September 6 marks the 20th anniversary of Superman: The Animated Series, creator Bruce Timm’s follow up cartoon series to Batman: The Animated Series. Premiering in 1996, S:TAS was the second entry in what would soon come to be known as the DC Animated Universe, eventually leading to the revival of B:TAS and the eventual premiere of the Justice League team-up series.
While S:TAS is not as fondly remembered as the Batman cartoon series that preceded it, Timm worked similar magic in this animated interpretation of The Man of Steel. From the character’s classic origins to his escalating battles with the villainous Darkseid and the legions of Apokolips, Superman: The Animated Series sought to bring every classic element of its hero to life faithfully.
Inspired by Max Fleischer’s cartoon serials of the 1940s, Jack Kirby’s 4th World comics, and John Byrne’s 1986 modern reboot of the character, Timm and his Warner Bros. team sought to make Superman: The Animated Series a tribute to both the classic and modern versions of the hero. Over the course of almost four years and 54 episodes, they created one of the best versions of Superman ever seen on screen.
Follow along for a celebratory ranking of every episode of Superman: The Animated Series, with multi-part episodes grouped together, and let us know your favorite episodes in the comment section below!
45. Superman’s Pal
When Bruce Timm himself proclaims an episode to be the worst thing they ever did on the show, it’s hard to argue with the man. And Superman’s Pal, which focuses on Jimmy Olsen as he deals with overwhelming fame due to being identified as The Man of Steel’s best friend, is shoddy. It doesn’t get any better when Metallo is introduced as a last minute villain, who is defeated by Jimmy splashing battery acid on him. It’s all dumb. Let’s move on.
S:TAS often found its greatest strengths in relying on well-established characters and pursuing a more classic sensibility in its storytelling. Unity does neither of those and it shows. Starring Supergirl (with Clark conveniently written out of the episode), Unity sees a roaming preacher come to Smallville who is actually a grotesque, tentacle monster who plans to take over the world one person at a time. It’s gross, dark, and weird, but not in a refreshing break from the normal episode sort of way. As such, it turns out to be a misfire in general.
43. Little Big Head Man
Both Bizarro and Mister Mxyzptlk are responsible for some of the series’ best episodes in their debuts. However, their follow-ups are generally lacking. So pairing them up should have made up for their shortcomings. Far from it, in reality. The idiosyncratic nature of both characters clang together in the worst way possible. Here, you have the dreadfully misguided Bizarro influenced by the increasingly annoying Mxyzptlk, who wants to use him to destroy Superman. Both characters have had better episodes and neither had enough narrative steam to carry their stories past a few episodes. There’s nothing compelling or new here, just two tastes that don’t taste good together.
42. Warrior Queen
Maxima has been a staple of Superman comics for decades, so it’s not surprising that this intergalactic warrior queen looking for the perfect mate, and finding it in The Man of Steel, was eventually included in S:TAS. However, she’s a fairly one-note character and the spurned lover idea had already been used with Mala in “Blasts from the Past.” But the initial Maxima/Superman fight and the married couple’s commentary on it is pretty fun and the surprise cameo at the episode’s end is a fun way to close it out. It’s just that the episode in general is not that interesting.
41. The Hand of Fate
Magical enemies are always an interesting change in focus of Superman, as they are often outside the realm of his typical sci-fi leaning stories. However, they can be hit and miss due to their offbeat nature. With the demon Lord Karkull being unleashed on the world (the transformation of an unfortunate two-bit thief into the demon is unforgettably unsettling), Superman teams up with the magician Doctor Fate, who the hero somehow already knows despite no former introduction. The creepy/scary factor of the episode adds a little weight, while the mix of Superman and demon legions doesn’t quite work for the overall tone of the series.
Batman: The Animated Series had some real stinkers in the course of its more than 80-episode run and there’s no S:TAS episode that comes close to the worst ones found in Batman’s series. However, S:TAS has a far higher ratio of bland and forgettable episodes, which weakens the series as a whole. Prototype is just one of those episodes. And while it’s fun at first to see the newly empowered Sergeant Mills help out Superman in saving lives, his turn for the villainous is quite bland and obvious (that “noooo” he says while watching TV is hallmark bland voice acting). But hey, first appearance of John Henry Irons, gold earring and all. So that’s something.
39. The Demon Reborn
The third crossover between the worlds of Batman and Superman, The Demon Reborn sees villain Ra’s al Ghul seeking to exploit Superman’s massive strength for his own power. But this time, the brand crossover fails to make something special. Maybe that’s because Superman being bested by ninjas is kinda pathetic? And while everything in this episode is just cooler when Batman shows up, but he’s unfortunately a very minor character here. Combined with a so-so climax and a general lack of intrigue and you’ve got an episode that’s not much of anything.
