Adapting a comic book superhero into a cartoon can be an intricate process, especially when it comes to translating the army of antagonists that the character has amassed over time. Do you start with the most famous ones and just kinda run down the list? Do you pick the ones that were least served by cartoons in the past and present your new take? Do you open with your most inspired ideas and hope that audiences latch on, regardless of whether you’re working with the A list or the Z list?
The creative team behind My Adventures With Superman seems to have taken that third option, and it’s been a real success. A hero is only as good as his villains are nasty, and MAWS has put an exciting spin on Superman’s rogues through a surprising technique of mix and match, combining classic foes like the Parasite and Professor Ivo until they’re more than the sum of their evil parts.
Taking two villains and mashing them together isn’t necessarily new in superhero cartoons. All modern DC cartoons inevitably sit in the shadow of the DC Animated Universe, a beloved collection of series that began with 1992’s seminal Batman: The Animated Series and concluded with 2004’s Justice League Unlimited. The DCAU may not have invented the reinvention of comic book supervillains, but it certainly set a high bar for the exercise.
So to stand out, The Batman gave the heat-obsessed Firefly a nasty accident and turned him into the radioactive Doctor Phosphorus, amplifying his trigger-happy temper. The Spectacular Spider-Man killed two birds with one, um, vibrational wave by eventually dressing Montana, leader of the mercenary group the Enforcers, in the garb of the classic lackey the Shocker. Montana was saved from having to use his original abilities (in his 1963 debut, his powers were “has a lasso” and “Yep. That’s it. Just the lasso”) and Shocker was given Montana’s Southern drawl and hard-nosed personality. He was now a full-fledged character and a real threat, instead of just being the guy who fills in when Electro is in jail.
My Adventures With Superman takes this slow at first, working with personalities and characters in a way that fits the overall arc of the series, one where mysterious high-tech weaponry has been appearing in the hands of flamboyant criminals. Livewire begins as the leader of a gang instead of a shock jock radio host, fitting in with Deathstroke, whose first appearance is as a relatively unassuming agent before we get a glimpse at his full Task Force X badassery. The first incarnation of Intergang has none of the most famous members from the comics — instead it’s assembled from people a little deeper in the DC encyclopedia (perfect for a rookie Superman, though.)
By episode 4, though, we get the most major combination of the show so far. Anthony Ivo (think Lex Luthor if he wasn’t allowed out in public) is reimagined as the sneering CEO of a tech company, the kind of capitalist snob who feeds on those that idolize him. Fittingly, thanks to a wild new set of armor, he becomes the villain Parasite, who very physically sucks the energy out of people and things. It’s a neat evolution, tweaking characters and mixing them based on the overlaps in their respective metaphors.
Even better, it serves to upend the expectation of an audience familiar with these decades-old characters, just as was done with Firefly and Montana before. Staying perfectly “true to the comics” might seem like a noble goal, but it’s ultimately a hollow one. Even series that are regarded as incredible distillations of a character and their world, like Batman: The Animated Series, took their own liberties. Just check out its Mister Freeze, or the creation of Harley Quinn, for ways where forging your own path can change pop culture history.
But My Adventures With Superman knows when characters don’t need tweaks at all to fit in this Superman’s story. Taking a note from Grant Morrison’s fantastic Doom Patrol run, episode 6 showcases Monsieur Mallah and the Brain as loving partners, fitting with the episode’s theme of companionship among outsiders. And when we meet Mister Mxyzptlk in episode 7, he’s very much the impish trickster that fans adore.
These classic Superman ideas buttress MAWS’ new take on Superman. Mxyzptlk uses Superman for his kindness, and shows that in a moment of weakness the Man of Steel could be turned against mankind. At the same time, Lois and Jimmy find themselves partnered with the League of Lois Lanes, a multiverse group that, even though it operates with the best intentions, maintains a deep suspicion of Superman’s deadly potential.
These revelations have set the tone for the season’s endgame episodes, in which the foreground action is all about Ivo/Parasite and Intergang. Classic and reinvented villain plotlines merge in a way that’s far more interesting than a standard character team-up. It makes the question “What would happen if Superman went bad?” more than a simple, empty hypothetical — it’s also about what Clark’s best friends do with the question. It offers the viewer a real issue to chew on, even when they already know that our adorable himbo Clark wouldn’t harm a fly.
Through mixing and matching villains and their associating themes, My Adventures With Superman has been able to create a show that feels reinvigorating on a weekly basis. It’s not just a story about a search for mysterious weaponry, or about Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and their cute will-they-won’t-they-oh-they-did relationship. If you also like to see a consistently thoughtful approach to some of DC Comics’ iconic villains, MAWS still has you covered.