…this is new… (Brave New Metropolis)

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It’s September 27, 1997, and nothing of interest has happened in the day since the prior episode, nor have any charts changed.

“Brave New Metropolis” is a difficult episode to talk about, because it is essentially a rough draft of the much-superior Justice Leaguetwo-parter “A Better World.” Still, it does have a few elements of its own that are worth looking at, most particularly its biggest flaw: its attempt to keep Superman’s hands clean.

This is, or should be, the much-needed counterpart to “Blasts from the Past”: the story in which fascism rises from within instead of being imposed from without. The story in which Superman (as the exemplar of “truth, justice, and the American way”) reveals the ease with which “the American way” becomes fascism. It should practically write itself: beyond even the ease with which the protector fantasy slides into fascism, the fact that Superman’s powers are inborn, racial traits makes for an easy connection to the American eugenics movement that Hitler cited as a model.

But the episode shies away from this, unwilling to make that confrontation (yet–“A Better World” will do rather better on this front). Instead, it makes Lex Luthor the true tyrant. Fair enough: capitalism, and capitalist-driven imperialism (aka “mercantilism”), are the root causes for American slavery and genocide. But ultimately this results in the same problems as “Blasts from the Past”: fascism is still othered, the creation of greedy individuals, slavery and genocide located safely in the (by American standards) distant past.

But they’re not. They are here and present, so deeply embedded in our culture that they might as well be in the air we breath and the water we drink. They are not some alternate universe, viewed through a twisted, crackling mirror cooked up by a not-quite-mad scientist; they are our world.

The episode almost gets it. Superman’s black costume is basically the same as he wears in The Death of Superman, but without the dual machine guns, and the usual S-shield replaced with one based on the Nazi SS logo. The line between a Superman given over to violent, toxic masculinity, and one who is outright leading a fascist state, is thin. But by losing its nerve and having Superman be essentially Luthor’s patsy, the episode loses the thread of that critique–we end up with the rather incoherent image of a Superman in a Hugo Boss version of his costume that doesn’t realize that he’s involved with a fascist regime and never bothered to notice that Jimmy Olson was in a resistance cell. (The That Mitchell and Webb Look “Are We the Baddies?” sketch comes immediately to mind.)

But if “SSuperman” isn’t actually engaged in actively oppressing the populace, how is what he does any different than “our” Superman? He flies around, ignoring the established structures of power, and when he sees a criminal as defined by the powers that be, he helps capture them. (Note that in the scene where we see him fighting the resistance cell members, he doesn’t actually kill any of them–he is slightly reckless, but overall treats them pretty much the same as our Superman treats violent criminals.) The only change is that Luthor and his security forces, rather than the city government and police, are the powers that be.

In short, this episode is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to explore the terrifying prospect of a Superman gone full fascist, but it wants him to also be a revolutionary figure who kills the tyrannical Lex Luthor, but in a deniable way that keeps his hands clean, “accidentally” tearing the tail off his aircraft so it crashes into the giant Luthor/Superman statue.

Consider the title. Brave New World is not about fascism per se; rather, it is more about eugenics and industrialization, the application of the logic of the assembly line to all of human life. Of course the distance from there to fascism isn’t at all far: Henry Ford, revered as essentially a prophet in Brave New World, was an anti-Semite who profited off Nazi-provided slave labor, and the Holocaust was the Nazi application of the techniques of mass production to the already extant idea of concentration camps (another American invention, though to be fair the British came up with the same idea in the same year, 1899).

But the episode blurs that (admittedly fine) distinction by making Luthor, rather than Superman, the real dictator–Brave New Worlddoesn’t even have a dictator, its dystopia being oligarchical instead, as “meritocracies” tend to be. But a superhero story must have its supervillains, so there must be a singular dictator, perhaps with some henchmen, whom our hero can punch and thereby save the day.

It is, in other words, a very rough draft indeed.

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The light makes him lose his powers (Solar Power)

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It’s September 26, 1997. The top songs are the same as a few days ago, but the box office has updated–the top movie this weekend is The Peacemaker, an action thriller I’ve never heard of, starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, and hey, they were both in Batman movies, so that’s almost relevant-esque.

