Chill out (The Prometheon)

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It’s September 12, 1997, three days since “Blast from the Past, Part 2.” Top songs and movies are unchanged; the only news items of interest since then are the death of Burgess Meredith–who played the Penguin in the Adam West Batman series and film–on the 9th, and the decision by Scotland on the 11th to form its own Parliament independent of the English one (while still remaining part of the UK).

And, frankly, there’s not much happening on Superman: The Animated Series either. “The Prometheon” is one of the most forgettable episodes of the series–indeed, until rewatching it for this project, I had forgotten entirely that it existed. There’s nothing particularly–or interestingly–wrong with it; it’s just a simple premise executed with a minimum of elaboration: a giant monster smashes a bunch of stuff, Superman employs the help of STAR Labs to junk-science up a solution, and that’s it–the episode doesn’t even really bother with a denouement to speak of.

The only other thing really going on is a B-plot in which the fantastically named General Hardcastle is grumpy and suspicious about Superman for a jumbled mix of good and bad reasons–on the one hand, Superman is a vigilante who is nigh-impossible to hold accountable for his actions, which is a pretty good reason to be wary; on the other, he’s an alien, which is a terrible reason. The latter is the main focus, as Hardcastle shows in his response to the Prometheon itself: he sees the alien, the Other, as the enemy, and believes the correct response is to attack it with whatever means he has available. But the Prometheon feeds on heat, so all the explosions Hardcastle’s troops subject it to just make it stronger. No matter; he’ll just attack it with bigger, hotter explosions–which make it stronger still.

Hardcastle is a monster-movie staple, the military commander who is too busy being “tough” to listen to the solutions of the “weak” or “egghead” scientist. On the one hand, this character type is a rare case of action and science fiction movies actually identifying and critiquing a form of fragile masculinity; on the other hand, it perpetuates the myth that college-educate white men are somehow both superior/automatically right and an oppressed underclass. (And we saw last episode where attempts to resolve that particular kind of cognitive dissonance can lead. The jock picking on the nerd, the pseudoscience of “alpha” and “beta males”; these are the stabbed-in-the-back myths of 4chan, and Revenge of the Nerds is their Mein Kampf.)

Of course this reading of Hardcastle is complicated by the fact that he is getting the “egghead” recommendations second-hand, via Superman, who is definitely not weaker than Hardcastle. That’s where the two stories emerge as parallels: both involve Hardcastle attacking a powerful alien instead of listening to reason. He is afraid of the Other, and lashes out violently at the slightest provocation; Superman, as the protector fantasy par excellence, has no fear, and can think through the best way to destroy the Other.

But both, in the end, seek to destroy the Other, because in this episode as in so many alien invasion and monster movies, the only error of the Hardcastles is in their methods. The Other is still depicted as a threat.

What, then, of Superman? Is he not an alien, an other? And the answer is that no, he is not. In all the ways that matter–upbringing, appearance, how others treat him–Clark Kent is an American-born white man from Kansas. This is why claims that Superman is an “illegal alien”–like the one Fox News commentator Todd Starnes made in a recent-as-of-this-writing opinion piece complaining about a Superman comic being insufficiently racist for his taste–are so absurd. “Illegal alien” doesn’t mean “person living in the country illegally”; it’s a racist term for Latin@ people. Nobody’s going to deport white adults who were brought into the country illegally as children, but Latin@ people whose ancestors settled in the Southwest long before the U.S. conquered it are threatened by the racist police state every day. Like “criminal” or “terrorist,” it is a word which appears to describe a behavior, but in the mouths of racists becomes just another dehumanizing slur: a white cop who murders a black teen might have been frightened of something, and so deserves paid leave and a “fair” trial that will inevitably find them not guilty; the black teen murdered by that cop might have smoked weed once, so they’re a criminal who deserved it. A white man who shoots up a government building because his far-right political beliefs and extremist religion tell him to is a “crazy” lone-wolf bad actor; a Middle East or Central Asian man who does it for the exact same reasons is a terrorist.

Privilege isn’t about who you are; it’s about who you’re not. Everyone who is not Latin@ (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being threatened by anti-immigrant violence, state-sanctioned and otherwise. Everyone who is not black (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being subject to anti-black racism. Everyone who is not Middle Eastern or Central Asian (or mistaken as such by racists) has the privilege of not being viewed as a potential terrorist. And so on, and on, and on…

Clark Kent isn’t any of these things. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Kryptonian; he still has all the privileges of not being part of any marginalized ethnicity, which is to say he has white privilege, and therefore is white in every sense that matters. This is not passing privilege, where racists mistake someone for white, allowing them to escape some elements of institutional racism (though not all, and not without price)–that is contingent on concealing one’s true identity, but Superman’s Otherness is public knowledge; everyone knows he’s an alien, and treats him like a white man anyway (with the occasional rare exception like Hardcastle). Whiteness is defined by its privilege; a white person is a person who is not part of any marginalized ethnicity, and hence in the DCAU an alien can be white. (Contrast Supergirl, where institutional anti-alien prejudice does exist. Supergirl and Superman are publicly alien and hence subject to that prejudice, but their secret identities pass as human, and thus they can be argued to have passing privilege.) 

In the DCAU, as in most DC Comics spinoffs and adaptations, Superman is white. When he punches the alien, invading Other, it’s a white man doing it–a white man protecting the in-group from the out-. And we all know where that leads.


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