The Missed Potential of Clark Kent in Superman: The Animated Series

Clark Kent confused, from Superman: The Animated Series

Clark Kent is my favorite part of Superman. On a basic level, it’s not hard to explain why: I enjoy the contrast between him and Superman, how he can add depth to Superman’s character, and the fact that Superman can be more easily challenged in this identity. But to go into detail is more complicated, because Clark can be many different things and serve many different purposes within a story. Who he is and how he has been portrayed throughout the decades and different continuities has varied as much as his alter ego, if not more. But most of the time, there are two basic “takes” on Clark that have been used heavily throughout the years:

  • The original version, where Superman tries to make Clark as different as possible from his true Superman personality in order to keep his secret identity safe. As a result, Clark displays various traits that are seemingly the opposite of Superman, usually cowardice and being “mild-mannered”, as well as physical weakness and perhaps clumsiness, and sometimes even more traits to make him contrast with his true identity and personality as Superman. Let’s call this “wimpy Clark”.
  • The version codified by the 1986 Post-Crisis reboot of DC Comics (but not a completely new invention of that reboot), where Clark Kent is considered Superman’s true identity, and thus he has the same assertive and strong personality as his alter ego. Let’s call this “assertive Clark”.

It’s important to not oversimplify things. Even most versions of “wimpy Clark” can be assertive at times, which makes sense. Clark is a reporter, one of the best reporters for a huge, famous newspaper, and the stories he works on tend to be about things that make for interesting stories to readers, like crime, corruption and intense stuff in general. It’s hard to report about this stuff if you’re a total wimp 24/7. And occasionally, a Clark will come along who doesn’t fit into one of these two categories.

Still, for the most part, Clark Kents usually fit into one of the two takes. As diametrically opposed as they seem to be, I enjoy both. Theoretically, I prefer “assertive Clark” when done right, but I certainly don’t prefer it unconditionally. I enjoy a well-written, well-utilized “wimpy Clark” more than a poorly-written, poorly-utilized “assertive Clark”. That brings me to the main topic of this article: Clark in Superman: The Animated Series.

Superman: TAS is a good show, but I would never consider it the gold standard of Superman, and one thing that holds it back is its portrayal of Clark. It’s solidly in the Post-Crisis “assertive Clark” camp: Clark is supposedly the “true identity” of Superman and has the confident personality of Superman. But, well…that’s sort of it. That’s basically all I can say about this Clark, because they don’t expand on him or do much with him. To an extent, that’s how I feel about Superman as a character in this show in general (a solid foundation for the character that’s not built upon enough), but Clark is the ultimate example of this.

Clark Kent from Superman: The Animated Series against a blue background with a blue Superman symbol

The most obvious issue is that the Clark Kent identity just doesn’t get that much screen time. Ironically, despite this being one of those “Clark is the real identity” takes, there’s less focus on Clark than there is on the average “wimpy Clark”, who’s supposedly the “fake identity”. Now, not every piece of Superman media is obligated to give a bunch of time to the Clark identity, but this is an entire Superman solo show. There should theoretically be plenty of time to go over different aspects of the protagonist’s life.

Maybe if they managed to do a lot in a small amount of time, it’d be fine. But Clark’s personal and professional lives are largely neglected. We don’t get to see much of his daily life at the Daily Planet – Perry White is basically demoted to a background character. We don’t get to see his personal relationships get much development, to the point that they barely even implement his attraction to Lois or attempts to have a relationship with her. You don’t need me to tell you that Clark pining after Lois and Lois snubbing him while being interested in Superman is a staple of the character, but this isn’t really a part of Superman: TAS. What makes this even weirder is that in the third part of the World’s Finest 3-part episode, they mention this famous love triangle, despite the fact that they failed to actually show it!

This still doesn’t have to be a major problem in and of itself, though. Every version of Superman emphasizes different things. My concern isn’t that Superman: TAS didn’t tick the right boxes when it came to Clark, but that they underutilized him in general. My favorite show, Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, also didn’t emphasize romance or the love triangle, but it focused a lot on Clark’s life as a reporter and gave him strong relationships with Perry, Lois, Jimmy, and the show’s resident police character Inspector Henderson. It utilized Clark better than any other Superman media, in my opinion. You really got a feeling of who he was as a person and how he cares about the people in his life and about fighting crime and helping people, not just as Superman, but as a reporter too.

Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Inspector Henderson in the Adventures of Superman show

These choices, as well as Reeves’ acting and the writing in general, make me really appreciate Superman’s character in Adventures of Superman. Seeing him in his human life (which feels very authentic – this version of Clark is arguably the first “assertive Clark”) not only makes him easier to relate to, but also easier to admire, because we see him being a good person in his day-to-day life, not just when using his powers.

Now, S:TAS has very different emphases than AoS – it’s far more focused on superhero action than solving mysteries, so it’s natural that the Clark identity would be used less. But it’s still a part of the show, and in my opinion, if you’re going to include an aspect in your show, you should make good use of it.

Interestingly enough, S:TAS does make good use of the Clark identity in one episode…and basically only that episode. That episode, The Lake Mr. Kent, is naturally one of my favorite episodes of the show. Its format is more similar to an AoS episode since the plot is based on Clark investigating a story in the hope of helping someone – specifically, he’s trying to help a soon-to-be-executed death row inmate who he believes to be innocent. (This is actually the same basic premise as one of my favorite episodes of AoS, Five Minutes to Doom!)

This episode does a good job fulfilling what I’m looking for when it comes to Clark: it shows his willingness to follow through on what he believes even if others don’t agree and gives him a challenge that he wouldn’t have if he was just Superman (the crux of the episode and reason for its name is that, when Clark gets too close to the truth, someone tries to blow him up, and so everyone thinks Clark is dead). Even Clark’s journalistic rivalry with Lois is present here, in the form of Clark bragging to her about the story! (I love when Clark is smug.)

Furthermore, it actually does give some meaningful answers as to what being Clark means for Superman, even if it’s mostly done through Clark making direct statements. When talking with his parents about his “death”, he mentions that he is Clark and has to be able to spend time in this identity rather than as Superman or he’d “go crazy”.

That’s a pretty basic statement of the post-Crisis concept of Clark, but it’s worthwhile to establish. What’s interesting about this is that it shows that his life as Clark Kent is extremely important to Superman, but the lack of focus on Clark in the rest of the series shows that it’s not very important to the writers.

A more interesting character moment to me is when Clark acquires the evidence proving the condemned man’s innocence, he drives to the governor to deliver it as Clark. In narration, he says this is partially to avoid awkward questions (presumably he’s worried about his secret identity), but also mentions that ego is involved – that he wants this to be “Clark’s victory, not Superman’s”. This is a more interesting and concrete demonstration of what it means for Superman to consider Clark to be his true identity. He cares about being recognized for his accomplishments as an investigative journalist, and that makes him feel very human.

So The Late Mr. Kent is a great episode that actually uses the Clark identity well, but it’s a major outlier in S:TAS. It cannot truly make up for the lack of focus and development on Clark and his relationships in the rest of the series. The very concept of the episode, Clark Kent’s seeming death, can’t hit as hard as it would have if the rest of the series had done a better job establishing Clark’s importance to his friends and to Superman. The scene where Lois talks to Superman about Clark and her regret about not having told him her feelings (though it’s unclear whether they are romantic or just feelings of respect or friendship) would’ve hit a lot harder if we had been shown more of Lois and Clark’s relationship in the rest of the series. This scene’s significance to the viewer is mostly based on general knowledge of the Superman concept rather than the show itself.

I can’t help but think about what could’ve been. What if this had been a show that actually put a decent amount of focus on Clark and Lois’ evolving relationship? This could’ve been more than a nice moment, but an actual turning point. Even though Clark obviously turned out to not be dead, Lois would’ve realized that she can’t take him for granted and may have tried to express her feelings more, enabling them to build a strong friendship or even become romantically involved. But S:TAS wasn’t interested in that, sadly. Even if it wanted to mainly focus on fun action, that doesn’t mean spending time on characters or relationships wasn’t an option.

