It's time again for another installment of the Custom Order Rewatch by Exnihil (or C.O.R.B.E.N. for those in the Venn diagram overlap of obsessive abbreviators and Metallo fans).
When last we met, we had knocked out a solid 21 episode run of Superman: The Animated Series. This time, Supes begins to share his space, begrudgingly at first, with a three-part STAS team-up with his Gotham counterpart, then yielding to a full back-and-forth episode ping-pong with The New Batman Adventures. And both of our heroes make way for a mid-season interlude by the Main Man. Wouldn’t you?
You'll notice, when you get down to the full table at the bottom, that I’ve abandoned the alternating "bands of white color" scheme to separate episodes. This is just an aesthetic choice, as I'm starting to interweave multiple series (trust me, it's only going to get worse) and I thought it would be easier to keep track of which episode was part of which series this way.
In any case, let's take a look and see...
As I alluded to above, we kick off this season with the three-part World's Finest, bringing the Gotham and Metropolis sides of our story together at last. I like to imagine that the early parts of Superman's story seen last time around were running concurrently with the latter events of Batman: The Animated Series and even into Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero. Beyond that, as we moved into some of the more "interstellar" aspects of Superman's development (Lobo, Brainiac, etc.) there is obviously a bit of a time gap on the Batman side. This would have likely been when some of the Babs/Dick drama was taking place. But all of that is in the future (or... well.. their past, I suppose) as, for now, we get to enjoy what is - in my opinion - one of the most enjoyable hour-plus blocks of the DCAU thus far.
Tons of delightful little easter eggs and fan-squealingly good moments in this opener. No time is wasted making short work of the secret identity quandary (Supes cheats, but Bats cheats harder). The Bruce Wayne/Lois Lane romance angle is unexpected, but actually not surprising given her relationship with Superman thus far. Luthor and the Joker are each remarkably true to form - one can literally feel the disgust Lex has throughout. The only character I think doesn't get a fair shake in this one is Mercy Graves, who ends up playing a decidedly second-fiddle to Harley Quinn. Best of all, even though "WF" can completely work as a stand-alone film, I think it's nice that a couple seeds are planted for future stories (Joker's money troubles; Bruce’s computer being infected with the Brainiac code). All in all, a great multi-parter that acts as both an intersection point to bring two stories together, and the launching point for the much larger shared universe to come.
Since the team-up reintroduced the Caped Crusader after a season-long absence, it makes sense that we would want to spend a bit of time to catch up with him. That’s exactly what we do with Sins of the Father. New addition, Tim Drake, acts as our P.O.V. character guiding us through the complex world of the Batman. A lot of the success of this episode this rests on how much is not said, but rather implied by the actions of the supporting cast. We see an absent Dick Grayson and an implication of something gone wrong ("Most unfortunate"), an Alfred who is clearly worried about Bruce and not so subtly acting as an instigator to get Tim involved, a Batgirl who seems well-ingrained in daily operations... there is definitely a new normal in place for the Bat-family. From a design standpoint, it is a tiny bit jarring to see the more "cartoony" art style of STAS applied to the darker world of Gotham but, honestly, it's not all that bad. Between the season-long break, and the re-intro of Bruce and the Joker in "WF," I think it’s as near to a smooth transition as could have been hoped for. In any case, the strong story more than makes up for it, accomplishing a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. One small thing... did Alfred really just say Bruce suffered a "Shock to the System"? Foreshadowing is one thing, Alfred... jumping the gun by like three years is quite another. :-)
We leave Gotham now for a visit to a Brave New Metropolis. This back and forth between the two worlds will be the precedent throughout this season. I experimented a bit with longer arcs for each, but - in the end - decided I liked the light/dark counterpoint. I feel that alternating this way accurately reflects the dichotomy between the styles of our two main heroes and, accordingly, of the DCAU overall. "BNM" is mostly a Lois story - an appropriate detour after her soul searching in "World’s Finest". I dug this ep a good deal. I liked seeing Mercy pumped up again after her turn in "WF"; Emil Hamilton still screwing things up by using Kryptonian tech; Supes all baggy-eyed, wondering about other dimensions; and I laughed out loud (probably inappropriately) at down-and-out Angela Chen.
