The last few weeks the twitterverse have bubbled with people arguing about The Snyder Cut of Justice League. This tends to be a proxy war for discussion of what people want to see out of DC Superhero movies. And with the Covid pandemic shutting down productions worldwide we have a chance to dwell.
This brings me to the topic of tonight’s essay. An episode of WB’s Superman: The Animated Series, titled “The Late Mr. Kent”. When I see people talking about DC characters I try to plug this particular episode of Superman The Animated Series. The Superman cartoon doesn’t get a whole lot of respect when compared to its counterpart, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series. This particular version of Batman cartoon was over 20 years ago but Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy are still coming back to voice the Joker and Batman in video games and movies. Their acting is that good. Superman didn’t hit that very high mark but it still had some great episodes. And for me, this is the best episode of the series.
This episode does two things well. For starters, the presentation. It’s a noir story with Superman. Superman is solving a mystery and giving dramatic voiceovers like a 1930s Private Eye. Can Superman find the real killer in time to save an innocent man from execution? The voiceovers are great and they let the animators show us the characters thinking and acting instead of talking. The other thing the episode does is that it gives Superman a problem that only Superman could solve. In this episode, Superman has a real ethical problem. Someone assassinates the journalist Clark Kent with a bomb and there’s no explainable way he could have survived. But Clark Kent is also Superman, so he does. And Superman needs exonerate an innocent man. Will he admit his secret identity to save this person?
This could easily be extended to a 90 minute movie but the cartoon ties it up with a bow in 20 minutes. It starts with a Double Indemnity style Flash Forward. The cast, Lois Lane, and Superman are attending a funeral. Only at the end do you realize it’s Clark Kent’s funeral. Flashback, to earlier. Clark Kent, the journalist, is interviewing a prisoner on death row. The prisoner claims they’re innocent. Clark, with Superman’s super-hearing, listens to his heartbeat and believes the guy. He decides to look into the case. Sure enough, with a little digging into the alibi he’s able to prove the man’s innocence.
Clark Kent drives off with the evidence in hand to lay it before the governor who can commute the death sentence. This is a line that really resonates this episode, that Superman wants this to be Clark Kent’s victory. But oh no, a bomb goes off in his car and there’s a witness nearby. Now we have the dramatic choice of this episode. There’s no way to explain how Clark survived a car bomb without admitting that Clark Kent is Superman. But he can’t let an innocent man die for a murder he didn’t commit. As Superman does in moments of ethical dilemma, he turns to his parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent.
This version of Clark’s parents works better than the Snyder version. Martha Kent on the phone with the police, failing to keep a poker face of grief as they inform her of her son’s death. And this Jonathan Kent, as opposed to Snyder’s version, clearly and unambiguously states that Superman can’t let that innocent man stay in prison. There is no “maybe let someone die to protect yourself.” Superman expresses another great line, that he needs Clark Kent and that he can’t be Superman all the time. But there is no choice; Superman must do the right thing.
Superman goes back to his apartment, which is enormous for a journalist’s salary. He finds that someone’s bugged his landline phone and worse, left a bomb in his apartment which goes off for him to save Lois in just the nick of time. But outside his apartment, he sees the cop who investigated the murder that kicked off everything. This is the revelation, that this cop committed the murder, framed someone for it, tried to kill Clark Kent, and has now blown up his apartment. Superman enlists Lois to help him get the guy to incriminate himself. When that fails, the detective goes after Superman with an attack helicopter. It’s a 20 minute episode, they needed to wrap it up. Superman literally has to break the innocent man out of prison seconds before his execution. The innocent man is exonerated, the cop is convicted, and the episode ends with them trading places.
The final scene of this episode, while legally implausible, is poetic, chilling ending. The murderer is in a gas chamber wondering how Clark Kent survived his car bomb. Then it dawns on him, “He’s Superman!” Cue the executioner flipping the switch. Roll credits.
This is a great episode with an ending that is just perfect.
It’s not all lemon pie though. Like many DC Animated shows including Batman and Batman Beyond this is a very dated show. And I’m not just talking about the fact that the evidence Superman finds is on floppy disks. It shows a kind of Tough-On-Crime mentality that seems very 90s. In this episode, Superman finds the real murderer. So obviously at the end of episode the real murderer is executed. He killed someone so Society kills him back. We’re not examining the Death Penalty, the killer doesn’t spend 20 years on death row, no we proved you’re a murderer so within a brief window of time you are put to death.
Writing in June 2020 this episode is topical. A black man is on death row for a crime they didn’t commit and their public defender failed to investigate evidence that would prove their alibi. To add another wrinkle, the police have framed him for the crime. It also shows a police officer being quickly convicted of their crime. And it shows that black man being given his freedom back when evidence proves his innocence.
Movies with the DC characters have been less profitable and less good than the Marvel universe. I think the way to get around this is to stop trying to imitate them. Marvel has their tight creative control over their crowd pleasing movies with Disney grade visual effects and marketing. I think the way to serve DC characters with this is to let more people play with their toys. Let more actors and writers have a crack at these characters. I didn’t like Joker all that much but it made money, it won awards, and the actors seemed to have fun doing it. The budget was a bit high but normal for a studio movie these days. I think if the studio said “hey we’ll give you creative control to make a Superman or Batman movie but you need to bring it in under $50 million dollars” I think they’d get some top tier talent interested and they’d have their pick of the best ideas. Sure Scorsese and Coppola might scoff at the loss of filmmaking’s art but I think most directors would say, “fuck yes I want to make a Batman movie!” They don’t need to make these upfront $250 million dollar bets or stick with Zach Snyder for 10 years. DC Heroes do not lack for good ideas or good characters. They need the studio to let people make movies.