It’s hard to believe that a quarter-century went by without a new Superman cartoon on television. The last series to focus primarily on the Last Son of Krypton was Superman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1996 to 2000 and was part of the popular DC Animated Universe alongside Batman: The Animated Series, Static Shock, and Batman Beyond. While he continued to appear in subsequent DCAU spin-offs, and guest star in the two Batman reboots that followed, the closest there’s been to a Superman series in the 21st century have been Krypto the Superdog, on which he is a supporting character, and Legion of Super Heroes, in which a young costumed Clark is a member of an ensemble. By 2008, both shows were canceled, and DC and Warner Bros. Animation began to prioritize direct-to-video features geared towards an older, comics-reading audience.
Last week, this long drought finally ended with the premiere of My Adventures with Superman, a new animated series airing on Adult Swim and streaming on Max. My Adventures with Superman is delightful, a light-hearted take that infuses the whimsy of the “magical girl” animé genre without sacrificing the character’s history or identity. It’s friendly to uninitiated viewers and non-comics readers, and it’s appropriate for all ages. It is, essentially, the exact opposite of most Superman media produced for mass audiences over the past decade, which have leaned in a surprisingly brooding and brutal direction.
Jack Quaid (The Boys, Star Trek: Lower Decks) stars as the voice of Clark Kent, a bright-eyed Kansas boy who along with his best friend and roommate Jimmy Olsen (Ismel Sahid, Jury Duty) is about to begin an internship at metropolitan newspaper the Daily Planet. Clark is a sweetheart whose extraordinary extraterrestrial abilities are a closely-guarded secret, but when someone is in trouble, he can’t help but lend his strength, speed, and flight to those in need, as anonymously as possible. But, when he’s sighted rescuing his crush, fellow intern Lois Lane (Alice Lee, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist), from stolen military robots, Clark finally takes on the alter ego of Superman, costumed defender of Metropolis.
The broad strokes are familiar, and if the goal of this series is to present Superman to a new generation of fans, that’s exactly how it should be. However, there’s also plenty of specificity to My Adventures with Superman’s take on the character and his mythology. To begin with, by the end of the two-part premiere, Clark is only beginning to understand his origins. The crashed spacecraft in which he arrived has been slowly expanding under the soil of his adopted parents’ farm, and its holographic representation of his father Jor-El speaks only in the Kryptonian language, which Clark can’t understand. This means that he’ll have to gradually uncover the mystery of his doomed home planet, and could allow the storytellers to surprise us with a twist on Krypton’s history or legacy in the future.
MAwS’s premiere also sets up an unconventional set of ongoing villains, one drawn from the broader DC universe but not automatically associated with Superman. This implies that the new series may distinguish itself by not merely running through the expected Superman rogues gallery of villains. (So far, Lex Luthor is nowhere to be found.)
Above all, however, what distinguishes My Adventures with Superman from its peers and predecessors is its tone. While it’ll certainly entertain adult audiences who still dabble in youth-targeted cartoons, this is, without pretense, a kids cartoon. And, frankly, thank goodness. For the past 20 years, teens and adults have had no shortage of Superman screen adaptations designed to make Big Blue more “adult,” like DC’s other flagship character, Batman. Unfortunately, rather than opening up a greater spectrum of interpretations, nearly all of them followed one of two paths: Superman either turns evil, or he dies.
Stories about Superman going off the deep end and becoming a fascist dictator used to crop up in the occasional dark future or Elseworlds story, but in the 2010s, this became a preoccupation in Superman stories outside of the comics. Both the Zack Snyder film Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the Injustice video game series posit that the murder of Lois Lane would inevitably turn Superman into a merciless monarch, one whom only Batman and his allies could dethrone.
In DC’s line of direct-to-video animated features, things haven’t looked much brighter. Since its launch in 2008, the movie line has given us two separate adaptations of his brutal death at the hands of Doomsday, three unrelated tales of a Superman who rules the Earth with an iron fist, and another in which he is a tortured prisoner who vaporizes his captors with his heat vision. There have been exceptions and spots of levity, such as an animated adaptation of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, and The CW’s live-action Superman & Lois, but by and large, this has been the age of the Angry Red Eyes Superman.
Within that same time frame, Batman has been adapted for the screen in a wide variety of different tones, from the grim and violent Dark Knight Trilogy and Arkhamverse to the colorful and kid-friendly Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series or The Lego Batman Movie.
Both characters are over 80 years old and have been revamped and reinterpreted in hundreds of different ways by thousands of creative voices. And, while Superman deserves as many different iterations for mass audiences as his pointy-eared counterpart, I would argue that My Adventures with Superman captures more of what’s essential to the character than any non-comics adaptation in years.
He’s a man who should be a jaded outsider but is instead an open-hearted people-person who is here to help. He can throw down with the best of them, but that’s not why he’s here. As Christopher Reeve put it in a 1987 television interview, Superman is, first and foremost, a friend. And, as the title suggests, My Adventures with Superman invites audiences young and old to get to know him a little better.
My Adventures with Superman is now streaming on Max.
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