Hero Worship

In the years since Superman’s small-screen debut in 1941, animated superheroes have been walking the line between tradition and innovation.

Cartoon silhouette of Superman

Superheroes get it done. This much, we know. Caped, masked, alter ego-ed, or otherwise, these men and women of action arrive on the scene, fully formed and with one purpose: to defeat the bad guy, vanquish evil, right wrongs, and save the day. They never hesitate, deviate, or do anything contrary to their purpose. Superheroes never act in a manner that is anything other than, well, heroic… except when they do. 

Filmmaker Bruce Timm recalls the uproar from traditionalist Superman fans over the superhero-to-be killing the villain at the end of Zack Snyder’s 2013 live-action film Man of Steel. Admittedly, Clark Kent was in a no-win situation. Lives were being threatened, so he had to make a quick decision.

“Break the villain’s neck. What else is he going to do?” says Timm. “But boy, when I talked to my friends who worked at DC Comics, they were freaking out. They were like, ‘Superman would never do that.’”

Timm, who is a creator, producer, director, writer, and character designer for countless animated superhero shows including the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series in the early 1990s, had envisioned—years before Snyder’s controversial film finale—a similar resolution to a battle between Superman and the monster Doomsday in the direct-to-video animated movie Superman: Doomsday in 2007. 

“It seemed like justifiable homicide to me,” says Timm, “[but DC was] like, ‘Nope, you cannot do that. He would never do that. He would find some other way.’” 

Admittedly, going solely by his origins in Action Comics #1 more than 80 years ago, that argument is accurate. Superman and many of his comic book brethren were not created as vigilantes, executioners, or dispensers of questionable justice. Superheroes battled super villains, vanquished the occasional monster, and kept the moral order of the universe intact. 

Point of Origin

The idea of a superhero was applied to pulp magazine characters like the “superhuman” Doc Savage, who first appeared on the scene in 1933, according to David W. Tosh, author of Rise of the Superheroes. In addition, “there was a character called the Phantom Magician who wore a superhero-like costume in The Adventures of Patsy [comic strip] in the mid-1930s. And let’s not forget The Phantom, the costume-wearing hero [operating out of] Africa, which began in 1936. But it seems the term ‘superhero’ pretty much began with comic books, namely Superman.”

Whether in the comics or on Saturday morning TV shows of yore, we tend to think of the Man of Steel as a muscular boy scout. But as midcentury came and went, the superhero landscape began to shift. 

Because the show was pitched toward kids, Batman: The Animated Series had to keep things family-friendly enough to get past Standards and Practices. That meant no nudity, no choking, and carefully constructed violence. Anytime a villain fell from a great height, a shot had to be included to show that he was groaning and therefore still alive.

Several years later, when he was piloting a teenage version of Batman through adventures in Batman Beyond, the iconic superhero took on new dimensions. “I am always kind of amazed at how versatile and resilient Batman is as a character,” Timm says. “It’s not even just, ‘Oh you can go light or dark.’ There’s all kinds of weird degrees within the dark sphere. The most recent version, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, was set in the 1970s, and was kind of a Blaxploitation Kung Fu movie. And Bruce Wayne was a lot younger and more relatable than any version I had ever done.”

Holding out for a Hero

Examining a superhero’s younger years, before the character becomes a hero or is in training, has proven popular and opened up new storylines and conundrums for animated superheroes. When she took the helm of the DC Super Hero Girls franchise in 2019, writer and Executive Producer Lauren Faust was excited at the prospect of showing not just an ethnically diverse slate of heroes, but also depicting them as flawed, insecure and, yes, even violent. 

Supergirl lived in the considerable shadow of her more famous cousin. Wonder Woman, coming as she did from a different culture, didn’t know how to act like a typical teenager. Batgirl felt she was a better sidekick to Batman than Robin. In one of the show’s early meetings between two future superheroes, Wonder Woman punched Supergirl in the face so hard that she took out the floorboards underneath Supergirl’s head. Welcome to superheroes behaving badly. 

Cartoon girl superheroes
In DC Super Hero Girls the characters balance secret identities with the awkward challenges of growing up.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Throughout the 1960s, when all the comics at DC and Marvel started getting a little more adult, it wasn’t so unusual to see Superman losing his temper on a cover and destroying the world,” says Timm. “That was usually a bait-and-switch cover where the story wasn’t really about that. Sometimes Superman is going to take a swim in the deep end, but at the end of the day, you always have to trust that he’s going to make the right decision, the moral choice.”

Batman, on the other hand, is a different kind of hero. A certain generation of viewers may think of the Dark Knight as a benevolent member of the Justice League—one of the good guy Super Friends of the Hanna-Barbera-produced animated series that ran from 1973 to 1985. Or the do-gooder hero of the (Wham! Biff!) live-action TV series of the mid-1960s.

