It’s September 7, 1996, the day after “Last Son of Krypton.” Headlines and charts are unchanged since yesterday.
Toyman is an odd duck amongst Superman villains. The bulk of the villains we’ll see this season–Metallo, Brainiac, Darkseid, Parasite–have superpowers that allow them either to go toe-to-toe with Superman, or exploit specific weaknesses. Other villains, like Lex Luthor and the Preserver, have access to resources which enable them to threaten or contain Superman. But Toyman, despite his fantastic stockpile of toys, is never any kind of threat at all–at no point in this episode does Superman appear to be putting forth any real effort. Even the two toys which momentarily inconvenience him–the superball and the “Dopey-Doh”–require only seconds to destroy, with his only concern regarding the latter keeping Lois safe. Toyman’s lack of threat is particularly noticeable because Superman is still clearly inexperienced here, as demonstrated by how long he takes fighting the giant ducky, without noticing that it’s just a distraction to keep him busy while Toyman abducts Manheim.
With his tragic backstory, vague references to possible mental illness, and quest for revenge against a “legitimate businessman”/mobster, Toyman comes across very much as a Batman villain, rather than a Superman villain. Indeed, in a sense he is a Batman villain: his behavior bears remarkable resemblance to the villain of “Beware the Gray Ghost,” Ted Dymer, a petty, vengeful manchild who used toys as weapons. At the same time his general creepiness (thanks to a wonderfully understated-yet-menacing performance by Bud Cort), not to mention dressing Lois up like a doll, recall the Mad Hatter. And his small stature and child-like demeanor recall Baby-Doll.
Yet, as we saw with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (which predates this episode by almost exactly a decade), Toyman is a classic Superman villain, prominent enough to be in the pantheon that Superman faces in the course of the comic. And, notably, though he shares the name Winslow Schott with one of the three characters to use the name Toyman in the comics, this incarnation of the Toyman doesn’t particularly resemble any of them in appearance or backstory. This Toyman’s father, also named Winslow Schott, shares with the comics Schott the backstory of a toymaker wronged by another villain, but the Toyman in the episode is the abandoned son of the toymaker, not the original toymaker, who died in prison.
What we have here, in short, is a riff on the same concept as Toyman’s appearance in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”: a darker, more serious take on what might drive a person to use toys to commit attacks, a silly villain reimagined as creepy and murderous. Add in that Lois pities him after hearing his backstory, and the intent behind the character becomes clear: he is a reimagining of Toyman in much the same way that “Heart of Ice” reimagined Mr. Freeze, an attempt to do for one of the silliest Superman villains what that episode did for Batman’s villain. After all, “Heart of Ice” was a masterpiece that helped put Batman: The Animated Series on the map; it makes sense to try again.
But Toyman’s schtick carries baggage that Freeze’s does not. As we saw with Dymer in “Gray Ghost,” the obsessive toy collector trapped in his childhood–and trying to trap everyone else there, too, as Toyman does when he dresses Lois like a doll–is uncomfortably close to the obsessive comics collector trying to cement the “universe” of which he’s a fan into a singular form based on his own nostalgia.
Recall, this Superman looks and acts notably different from the mulleted 90s Superman that appeared in The Batman Adventures. His art style is different, his Metropolis far less anachronistic than Gotham, more a squeaky-clean 90s image of the near future than a hodgepodge of time periods. The obsessive collector, the one who seeks ownership and control of a world locked down into the form he remembers, the one who seeks to enumerate all the world’s knowledge and thereby devour it; these are Superman’s enemies.
This is not the birth of the DCAU we expected. This is the anti-DCAU, just as “Whatever Happened” was the anti-Crisis: the denial of single vision and Tolkien’s sleep, the denial that there is any such thing as a “universe” here. Instead, there is something much, much bigger: an ideaspace, filled with stories and potential stories, extending outward and actively denying attempts to fence it in. The playground has no borders.
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