People who care about you (Action Figures)

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It’s still September 20, 1997. Little to nothing has changed.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Action Figures,” as an episode, is that it pulls the same trick on the audience that Metallo pulls on the children, albeit significantly sooner. Specifically, at least at first this looks to be setting up a “sympathetic villain” story of the kind Batman: The Animated Series did so well and Superman: The Animated Series does basically not at all.

In the past, such stories have usually been origin stories, since it helps to see the villain before they became a villain, if we’re to have any sympathy for them. However, amnesia works nearly as well, because it poses the question of whether the villain would be a villain if their life had gone differently–if they are, at heart, a basically decent person who went badly astray due to bad circumstances. It thus implies that, had their lives been different, they would be better people, that they are more sinned against than sinning–exactly as sympathetic villain stories do.

“Action Figures” appears to be setting us up for such a tale, as Metallo comes ashore on a deserted island and is found by a pair of young children, who adopt him as a sort of pet superhero and keep him in a cave. This is the classic E.T. scenario, in which children have a strange friend who is unjustly pursued and must be kept secret–a common story device in everything from 1980s sitcoms to cartoons to one of the best chapters of Desolation Road to Stranger Things. However, STAS almost immediately complicates the scenario by adding in a degree of ambiguity–flashes of memory experienced by Metallo when asked who he is and where he came from. Are these flashes indicators that his memory is fragmented, that he genuinely doesn’t remember? Or do they belie his claims not to remember? Or, a third option, is it that he doesn’t want to remember, that he is hoping for some kind of fresh start?

Regardless, he does save the little girl shortly before that moment. Nothing compelled him to do that, and it wasn’t part of any cover–he just arrived, saw her in danger, and acted. It was an act of good, even if not the act of a good man. It is entirely possible that his memory only started to return when the children questioned him, and only completely returned when he held the Superman doll. Certainly, it is only after that point that he begins unambiguously lying, claiming to be even more E.T.-like–an alien hiding out from “bad men.”

Before that point, the ambiguity remains. This looks like a sympathetic villain episode, as Metallo’s “unjust persecutors”–Lois Lane and Superman–realize he is on the island and set out to investigate. At that point, a confrontation with a tragic end is inevitable–even if this were a sympathetic villain story, Metallo would still end up going back to villainy out of anger at Superman and possibly Lois, because that is how tragic villain stories work. However, by lying to the children, he is scheming against them before he even knows they are coming–a proactive, deliberate choice.

What is his plan, exactly? To sneak off the island in his absurd “disguise,” and then–what? He was always a violent person with little respect for law or civilization–a mercenary and terrorist-for-hire–and became even more so when he lost all possibility of physical pleasure and sensation. None of that has changed; unlike the “monsters” of the E.T.-style story, he actually is as monstrous as he appears.

Metallo’s heart is a major focus this episode, with Metallo’s defeat hinging on its exposed position; it is fitting, then, that a man who lives to destroy and inflict pain has a heart made of reified trauma. Here kryptonite does not represent Superman’s trauma specifically–though, as always, it triggers him, dramatically reducing his ability to fight as the lava erupts around the two–nor even Metallo’s, but rather the trauma John Corben has inflicted upon the world. Just as his cold, numb skin reflects the callousness with which he has inflicted pain upon the world, his kryptonite heart reflects the trauma he creates. It is the core of his being: he is that which hurts others.

John Corben, in short, is an evil man, whether or not he’s Metallo. (This is, of course, fiction, where the complexity of real humans is drastically dialed down to create characters, and there can therefore exist such a thing as a still-living “evil man”–someone who is programmatically, consistently evil, as opposed to someone who has done many evil things but could do something completely different tomorrow.) For all that–as we have discussed–the power fantasies of adults tend to resemble supervillains rather than superheroes, it does not therefore follow that all supervillains represent a power fantasy, or at least not a good or healthy one. Corben is the fantasy of being untouchable, unfeeling, uncaring, impossible to hurt and very able of hurting others–he is the power fantasy of someone who is already a bully. (The resemblance of that description to a typical Internet troll is no accident.)