Back to the dark with You Scratch My Back as Dick Grayson is all growed-up. Enjoyable sting operation (both on Catwoman and the audience, really), but maybe a wee bit creepy with Selina hitting on somebody who - while certainly a consenting adult by this point - has spent the majority of his time in the public eye as a child. I dunno… I know she never actually met him as a kid, but still… something feels wrong. And what the heck is up with her costume? Why does her skin turn white when she puts on the mask? Weird... nice Audrey Hepburn 'do, though.
...and into the light with Livewire. Ugh. Just... ugh. What the heck is Leslie Willis' problem? I get that she's like the Howard Stern of Metropolis or whatever, but her complaints against the Man of Steel are so facile. I'm sure it doesn’t help that Lori Petty is a horrible voice actress, but I’m hard pressed to see how this woman has any listening audience whatsoever with such an annoying, single-threaded hook. Whatever... at least Bibbo shows up. Just realized that Leslie Willis has the same intials "LW" as "Live Wire". Again... ugh.
Palate cleanser time with Double Talk. Poor mixed-up, little Arnold Wesker. "Good enough for the state," indeed. Amazing dream sequence... I really dug that ethereal flute music that punctuated how truly off-kilter he is. It is nice to see a Bat-villain finally making a go of it, though, and I loved the super cheeky-cameo by a couple of intrepid reporters chilling in the park.
We next get a return visit by season one creep, Edward Lytener, in his newly-designed (and quite Jack Kirby-inspired) Luminus garb. Totally disposible episode, but not bad. A random character bit that I enjoyed was watching Lex Luthor unwinding by practicing archery; it's small details like that which are not at all required for the story, but nevertheless help to make these characters seem more three dimensional.
I felt that going into mid season the final episodes of each of the two series should each have an element of plot "importance" so I went with Joker's Millions and Ghost in the Machine respectively. "JM" is packed with continuity: Joker’s money troubles, the ongoing friendship between Harley and Ivy (and the latter’s distaste for the Joker), a cool Laughing Fish shout out, Bruce Wayne referencing the events of "World’s Finest," and the Penguin finally going legit (or is he?).
"Ghosts in the Machine" accomplishes much the same on the Superman side, showing the fall out (or at least the beginning of it) of the deal with the devil that Luthor has made with Brainiac. Very powerful to see Luthor basically made a slave - forced to work for days at the behest of a machine. Whatever else Luthor may be, he is definitely human first, so this humiliation definitely deepens his hatred for all things alien. I feel this episode offers a double-layered statement on servitude, as we see Mercy Graves - on the flip side of the theme - willingly accepting her own subservience out of gratitude. Interesting stuff.
And now - since we’re getting so heavy - what better place to go next than to dial it back with a mid-season comedic interlude? Having been introduced to Lobo last season, I felt this might be a good spot to revisit the misadventures of the Main Man. I know that the Lobo Webseries debuted much later, but - rather than dump all the eps at once, I thought it better to sprinkle them throughout. Originally intended as a spin-off show pitched by Boyd Kirkland, once it was passed over in favor of Batman Beyond, the initial story arc was later repurposed into these Flash-animation vignettes. Horribly simplistic and totally crass, they exist today as a window into the past of the early 2000s (in a way, not dissimilar to Lobo himself). In any case, enjoy if you can: Lobo is a Four Letter Word, Market Day, Pit Stop, It's Fraggin' Time Again and Payback Time. Le sigh.
BUT... the saving grace: placing the first Lobo arc at midseason does marvelously set up the comedic end button of Warrior Queen between Lobo and Maxima, another clueless alien making life annoying for Supes. Man, there sure are a lot of convenient space portals in the DCAU! I love Angela Chen’s "Thank you." She is rapidly becoming my favorite supporting character.
