Metal weapons and (The Way of All Flesh)

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“We were put into this world not for pleasure but duty, and pleasure had in it something more or less sinful in its very essence.”

-Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh

To “go the way of all flesh,” in English, means to die; the phrase originates from a misquote of the Bible, which twice has characters on their deathbeds–Joshua and David–refer to themselves as being about to “go the way of all the Earth.” The distinction matters; the former is a statement that all living things must die, the latter a statement that all material things must come to an end. Both are true, but one is rather broader than the other.

It’s October 19, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, which stubbornly refuses to go the way of all the Earth. Donna Lewis and Celine Dion have the number two and three spots respectively; Blackstreet feat. Dr. Dre and No Mercy also chart. At the box office, crime drama Sleepers opens at No. 1; proving that the music charts by no means have a monopoly on horrifying earworms, That Thing You Do is at No. 5. Also charting are The Long Kiss Goodnight and Independence Day.

As the title implies, this episode is the story of a death: John Corben dies and is reborn as the decidedly non-fleshy supervillain Metallo. It is, in its own way, a tragic villain story in the B:TAS vein; I say “tragic” rather than “sympathetic” because it is more of a structural feature than an emotional thread. Corben has always been cold and callous; described as a terrorist, he is really more of a mercenary, hiring out his services as a skilled murderer and destroyer to whomever can afford him. In the first episode, that meant working for Luthor to help terrorists steal his own experimental military technology, but “The Way of All Flesh” establishes that he has had a long career of fighting wherever and whenever. Like all mercenaries, he is, in essence, a hitman on a larger scale.

It is not just his career that makes Corben unsympathetic; his attitude of smug superiority (played to perfection by Malcolm McDowell) contributes, as does his obvious disregard for anyone and everyone around him. His discovery that the loss of most of his senses extends to being unable to feel a touch would be quite sad, for example, if not for the fact that he discovers this while forcibly kissing a struggling Lois Lane. It is difficult to feel sorry for a villain whose biggest complaint is that he can’t enjoy sexual assault anymore.

But structurally, this is tragedy. Corben’s flaw was always that he is unfeeling, in the sense of being utterly callous. He has never cared about the emotions or well-being of others, which is why he became a mercenary in the first place. It’s how he came to Luthor’s attention, and thus how he was chosen to be dosed with a rare virus, to be the frame on which Luthor would build his new anti-Superman weapon. Everything about Metallo is crafted to oppose Superman, from his nigh-invulnerable metallic chassis to strength–nearly as much as Superman’s, according to this episode–to his kryptonite heart. No thought was given to the man within; Corben has fallen afoul of someone as callous as himself and even more powerful.

The result is a Corben who is literally unfeeling, unable to experience taste, smell, or touch. (That he can see and hear without difficulty is perhaps unsurprising; cameras and microphones are fairly standard technology, after all, while the huge number and variety of pressure, temperature, and chemical sensors needed to mimic the other senses would be difficult if not impossible to implement on a human-sized and -shaped frame.) He can no longer experience physical pain, but can also no longer experience physical pleasure, either.

This ties the episode to Butler’s novel of the same name, a scathing satire of Victorian society and mores. Much as Butler’s narrator describes the Victorians as treating all pleasure as a sinful distraction from the only thing that matters, duty, so does Luthor see Corben’s loss as a feature, something that makes him a better weapon against Superman: in Luthor’s words, ” The only hunger you should have is for power… the only thirst, for revenge.”

Corben, over the course of the episode, comes to accept these words. He strips himself of his artificial skin, becoming completely the robotic-looking Metallo. Corben’s body has already gone the way of all flesh; all that remains is the metallic, drawn from the Earth, and a kryptonite heart originating far beyond the Earth. Corben is dead; only Metallo remains.

In creating him, however, Luthor has set up his own tragedy. First, he has created an enemy: all that remains to Metallo is indeed the hunger for power and the thirst for revenge, but he desires power over and revenge on both Superman and Luthor. Second, Luthor’s obsession with creating a weapon to destroy Superman will lead to his encounters with Brainiac, and in turn his desperate quest to reunite with Brainiac. This quest will inevitably lead him to Apokolips, self-sacrifice, and the end of the DCAU.

That is perhaps the biggest difference between the phrase and its original: “the way of all flesh” is a declaration of despair in the face of mortality. “The way of all the Earth” is a declaration of hope: for all that Luthor declares himself untouchable at the end of this episode, shielded by structures of social power far beyond anything Superman can wield, the apocalypse will come. Those structures will end. Luthor will fall. Sooner or later, the Luthors of the world–fictional or otherwise–will go the way of all the Earth.


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