How many superheroes does it take to screw in a lightbulb? (Speed Demons)

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It’s September 13, 1997, the day after “The Prometheon,” and the world is basically unchanged: the same top songs, the same top movies, and more or less the same headlines, at least in the sense of anything which interests us 20 years later.

In the DC Animated Universe, however, major changes are afoot. Suddenly, the Flash is here, a fully realized hero in his own right. He is given no origin story, no secret identity, but a great deal of personality: he is cocky, reckless, and loves attention, but nonetheless a dedicated protector, just like Superman. He’s “that guy from Central City” just like Batman, way back in “The Last Son of Krypton,” was “that nut in Gotham”: someone with his own milieu, his own aesthetic, his own villain, and presumably his own allies and supporting cast. The Flash is a fully fledged superhero, which of course most of us already know from the comics; but he has never before been mentioned in the DCAU. No superhero has outside of Batman, Batgirl, Robin, and Superman. (And technically Wonder Woman, but that was just a shout-out by the writers: diegetically, Lois’ line in “Blasts from the Past” can be read as either referring to an established superhero or just making up a spur-of-the-moment superhero name for herself, but Wonder Woman’s first appearance, in “Secret Origins,” suggests reading Lois as meaning the latter.)

There were, until this episode, two clearly delineated superheroic milieus within the DCAU: Gotham, with its looming darkness and the several avatars of the Bat, and Metropolis, shining home of the Man of Tomorrow. Now we have someone who belongs to neither, the “guy from Central City,” a denizen of the space between. Of course there has always been the idea that Gotham and Metropolis both are part of some larger world, with Batman’s globe-trotting adventure serials and Superman’s science-fictional space journeys, but in terms of ideaspace they were presented as essentially binary. Now we see that there is a between, the ideaspace from which the Flash briefly visits STAS and then moves on. It can only be a visit, because BTAS belongs to one milieu and STAS the other; lying between them, Central City does not belong in either show.

The introduction of a between, the suggestion of a spectrum, emphasizes a kinship between Superman and Batman and their respective aesthetics. A binary implies two opposites with nothing in common, but in truth a line can be drawn between any two points, and what is a spectrum but a line between two points previously presented as binary? The similarities between Batman and Superman–the line that connects them–will soon be far more important than their differences.

What, after all, do they share in common with each other and with the Flash? Some commonalities we have already covered: they’re all protector fantasies, and all divided identities disrupted by trauma (though in the case of the Flash, we will only ever see that trauma in brief flashback). The episode, however, emphasizes a third commonality we have only briefly touched upon: they are all performances.

The Flash showboats. He shows up to the race disruptively late with a humblebrag of an apology about having only woken up two minutes prior. He trash-talks Superman, flirts with Lois, and arrogantly predicts an easy victory. He could not be more clearly playing a role; he hams it up for the crowd, but he’s still playing the same role when he assumes Superman telling him about the ship caught in the Weather Wizard’s first hurricane is a ruse, when he charges into the lightning shield, and when he zips in through the tunnel Superman dug to knock the control rod out of the Weather Wizard’s hand. All of these behaviors are too consistent with a single theme to not be performative: he’s not just fast-running, but fast-talking, always rushing in, quick to jump to conclusions, and speeding to the rescue. There is no need for the episode to show the outcome of the race: we know the Flash is the Fastest Man Alive, because that’s the role he’s performing.

In the same sense, Superman is the Man of Steel: he shrugs off both physical harm and Flash’s needling, pushes an entire oil tanker and digs through solid rock with equal ease, and tanks the hits from the villain’s all-powerful weapon.

We’ve observed this before with Barbara Gordon, for whom Batgirl is just a performance, a costume she can take off and put on. But all identity is performative, and not always in a way that can be turned off so easily. Batman is a core part of who Bruce Wayne (who saw his parents murdered at age 8) is, a performance that he can hide, but cannot stop anymore than he can stop performing masculinity, while Bruce Wayne (wealthy playboy) is something he can turn off and on at will. Similarly, Clark Kent can perform the role of a reporter at work, and that’s a part of who he is, but he’d still be himself if he lost his job; he cannot stop being Superman. He could take off the costume and change the name, but he’d still have the powers and the drive to protect; to change that would be to change who he is in a fundamental way.

But Superman is still a performance. Some aspects of who he “really is” are channeled into that performance, just as some aspects of Wally West–his lackadaisical approach, humor, and spooniness*–are channeled into his performance as the Flash. But ultimately, just like every other role played by every other person, real or imagined, these roles are still just a part of who they are, shaped by the constraints of the role itself yet also an extension of the underlying personality.

But the Flash is more consciously, deliberately a role than Superman or Batman. Superman is Clark Kent; elseworlds and what-ifs notwithstanding, there is only one Superman and that is he. The same goes for Batman: yes, Dick Grayson, and yes, Terry McGinnis, but if you ask people who Batman is, the answer any but the most pedantic are going to give is Bruce Wayne.

But the answer to “Who is the Flash?” is “Which one?” There have been many Flashes, with different names, origins, appearances, and personalities, but all playing the role of the Flash, the role we have identified as the Fastest Man Alive. There is no singular iconic Flash, though Barry Allen comes close: he is the best-known and the most likely to appear in adaptations, but he’s not the original, and that complexifies the question in ways that don’t come up for Superman or Batman. What this episode has done, however, is sidestep the question: it’s answered “Who is the Flash?” with “the Fastest Man Alive.” In so doing, it has declared its Flash, this Flash, to be the Platonic form of the Flash, an expression of the essential Flash-ness which all the specific Flashes share. In much the same way that Batman: The Animated Series‘ anachronisms declared its Batman to be the timeless distillation of all eras of Batman, the DCAU Flash is here declared to be a distillation of all versions of the Flash.

Later, in Justice League, this will be further emphasized by giving him Wally West’s name and appearance, but Barry Allen’s job and origin story, while also incorporating elements of both their personalities and Jay Garrick’s status as the first Flash. But the point is already made here: it’s not just Batman and (more subtly, as the anachronisms of his show are more subtle) Superman who are being presented as timeless forms distilled from all depictions of the character. The DCAU as a whole is presenting itself as the best and most iconic elements of DC Comics, mixed and purified down to the deepest essences of its characters and stories. It is a bold declaration of ambition, but as Superman comes to realize about the Flash, underlying those brash words is the skill and dedication to actually mean it.

So, with that said, let the New Adventures begin.

*Yes, “spoony” is a real word. I’m bringing it back.


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