How Superman: The Animated Series Avoided the 'Cornball' Man of Steel


Welcome to a special Adventure(s) Time installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're revisiting the development of the other adaptation of a classic DC hero from the team of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett. It's not as flashy as Batman Beyond. It lacks the spectacle of Justice League Unlimited. And it's just not as iconic as Batman: The Animated Series.

But, darn it, Superman: The Animated Series is a solid show, and likely one of the finest representations of the character in this era. Developing the show, however, was also no easy task.

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In the Modern Masters book series, Bruce Timm is interviewed by Eric Nolen-Weathington. It's an expansive interview, covering his influences, his early years in animation, and Russ Heath falling asleep at his drawing board. The period following Batman's cancellation and Superman's production is also covered. Timm recalls Steven Spielberg calling the crew, expressing his admiration for Batman. Spielberg was curious about an adventure cartoon, but wasn't sure what he wanted. The crew was asked to pitch concepts, and Spielberg would pick the one he liked best.

Timm pitched a "futuristic, Star Wars-type show about a smuggler/space pirate, and another was a teenage, Jonny Quest-type show." He also recalls, for variety's sake, pitching a superhero show. This became Freakazoid, a comedy series about a "manic, insane superhero" and his bizarre adventures. Development of the series leaned far more towards comedy than adventure, not Timm's visionTimm was thinking Steve Ditko, while Spielberg was going back to the Animaniacs well.

Timm states he prefers the second season (which was "more Monty Python") to the first. Still, he didn't feel connected with the material. Curious about a new project, he jumped at the opportunity to adapt Superman.

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Anticipating a mid-'90s Superman feature film, Warner Brothers green-lit the weekly animated series. (A screenplay from Kevin Smith was already in the works. There's no shortage of info on this fiasco available.) Bringing in Timm, Dini, and Burnett was, of course, a no-brainer. Translating the Man of Steel from comics to screen wasn't the seamless transition you might expect, though.

RELATED: When Superman: The Animated Series Got Very, Very (Very) Weird

"I knew immediately what to do with Batman, whereas as Superman I wasn't quite sure what to do with him," Timm tells Nolen-Weathington. Timm cites the often-held belief that Superman doesn't "make as much sense in the modern world" and his fear the hero could become "a cornball anachronism."

In an interview with Wizard, Timm bluntly stated that he viewed most of Superman’s villains as dull. Finding a psychological angle for Superman was also difficult for the crew. The production stated their desire to avoid “old, weird, goofy” Superman stories from the Silver Age, thinking a'90s audience wouldn't buy them. (Within a few months, Alan Moore would, well, prove them wrong with his Supreme revamp.)

One battle the team was willing to fight--that awful mullet. After “long, drawn-out negotiations” with DC, the creators were free to avoid Superman's daring fashion makeover for the '90s.


Timm tells Nolen-Weathington that finding the visual style for Superman was tough. "We couldn't quite agree on a general approach to the show," in terms of creating a modern Superman. At one point, Timm played with going even more retro than Batman. "I toyed around with the idea of making it almost a dead-on adaptation of the Siegel & Shuster look." Specifically, Timm wanted to recreate the look of the classic Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s.

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Some early concept art exists.  There's even a Timm sketch of Lois Lane with a 1940s hairstyle and dress out there. Ultimately, he scrapped the idea. The Fleischers had already done this "to perfection," and why compete against genuine legends if you don't have to?

The final look of the show still had classic deco influences, but with more of a look to the future. Timm describes the design as "bright, futuristic, optimistic, ocean liner art deco...much more in line with Superman's character."

NEXT PAGE: It Took Bruce Timm a Long Time to Get Superman's Look Just Right

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