Superman the Animated Series starts the usual Saturday block off with a villain I’m sure everyone was clamoring to see again, Edward Lytener. You know, Lois’ stalker from “Target”? Yeah, I barely remember him either, and I wrote about that episode just six entries ago. This time, he somehow manages to find the resources to make an invisibility belt in prison, breaks out, then creates a forcefield around the earth that simulates having a red sun, as part of a plan to kill Superman by sapping his powers. (That this plan will also eventually kill off everyone and everything else except the weird creatures that live in ocean-floor thermal vents appears not to have occurred to him.)

Lytener continues to be a fairly boring villain, but there is something interesting happening here nonetheless. In the (roughly contemporaneous) Earthworm Jimepisode “Bring Me the Head of Earthworm Jim,” the villainous Professor Monkey-for-a-Head taunts the titular hero after depowering him by saying he now has only the power of an “ordinary person.” A moment later, Jim tackles him, leading Monkey-for-a-Head to revise: “Correction, an ordinary really big person.”

At the episode’s climax, when Superman initially confronts Lytener, basically the same occurs: even reduced to the strength he would have had on Krypton, Superman is still taller than Lytener, much broader and more muscular, and has been fighting regularly for more than a year. (Possibly much more–we know little of what his life was like prior to donning the costume.) If not for the fact that Lytener has a few more protective gadgets at his disposal than Professor Monkey-for-a-Head, he still would have posed no threat at all.

Remember this is a show primarily aimed at children and young teens, which means that this scene is easily readable in terms of the schoolyard: this is a jock beating up a nerd. But where that is usually depicted as bullying (and, on the rare occasion it actually still occurred in real life by the late 90s, usually was bullying), it is the opposite here: Lytener is still entitled, still believes that he deserves to have what he wants just because he wanted it. He’s made the step from the nerd with Nice Guy Syndrome who will not leave the girl he likes alone, to the to the angry white boy who shoots up the school.

And that really isn’t a big step at all. As stated, they’re both cases of an entitled child unable or unwilling to deal with the fact that he can’t have what he wants. Lytener continues to think of Lois as an object rather than a person, so he doesn’t blame her for not wanting him–he blames Superman for taking her away from him. Ultimately both are about power: Lytener desired power over Lois and learned that Superman has power over him, so he engaged in an elaborate plan (involving a gigantic, invisible Lexcorp facility that looks like it cost billions and a network of Lexcorp satellites, rather demonstrating that Luthor is lying when he claims not to be backing Lytener’s scheme) to take that power away from Superman.

Lytener, in short, continues to be a character ahead of his time, not the “lovable” misogynistic or objectifying nerd common in television of the 1990s (such as Saved by the Bell‘s Screech or Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel–nor are such figures limited to the 1990s, as witness the entire male cast of The Big Bang Theory), but rather the more realistic nerd who is as invested in hegemonic masculinity as anyone, the bitter, angry, self-pitying, mediocre man who thinks he deserves to be special by dint of his manhood, and therefore feels the need to enact his power through harassment. Lytener’s abuse of his invisibility, his ability to craft illusions through which he is difficult to find–viewed from 2017, these look very much like the anonymity and pseudonimity that Internet trolls use in their harassment campaigns. Lytener is a precursor to every entitled manchild who helped fuel GamerGate and the alt-right. Denied what he incorrectly believes to be his by right, he decides to just go all-in on destroying whoever he has fixated upon as his enemy, and he’s willing to burn down the world to do it. Who cares if we unleash massive suffering at best and multiple existential threats to the human species at worst, as long as we stick it to those libtards and cultural Marxist cucks, right? (Please excuse me while I scrub myself very hard for several hours in an effort to get the stench of that sentence off.)

Look, too, at how Lytener threatens to wipe out life on Earth and, incidentally, depower Superman: by turning STAS into BTAS. Just like Batman: The Animated Series‘ first opening, the skies are apocalypse red, and Superman loses his powers. The clock is rolled back to before the art shift, before Harley Quinn destroyed Krypton, before superpowered heroes existed, so of course Superman cannot be one.

Note that this has essentially the same effect on Superman as kryptonite. It doesn’t send him into a panic attack, true, but that’s because his trauma isn’t being triggered, it’s being removed. Either way, however, he’s weakened. We’ve examined a lot why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than apocalypse; here is why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than no apocalypse. Without their personal apocalypse, their trauma, their origin story, they can’t be a superhero at all.

In the red-skied world of BTAS, Superman’s apocalypse, his trauma, has been taken away from him–and with them, his superpowers. Without that pain, without balancing on the knife-edge between safety and apocalypse, he isn’t a superhero.

He’s just an ordinary really big person.

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