Ranking every episode of Superman: The Animated Series


Where There’s Smoke

Directed by Dan Riba

Written by Hilary J. Bader

After the success of original character Livewire, it’s no surprise that the series’ creators would hope that… lightning would strike twice.

I make no apologies.

Anyway, another original villain is introduced here, this time the Peri Gilpin-voiced Volcana.  While the character never took off like Livewire did– she has one other brief appearance in this series, a handful of appearances in the Justice League cartoons, and two issues of the Superman Adventures comic series devoted to her– Volcana’s story is actually much more interesting than Livewire’s.

Not that it’s a competition between the two characters, of course, but as an episode, “Where There’s Smoke” is more engaging than any of Livewire’s appearances.  Volcana is a more tragic figure, in that she was given a truly remarkable gift as a child and ended up being manipulated by sinister authority figures.  The episode runs out of steam in the third act, but Gilpin’s signature husky line delivery makes Volcana a compelling tragic villain.  Bonus points for some truly silly heat puns, and Jimmy’s laugh out loud hilarious and unexpected “private collection” line.


A Fish Story

Directed by Shin-Ichi Tsuji

Written by Hilary J. Bader, Rich Fogel, and Alan Burnett

If you told me that a Superman episode that guest starred Aquaman would involve a plot by Lex Luthor to conduct experiments on the King of the Seven Seas, thereby potentially igniting a war between Atlantis and the surface world, I would believe you.

If you told me Aquaman was voiced by Miguel Ferrer, and is appropriately stoic and commanding in his line delivery, I would also believe you.

If you told me this episode also involves Jimmy Olsen driving a car, despite only having a learner’s permit, and Lois Lane doing some sick jumps with a motorcycle, I would weep with joy.

And also believe you, because weirder things have happened in this show.

As far as Superman episodes go, this is pretty good, if not a bit short of great.  The title is a little too whimsical, considering the plot revolves around abduction, illegal experimentation, and a potentially explosive worldwide war, but that just adds to the endearing weirdness of “A Fish Story.”  While it might not be at the top of my list, it sits firmly in the middle of the pack as a very watchable, very interesting, very different Superman episode.


Monkey Fun

Directed by Curt Geda

Written by Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer

Monkeys automatically get a pass.  Giant monkeys? A giant pass.

In this Silver Agey romp, Lois’ childhood friend Titano the monkey is shot into space, only for Superman to recover him decades later.  Due to “space radiation,” Titano starts growing larger and larger, and hijinks ensue.  It’s incredibly goofy, and I kind of love it.  There’s some sharp dialogue (child Lois complaining “why can’t you send Lucy into space instead?” is hilarious, as is “shut up and keep squeezing the monkeys!”), and a light, breezy tone, which is what you’d expect for a story this silly.

Look, if we can’t appreciate an episode of Superman where a chimp grows to a massive size, causes Jimmy Olsen to slip on a banana, liberates his primate brethren from the zoo, and then gets swatted with a newspaper by our man Bibbo Bibbowski, what are we even doing?


Heavy Metal

Directed by Curt Geda

Written by Hilary J. Bader

Aww yeah, Steel.

Anchored by some strong performances by the always great Michael Dorn and the also always great Malcolm McDowell, “Heavy Metal” is a pretty good introduction to Steel, and a pretty okay return for Metallo.

Given that they couldn’t exactly do the entire “Death of Superman” story, John Henry Irons’ adjusted origin works well and fits in with the animated series.  The core aspects of the character are there, and that’s what matters: he cares about his family and community, he’s an engineering genius, and he’s inspired by Superman to be a hero.

Oh, and he’s super cool.  Don’t forget that.

As for Metallo, his motives are probably the weakest of any episode he’s appeared in thus far in the series, but he’s still a worthy adversary for Superman and Steel.  The big fight between the three at the end of the episode is a definite highlight, and as always, McDowell is just a delight to hear in the role.