And I need to emphasize that The Late Mr. Kent is an extreme outlier as far as Clark Kent in S:TAS goes. Even on the rare occasion that the Clark identity gets significant screen time in an episode, there’s rarely much of interest in his actions and behavior. And I wish so much that his friendships with Lois or Jimmy were better established – not even The Late Mr. Kent did much in that department.

For a more typical example of Clark in S:TAS, let’s take a quick look at another one of my favorite episodes, Ghost in the Machine. The amount of screen time Clark gets in this one is actually fairly significant by this show’s standards. He and Lois attend an unveiling of Lex Luthor’s new technology, they discuss what happened as they drive away, Clark goes to Luthor’s office and tries to get some answers by talking with Mercy Graves (Luthor’s bodyguard), and later, he talks with Lois on the phone.

That’s enough scenes for some interesting characterization to happen, but we don’t really get any. Lois and Clark’s conversations are mostly about advancing the plot. (Though I do love Clark’s facial expression here.)

When he’s interacting with Mercy, he just comes across as a hard-ass reporter. Honestly, I find this slightly off-putting since even when he’s not “mild-mannered”, Clark usually feels a bit more subtle than this. Even if he’s not actively trying to project weakness and seem different from Superman, that doesn’t mean Clark should be as tough and aggressive as a reporter as Superman is when dealing with a threat. Part of the appeal of seeing Clark in his civilian life is seeing Superman when he’s not actively dealing with a dangerous situation and thus has a chance to breathe a little and not be “on the attack”.

(I will say, it’s sometimes understandable for Clark to be aggressive as a reporter. But I’d like to see more variety that shows the breadth of his career and experiences, and that can’t really happen in this show due to the lack of focus on journalism.)

Sadly, the entire series gives us very few moments when Clark can relax, and it’s not like he’s relaxing much in the Superman identity either. We just don’t get much time with the character when he’s not dealing with an immediate problem. There’s an episode, Father’s Day, where Clark’s parents come to Metropolis and are going to have dinner with him and Lois, but this is interrupted by bad guy shenanigans, and we never go back to it. What a great opportunity this would’ve been for interactions, characterization, and just seeing Clark have a good time with people who are important to him!

Ultimately, I get that S:TAS is trying to focus on action, but I feel more meaningful characterization or relationships could be squeezed in even in small moments if necessary. The fact that they aren’t demonstrates that it just isn’t a priority for the show. And considering the show also doesn’t have much interest in mysteries or other kinds of stories where Clark can progress the plot, the end result is a show where the Clark Kent identity doesn’t have a place.

Or, perhaps more accurately, a show where “assertive Clark” doesn’t have a place. Maybe if this show used “wimpy Clark”, he’d have a purpose – injecting a bit of humor and levity. I mean, Clark’s presence in Superman: the Movie didn’t have a huge story or character purpose, but he added charm and fun to the movie.

Clark Kent and Lois Lane from the 1978 Superman movie being robbed at gunpoint

But as it is, S:TAS is a series where Superman’s human identity is underutilized and largely uninteresting. How big a problem this is varies from person to person, but to me, it’s a big deal. It could be considered a symptom of the greater problem of the show focusing on action to the detriment of characterization and relationships. At any rate, it’s something about the show that’s pretty disappointing, and I don’t feel like the show “makes up for it” – that it’s using the Superman identity in such in-depth and complex ways that they just can’t spare time for Clark, or something. I think there’s plenty of times when this show could be more interesting by using Clark more or better. And I think in general, when we’re talking about an entire TV show focused on a single main character, seeing multiple facets of a protagonist’s life be well-developed and interesting shouldn’t be too much to ask.

And more broadly speaking, I think it demonstrates a truth about “assertive Clark” in general. If you’re going to have Clark be the “true identity”, it makes sense to make it important to the story, since after all, it’s important to Superman. Otherwise, what’s the point? I guess it might make viewers feel good that Superman sees himself as “one of us”, but other than that, Clark serves little purpose. And to me, that’s just not satisfactory.

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