The reason power fantasies, transformed into characters, end up as villains is not that villains are innately power fantasies; rather, it is that villains represent the abject, that-which-is-unacceptable. So even a villain like Poison Ivy–who represents the fantasy of a world in which feminism and environmentalism have power, an obviously preferable state to the unsustainable late-capitalist patriarchy we have now–is a reification not of the fantasy, but of its unacceptability: she is a signifier of the fact that we are not “supposed” to have that fantasy. As a result, as a character as opposed to a symbol, she is still a terrible person–violent, destructive, domineering.

This is why the answer to our question–of how to build a better superhero, one that keeps what is good but isn’t pulled constantly in the direction of the fascistic–cannot simply be to embrace the supervillain. That way lies 90s comics and the DCEU. No, what we are looking for is a hero that represents a fantasy of the power to change the world for the better–not the fantasy to impose one will on all others, a protector who will keep us safe from change, or a human-shaped kaiju monster, but an apocalyptic fantasy that leads into utopia, all reified into a character with cool powers and a nice costume.

We will get there, but neither villains, nor antiheroes in the popular sense, are a viable path to do it.

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Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E33 “The Power is Yours”

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We have already discussed the degree to which OK KO is a recreation of creator Ian Jones-Quartey’s childhood. It is thus perhaps inevitably that some earnest, well-meaning, terrible cartoon of the 1980s would be featured or parodied, and there is perhaps no better example of the genre than Captain Planet and the Planeteers. (The fact that it aired 1990-96 doesn’t change that it is a prime example of this genre of 80s cartoons–that’s why we have long decades.)

Captain Planet is everything that the Animaniacs singled out for mockery in “Back in Style”: stiffly animated, repetitive, poorly characterized, and painfully, intensely determined to hamfistedly hammer home the same prosocial lesson every episode: pollution bad, environment good.

Which, of course, is true, but that doesn’t make Captain Planet‘s delivery any less patronizingly simplistic or painfully unnuanced. It showcases the biggest problem of trying to use the structures of heroic narrative in a socially responsible way: heroic narrative is predicated on a Great Man theory of history. In Captain Planet, the destruction of the environment is the result of a few bad actors, who are doing it because it makes them money (somehow), and can likewise be stopped by a combination of the titular team’s superheroics and viewers being responsible, “green” consumers, as instructed by episode-ending “Planeteer Alert” segments in which the show’s characters gave advice on how to “save the planet,” always ending with “The power is yours!”

The show thus hides in the ambiguity of the term “Anthropocene.” Proposed by Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s (although it was used in a different sense by Russian geologists in the 1960s), the Anthropocene is a proposed name for the geological period in which we now live. The Holocene (the period between the end of the last major Ice Age 12,000 years ago and modernity), Stoermer and later users of the term argue, has ended as a result of human activity; climate change and the ongoing, largely human-caused mass extinction event–already the largest mass extinction since the death of the non-avian dinosaurs–are in the process of creating a distinct divide between the Holocene and what comes after much as the retreat of the glaciers created a divide between the Pleistocene and Holocene.

The problem with the name “Anthropocene,” however, is that it lays the blame on either humanity–which is to say, all of humanity, equally, and with the implication that this destruction is an inevitable part of who we are–or humans, individual bad actors. But neither is true. Yes, mass extinctions have occurred anywhere humans have gone on this planet–it’s essentially a truism in paleontology that as soon as humans arrive on a landmass, any animal bigger than us goes extinct–but after the initial shock of our invasive species showing up, things generally settled down. It is only in the last few centuries that the pace of mass extinctions has increased again, and only in the last few centuries that human activity has significantly impacted the climate. Climate change and mass extinction are thus not a natural consequence of some innate human savagery; at the same time, no one person causes an extinction or changes the climate, and no one person can change it.