Stolen Memories

Directed by Curt Geda

Written by Rich Fogel

This is another “important episode,” in that there’s a lot of mythology that gets established and even more worldbuilding that occurs.  Thankfully, it’s not the least bit dry, as the series’ slightly reimagined take on Brainiac has become one of the DC Animated Universe’s greatest villains.  Corey Burton’s monotone delivery is perfect for  Brainiac’s cold, detached demeanor, proving yet again that the great Andrea Romano was one of the best voice directors in the business.

We as the audience know that when Brainiac arrives on Earth, promising power in exchange for knowledge, he’s up to no good.  It’s fascinating to watch both Superman and Lex Luthor be caught off guard by the living computer’s underhanded dealings, with the Man of Steel almost losing his birth world’s history right as he finds it (the concept of the “memory spheres” was fascinating, although most meet a tragic end, and the episode uses Krypton’s sphere to set up the eventual Fortress of Solitude in the nice final scene).  Luthor has some interesting moments of vulnerability too, as he begrudgingly realizes that he might not always be the smartest man in the room.  Not that he’d admit it, of course.

Following a few episodes that were relatively grounded and set around Metropolis, “Stolen Memories” reminds us that the world of Superman stretches beyond Earth and into the stars.


Tools of the Trade

Directed by Curt Geda

Written by Mark Evanier

The first appearances of Dan “Terrible” Turpin, Maggie Sawyer, and Darkseid?  What a treat!

When I watched the show as a kid, I think this was one of those episodes that didn’t click with me.  Like Batman: The Animated Series’ “It’s Never Too Late” and “Appointment in Crime Alley”, this is one I’ve definitely come to appreciate more as an adult.  A lot of that has to do with my love of Jack Kirby and the Fourth World, which is all over this episode.  You’ve got Darkseid and Kanto (brilliantly voiced by Michael Ironside and Michael York, respectively), and Dan Turpin, whose character design in the series was modeled after Kirby himself.

Even more than that, there’s some truly impressive animation in this episode, like the great shot of Superman drenched in shadow after he stops InterGang’s tank, and a fun scene where Clark falls down an elevator shaft and emerges as a blue and red blur.  All in all, a strong entry for the penultimate episode of the first season.


Action Figures

Directed by Kenji Hachizaki

Written by Hilary J. Bader

Every television series can use some good episodes with simple stories, and “Action Figures” here fits the bill.  It’s not amazing, but nowhere near terrible either.  At the end of the day, it’s a solid half hour of television, and that’s all it needs to be.

Continuing on with Metallo’s arc established in earlier episodes, John Corben is still wandering around on the bottom of the ocean, until he comes upon a small island.  Seemingly suffering from amnesia, he bonds with two kids whose father is conducting research near a volcano, and ends up performing some heroic deeds for the children.  Their new friend “Steel Man” isn’t what he seems, of course, as Corben’s memory of– and hatred for– Superman comes back with a vengeance.  Some interesting ideas are explored, especially early on when Metallo is at least briefly reformed, and the final scene is even more chilling than the ending of “The Way of All Flesh,” and that’s saying something.


Little Big Head Man

Directed by Tsin-Ichi Tsuji

Written by Paul Dini and Robert Goodman

There are quite a few “bad guy team-up” episodes of the series, and this one is probably the best, solely because it’s the silliest.

Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are… not exactly the first duo you think of when you hear the words “threatening team,” but that’s precisely what makes this episode work so well.  You have Bizarro living his life of solitary luxury, inventing disasters that only he can save the “citizens” of his world from, before heading home to spend time with his “friends.”

And then you have Mxyzptlk, who’s just bored.  When the imp goads Bizarro into thinking that everyone on Earth is laughing at him behind his back, that sets the imperfect clone of the Man of Steel off.  He needs to prove that he’s not a joke, and only Mxy can help him do so.

There’s never a point where you don’t feel bad for Bizarro, as there’s never a moment where you do feel bad for Mxyzptlk.  Even (and especially) when the imp gets his powers taken away from him by the super weird Fifth Dimensional tribunal, he’s always the one at fault.  That makes this episode light, breezy entertainment, which is all it needs to be.


