Young Woman, hanging with the wrong crowd.
“I know about Dr. Vale. It’s just a matter of time before the police find them.” – Superman. “And what makes you think there’s any of him left to find?” – Luthor.
BEST MOMENT: Superman vs. Metallo, Round One. Superman finally takes on a nemesis who can match him toe-to-toe, even without a certain deus ex machina. No exo-suits, no missile-guided rubber duckies, just brute strength. And Corben is the snooty type who fights dirty. “I’m as strong as you are now,” the villain says to the Man of Steel, as they grapple ferociously against each other. “Almost,” is all Superman has for a retort. You can almost see the concern on Superman’s face as he takes on a trained assassin who now has the ability to bend steel in his bare hands. And then Corben drops a huge nugget of truth at his feet: As his chest plate slides open, John Corben smiles. “No. Stronger.” I think this was the first time — on this series, anyway — that we actually saw Superman fear for himself.
EPISODE’S MVP: Metallo. Malcolm McDowell provides vocal talents for the voice of John Corben, giving the character an aristocratic sneer that lends a serious menace to a self-indulgent snob that lashes out at the world when all the things he wants to touch are taken away from him. McDowell’s voice is the major highlight of the episode, taking Metallo far above a rote Superman Rogue, strengthening him as one of the premier villains of the animated series.
– The sexual innuendo is all over the place in this episode. Corben is such a horndog, that when he lays one on Lois in an act of sexual aggression, he feels nothing, which would imply that his ensuing tantrum and ultimate vendetta against Luthor can be entirely attributed to sexual frustration. I mean, let’s face it: he ain’t killing a billionaire because he can’t taste apples anymore.
– Nice flourish that Corben’s doctor would be named Vale, as in Professor Vale, the man who created Metallo in John Byrne’s Superman #1. It’s those little details that get me all giddy.
– Wait. So Superman had that bottle o’ virus stuffed in his briefs the entire time?
9 out of 10
Next: “Stolen Memories”, soon.
Before: “Feeding Time”, here.