Man of Steel was released in theaters last week, and the response was generally favourable, despite its controversial RottenTomatoes rating. I myself haven’t seen it yet, but I am glad that Superman is getting another chance on the big screen. I mean, most of his movies end up in development hell, even if some of the cancelled Superman movie projects sound strangely interesting (including one where Lex Luthor is a Kryptonian!) Of course, it’s because there are problems you run into when adapting Superman everyone cites: he’s too powerful (his powers could work with a good writer), he’s boring as a character (no he isn’t, not really) and he doesn’t have as good a rogues’ gallery as Batman.
Yes, Superman always finds himself compared to Batman, almost always negatively. Batman’s a better character than Superman. Batman is darker and more psychological, and thus better. And yes, Batman does have a better rogue’s gallery. Batman has a better rogue’s gallery than any other superhero really. Not only can the average Batman villain take on Batman and almost win, they usually have an interesting personality too. Both Batman and the Joker are normal humans with their own set of gadgets, so there’s reason to fear for Batman’s life when he’s up against the Clown Prince of Crime, but what really makes the Joker worth writing about is his unique psyche and his twisted worldview.
But doesn’t Superman also have villains who can go toe-to-toe with the Man of Steel and be charismatic to boot? Well, yeah. The new movie has Zod; he can beat up Superman because he’s a fellow Kryptonian and his regal attitude makes him an interesting character too. Lex Luthor may be a mere mortal, but he has the money and resources to destroy Superman, and the way his persona clashes with that of Superman makes him worthy of the title of Superman’s arch-nemesis. Even Mr. Mxyzptlk fits the bill – he’s one of the few beings more powerful than Superman, and his smug, fun-loving personality keeps his stories entertaining.
But what of the other Superman villains? Doomsday killed Superman, sure, but he doesn’t have that much to him as a person, or whatever he is. What can be said about Metallo? And then we have dorks like Dr. Grouch and J. Wilbur Wolfingham who neither have the powers or resources to defeat Superman, nor do they have a personality trait to their name other than “mean”.
I mentioned before in my ‘Five Best and Five Worst Comic Book Redesigns’ that a lame Superman villain actually had something of a success story in the comics:
The Prankster, aka Oswald Loomis, was neither an interesting character nor an effective foil for the Last Son of Krypton. A being like Superman should fight aliens and monsters and robots, not a fat little dickhead in a tweed jacket. Thankfully, his character was improved in more modern comics, where he got an improved body, high-tech weaponry, a more entertaining personality reminiscent of a TV comedian, and a role helping other supervillains.
Not that the old Prankster didn’t have his days in the sun. In fact, in Ruby Spears’ 1988 Superman cartoon, the tubby plaid-wearing one was the only villain from the comics to appear other than Luthor and Zod. Yes, that’s right. And said cartoon actually had some prestige; it had famed comic book writer Marv Wolfman as head story editor, was the first time outside the comics Lex Luthor had been portrayed as an evil businessman, and borrowed several elements from the iconic Richard Donner movies. So if any cartoon should make the Prankster interesting, it should be this one, right? So, here’s his episode, ‘Triple Play’…
The intro of this series is as corny as all hell, with a narrator that makes the one from Superfriends seem reserved. It’s still a blast to watch though, as it does have the famous John Williams Superman theme, some nice animation, and something that’s a requirement for all superhero media, a giant ape (Titano?). You can just imagine some sugar-munching kid falling in love with this intro on first sight.
We begin with some baseball players practicing for the World Series, and Jimmy Olsen and Clark Kent watching them, where Clark reveals he knows his stuff about the sport. Of course, baseball is the Great American pastime and Superman’s the all-American hero, blah blah blah. You Yanks and your baseball, I’ll never understand it. In fact, this whole thing reminds me of the comic Superman: True Brit and the amusing way it incorporated cricket into its plot.
Both Jimmy and Clark have pretty monotonous voices, so I actually feel glad to be away from them, and with Prankster and his henchmen. Prankster has said henchmen install a…a…I can’t say it…what he calls a ‘gizmo’. NO, NO, NOT A GIZMO. ANYTHING BUT A GIZMO. “GIZMO” IS THE MOST TERRIFYING WORD IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. It’s worth noting that Prankster is voiced by Howard Morris, and though it’s pretty distracting how much he sounds like Wade Duck in Garfield and Friends, it’s a pretty fitting voice for him (especially since he’s in his classic fat vaudeville form, since his “Jeremy Beadle” form had yet to be introduced in the comics). You know how when you watched Batman: the Animated Series or played Batman: Arkham Asylum, you couldn’t read a Batman comic without mentally hearing Kevin Conroy as Bats and Mark Hamill as the Joker? Well, if you watch this and then read an old-school comic with the Prankster, you probably would hear Morris’ voice in your head.
Prankster’s henchmen knock out a guard with a trick flower. Say, isn’t there a villain in Batman who…nah. Clark then turns into Superman, and we have the obligatory ‘Is it a bird?’ scene. I don’t know why the people of Metropolis would keep on saying that after Superman has established himself pretty firmly, but whatever. The henchgoons decide to stymy Superman with the most dreaded weapon known to man…THE BLUNDERBLASTER. First “the Gizmo”, now “the Blunderblaster”, the names of the Prankster’s weapons send chills down my spine. They knock over some spotlights so they can escape while Superman saves the baseball players. Given Superman’s powers though, I’m pretty sure he’d be fast enough to catch the spotlights, nab the baddies, stop THE GIZMO and have a cup of tea in under a minute.
