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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Kweku? (Mxyzpixilated)

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Keeping on with this exceedingly rapid flurry of Superman: The Animated Series and Batman: The Animated Series episodes, just a day after “Target,” on September 20, 1997, we have the vastly more memorable and entertaining “Mxyzpixilated.”

Like many cartoon characters–albeit relatively few in superhero cartoons–Mxyzptlk is presented as a kind of trickster. As is common in folklore, however, this is a story of the trickster tricked–compare for example “The Farmer and the Devil,” in which a humble but clever farmer repeatedly tricks the devil into accepting the worthless part of his crops–turnip leaves, wheat roots, and the like–in exchange for large quantities of gold. The Devil, in folklore, is generally depicted as a kind of con man, tricking people into accepting bargains that sound good but work out very poorly for them indeed; the farmer, however, turns the tables. “Mxyzpixilated” works much the same way, except the humble farmer is Clark Kent and the devil is a fifth-dimensional imp.

Traditionally, the role of the trickster is to encourage us not to blindly accept the limitations we place on ourselves. Tricksters break the rules and are rewarded for it, crossing boundaries and violating the “normal” order of things. They might bring the abject into normally safe spaces (as Mxyzptlk does when he transforms the Daily Planets taff into animals rarely seen in an office building), flaunt social convention (as Mxyzptlk does when he walks out into a busy street), profane the sacred (Mxyzptlk transforms one of the acknowledged great works of sculpture, The Thinker, into an ally to fight Superman), and generally sow chaos. Trickster stories show us that convention is just that, mere convention–if we choose to, we can discard it. The question tricksters force us to ask is why we follow convention–who benefits from it, do we want them to, and are there better ways we might be ignoring?

Perhaps the most extreme bucking of convention is when the trickster is themselves tricked by their mark. It is nearly always someone of humble status–a peasant, a slave, a child–who beats the trickster at their own game, because what could be a greater upset, a greater blow against convention, than a mere peasant defeating a god at that god’s own specialty? Nearly always, the story involves some kind of deal or bargain, which is where the trickster makes their mistake: once bound by rules and conventions, they have lost their power. For all that Mxyzptlk can alter reality around him at a whim, he has already lost from the moment he accepts Superman’s argument that a game must have rules. Therein lies the slight oddity of this particular trickster story, however: Superman is anything but humble. He might affect softspoken, aw-shucks nice-boy-from-a-small-town mannerisms, but he’s Superman: his high status is right there in the name! Mxyzptlk even concedes it at the end of the episode, outright stating that Superman is the superior being, to which Superman can only reply, “Well…” However, Mxyzptlk certainly doesn’t think so at first, and it’s clear why: first, Superman is notoriously vulnerable to magic, which Mxyzptlk has in spades. Perhaps more importantly, this is a cartoon, and the mix of trickster behavior and comical distortions of “normal” reality Mxyzptlk exemplifies is so common in the medium–from Bugs Bunny to Uncle Grandpa–that it has become the definition of “cartoonish.”

Zany antics of this kind are, of course, familiar territory for creators who cut their teeth on Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, and Freakazoid.  Mxyzptlk just pops up and starts annoying an authority figure–which Superman, self-appointed champion of law and justice, necessarily is–and demonstrates the usual cartoon-character power of being able to do essentially anything when and only when it’s funny, to paraphrase Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s thus when Mxyzptlk abandons comedy in favor of trying to outright kill Superman and countless others–by taking the form of a Kryptonite missile–that he is thoroughly and completely defeated.

Yet that still leaves us with the same problem as in every near-apocalypse: ultimately, the role of the superhero is to defend the status quo, which is to say, to uphold convention. For all that he is at a disadvantage due to Mxyzptlk’s magic and mastery of the medium, Superman is still the titular character, and no superhero is going to be defeated on his own show. (At least, not without a “To be continued” and a dramatic reversal in the next episode.) Mxyzptlk is depicted as a comically grotesque intruder, at once child, old man, and god. The scenes in the fifth dimension, where his Bruce Timm pinup wife spends most of her screen time in a succession of sexy outfits trying to seduce her husband, add in a possible queer reading as well: one of the conventions that Mxyzptlk is violating is that he’s less interested in the “good girl” throwing herself at him than he is in Superman–a reading which in turn makes Superman’s victory the triumph of a heteronormative authority figure. Even without that reading, any story of repulsing the invader who wants to change things is readable as an expression of anxiety about the Other, the defense of the nationalistic status quo against the new ideas and norms of immigrant populations. (The fact that Superman is himself an immigrant would mitigate this reading, except that we’re talking about an artifact of American pop culture, which is to say a country in which the nationalists fighting against immigration are themselves usually descended from a mix of immigrants and foreign invaders.)

