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The 15 Most Heartbreaking Moments In Superman: The Animated Series

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The 15 Most Heartbreaking Moments In Superman: The Animated Series

The Man of Steel’s adventures have been explored in many different media outside of the comics, but few have enjoyed the critical and fan acclaim lavished on Superman: The Animated Series and with good reason, too! The show is one of the most compelling and beautifully realized depictions of Superman’s exploits ever rendered outside of the comics, featuring superb voice acting, great character work, spectacular action and a rousing score (what more could one want from a Superman show?). The series has a great pedigree, drawing influence from the spectacularly beautiful Fleischer and Famous Studios’ Superman cartoons of the ’40s.

RELATED: Tooning Out: 15 Failed Cartoon Sequels, Spin-Offs, And Reboots

While the Fleischer and Famous cartoons offered gorgeous, art deco and retro-futurist visuals, there wasn’t a great deal going on story-wise. Like its predecessor Batman: The Animated Series, the show combines beautiful visuals with witty writing and compelling drama. For all the show’s bombastic action set pieces (and there are many), it’s most laudable asset is its heart. While a great many contemporary animated shows manage to smuggle a great deal of sentiment into their content, there was far less of a precedent for this in the mid ’90s. Let’s review some of the show’s most heartbreaking moments from across the show’s three seasons.

15. THE DEATH OF KRYPTON

the death of krypton

We’ve seen Krypton blow up either on the page or on screen so many times, it’s difficult to give this huge and tragic moment the gravitas and punch it deserves. After all, this is the most defining tragedy in comics, right up there with the shooting of the Waynes or the radioactive spider-bite!

The show wisely takes the time to get us to invest in Jor and Lara-El rather than rushing to Earth as quickly as it can. We get to spend TIME with Jor-El as a scientist and as a credible action hero, with more narrative agency than we ever got from Marlon Brando (or ever would until Russell Crowe’s turn in Man of Steel). We share in his pain as he’s dismissed by Krypton’s ruling council as “an upstart scientist with apocalyptic visions”. Thus, when Krypton eventually dies we get a genuine sense of loss.

14. EULOGY FOR CLARK KENT

EULOGY FOR CLARK KENT

“The Late Mr Kent” is easily one of the best episodes of the entire series, seamlessly blending super heroics and real human drama within a film noir inspired narrative framework. The story sees Clark Kent faking his own death to catch a murderer and exonerate an innocent man facing the death penalty. The episode opens on Clark Kent’s funeral and the story is told through a series of flashbacks that demonstrate throughout just how important Clark Kent is to the mythology.

As the man says himself “I am Clark, I need to be Clark. I’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time”. We also see that Clark is ready to compromise his secret identity in the name of justice, but most heartbreaking of all is when Lois (who’s typically dismissive and aloof to Clark) tearfully confesses to Superman how much she liked and respected Clark.

13. MENTORING GREEN LANTERN

mentoring green lantern

Kyle Rayner may not be the standout Green Lantern for younger readers but for those of us who cut our teeth on the comics of the ’90s this put-upon hero wasn’t just accountable for Sector 2814 but the whole galaxy. Thus, it’s nice then to see that Kyle is the first Green Lantern to debut in animated form in this show (though he would be replaced by John Stewart in Justice League).

The show casts Rayner as a downtrodden comic book illustrator struggling with constant rejection and plagued by self-doubt with only Jimmy Olsen (his “one-man fan club”) showing belief in him. Even after receiving his ring from Abin Sur, Kyle is tormented by self-doubt and insecurity until an assist from Superman gives him the strength of will to master the ring and defeat Sinestro.

12. BIZARRO WORLD

bizarro world

Given the family friendly tone the show was aiming for, it could easily have cast Bizarro as a lumbering buffoon played for laughs. Sure he has a few slapstick moments, but the show generally treats this warped character with the sense of tragedy and pathos he deserves. The show demonstrates his genuine but ill-conceived attempts to do good and doesn’t shy away from the catastrophic consequences of what happens when a character with Superman’s power set makes some cataclysmic errors.

To protect Bizarro from a planet that fears and shuns him (and to prevent further carnage through his “good deeds”), Superman gives him the gift of his own world to “protect” complete with lush vegetation and a savagely violent pet from The Fortress of Solitude’s bestiary. Superman’s willingness to make this tragically backward character happy despite the destruction he’s caused brings his heroism to the fore in this bittersweet moment.