But the comic book character was considerably more complicated, and the success of the 1989, Tim Burton-directed, live-action movie laid the groundwork for the vigilante Dark Knight to take the animated stage with all his gloominess and angst intact. For Batman: The Animated Series, Timm and his team picked up on the film’s retro look and presented Batman as a direct descendant of old characters like The Shadow and The Spider. Indeed, when Batman co-creator Bob Kane dropped by to visit the set, he remarked approvingly on a blown-up cover of The Shadow over Timm’s desk. 

“There’s what is unexpected from female characters, like a character being bad-tempered or a little bit clueless, but there’s also the unexpected when you are going against what fans would like,” says Faust, the show’s creator. “We really messed with a handful of the characters, and it was exciting to have that kind of freedom.”

Faust’s childhood love of the superhero genre and her feeling that female characters frequently ended up getting “the short end of the stick” is part of what drew her to shows like DC Super Hero Girls and The Powerpuff Girls, where she was a writer, supervising director, and storyboard artist. “I wanted to see the authentic experience of girls and women reflected in superhero stories, and also bring that experience of teenage girls to the table,” she says. “How does a superhero study for exams? How does she get her driver’s license? Wonder Woman can ride a horse like nobody’s business, but she can’t work a car because she doesn’t know anything about machines.” 

Just as fans had a long wait to see complex female superheroes, they also waited to see Black superheroes. Christopher Lehman, Professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud University, points to the shape-shifting teen Astrea in the 1977 Filmation series Space Sentinels as one of the first animated Black superheroes. Husband and wife scientists Superstretch and Microwoman appeared not long after as part of Tarzan and the Super 7.

Static Shock superhero
Virgil Hawkin’s best friend Richie Foley was one of few people who knew Virgil’s secret identity as the superhero Static.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

The 1970s also featured the Harlem Globetrotters as animated, super-powered hoopsters, and the hugely resourceful Brown Hornet appeared within select episodes of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Black Vulcan joined Super Friends starting in the late 1970s. And who among us can forget Hammerman, the musical superhero in magic shoes voiced by rapper MC Hammer in the 1991 series of the same name?

“One thing I noticed about quite a few of these superheroes in animation is that there’s a sort of comedic foundation to them. Brown Hornet and the Super Globetrotters are definitely humorous superheroes,” says Lehman. “Their adventures are meant to be funny, and, to a certain extent, Hammerman is the same way. Maybe that was the only way that the studios could successfully pitch their series to the networks—if they were able to not have African American superheroes depicted quite so seriously.” 

The stakes were by no means comedic for Virgil Hawkins, though, the 14-year old Dakota City teen who acquired powers over electricity and magnetism to become the hero Static of Static Shock. By the time producer Swinton O. Scott III got to the show in its third season in 2002, Static was a well-established hero both of comics and his own show. The series made a point of embracing issues of inclusivity and diversity. Static went to Africa, teamed up with the Justice League, and fought plenty of bad guys. He also struggled with the challenges that come with living in a single parent household and having to do homework and chores.

Scott sees parallels between Static and another notable teen superhero, the web-slinging Spider-Man whose alter ego, Peter Parker, was originally a more or less typical high schooler, preoccupied with school, girls, and looking after his Aunt May. Although cleaning up the city may have been the right thing to do, the Spidey of comic book fame “would have rather stayed at home or gone on a date with Gwen Stacy,” says Scott. “But he got this power to help people and that went beyond his teenage sensibilities that we all have. He said, ‘I realize I have to do this. This is my duty now.’ I think we effectively put that into Static Shock, as well.”

Miles Morales
Replacing Peter Parker as Spider-Man, Miles Morales was born and raised in Brooklyn, the son of a Black father and Puerto Rican mother.
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation.

The Next Generation

While Spider-Man also experienced a plethora of reinventions in animated TV and in the comics, many point to the baton-passing coolness of the 2018 CG film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which gave us the first cinematic look at a new hero, Miles Morales. 

Miles, like Peter, is a teenager struggling with stuff at home and at school. As he’s learning how to cope with his powers, Miles also has to deal with spider power-endowed men, women, and pigs from alternate universes, all of whom are looking to help him on his journey. 

In taking on Miles, Character Designer Shiyoon Kim jumped at the chance to create a character who was multi-ethnic (half Black, half Puerto Rican) and also contributing to a new take on an old superhero. Having previously worked as Lead Character Designer on Disney’s Big Hero 6, Kim found himself once again creating an underdog who became a hero—an idea he particularly enjoyed. 

What these new superheroes come down to, according to Kim, is the “whole idea that anyone can wear a mask. That really resonated with me.”

As for Bruce Timm, 30 years after Batman: The Animated Series, he will resurrect the Dark Knight once again for the new HBO Max/Cartoon Network project, Batman: Caped Crusader—a series said to be steeped in the character’s noir roots, and one that’s sure to prove that there’s no end to the exciting—and surprising—turns a superhero’s life can take.