Xenophobia is normally defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners, but it could just as easily be defined as the fear of the strange, the Other, that which lies outside what we think of as “normal.” In that sense, all marginalization is a product of xenophobia; any hatred and fear toward the Other, whether it take the form of racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, or misogyny, is rooted in the fear of strangeness. This is the same fear that, all too often, the protector fantasy is imagined as a defense against; the world might well be a better place with more tricksters and fewer superheroes–which brings us to the primary point of this essay.


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Think she won’t (Target)

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It’s September 19, 1997. The top song is still Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; the Backstreet Boys, Usher, and Leann Rimes also chart. The top movie is something called In & Out; LA Confidential, The Full Monty, and GI Jane are also doing well.

Nothing newsworthy continues to happen.

It’s kind of a slow day for Superman: The Animated Series, too, with the rather forgettable (and equally forgettably titled) “Target.” (I thought I remembered one scene in particular, but as the episode went on I realized I was thinking of its sequel, which had a bit more sparkle.) As is often the case with subpar episodes, this one fails due to its very mundane villain, who combines a bit of the “mad scientist” with quite a lot of Nice Guy Syndrome.

Unfortunately, that’s a combination we’ve seen before with a much more memorable villain, the Mad Hatter. By comparison, Lytener is quite boring: just an entitled, whiny little LexCorp engineer who thought he could get into Lois’ pants (well, pleated white skirt) by helping her with her story, and then decides it’s her fault that she did her job as opposed to picking up on the signals he never actually sent.

Even more than dealing with Luthor, this puts Superman outside his normal element. Lytener is unpowered and has limited resources, at least until he suddenly has magic red sun-powered armor so that the requisite (and rather anti-) climactic fight sequence can happen, so his main defense is that no one knows who he is. Batman would have followed a trail of clues to Lytener, but Superman is not as much of a detective, so instead he rescues Lois from Lytener’s traps while being essentially no help whatsoever in determining who’s causing them.

That means it is largely up to Lois herself to solve the mystery, which she does in classic whodunnit fashion, realizing days later that Lytener accidentally let slip that he was spying on her when she won her award. The main challenge in getting to that point, for both Lois and the audience, is the sheer number of suspects: a corrupt cop who hates Lois for, if not exposing him entirely, at least casting enough suspicion on him to disrupt his career; a rival journalist furious that Lois won the award when he didn’t; and of course Lex Luthor, whose business empire was the subject of the investigation that Lois won for.

The presence of these other characters, especially Luthor, helps frame Lytener’s behavior. Luthor has already been shown to be a powerful, ruthless man with an enormous sense of entitlement–in the pilot, he claimed all of Metropolis as his territory, his fiefdom. His schemes have frequently been motivated by a desire to “reclaim” his territory from the interloper, Superman, who has “robbed” him. Bowman, the police officer, has a similar motivation: according to Lois, he believes she “cost him a promotion,” which is to say he felt entitled to it and blames Lois for him not getting it. Frey, the rival journalist, is likewise motivated by entitlement and blames Lois for his own failure. More to the point, all three want to be chosen by others: Luthor wants to be idolized by the people, Bowman to be selected for a promotion, and Frey to be awarded the Excalibur Prize.

In that company, Lytener manages to be even more pathetic. Like Luthor, Bowman, and Frey, he constructs a fantasy world where something belongs to him just because he wants it, ignoring that someone else has to decide to give it to him first. Like them, he believes himself to have earned it, only to have it stolen away by someone else. What makes him even more pathetic than them is that the person who would have to decide to give it to him, and the person who “stole” it, are the same person: Lois.

Contrast her closing interactions with Superman to Lytener. By this point, Superman has rescued Lois multiple times, and Lois has rescued him a couple, as well. But there’s no sense of entitlement in their exchange: Lois flirts a little, Superman replies noncommittally, and they leave it there. Superman is not entitled to Lois’ affection no matter how many times he rescues her, any more than Lois is entitled to his. Relationships aren’t transactional. Lois doesn’t like Superman because of what he does for her and Superman doesn’t like Lois because of what she does for him; rather, they do things for each other because they like each other.