11. INSPIRING DOCTOR FATE

inspiring doctor fate

Throughout the DC mythology, Superman is (rightly) treated as the benchmark by which all other superheroes measure themselves and this holds just as true in the DC Animated Universe. In the Lovecraft-inspired “Hand of Fate”, we see Superman battle the demon Karkull. Since Superman is traditionally vulnerable to magic, he tries to enlist the help of Doctor Fate; but Kent Nelson is in no rush to step back into the fray, declaring himself out of the game.

His unwillingness to help his friend Superman at this desperate time is as heartbreaking as the willingness with which Superman propels himself into a fight that will likely end in his death. Fate’s warning that Superman is wasting his life on an “endless battle” underlines the inherent tragedy of Superman’s never-ending battle for truth and justice.

10. A TRIBUTE TO JACK KIRBY

jack kirby marvel comics

Jack Kirby was one of comicdom’s most prolific legends. Though history will likely remember him as the co-creator of Captain America and The Fantastic Four, his legacy to DC fans will forever be his “Fourth World” saga which combined elements of science fiction with polytheistic mythologies to create the New Gods. Despite his many and varied contributions to comics he tragically never quite achieved the wealth and status of contemporaries like Bob Kane and Stan Lee.

Though he lived to a ripe old age, his latter years were fraught with bitter legal disputes with Marvel which would remain unresolved until 10 years after his death in 1994. Nevertheless, the love for Kirby among his fans and the comic community never waned. Thus the two-part episode “Apokolips… Now” (itself rich in Kirby mythology) ends with the touching slogan…”This episode was dedicated to Jack Kirby. Long Live The King”.

9. SUPES LOSES LOIS TO BRUCE WAYNE

bruce wayne superman animated

The “will they, won’t they” dynamic between Clark Kent and Lois Lane is a fun and emotionally engaging part of the mythology. While we get why it was sidestepped in Man of Steel there are rich pickings to be explored there (hey, they got three seasons out of it in Lois and Clark). When the show debuted in 1996, comic book Clark had been happily married to Lois for some time yet his animated counterpart never reconciled Lois’ infatuation with Superman with her indifference to Clark.

Hence, many fans were aghast when in the Superman/Batman crossover “World’s Finest” Lois falls for Bruce Wayne. Hard. Within days she’s declaring her intentions to move to Gotham and make a serious commitment to Bruce. Clark’s unrequited love for Lois is tragic enough, but for her to fall for the one man who’s least equipped to love her back?!?

8. TURPIN SAVES SUPERMAN

turpin superman animated

The Nietzschean notion of the Superman is one that is remote and detached from the general populace, unbeholden to our notions of good, evil and morality. By contrast, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman has always been a champion for humankind. He doesn’t want to rule above us, he wants to be more like us. This dynamic is exemplified throughout the series in his relationship with Dan Turpin.

Essentially Metropolis’ Commissioner Gordon, Turpin fights alongside Superman in the pursuit of justice without the benefit of invulnerability and super powers. In “Tools of the Trade” we get to see Turpin demonstrate heroism and self-sacrifice as he wrests control of a weapon capable of killing Supes away from Bruno Mannheim. When a news crew arrives on the scene, Superman publicly thanks Turpin for saving his life. It’s a building block in a special friendship that’s destined to end in tragedy.

7. METROPOLIS TURNS ON SUPERMAN

Metropolis turns on superman

We’ve seen the end of Metropolis’ love affair with the man in the sky in the comics, in the Lois & Clark TV show and, infamously, in Batman V Superman but the show should be lauded for its brutally frank depiction of the way Metropolitans turned on their savior in the show’s final episode “Legacy” which sees a brainwashed Superman operating as an agent of Darkseid.

Upon regaining his senses, Clark realizes the extent of the damage he’s done and his devastation is heart-wrenchingly realized. The episode culminates in a heartbreaking conversation with Lois Lane. Superman not only mourns the loss of his city’s trust but fears his own powers after cutting loose in a brutal final battle with Darkseid. When he asks Lois how he can possibly win over the people, she kisses him and replies “One person at a time”.

6. SUPERMAN AND FLASH STOP TO PAY THE TOLL

Flash and superman

The friendly rivalry between Superman and The Flash has been a mainstay of comics for decades with the two heroes competing every few years in races to determine once and for all who’s really the fastest man alive. In the episode “Speed Demons” we see a loving homage to this dynamic as Superman races against a playfully cocky Flash.

