Superman: An American Icon At War With (And For) His Legacy, Part 3

…In which our hero, with the help of trusted guide Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the […]

Mockingbird / 4.27.11

…In which our hero, with the help of trusted guide Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet, takes a long hard look at his heritage and, consequently, his identity. Click here for Part One, and here for Part Two. Again, this series is dedicated to the memory of Dwayne McDuffie:

Part 3:  A Hero With A Dual Legacy

It is to executive producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s credit that throughout their work on Superman: The Animated Series they followed a narrative path in which we see clearly that Superman’s ultimate battle is not with supervillains and corrupt business tycoons but with any/all forces that challenge his dual identities as 1. the last son of Krypton and 2. a Kansas farmboy. In other words, Superman’s ongoing struggle in STAS has to do with legacy.

This path of both conflict and preservation is established in the brilliant series pilot “The Last Son of Krypton.” Jor-el, Superman’s father, has been monitoring the planet Krypton’s seismic patterns for some time and realizes that the planet is about to face catastrophe. Going before the Kryptonian high council Jor-el pleads with them to evacuate the planet and save the entire Kryptonian race.  The council, incredulous at best, consults the Kryptonian supercomputer Brainiac to confirm whether or not Jor-el’s findings are reliable.  To Jor-el’s great dismay Brainiac declares that his findings are wildly inaccurate and that there is no danger.


Incensed, Jor-el privately confronts Brainiac about this lie. Brainiac admits immediately that, yes, Krypton is doomed, and that he lied because the planet had mere hours left before total destruction.  What good would it do to tell them the truth when they would spend their last doomed hours averting what was by now unavoidable?  Brainiac then declares he is Krypton, the embodiment of all its knowledge and culture, and decides that saving himself is the highest good that can be obtained given the circumstances.  He declares that Jor-el is a criminal and sets the Kryptonian security forces against him.

In a last ditch effort to save at least one Kryptonian, Jor-el meets with his wife and father-in-law to persuade them to send his son Kal-el (our Superman) somewhere safe.  They decide to send Kal-el to Earth where he will be safe and where the yellow sun (as opposed to the Kryptonian red sun) will endow him with unusual powers.   We, of course, know that Kal-el’s little ship crashes in Kansas where it is discovered by Jonathan and Martha Kent who adopt the boy and name him Clark.  This covers the first of three parts in the series pilot.


What makes this version of Superman’s origin brilliant – and a substantial change in Superman’s history – is making Brainiac Krypton’s administrative supercomputer.  In the comic book continuity, Brainiac was from an entirely different world whose self-appointed mission was to collect planets and cultures in a quest for knowledge, before destroying those planets in order to ensure that the knowledge was something only he could possess.  By making Brainiac a fellow Kryptonian, Dini and Timm set the foundation for Superman eventually to discover that even though his Kryptonian legacy includes the very good and beneficent influence of his parents, via Brainiac this legacy also includes destruction, deceit, and conquest.  In a similar way, his Earthly legacy includes both Jonathan and Martha Kent’s kindness as well as Lex Luthor’s will-to-power.

Discovering this Kryptonian legacy, and the powers that go with it, form the central emotional struggle Clark Kent faces in the second part of the series pilot.  As Clark gets older he begins to realize that he has powers no one else has.  He finds them terrifying, and when he shares this with his parents he is shown the truth about his heritage.  Clark’s initial reaction to discovering that he is the last living son of Krypton is dismay and rejection. As American icons go, this could be described as Clark Kent discovering that tragedy and death factor strongly in his heritage, that his heritage is not merely local but alien.  This is not too surprising a motif to emerge in a character created by Jewish immigrants, America being what it is through a combination of native and immigrant populations.  Clark is shocked to realize that everything he has considered his real life is only one part of his identity.


In vernacular terms we could say that this is where the American child learns not only about the Revolutionary War and about the liberties that American citizenship provides but also about slavery, the Civil War, the history of acquiring land from Indians and other unpleasant aspects of American expansion.  This is the critical phase in Clark’s life: where he has to decide what to make of his dual legacy as both an Earthling and a Kryptonian.  By now, of course, we know that he is a hero, so it should come as no surprise that he decides to do his best to honor the best of both traditions. He also becomes aware that both legacies he has inherited are characterized by evil as well as good. The stage is set for Kal-el/Clark Kent to become the Superman we recognize.


Rather than summarizing the rest of the pilot, suffice it to say that Dini and Timm brilliantly set up the two legacies Superman spends the rest of the series both preserving and fighting against.

The end of the series pilot reveals this mixture perfectly.  Superman defeats a battle droid created by Lex Luthor that Luthor planned to give to the warring state of Kasnia in exchange for an opportunity to build a more expensive battle suit to pitch to the Pentagon. Luthor may be too clever to get arrested, but not too clever to avoid Superman’s notice.  Sure enough, when Superman comes to Luthor’s office, Luthor offers him the opportunity to join him in creating a new order, not just for Metropolis but for the world.  As Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor so suavely puts it, a being with Superman’s powers could help him “on a global scale”.  Luthor is simply the first villain to make Superman such an offer, a chance to rule the world in exchange for allying himself with a power-hungry pragmatist interested in building a legacy and an empire for himself.  Superman infuriates Luthor with his silence and finally responds, “I’ll be watching you, Luthor”.


BUT, this is not the final scene of the episode. Instead, we are shown a scene in which a dormant Brainiac springs into action, murdering the crew of an alien spacecraft that has discovered him drifting in space. Brainiac commandeers the vessel and begins we know not what… yet. Superman has foiled a villain on Earth but has yet to confront a villain from Krypton. Lacking any understanding of Krypton’s legacy beyond the love of his parents, Superman will discover that his Kryptonian legacy has more death in it then he can imagine.


Join us next week for Part 4: Brainiac as Kryptonion Sin!