That’s why the mad scientist and Nice Guy Syndrome fit so well together as a character concept: Nice Guy Syndrome is the product of an excessively systematic approach to relationships, an attempt to analyze them in terms of inputs and outputs: drop kindness coins in here, sex falls out there. Like the mad scientist, Nice Guy Syndrome blends entitlement, a warped perspective on the world, and an analytical bent of mind into a (self- and otherwise) destructive cocktail of behaviors.

Fortunately, in real life, people with Nice Guy Syndrome rarely have access to power armor and death lasers. The damage they do with reddit and Twitter is already more than enough.

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Crisis on N Earths: Rick and Morty S1E6 “Rick Potion #9”

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This post was commissioned by Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

Trigger warning: Discussion of rape.

Please note that this was written prior to the #metoo movement and associated revelations about Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon. It has not been updated to reflect that news.

Rick and Morty fans are, quite rightly, frequently mocked for an unearned sense of superiority. The claim that the humor of Rick and Morty–a show riddled with fart jokes and gross-out gags–requires unusual intelligence to appreciate is, frankly, absurd, and anyone who sees a miserable, alcoholic, misogynistic, child-abusing mass murderer like Rick as worthy of admiration or emulation has drastically missed the point of the show.

It should not be that surprising, then, that one of the show’s smartest, most insightful, most inciteful jokes goes largely without comment among the sorts of fans who hold up Rick as a paragon of nerd masculinity or queue up for the brief resurrection of an orientalist marketing stunt involving a mix of ketchup and teriyaki:* referring to a love potion as a roofie.

Because of course it is one. What we call “consent” refers to an alignment of perception, emotion, intention, and action. In other words, to truly consent, someone must have capacity to perceive the situation accurately, room to feel genuine emotion about that situation, opportunity to formulate an intention of how they plan to respond to how they feel about the situation, and finally freedom to take action in accord with their intent. Break that chain, knock any element out of alignment, and true consent is no longer possible.

In discussing rape in real life, people usually assume physical force or the threat of violence is involved, disengaging action from intent and making the victim do something they have made clear that they don’t want to. But that’s not the most common scenario; by far the weapon of choice for rapists is alcohol, which mostly operates by distorting perception and cognition, which is to say the first three steps in the process. Consent is just as impossible as when a threat of violence is involved, but because we are so trained by narratives that fixate on the disconnect between action and intent, it becomes easy for those motivated to do so to dismiss.

Fantasy and science fiction stories frequently depict substances (or spells, or machines) that disrupt perception, emotion, or intention, and rarely recognize that they thus violate consent. But a love potion really is just a magical date-rape drug, because it artificially alters emotion. Jessica doesn’t want to have sex with Morty; that is, to the best of our knowledge, she accurately perceives him, has room to feel whatever she feels about him, opportunity to make decisions about those feelings, and freedom to act on them, and chooses not to have sex with Morty. Until he smears her with magical “roofie juice serum,” at which point she becomes so determined to have sex with him that she loses all self-control. He’s distorted her perception of him, altered her emotions, seized control of her intentions, and is thereby forcing her actions: Rick’s name for it is thoroughly accurate.

That throwaway joke alone would hardly be worthy of an essay. But the rest of the episode builds it into a theme: this is all about the ownership and violation of bodies. Morty’s attempt to violate Jessica’s bodily and mental autonomy goes wildly out of control, and Rick’s attempted solutions make it even worse, as people all over the world unwillingly lose their humanity. They are reduced to monstrous things, abjectified as “Cronenbergs” (referring, of course, to David Cronenberg, master of grotesque horror), and ultimately just abandoned to their fate. Rick doesn’t care about their humanity any more than Morty cares about Jessica’s; Rick just sees something grotesque he wants to escape, while Morty just sees something attractive he wants to possess.

All this comes together in the ending, as Morty is forced to bury his own alternate-universe corpse so that he can slip into that Morty’s life. He passes, silent and bug-eyed, through a world where everything is the same as before he used the roofie juice serum, yet he knows that nothing is the same, because he is not the same. He was forced to confront his own mortality, the reality that he is a body, and see that body treated as an object, buried and forgotten.

Two episodes later, in “Rixty Minutes,” Morty uses the fact of his corpse as an object lesson for Summer on the meaninglessness and horror of existence: “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV?” That is the solution he attempts here in “Rick Potion #9”: he sits in front of the TV. But he remains mute and wide-eyed as ever, making clear that it doesn’t work. He cannot simply forget that he is an object, a monster, a rotting corpse.