Absolute Power

Directed by Butch Lukic

Written by Hilary J. Bader and Alan Burnett

What makes “Absolute Power”– the second appearance of Kryptonian criminals Jax-Ur and Mala– work better than their first outing is the ethical dilemma that Superman is presented with.  While out exploring a black hole, he comes upon a spaceship that is being sucked into the collapsed star, and returns the vessel to its planet of origin.  There, he discovers that the Kryptonian pair have somehow escaped from the Phantom Zone and established themselves as rulers.  While Superman knows their history and thirst for power, should he really step in and take them down?

It becomes tricky when he sees how industrious the planet has become under their rule, breaking from traditions of war and conflict to unite and build a better tomorrow.  Things aren’t as cut and dry as they appear, of course, and Superman has to wrestle with some surprisingly complex issues to do what’s best for the native people.

It’s the depth of the script that really makes this episode work, along with some truly startling imagery centered around that black hole.  I like this episode quite a bit, and a lot more than I’d remembered, in large part because it doesn’t resolve with yet another Kryptonian slug-fest.


Ghost in the Machine

Directed by Hiroyuki Auyama

Written by Rich Fogel

Brainiac returns, enlisting/forcing Lex Luthor to rebuild his body in this particularly engrossing episode.  Seeing Luthor portrayed as a genuine victim is a fascinating change of pace, and Brainiac’s cold ruthlessness makes him absolutely terrifying.

What I liked most about the episode, though, was how much Mercy Graves was given to do.  Up to this point in the series, she’s been a background character more than anything, serving as Luthor’s muscle while spouting the occasional pithy comment.  She’s given a real personality here, though, as she goes from being Luthor’s duty-bound assistant to a concerned equal in the face of the interstellar menace that is Brainiac.  That Luthor ultimately shows his true colors and cowardice in the end makes her devotion all the more tragic.


Bizarro’s World

Directed by Hiroyuki Aoyama

Written by Robert Goodman

In its own macabre fashion, this is one of the funnier episodes of the series.  Bizarro has survived the explosion at the end of “Identity Crisis,” and wants to know more about “his” history.  Through some happenstance, he discovers Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and, in turn, Brainiac’s orb containing Krypton’s history.  After he learns about the sad fate of the Kryptonian people, Bizarro decides to rebuild Krypton in his own fashion.

And then explode it again.

It doesn’t have the tragic undercurrent of Bizarro’s introductory episode, though there’s still plenty of heart to go around here.  You can’t help but like Bizarro, and Superman’s solution to keep him from causing more destruction is genuinely nice.  Bizarro ends up making a true friend, too, which is all sorts of sweet.


Little Girl Lost

Directed by Curt Geda

Written by Evan Dorkin & Sarah Dyer, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, and Rich Fogel

This is another episode that benefits greatly from some strong guest stars, though the story isn’t too bad either.  Watching in release order, this comes right after the epic, harrowing “Apokolips… Now!” two-parter, so having a fairly bright, sunny pair of episodes that return the action to Apokolips so soon was kind of jarring.  When they aired, though, “Little Girl Lost” debuted several months after Darkseid’s first campaign against Earth, so I’m sure the lighter tone was welcome at the time.

Even still, this is a fun introduction to Supergirl, and Nicholle Tom perfectly captures her youthful exuberance and personality.  The action is kind of all over the place, starting with Superman’s somber exploration of the ruins of Krypton, leading to Kara’s emergence as Supergirl and a plot involving teens using super-weapons that have been supplied by Granny Goodness, ultimately bringing us to Darkseid’s throne room and then back to Earth to stop a rogue comet.  It’s… a lot, and it’s not bad by any means, just not as tight as it could have been.

No matter though.  Supergirl is a blast, and seeing her and Jimmy Olsen team up is everything I’ve ever wanted.  This is also the first appearance of Ed Asner’s Granny Goodness, which is the greatest casting ever, in anything, of all time.