You may have noticed that with the exception of "Sins of the Father," we didn't see the new Tim Drake version of Robin at all in the first half of the season. That was by design, as I figured that no matter how good he performed out of the gate, he would still need time under Bruce’s training regimen before he was "street ready". We see him step up to meet that challenge in Never Fear, acting as the balance to Batman’s natural tendencies (that's sort of in the job description for a Robin, ya know) as he confronts the new and improved (and I mean like, way improved) Scarecrow. Tim earns Bruce’s respect in a big way here, though there are still important lessons to be learned, "A little fear is a good thing."
A bit of a Superman filler (though still very enjoyable) with Monkey Fun, as we get a glimpse into Lois' military brat childhood (explaining a bit of that "intrepid" quality, I imagine). Titano, the return of the Superman's space suit and ship, Bibbo Bibowski... overall, as advertised in the title, it is a bit of fun. But as that pendulum swings, so too does it swing back with..
Love is a Croc. Boy, oh boy, is that Baby-Doll a sad character, or what? The things I liked first: really nice transition music throughout, honest emotion about her lifelong self-hatred, the cool cross-series reference to the Daily Planet. But... no, just no to the Croc/Baby-Doll relationship. I get that there is a natural codependency - and on paper it kind of works - but the visual reality of the hulking Croc with the, for all intents and purposes, child-sized Baby-Doll is downright disturbing. Especially as she insists on talking to him in baby talk throughout. I’m not 100 percent on this, but I believe Baby-Doll is one of the characters who has never been adapted to the comics. It’s fairly clear to see why.
By contrast, the super-annoying Livewire has appeared in comics (perhaps more tolerable without her voice). She's back for a second go-round this season in Double Dose. I like her no more this time out, though her appearance is tempered somewhat with the return of the Parasite. Nice continuity with Leslie mocking him for his cable-TV plea bargain, and sort of a funny bit that the two guys she tempts in this ep are both janitors. That’s all I got.
Next up, I sort of parlayed the theme of the overboard "wild" woman placing a similar adversary for Batman in The Ultimate Thrill. I can’t put my finger on it, but whatever it is that annoys me about Livewire is absent in Roxy Rocket - maybe better voice acting? Charity James (hmm... almost sounds like a character name, itself) provides a sort of old-fashioned vampiness to Roxy, whose whole look is a bit retro golden-age, in a Rocketeer sort of way. I like the little touches in the ep as well: The reference to Soder Cola (Bibbo’s drink of choice), the foreshadowing of Farmer Brown, and the evidence that no matter how legit he may look, old Pengy is never on the up and up.
A much later episode originally - but I wanted to clear the decks of hanging threads before expanding the universe too much next season - so, since there isn't too much intersection with anything else, this is as good a place as any for Absolute Power, and the final dispensation of Jax-Ur and Mala. In a way, it actually does sort of fit here as it continues Superman's deeper and deeper exploration of outer space with his ship, and the setting kind of sets the stage for the finale.
Before we get to Superman's finale, however, we'll first deal with Batman's. There is no better way to end this initial TNBA arc, I feel, than with Old Wounds. It serves as both a graduation and passing of the torch to Tim, and an answer to the season-long question as to what actually happened between Bruce/Babs/Dick to set up the new status quo. Next season we will see a diminished role of Nightwing and an increased one for Robin, so this is a perfect transition. It also perfectly bookends Joker's appearance in the opener, and provides an eerie note of foreshadowing, "Do I hit your kids? Oh... I guess I do."
And speaking of foreshadowing… daaa, daaa, DAAAAAHHHH… Father's Day. Just as with last season's Superman finale, we dig a bit deeper into the New Gods mythology, as the menace of Darkseid grows. What was at first an indirect assault (with the arming of Bruno Mannheim) now escalates into a direct confrontation with Kalibak, and the future promise of someone who can take down the Man of Steel just by looking at him! Exciting stuff! I love the music at the beginning when Lois is confronted with the Apokoliptian tech, and the adorable interchange as the Kents tell Lois about how much Clark talks about her. Nice finale, with a bit of an "Empire Strikes Backs" midway feel to it.
Okey dokey, with that, let's see how it all looks on our newly-updated board (now in full-color):
BOOM! As in TUBE!
Up next: Custom Season 8 - The Expanding Universe