Wednesday, October 28, 2009

DVD Review: Ruby-Spears' Superman (1988)

Ruby-Spears' Superman
Not Rated
309 minutes
Available on DVD from Warner Home Video on Tuesday, November 3rd.

Right smack in between the end of Super Friends and the beginning of Superman: The Animated Series lies the relatively unheralded 13-episode curiosity known simply as Superman. Produced by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Man of Steel, the cartoon ran on Saturday mornings on CBS for but a single season. Intriguingly, these episodes were specifically based on the recent ret-conning of the Superman comic titles that story editor Marv Wolfman had just spearheaded along with John Bryne. So this is the rare superhero cartoon that is specifically based on a certain era of the comic book, for whatever that's worth. If you remember the show at all, it's probably for two reasons. First of all, it was the first animated or live-action Superman adaptation to present Lex Luther as a Donald Trump-like billionaire as opposed to an underground mad scientist. Second of all, each episode had a charming little book-end that told a four-minute story about young Clark Kent's childhood, from his adoption by the Kents in the pilot all the way until the his debut as Superman in the final episode.

As for the episodes themselves, they are notable only as a time capsule in the slow maturation of superhero animation. It was certainly better animated and more action-packed than the Super Friends or even Super Powers cartoons. However, it pales in comparison to what came just a few years later and it remains the sort of 'no one grows, no one changes' storytelling that dominated most animated television in the era (only Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually had even a semblance of story progression and long-form continuity). The voice acting is pure 80s-cheese and there is next to no real peril in any of the adventures. Still, the artwork is bright and colorful, and the show makes decent use of the John Williams theme in its opening credits. If you simply haven't seen these in twenty-years or you're a DC animation completest, this might be worth picking up. But these aren't anywhere near as artistically inspired as the 1940s Fleisher cartoons nor are they as sophisticated and engaging as the 1996 animated series.

Considering the age and theoretical lack of interest in this series, the video and sound quality on the two-disc set is surprisingly solid. Colors are bold and pleasing, while the audio is always clean and audible. English and French subtitles are available on each episode. Aside from trailers and previews, the sole special feature is a 13-minute featurette entitled "Corruption of the Corrupt: The Rise of Lexcorp". Oddly enough, the first half of this piece presents a succinct and dead-on synopsis of the rise of deregulation and corporate greed (and the motives and psychology behind it) that began in the 1980s and climaxed with our current economic woes. Yes, this documentary on a DVD set for a forgotten kids cartoon lays out the path to financial ruin better than Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.

This certainly is not worth owning unless you're a die-hard Superman completist, but it might be worth a gander for a look back at the baby steps that animated television was taking right before the early-90s explosion (Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Gargoyles, etc). It certainly was not bad for its time and its editorial limitations, but it's simply been exceeded by what came next.

The show - C+
The Video - B
The Audio - B
The Extras - C

Note - for a detailed episode guide, check out the always superlative Superman Homepage.

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