Not only is the episode proof of concept for the eventual Justice League animated series, it features a beautiful moment in which both heroes speed through a toll gate and leave the toll at the booth as they streak through. It’s a tiny moment but it’s heartwarming as it goes to show that these heroes are not defined by their powers, but by their moral fortitude.

5. SUPERMAN LEARNS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE BATMAN

batman superman animated

The dynamic between Superman and Batman is one of the most interesting in comics, highlighting the pathos of both characters; two orphans with more alike than they’ll ever let on and a grudging mutual respect that will never be voiced (until Superman’s “death” in a later episode of Justice League, “Hereafter” in which Batman delivers a heartfelt monologue at Superman’s monument).

The episode “Knight Time” sees Supes taking on The Dark Knight’s mantle after his prolonged absence sparks a crime wave in Gotham. Working alongside Tim Drake’s Robin shows Superman just how vulnerable Batman is especially when it comes to forming close relationships with his young proteges. Superman is humbled by how much he has underestimated Batman, the good he does and how much his city needs him. The episode’s climax is understated yet emotionally resonant.

4. REQUIEM FOR KRYPTON

requiem for krypton

Many interpretations of Superman have imbued him with a tragic curiosity to see the remains of the home he’ll never know. Superman Returns did it, though much of the footage of Kal-El sifting through the floating detritus of his dead planet was excised from the final film. In “Little Girl Lost” we join Superman on a morbid search through the debris for any signs of life.

The mournful score and Tim Daly’s forlorn narration are utterly heartbreaking and the scene is a masterclass in bringing vulnerability to a bulletproof character. The discovery of Kara/Supergirl lends the episode a shot of optimism and the big brother/little sister dynamic is well played throughout the series. Still, it’s clear that Clark is extra protective of Kara as she represents the fulfillment of his lifelong desire to know that he is not alone.

3. JIMMY GETS THE SIGNAL WATCH

superman animated jimmy olsen

There are few media outside of comics where Superman’s relationship with his pal Jimmy Olsen is done justice, but this show handles it with aplomb. The episode “Superman’s Pal” shows us a dejected Jimmy whose romantic intentions have been repeatedly rebuffed by intern Tina. But things take a turn for the worst when an eyewitness interview with newscaster Angela Chen is judiciously cut to make Jimmy seem like he’s boasting about being “Superman’s pal”.

It’s a surprisingly mature criticism of media misrepresentation for a family animated show, but it also brings him all sorts of unwanted attention, not least from Tina’s boyfriend… Metallo. The ordeal leaves Jimmy in a heartbreaking melancholy until Superman shows up to give him the legendary signal watch which emits a frequency only Superman can hear.

2. BIZARRO’S SACRIFICE

bizarro's sacrifice

The tortured Superman clone is given a truncated origin in “Identity Crisis” which depicts him as the Frankenstein’s monster pastiche that Bizarro works best as. Fascinated by Lois Lane and consumed with a warped but well-meaning desire to do good, Bizarro quickly becomes hated and feared. Throughout the episode he believes himself to be the true Superman, but the creature’s defining moment of pathos comes when he leans what he truly is.

During a fight with Superman in the lab in which he was created, Bizarro comes into direct contact with one of many Superman clones. Horrified by his true nature and determined to live up to his genetic template, Bizarro sacrifices himself to save Lois as the lab self-destructs. Lois later expresses regret of the creature’s apparent demise, remarking that he was a hero after all.

1. THE DEATH OF DAN TURPIN

dan turpin death

The Jack Kirtby tribute at the end of “Apokolips Now” is extremely moving, but it’s not the most heartbreaking moment of the two-part episode. The show’s climax sees the stalwart cop murdered by Darkseid, caught by one of his infamous Omega Beams. Rarely do the actions of supervillains have such grievous and permanent consequences in animated realms and this major supporting character’s death is sobering, poignant and heartbreaking.

At Turpin’s funeral (which was modeled on Jack Kirby’s own with a Rabbi singing the mourner’s kaddish) even Lex Luthor looks on in silent reverence. After the other mourners have left, Superman’s eulogy is tear inducing; “Goodbye old friend. In the end the world didn’t really need a Superman, just a brave one.” It’s the biggest emotional gut punch of the entire series and among the most powerful scenes in the entire DC Animated Universe.

Did we miss any other heartbreaking moments from the show? Let us know in the comments!

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