The Demon Reborn

  Ra's al-Ghul needs Superman's powers to rejuvenate himself.
  Original Airdate: September 18, 1999
  Episode # 49 (STAS)
  Rating: * *

Credits Cast

Written by Rich Fogel
Directed by Dan Riba
Music by Michael McCuistion
Animation by Koko/Dong Yang

Kevin Conroy as Batman
Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred
David Warner as Ra's al-Ghul
Jeff Glen Bennett as Guard
Townsend Coleman as Thug Leader

Tim Daly as Superman
Dana Delaney as Lois Lane
Michael Horse as Ubu
Olivia Hussey as Talia
John Rubano as News Anchor

The presence of Batman and a traditional Batman adversary mean that this episode should be included in a Batman episode guide. Still, this is really a Superman episode, reflecting the particular attributes (and weaknesses) of the Superman series. Though the episode is not out of place in the present guide, the following critique will be.

"Leave it to you to charge in with both arms swinging," Batman complains to Superman. A fair criticism, though matters could hardly be otherwise. A protagonist's attributes dictate the sort of story he will appear in, and as Superman is a physical hero of invincible strength and otherworldly powers, so he must charge with his fists. (It would make as little sense for Superman to regularly rely on his brain as it would be for Sherlock Holmes to regularly rely on a pistol.) "Myxyzpixilated" is the exception that proves the rule: Every hero needs a change of pace, and in that episode Supes has to outwit rather than outwrestle his opponent. But if every Superman episode were like that, there would be little point in having Superman be the hero. What is the point of giving your hero super strength and agility unless he has to use it, over and over again?

So Superman's adventures typically turn into the over-the-top equivalent of playground brawls, and poor Tim Daly is too often reduced to grunting and groaning. It may be impolite to point out, but it must also be noted that there is something almost sexually masochistic in the way Superman is always arching his back and writhing as electricity or laser beams play over his physique. It's a good thing he dresses in that slightly unreal blue and red cotton-polyester blend, and not in black leather, or it all might just be a little too much.

The sameness of the adventures is relieved only by Superman's winning personality. This is a significant victory, for the usual complaint is that he has no character, no tragedy or inner conflict to give him depth or interest. But Daly and the show's creative team have discovered behind that ridiculous "S" a real person, and have done so by showing us what would surely have to be the case: Superman may have been born on Krypton, but he was raised in Kansas; he's not "Superman" (all powerful alien) disguised as mild-mannered Clark Kent, but modest, unassuming Clark Kent doing public service in the guise of Superman. The resulting hero is a plain-spoken, commonsensical bourgeous from middle America, one with a strong enough conscience to know he must use his powers wisely, and with enough distance on himself to know that he's absurdly over-endowed with advantage. This mix of serious purpose, wry humor, and moral equipoise recalls an earlier American self-ideal, but in the present age of unreflecting cynicism it feels bracingly original.

This personality finds its natural outlet in a contrast with the brash Lois Lane: milk and cookies with a bourbon chaser. She's the wisecracking reporter with a heart of gold, who knows all because she sees through all, and Dana Delaney has a Hecht of a good time in the role—she's Rosalind Russell pining for her Cary Grant, never suspecting he's borrowed Ralph Bellamy's wardrobe. Of course, the cartoon series is not the first to discover this facet of the story, and it surely wasn't an independent discovery, either. Both the Richard Donner Superman and TV's Lois & Clark saw that Superman's intrinsic monotony could only be relieved by turning him into a romantic fantasy. The point is that he and Lois are necessary complements to each other: She represents the eternal adversary that the American male can't roust with his fists; he represents the icon that humanizes the American woman by compromising her dream of absolute independence. If perfect autonomy implies absolute power and absolute freedom, the Kent-Lane relationship implies that compromise is preferable to perfection.

But there are solid demographic (and hence economic) reasons the cartoon series can't follow the sure logic of the situation and favor horseplay over fisticuffs: Kids of all ages (including the present writer, who for his own part can't stand Lois & Clark) go "Ewwwwww!" at the thought. So instead it remains unsettled, every fibre of principle pulling it toward screwball romance, but remaining immovably anchored in the action genre. Unable to develop in its natural direction, the show too often ends up beating itself with frenzied but fruitless abandon.

The problem is structural, instrinsic, and deep-rooted, and though it can be transcended with luck and persistence (see The Batman/Superman Movie a.k.a., World's Finest), it's difficult to get past and defeats even Ra's al-Ghul. Here, the old devil is in desperate need of an energy transfusion and Superman is to be the unwilling donor. The only question, then, is whether and with how much difficulty said transfusion will be pulled off. Superman is the one in danger, and that's not a terribly convincing threat. We wind up with nothing but a lot of sound and fury, signifying—well, signifying that we've just watched another Superman show.

Related Episodes
   * The Demon's Quest
   * Avatar
   * Out of the Past
   * World's Finest
   * Knight Time
   * The Call
   * Heroes

What Others Are Saying ...
"... freaky to see Ra's actually showing some of his age."World's Finest

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