38. Absolute Power
Jax-Ur and Mala were grating as characters there first time around, but they were used to the best of their abilities in their debut Blasts from the Past. Bringing them back for even more wasn’t a good idea. In Absolute Power, Superman finds these Kryptonian criminals have taken over a planet and its inhabitants through totalitarian rule that stands unchallenged due to their supreme power. Of course, the moral question of the story concerns the price of peace when it comes to fascist rule. Guess what? It’s bad. And by the end, the S:TAS creators decide to get rid of Jax-Ur and Mala permanently by chucking them into a black hole. Good riddance.
37. The Main Man, Parts 1 & 2
The best thing about The Main Man two-parter, which sees intergalactic bounty hunter fighting and eventually teaming up with Superman, is that it is largely defined by its anarchic, dark humor that is most certainly out of the ordinary in the scope of S:TAS. But that also means the episode sticks out like a sore thumb in the scope of the series as a whole. And whether you enjoy Lobo is very much based on individual tastes. With lots of gross aliens, a heavy focus on Lobo’s “too cool” attitude, and several annoying one shot side characters, The Main Man is certainly more interesting than a lot of the run of the mill S:TAS episodes, but it can’t quite reach the next level for a truly special two-parter.
36. Heavy Metal
John Henry Irons makes his debut as Steel, the exosuit-wearing hero inspired by The Man of Steel who originally debuted following the major “Death of Superman” storyline in the comic books. Here, his heroic debut is far less auspicious, he simply wants to do some good with his mechanical skills. Having him help out Superman in the fight against a returning Metallo (how many times is this guy going to come back from the dead?) makes for a fun pairing and Irons is a fun addition to the series as a whole, even if he rarely features after this episode. But there isn’t much else to “Heavy Metal” beyond the introduction.
When Lois Lane is targeted by a mysterious assassin after winning a Pulitzer Prize for her Lex Corp whistle blower story, Superman tries to thwart attempt after attempt on her life. While the unraveling mystery and heavy focus on Lois makes for a satisfying break from the typical S:TAS episode, the red herrings and villain reveal are a too obvious to be satisfying and Lois being the damsel in distress so often (while still having some agency) keeps “Target” from being higher on the list. That said, there’s a great character moment for Luthor late into the episode that adds more layers to him.
34. Father’s Day
At long last, the threads of Darkseid and Apokolips are picked up after being started back in season 1’s “Tools of the Trade.” Taking place on Father’s Day, the monstrous Kalibak (son of Darkseid) comes to Metropolis to fight Superman in order to prove himself to his father. While the episode works to increase the stakes by putting Superman’s father Jonathan Kent in harm’s way and having the hero try to stop collateral damage, it’s mostly one big brawl. That’s fun enough, but it seems like a small letdown as the first episode to more fully explore the Darkseid storyline.
Toyman returns to wreak havoc in the life of a supermodel he has become obsessed with. However, a massive twist reveals there’s more than meets the eye. While that twist is what helps make Obsession memorable, it’s the dark implications of it that resonate the most. While Toyman isn’t exactly a stellar villain, the ideas here help to provide him with another memorable storyarc. This is one of the few S:TAS episodes that can be classified as somewhat disturbing, and not in the gross out way that the other disturbing episodes are most often.
32. Solar Power
Following his incarceration at the end of “Obsession,” stalker Edward Lytener (now using the name Luminus) escapes from prison to kill Superman. By hacking into satellites, he changes the Sun’s solar radiation to red in order to slowly depower the hero while he kidnaps Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. While the idea of a slowly weakening Superman faced with a gauntlet of challenges is cool, Lytener is such a dork (complete with dumb spandex suit and costume changes that include cowboy and pirate) that he’s more of an annoyance than a threat. It’s a strange idea to bring such a minor villain back as some sort of “big bad” and clearly, the S:TAS team learned their lesson by never mentioning him again.
31. Bizarro’s World
Talk about quickly diminishing returns, Bizarro’s second appearance in S:TAS is a major step down from his debut. While it’s clear that the creative team didn’t want to waste such a classic character following his seeming death, there’s very little to the proceedings here. Bizarro learns about Superman’s Kryptonian past and misinterprets it, leading to him wanting to destroy Metropolis. That’s about it and the Bizarro backwards logic gets old fast. “Bizarro’s World” has a poignantly sweet ending for the character, which elevates the episode, but even this is quickly undone by the follow-up “Little Big Head Man” all in the name of reusing established villains.
30. A Fish Story
Superman: The Animated Series may have done much more to set up the DC Animated Universe than B:TAS, as so many episodes introduced new heroes and locations. Here, it’s Aquaman’s turn. And while the showrunners give him enough of a hard edge and useful powers to deny the lazy criticisms of the character, he’s still saddled with a somewhat bland characterization and story, which involves a fight against Luthor. Interestingly, A Fish Story ends on a more downbeat note than the typical episode in this series, even if it is somewhat abrupt and has no follow-up until the Justice League animated series.
