The horrible hats of the Haberdasher! (Blasts from the Past)

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It’s September 8 and 9, 1997. The top song is Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; Notorious B.I.G., the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top movie this weekend is the Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below; G.I. Jane, Air Force One, and Men in Black also make the top 10.

Since the last episode of Superman: The Animated Series, a great deal has happened: on May 2 the Labour Party won the British Parliament in a landslide as Tony Blair leads them in much the same strategy that brought Bill Clinton the Presidency: concede everything, adopt neocapitalist ideology wholeheartedly, and generally abandon the left and everything it stands for in favor of courting the center-right. On May 11, the IBM AI Deep Blue becomes the first computer to beat the World Champion in a tournament-conditions chess match, defeating Gary Kasparov in six games, 3.5-2.5. On June 26, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is published; four days later, the UK gives Hong Kong back to China, and three days after that, the Pathfinder probe lands on Mars. To top off a month of bad news for Britain, on August 31 Princess Diana dies in a car crush and the word paparazzi enters the lexicon.

And Superman: The Animated Series returns with its two-part second-season opener, “Blasts from the Past,” in which Superman decides that letting a fascist Kryptonian loose on Earth is a good idea, ultimately narrowly avoiding said fascist and her leader from taking over the planet. As in, he shows up at the signing ceremony for the global surrender, after the two superpowered fascists have demonstrated that nothing terrestrial can stop them, and then (together with Lois Lane and Professor Hamilton) tricks them back into the Phantom Zone–by which point they have been shown wreaking destruction around the globe, and (given the general hesitance of major world powers to give up their hegemony) racked up what have to be death tolls in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

In short, while depicted very differently and with a happier ending, this episode really isn’t that different from Left Behind or Supergods.

But let’s step back a moment. Not all dictators are fascists; why do I label Mala and Jax-Ur as such? Aren’t they just renamed versions of the Kryptonian supercriminals in Superman II? To an extent, yes, but this is colored by Superman using Brainiac’s orb to view what they actually did to get imprisoned. Jax-Ur’s speech to his troops contains telltale signs of fascist thought in particular, which as we have discussed is essentially a combination of the protector fantasy with an intense in-group/out-group divide. Jax-Ur argues that the Council has “weakened” Krypton militarily, leaving it exposed to its enemies–who those enemies are is never stated, and it’s likely Jax-Ur himself doesn’t know. The assumption is simply that anyone not Us is Them, and They are dangerous. That he blames the Council is telling; he’s employing the classic fascist “stabbed in the back myth.” See, fascists simultaneously have to believe that the in-group are inherently superior to the out-group, and that the out-group are an existential threat. Reconciling that belief is a challenge–if the out-group are inferior, how can they be a threat? Fascism’s go-to answer is that they wouldn’t be if not for the treason of certain (apparent) members of the in-group, who must be identified, isolated, and ejected from the in-group (read: killed).

Once Mala comes to Earth, however, the depiction shifts to the standard-issue American depiction of fighting fascism, which is to say treating it as an external invasion. That American fascists existed–that we stayed out of World War II for so long in part because significant portions of the population supported the Nazis–is largely elided in popular history. Fascism is something that happened over there,  so we went over there and killed it. If it shows up here, that’s because someone from over there must have snuck in–surely a homegrown American fascism can’t exist!

Well, as the last two years have made undeniable for even the most head-in-the-sand Americans: yes, it can, it does, and it has for decades.

But here in the mid-90s, there is denial. The only follower Jax-Ur finds on Earth is Mala; there are others who are cowed by the Kryptonians’ power, but nobody who follows them by choice. Only outsiders, in other words, are a threat–and they wouldn’t even be here if Superman hadn’t let them in. The in-group of humanity would be safe if one of us hadn’t foolishly–or, as Lex Luthor suggests in his cameo, traitorously–let the out-group in. But he’s not really one of us, is he? He’s one of them, sympathetic to them… and so it goes. The episode ends up endorsing an essentially fascist worldview, that mixture of fear of the out-group and protector fantasy.

The danger of superheroes is that, fun as they are, they’re already halfway to fascism. All it takes is a slight shift for the protector fantasy to turn very ugly, very quickly. And it’s a question with real-world consequences–after all, aren’t police and militaries based on the same fantasy, of someone who can be trusted to protect us?

In reality, as with superheroes, there are three questions we must never stop asking about the protector fantasy: Who is the protector? Who is being protected? And whom are they being protected from?


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