Environmental historian Jason Moore (not to be confused with the Pitch Perfect director of the same name) thus proposes an alternate term for both the mass extinction and the period it ushers in: the Capitalocene. It is capitalism run amok that is “destroying the planet” (or, rather, rendering it inhospitable for many species, possibly including us and almost certainly including our civilization). As individuals, there is nothing we can do to save the planet–there is, as the saying goes, no ethical consumption under late capitalism. It is only by fundamentally changing the assumptions, processes, and power structures upon which our culture is built that we can hope to stop the Capitalocene–if it’s not already too late.

Which is where OK KO comes in, ready to mock the earnest futility of Captain Planet. The opening scene sets the stage: efficiency expert and Captain Planet villain Dr. Blight (voiced by Tessa Auberjonois, because her original voice actress, Meg Ryan, is too high-profile for this, and her second voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, is too dead) and her sidekick MAL (unvoiced, because original voice actor David Rappaport is likewise too dead, and second voice actor Tim Curry too ill) tells Lord Boxman that he can make his evil corporation more profitable by using a giant machine she happens to have that does nothing but spray pollution into the atmosphere, because it’s a “scientific fact” that pollution leads to profit. This scene is doing a lot of work: on the one hand, it is mocking the capitalist definition of efficiency. Pollution is inherently wasteful–it is made of waste products, after all–but efficiency for a corporation doesn’t mean lack of waste, it means spending less money, and pollution is a way of dumping part of the costs of production on the community. Cleaning up a mess requires labor and equipment; if the community has to do it instead of the corporation, then the corporation saves those labor and equipment costs. If the mess is left uncleaned, as it often is, the cost is instead paid by the environment itself. This is why people pollute: not because it somehow creates wealth (quite the opposite), but because it’s cheaper and easier for the polluter than being actuallyefficient, and therefore clean.

Put this way, the solution to pollution is obvious: use regulations and fines to ensure that polluting ceases to be cheaper and easier than not polluting. Unfortunately, just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s politically easy or even feasible: between regulatory capture, government corruption, and neoliberal distaste for regulation of any kind, corporate pollution remains economically viable.

And pollution is far from the only form of environmental destruction. Direct destruction itself–fracking, deforestation, overfishing–is driven by the demands of late capitalism for perpetual growth, that an already unsustainable economy must always keep getting bigger, and thus constantly dig deeper and go farther to fill an insatiable appetite for resources and raw materials.

Capitalism is the real villain that Captain Planet tries to reify in its cackling industrialist supervillains, but in so doing it misses the point, just as badly as it does in its “Planeteer Alert” segments. You can’t kill capitalism by killing billionaires (though it’s a start), any more than you can kill it by buying “green” products or recycling. The only way to save the world is to change the world, and the only way to change the world is collective action to fundamentally alter the structures of power.

But, of course, finding a villain to kill is much more heroic, much more fun. We can just sit back with our recycling bins, feeling like we’re doing our part, and hope five magic teenagers and an Earth elemental take out the bad guys. That’s where the bulk of the episode finds its humor, with the arrival of Captain Planet hero Kwame (voiced by his original and only actor, LeVar Burton). The rest of the Planeteers quit to get “real jobs,” he explains: in other words, they were swallowed by the engines of capitalism, forced to concede the idealism of their youth by the desperate struggle to survive that capitalism imposes on working-class adulthood. He recruits the OK KO cast to wear the rings and summon Captain Planet, but after Blight and Boxman defeat him, the new Planeteers fall apart in squabbling. The natural formation of the left is the circular firing squad, after all: every setback is an opportunity to turn on one another, because that’s so much easier and more satisfying than endlessly chipping away at structures that feel as big as civilization itself.

Fortunately, KO is there with the power of Heart. In Captain Planet, Heart was talked up as the strongest of the five powers granted by the Planeteers’ rings, as it should be–the other four being the traditional alchemical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air (Wind), that makes Heart the show’s name for the quintessence, the aether, the substance of which the heavens and human soul alike are made, the philosopher’s stone that grants the ultimate power: the power to change.