29. In Brightest Day …
Another episode that introduced an iconic hero to the DCAU, In Brightest Day … sees the debut of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, The Green Lantern Corps, and the intergalactic villain Sinestro. Those inclusions alone are by far the best aspects of the episode, which can never quite get its elements to click, despite Kyle and Sinestro being welcome additions to the animated world. The general lack of Kyle and Sinestro in follow-up series Justice League shows that Timm and colaborators found more fertile ground elsewhere in DC Comics’ other outer space characters and fellow Green Lanter John Stewart.
28. My Girl
Tying in Clark’s Smallville past always adds greater emotional investment into a Superman storyline and it’s no exception with Lana Lang coming back into the picture with My Girl. As another episode with Lex Luthor at the center, viewers are given a greater insight into the seemingly upstanding businessman’s shady dealings as now-fashion designer Lana gets entangled in Luthor’s criminal activities. And with Lana knowing Clark’s secret identity, Superman becomes much more emotionally invested in her crusade to dig up real dirt on Luthor. Lana and Clark’s ties add greater suspense and better character dynamics to the episode as a whole.
27. Fun and Games
Being the first episode after a pilot is never easy, but Fun and Games is a solid entry into the series as the first episode to follow its three-part kickoff. Villain Toyman is a somewhat odd choice being a lesser known and fairly strange Superman villain, but he works here due to the pathos of the character. Fun and Games sets up the general S:TAS episode structure, with a villain of the week making his or her debut by pursuing a criminal goal, then having Superman investigate the matter as both reporter and superhero. Throw Lois Lane into the investigation, some explosions, and you have a solid S:TAS episode.
26. Blasts From the Past, Parts 1 & 2
When Superman and Professor Hamilton discover the Phantom Zone projector in baby Kal-El’s spaceship, they rescue Kryptonian Mala from the interdimensional prison. However, she soon shows her true colors as a megalomanical would-be conqueror who frees her leader General Jax-Ur. The idea of Superman having to face two enemies that equal his power gives the hero a rare challenge in the show. While the riffing off of Superman II is clear and the first half of this two-part installment has a little too much stalling for the inevitable, the climactic battle works well, even if Superman flops a little too easily between forgiveness and judgment concerning his enemies.
25. Brave New Metropolis
There are countless Superman stories from across the decades that toy with the idea of a Superman who has gone evil. The possibilities of an all-powerful hero gone bad are too enticing for any Superman series to pass up for too long. In this episode, Lois travels to an alternate dimension where she died, causing Superman to go rogue and team up with Luthor in order to bring totalitarian law and order to Metropolis. It’s the classic type of “what if?” scenario that has been featured in comic books for decades and it works well here, even if it’s a little run of the mill when it comes to this particular storytelling trope. Plus, Lois and Superman get some romantic development here, even if it’s the alternate universe version of the hero.
24. Action Figures
Metallo always makes for a fairly strong story in S:TAS, with Action Figures working well as a slightly different take on the character. Here, he washes up on an island with no memory of who he is, only to be befriended by a young brother and sister. His arrival on the island and on oncoming volcanic explosion is a little too coincidental, but the innocence of the children involved and their unlikely friendship with Metallo (who they name Steelman) adds some heart and eventual tragedy to the story. Paired with the disaster/revenge storyline (Metallo dunking Superman under molten lave is quite visceral) and you have one of the stronger returning villain episodes of S:TAS.
23. Monkey Fun
While it’s not a deep or overly exciting episode, Monkey Fun is one of the most Fleischer-like entries of the entire series. A flashback reveals that as a young girl, Lois Lane befriended a chimpanzee named Titano prior to it being launched into space by her father for a test mission. When the test failed, the chimp was lost. Now, as an adult, Titano is found, but begins rapidly growing larger until he’s bigger than King Kong. So, of course, Superman has to stop his misguided rampage. It’s a silly bit of fun that feels exaggerated even in a series full of aliens and monsters, but it has a sincerity to it and a warmth that helps the craziness of the premise go down easier.
22. Tools of the Trade
Another episode centered around criminals with big weapons, Tools of the Trade gets a big boost in quality thanks to launching the Darkseid/4th World storyline in the series. Here, crime boss Bruno Mannheim (an underrated side character in the series) and Intergang go on a rampage powered by hi-tech weapons from a mysterious supplier as bull-headed Detective Dan Turpin (another fantastic side character) decides to take them down without The Man of Steel’s help. Those weapons put Superman to the test and are eventually revealed to be from intergalactic lord Darkseid and the fiery planet Apokolips. One of the best endings of the entire series.
21. Double Dose
Livewire and Parasite are two of the most dangerous villains in all of Superman: The Animated Series, so their team up in “Double Dose” creates a convincingly frightening scenario for The Man of Steel. With a shaky alliance between the two villains, half the fun of the episode is seeing how they play off one another. This is certainly one of the best villain team ups of the series, as both Livewire and Parasite are given enough screentime to be interesting yet not overwhelm the episode. With so much power at their disposal, seeing Superman outsmart them in order to win feels more satisfying than the typical climactic brawl.