Later, Clark, Jimmy and Lois are talking with Perry White; in other words, they’re giving exposition about the Prankster’s plot. Lois bursts out that the Prankster is so called because he uses pranks in his crimes, solely because there were likely some stupid kids in the audience who didn’t figure that out from his name and his henchmen’s weapons. And here I thought he was so-called because he was an Offspring fan. Also it turns out one “Judge Cook” will be showcasing some “machine art” at a show…wow, a judge, a cook, a mechanic and an artist in one? Supes has competition. Also, it’s the same judge who sentenced the Prankster to prison. Ah, the old “revenge on all who put me away” story, I’m fine with that. Batman: the Animated Series did it decently with Killer Croc. I’m not sure this will be as successful, but we’ll see.
Sure enough, that night at the gallery, Prankster and his henchmen are holding Judge Cook hostage. Superman dives in to see two henchmen looking over some paintings Prankster wants because they’re “crazy”. So that’s how they’re trying to make the Prankster more three-dimensional; he’s not just a villain, he’s an art critic! Supes, however, stops the henchmen by throwing barrels at them because he’s Donkey Kong now I guess.
In another room, Prankster has Judge Cook tied to a machine, which…shakes a bit. Screw Luthor, this is arch-enemy material right here. Superman bursts in, and Prankster uses another machine to knock Supes backwards. Okay, they made him a sorta-viable threat to Superman then. Credit where credit’s due. But wait, weren’t the machines in the gallery part of an art exhibit? Judge Cook is a man of the law and made machines that could attack Superman? Was this a statement about men’s destructive ways? Is Cook trying to be the next Banksy or something?
Prankster am-scrays, and after untying Cook, Supes goes after the Prankster. Get this, the Prankster has a get-way car – a retro Mr. Toad number- that he drives inside the art museum. Wow, what the Prankster lacks in superpowers he makes up for in ridiculous spectacle and spectacular ridicule. And does he ridicule Superman. The Prankster’s car shoots out hard-drying peanut butter that traps Superman in place like cement. Yes, he has evil peanut butter that keeps Superman frozen for the ad break. Not even Kryptonite peanut butter or anything. Prankster’s a badass.
Further proof of this is shown when the Prankster’s car sprouts wings and flies off. And by wings, I mean actual bird wings, not robot wings or anything. Wow, his car makes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang look shit. Superman breaks out of the peanut butter, and swears that he’ll get Prankster.
Later we have the World Series, where Clark, Lois and Jimmy are attending, and Clark pops off because Superman is supposed to throw the first ball of the game. And I know things like this have been observed before, but this is the third time in the episode Clark has buggered off when with Jimmy. I guess Clark should be glad Jimmy’s a moron and can’t put two-and-two together.
Prankster and his men step onto the field, and strangely, whenever Prankster talks, his eye floats up, making him look like Quasimodo’s retarded brother. So what is Prankster’s plan? To steal the World Series, via a giant teleportation beam. Oh god, this is pure hilarious Silver Age crack right here, and I love it. Keep all your “serious” stories, this is what Superman should be like.
The baseball players, as well as Lois and Jimmy, are teleported to a far-off island, and Prankster has his men tell Superman to come alone. When Supes arrives, Prankster explains how he’s tied Judge Cook to one rocket and Jimmy and Lois to another. Yep, this is Silver Age stuff alright. Prankster has created a robot team of baseballers, which Superman will play for. If Supes’ team loses, Lois and Jimmy are history, and if Supes’ team wins, ‘there go de Judge’. Ha ha, reference. And Superman goes along with it until he sees his chance. What? Dude, you’re omnipotent! Every second is “your chance”! Plus, the Prankster is just sitting on a chair with two dopey henchmen as his guards, not in a Kryptonite robot or anything. It would make sense if the ending went like this:
SUPERMAN: Hey, Prankster, you have something on your shirt!
PRANKSTER: (looks down) Huh? (looks up and sees the remote control for the rockets out of his hands, and the Judge, Lois and Jimmy rescued) Shit.
But no, let’s have Supes play ball. When the Prankster asks Superman for a homer, Superman knocks the remote out of the Prankster’s hands with a baseball and destroys it with his eye beams. He probably could have done that, or something akin to it, before the stupid game, but I guess he thought it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t give Prankster a chance. Prankster has another robot though, which makes Superman say, ‘It’s not over yet!’ I love the reading of that, because it sounds so ‘UUUH, the Prankster hasn’t given up yet? Come on, I have soaps to watch!’ The robot, which shoots baseball bats and exploding baseballs, isn’t that bad, but Superman makes short work of it, because, you know, he’s fucking Superman. Prankster tries to get away with a jetpack and Icarus wings…again with the wings. What do wings have to do with pranks? Supes catches Prankster though, and the day is saved. Yes, as Judge Cook says ‘the good guys won’ YES, THEY FUCKING SAID THE PHRASE ‘THE GOOD GUYS WIN’. Sigh.
So with the Prankster in prison, the guards mock him about the fact that he can’t watch baseball anymore. Yes, this whole plan was because the Prankster couldn’t watch baseball in prison. Truly an understandable and engaging goal.
So once again, criteria for a good supervillain is that a) said villain can take on the hero and b) the villain has an interesting personality. Does the Prankster have the means to take on Superman? Well, he has fucking quick-dry peanut butter and a flying car, so I guess. Does he have an interesting personality? Not really. Howard Morris was the best voice actor in this cartoon, and the Prankster’s gadgets were hilariously stupid, but I can’t really say this did him much favours for his reputation.