Superman: An American Icon At War With (And For) His Legacy, Part 4

Up in the sky, look – it’s part four of our five-part Superman series! Written […]

Mockingbird / 5.6.11

Up in the sky, look – it’s part four of our five-part Superman series! Written by Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet, you can find the other parts of the series here, here, and here, respectively. And again, we’re dedicating these posts to the memory of Superman/DCAU whiz Dwayne McDuffie:

Part 4: Brainiac as Kryptonian Sin

A legacy has both the power to heal and to harm. While Superman loves what he knows of his home world Krypton, we also know that, ironically, his great weakness is the most tangible piece of his home world, the substance known as Kryptonite. This fascinating truth is cleverly illustrated in the Superman: The Animated Series episode “A Little Piece of Home.” The most literal manifestation of what Krypton was is the one thing that can kill him.  What is worse, those few sentient beings that remain from Krypton turn out to be adversaries he must fight.

When Superman finally meets Brainiac, in the episode “Stolen Memories,” he wants to think the best of Brainiac. He does not possess his father’s knowledge of Brainiac’s treachery. When Brainiac and Luthor meet for the first time, they broker a deal in which Brainiac gives Luthor access to Kryptonian technology in exchange for all of earth’s cultural and technological knowledge. A curious Superman visits Brainiac ship, where he is surprised to find that Brainiac knows his Kryptonian name, Kal-el. “Have you been to Krypton?” Superman asks.  “I AM Krypton,”  Brainiac replies.


Brainiac goes on to say that he and Kal-el are both orphans of the same world and that, while Superman has been living on Earth, he has been exploring the universe. Brainiac lets Superman touch an orb containing the full knowledge of Kryptonian science, language, and culture. “Go ahead,” he tells Superman, “touch your legacy.”  Superman is dazzled.  Brainiac then offers him the chance to learn more in exchange for Superman’s help in exploring the galaxy. Superman replies, “But Earth is my home.”  “Powers such as yours should not be confined to a single infinitesimal dot,” Brainiac replies, “Consider my offer: in exchange for this world I am offering you the universe.”

You would think that, having heard this kind of offer from Luthor, Superman would instantly reject Brainiac’s proposal. Yet instead of refusing, he returns home and wonders, “The universe… is it even possible?”  Brainiac’s offer to give Kal-el his “true” Kryptonian identity plays on both his ignorance and his longing for a deeper connection to his Kryptonian legacy. Though a Man of Steel, Superman is emotionally vulnerable.

Fortunately, Superman gets a flash of memories from the orb that reveal what Brainiac withheld about his role in Krypton destruction. This unexpected providence spurs Superman to confront Brainiac about whether he’s been fully truthful about his offer and the nature of his quest.  Before long Superman discovers the Brainiac’s real purpose of assimilating the knowledge of planets. He confronts him about the serial genocide and discovers that the Kryptonian supercomputer who declared “I am Krypton” cares more about the knowledge and ideas of his planet than the flesh and blood denizens who once lived there, or on any world.

Superman: You destroyed those planets, didn’t you?  And every living soul on them.

Brainiac: Only their knowledge was important. It was what I was programmed to collect and protect.

Superman: But why kill?

Brainiac: The fewer beings who have the knowledge, the more precious it becomes.

Yet in the series pilot, we saw that Brainiac was not programmed to collect and protect the knowledge of any planets besides Krypton. Had Brainiac truly followed his programming, he would have helped the people of Krypton evacuate before the planet’s demise. At some point Brainiac decided that preserving himself as the sum of Kryptonian culture was better than serving the Kryptonians who built him. Having made this decision, the consignment of an entire planet’s population to death becomes a casual act he could repeat indefinitely.


Brainiac turns out to be even more destructive and despotic than Lex Luthor. Once Superman discovers his villainous nature, he destroys Brainiac in battle and captures the orb. But by this time Brainiac has downloaded a copy of his programming into LexCorp computers and is again dormant, this time in Lex Luthor’s property.

For the rest of the series we see that Superman understands that, as the Kryptonian Kal-el, he is responsible for maintaining vigilance regarding future attacks on Earth, from Brainiac as well as Luthor. In other words, Superman realizes that both Earth and Krypton have legacies marred by evil. Not surprisingly this is an apt metaphor for the America Superman represent; there are righteous and sinful things to be found in all of the legacies that contribute to what America is.

The genius of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s take on Brainiac is in making him the literal embodiment of the sin nature of Krypton, its hubris, its self-regard, its callous disdain for other societies, and its exceptionalism. Brainiac’s role as the embodied sin of Krypton is best illustrated by how he always manages to return to create trouble for Superman despite being defeated over and over. Whereas Superman can see the potential for goodness even in Lex Luthor, he recognizes that Brainiac can’t be redeemed or reformed – he can only die in battle.  He is, if you will, the old man from Krypton who must constantly be put to death.

What is worse, while Superman can destroy any one physical incarnation of Brainiac, the Brainiac program is more subtle and conniving than any other of his opponents. When he bests Brainiac in direct battle, Brainiac takes Luthor hostage and forces Luthor to build a body for him. When this plot gets foiled, Brainiac goes so far as to mentally manipulate Bruce Wayne into giving him the resources he needs to leave Earth.  Brainiac is shrewd enough to realize that he can’t defeat Superman in direct combat, and therefore forces Superman to do battle with him through twisting and manipulating the people Superman has sworn to protect. Brainiac’s schemes are so subtle and far-reaching that his most diabolical schemes extend beyond Superman: The Animated Series into the Justice League animated series.

In the end, both Luthor and Brainiac represent the same temptation and opposition to Superman. Both believe that a true and rightful legacy is one of power and glory rather than service.  Superman’s praxis of being the servant of all offends them. Luthor and Brainiac are not only both averse to serving anyone; they seek to attain nothing less than godhood. By the end of Superman: The Animated Series, Superman will face the temptation and offer of a Babel-style legacy from an actual god and this time, despite his best efforts, he will fail.

Click here for Part Five: Darkseid and the Dark Side of Superman.