In KO’s hands, it becomes the power of solidarity, of remembering who your allies are. It allows the group to resummon their elemental hero, and this time defeat the evil polluters and save the plaza–leaving the rest of the planet in ruins. The show here transitions to its own version of a “Planeteer Alert” segment, with even the art style changing to match Captain Planet, while the characters give advice such as unplugging unused cell phone chargers and separating compost from recycling while all the coastal regions of the world are flooded and most of the world’s atmosphere is toxic. It is hard to imagine a more comically inadequate response, and yet that is exactly what “green” consumerism entails: futile, solitary action while the ice caps melt and the forests burn.

It might not have to go this way. If every household in the world recycled… the rain forests would still be destroyed, and the seas overfished, and the mountains blown up for strip-mining. But if we rose up to impose limits on the corporate actors that do these things… well, it’s conceivably possible that it’s merely almost too late. And even if it is too late, well, at least the last years of our civilization, and possibly species, could be a bit more equitable than they otherwise would have been.

The power is, or at least could be, ours.

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New Gotham, new rules… (Sins of the Father)

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My apologies. I somehow just forgot to queue anything yesterday. Here is the post that should have gone up then.

It’s a few minutes later on September 20, 1997, so no significant headlines or changes in the charts.

The phrase “the sins of the father” comes from the biblical Book of Exodus, which declares that children shall be punished for the sins of their parents for generations. Despite centuries of ink spilled in efforts to justify or explain away this decree, it remains at once blatantly unfair and unjust, and obviously true. Children do suffer for the misdeeds and mistakes of their parents, as the less-powerful always suffer for the misdeeds and mistakes of the powerful. Some mistakes and misdeeds can, especially in a cultural milieu that compounds the punishment, echo for generations, as with whatever parental failures led to Stephen Drake being a “hard-luck case” as a child, forcing him into a life of crime just to survive, and thus placing his son Tim in the exact same scenario.

Which in itself is an interesting choice, because this backstory has much more in common with the comics’ second Robin, Jason Todd, than with the comic version of Tim Drake. Later episodes will bring in a little more of the comics’ Tim Drake–particularly his high intelligence and detective skills–but there will always be a significant amount of Jason Todd in him, including a horrific, career-ending encounter with the Joker.

But that is one of the titular sins of the father–not just that Tim Drake’s literal father literally “sinned” in becoming a criminal, forcing Tim to grow up in an environment where he has little choice but to do likewise, but that Tim is overshadowed by his predecessors, his role colored by their fates. Extradiegetically, he is preceded by Jason Todd in the position of being the second Robin, but cannot actually be Jason Todd, who is mostly known as “that Robin who died.” The WB’s censors allow BTAS to get away with a lot, but it seems beyond belief that they would allow a character to be introduced just to die. Instead, Tim Drake absorbs much of Jason Todd’s character, while still not being him, and therefore his death is not a fait accompli.

Diegetically, Tim is overshadowed by Dick Grayson’s status as the original Robin. Even as we are introduced to Tim, the more interesting question–signposted from the moment Tim entered the Batcave–is “What happened to Dick?” That no one seems to want to talk about it except in vague, ominous terms, and the similarity of how the costume is displayed in the Batcave to how Jason Todd’s costume was displayed after his death in the comics, suggests the possibility that Dick died. This is disproven at the end of the episode, but it’s clear something happened–Dick is polite enough, but there is clear hostility in his snide comment about Batman’s “I make the rules.” Something went wrong between them, something which has elevated Batgirl to the status of Batman’s partner and left Dick out in the cold.

(Later revelations raise another question here: Are Bruce and Barbara sleeping together yet? We will discuss this more in later episodes, but the short answer is: probably, I’m afraid.)

Structurally, Tim is overshadowed as well; the fact that the primary story arc of The New Batman Adventures (making it the first season of either BTAS or STAS to have a primary story arc) concerns the relationship between Bruce, Barbara, and Dick, and the latter’s decision to go solo as Nightwing, means that Tim is never really given an opportunity to distinguish himself as a character in his own right. Despite appearing more regularly than Dick Grayson ever did as Robin, Tim remains “that other Robin.” The only real character focus he’ll get in the series is in “Growing Pains” (admittedly one of the best episodes of TNBA).

And yet he is–or will be, years from now–the real Man Who Killed Batman. But that’s a story for another time, and another series.


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