It’s September 6, 1996. Horrifyingly earwormy pop dominates the charts–Los Del Rio at number 1 with “Macarena,” and Donna Lewis in second with “I Love You Always Forever.” The situation at the box office is similarly dire, with Damon Wayans/Adam Sandler vehicle Bulletproof opening at number 1. Lower in the top 10 are such cinematic masterpieces as Tin Cup, First Kid, Independence Day, and A Very Brady Sequel.
In the news, three days ago the U.S. attacked targets in southern Iraq with cruise missiles in responsen to Iraqi military forces entering Iraqi Kurdistan. Yesterday, Hurricane Fran made landfall near Cape Fear, North Carolina, killing 27 people. One spot of good news: in four days, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty will be signed.
On TV, Superman: The Animated Series premieres with a TV movie, Superman: The Last Son of Krypton. As was common for similar cartoon premieres at the time, it was designed to be chopped into a number of standard episodes for reruns, and this is how it is usually encountered today, whether on television, in the DVD box set, or through streaming sites such as Amazon Prime (where I most recently watched it): as “The Last Son of Krypton” parts 1 through 3, placed at the beginning of the series run.
This division has an interesting effect due to the decision to make this an origin story. Nowadays that seems natural–since the modern superhero movie boom began in 2000, every major male hero in the MCU, plus Batman, Spider-Man (twice!), Superman, Hellboy, the X-Men, and many others have either been introduced to movie audiences, or reintroduced to a new franchise, by a film which presents their origin story–but in 1996 it was rather more optional. BTAS, for example, does not start with an origin story for Batman, nor does it give Robin an origin story until his third appearance. Nonetheless, STAS begins with an origin story, with the result that in reruns, box sets, and on streaming sites, Superman and Clark Kent don’t appear until the second episode.
Paradoxically, this seems to be a result of centering the title character as the primary focus of the show. As we’ve observed, Batman was rarely the focus of BTAS episodes; fittingly, his character functioned on the margins and in the shadows of the narrative. But Superman is different; from the start he is out in the open, providing his origin story to Lois Lane at the first opportunity, seeking to distinguish himself from what Ma Kent calls “that nut in Gotham City.” Batman’s greatest weapon is fear; Superman wants your love, and his reward at the end of this story is a cheering city. The narrative is seeking to differentiate them in the same way as the brighter, simpler art style introduced by STAS: Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El is, firmly, the main character of this story.
And yet, insofar as they are separate characters, Clark doesn’t appear until the 4:45 mark* of the second part, with Superman first being described in a news report that starts at 12:45, and not actually being shown on screen until 18:45. The word “Superman” isn’t even uttered until 4:47 in the third part.
But the context in which Superman receives his name gives us the key to what’s happening here. Lois, looking at a picture of Superman with Clark, Jimmy, and Perry White, gives him his name: “He’s strong. He flies. He’s the Nietzschean fantasy ideal all wrapped up in a red cape. Superman.” But the Nietzschean ubermensch isn’t a protector fantasy, which Nietzsche would have derided as the essence of “slave morality”; the ubermensch is strong, proud, independent, needing no one, master of a world built of his own achievements–exactly the man Lex Luthor presents himself as in his confrontation with Superman at the end of the third part. Superman, on the other hand, does need something from others: as we already noted, he craves the love and approval of the public. He comes across as far more human than Lex Luthor–or, for that matter, than Batman, who like Luthor owns or employs much of Gotham, manufactures military equipment, and takes part in clandestine criminal activities secure in the knowledge that his wealth and power will shield him from the consequences.
Far from the Nietzschean ideal, Superman is presented here as a direct rebuke to that ideal. His power is not the result of innate superiority, but rather his status as a refugee: on Krypton he’d be no stronger than a human. It is the environment of Earth, his place of exile, that empowers Superman, which is to say it is his exile itself.
And there we see why this story is framed as it is, spending fully a third of its runtime on Krypton. We get to know Krypton, experience characters there. We are treated to the tragedy of that world, betrayed by its protector Brainiac and condemned to die in fire, as Kal-El’s parents and grandfather fight to create the space in which to send him alone to safety. The first part ends precisely where it began, with the image (used in the opening credits of every episode) of Krypton exploding, followed by Kal-El’s pod entering some sort of vortex or wormhole, along with a swirl of debris from the exploding planet.
Thus, even though Clark himself doesn’t remember being Kal-El, the episode firmly cements the character as Kal-El for an entire episode, before introducing Clark and Superman in the second. Kal-El is the original, the core self; Clark and Superman are new identities taken on in the wake of a vast disaster that tore away young Kal-El’s family, his entire world.
Superman seems so strong, so powerful, and yet underlying that is, just as with Batman, a fragmented identity born out of trauma–a trauma which returns again and again, a buried memory flashed back to at the beginning of every episode. No wonder that swirl of debris falls across Earth as Kryptonite, a substance which is virulently toxic to Superman and near-harmless to others. Kryptonite doesn’t poison Superman, it triggers him! (Which, since this is fiction and therefore the “physical” is mental, looks just like him being poisoned.)
So no, not an ubermensch by any means; Superman is one fragment of the shattered identity of a traumatized child. He is a protector fantasy, just like Batman, projected outwards from someone terrified that his new world will violently (r)eject him just like his old one did. He protects us so we will love him and never send him away, protects the Earth so it will not die as Krypton did.
He’s more like that nut in Gotham City than he or his mother like to admit.
*All time stamps refer to the episode as presented on Amazon Prime, including WB logo and opening credits.
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