Superman: Man of Tomorrow marks something of a new start for DC’s animated films, and returns to Clark Kent’s early days with a just-right tone and a great voice cast.
With Justice League: Apokolips War, the longstanding New 52 continuity that has kept DC’s animated films running in place came to a welcome end. And that’s both good and bad news for the latest entry in the catalog, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, which arrives as both a palate cleanser but also a suggestion of things to come. Now is as exciting a time for DC and Warner Bros. Animation as there has ever been, and this film, a return to the early days of Clark Kent’s crime-fighting career, is as pointedly not a start of a new shared universe as it is a very solid, charming little film in its own right.
Its secret weapon is getting Superman just right, understanding that the key enduring aspect of his personality is the fact he’s a giant dork, crippled by indecision about what’s best for his loved ones, Metropolis, and the wider world in general. Darren Criss is doing the voice now and takes a while to get used to, but he does a fine job of letting Clark’s predicament quiver in his tone; he can and does take charge when he needs to, but most of the time he’s turning to Martha (the ageless Bellamy Young) and Jonathan (Neil Flynn) Kent for help, advice, and a fancy costume.
That costume, hewn out of the fabric Clark was swaddled in for his journey from Krypton, is explicitly a rip-off of that Batman guy’s outfit Martha keeps seeing in the papers. It’s those kinds of charming little details that feel about right for Supes, a late arrival to both Earth and the superhero game who recognizes that his own powers come with a certain responsibility but can’t quite figure out who that responsibility is to. He has little time to ponder, though, since a go-getter Lois Lane (Alexandra Daddario), fresh from very publicly taking down Lex Luthor (Zachary Quinto), plans to write a tell-all exposé on the so-called Superman just as Lobo (Ryan Hurst) arrives on the hunt for the last Kryptonian along with a placid, informative Martian Manhunter (Ike Amadi).
Directed by Chris Palmer and written by Tim Sheridan, Superman: Man of Tomorrow knows exactly which beats to hit, and does a respectable job of delving into Clark’s interiority. This isn’t an “origin” in the sense of covering Clark coming to Earth and being raised by the Kents; we get snippets of that but mostly fast-forward through it to a more crucial turning point, with Clark having dabbled with saving the day but finally realizing he has to decide once and for all whether or not he’s going to commit to it. We know he will, but that deliberation process is relatively ripe territory for DC’s animated line, which tends to favor a Superman at the height of his powers or slightly off the rails.
The animation, which is smooth and vibrant, a far cry from the muddy look and self-serious tone and weird collars of the New 52 aesthetic, feels designed in part to prove a point about these films veering off in a new direction now. As has been incorrectly reported and subsequently corrected all over the place, Superman: Man of Tomorrow isn’t the beginning of a shared universe in the way that 2014’s Justice League: War was, but instead a standalone offering that might have elements taken forwards into subsequent releases. For current purposes, that hardly matters. Palmer has delivered a Superman tale that understands and appreciates the character’s nerdy essence and pure values; a look at the Man of Steel’s whirring inner workings. For now, that’ll do nicely.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.