None of us can. But that’s the difference between Morty here and Morty two episodes ago: he asks Summer to come watch TV with him. We are all things, animals, bodies; but by treating one another as people, by communicating and asking instead of coercing and forcing, we become people as well.

*Seriously, look at the ingredients list here. Soy sauce + sugar + garlic and spices = Americanized teriyaki sauce. Tomato paste + sugar + vinegar = ketchup. Neither of these things is Chinese. One is an Americanization of a Japanese cooking technique, the other an Americanization of a Malaysian sauce.

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Make me (Identity Crisis)

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It’s September 15, 1997. It’s been two days; the top songs and movies haven’t budged, and nothing really newsworthy has happened.

It’s been an ordinary couple of days for a pretty ordinary Superman: The Animated Series episode. “Identity Crisis” is notable mostly for being one of STAS’s most successful attempts at the kind of “sympathetic villain” episode that BTAS did so well, but even taking that into account, it is still a repetition of things done more interestingly in other episodes: the sympathetic villain was done much better in BTAS episodes like “Heart of Ice” and “Baby Doll,” and the villainous version of Superman done better in “Blasts from the Past.”

Still, it makes a good stab at Bizarro–aptly named, as he is one of Superman’s more bizarre villains. Certainly the idea of a villain that is in some sense an opposite number to the hero isn’t new: the DCAU started by pitting Batman against Man-Bat, and STAS with Lex Luthor, who is human rather than alien, urban and wealthy rather than rural and working class, ruthless rather than compassionate, and so on. But Bizarro in his original conception took the Anti-Superman concept rather literally; he wasn’t so much evil as he was possessed of a bizarre value system.

This version, however, has less in common with the Silver Age Bizarro that Alan Moore killed off in the opening pages of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than he does with the bizarre creature that Victor Frankenstein brought to life in the 1931 film. Like the iconic Boris Karloff monster, he emerges from an effort to create life in an isolated laboratory, speaks in broken, ungrammatical sentences, and ultimately is immolated in fire.

In this, Bizarro is quite distinct from the the monster depicted in the original novel, who was highly intelligent and articulate, and at the end of the book is still alive and headed into the frozen Arctic, though he does say he intends to incinerate himself. But all three monsters–the two Frankensteins* and Bizarro–share that they are tragic figures, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. But even there Bizarro takes more after the film Frankenstein than the book version, since the problem is an innate flaw in his creation–in Frankenstein’s case, that he was given the brain of a murderer; in Bizarro’s that the process of replicating alien DNA isn’t fully understood.

The result for film Frankenstein is that he is inarticulate and prone to violence when frightened or upset; for Bizarro, it’s that he gradually breaks down physically and mentally. Initially he looks and acts just like Superman, except for not knowing who Clark Kent is; as the episode goes on, his skin turns completely white, his posture more slumped, and his face increasingly asymmetrical and elongated, while his understanding and language degrade to “Me am hero” and the like. The end result, however, is still violence; the difference is that Bizarro is initially acting not out of anger but confusion, and genuinely believes he’s helping.

That gives us the first reason this doesn’t really work as a sympathetic villain story: Bizarro is sympathetic, but not the villain. The real villains are Lex Luthor and the unnamed scientist, but they’re barely in the episode and entirely unsympathetic.

The second, and more important reason, that it doesn’t work is encapsulated at the end of the episode, in the contrast between two of Lois Lane’s last lines. When Bizarro sacrifices himself so that Lois and Superman can escape, she tells him, “You are a hero,” and he smiles as he dies. Shortly after, in the final line of the episode, Lois tells Superman that his clone turning out to be a hero in the end is to be expected, because “he came from good stock.”

Here the show stumbles in the same way that the 1931 Frankensteindid. In the novel, the monster becomes violent because he is rejected and abandoned by its father, and left to survive on his own in a world that all too often regards him with terror and loathing. He is abject, that which is neither subject (the self) nor object (that which we accept having around us) but entirely Other, pushed to and beyond the margins of society, and he is understandably hurt and angry as a result. By contrast, the film’s monster is violent because he was created with bad material from a bad person, and Bizarro ultimately turns out to be heroic because he was created with good material from a good person. Their moral status is not a result of their choices, but rather an inevitable, albeit tragic, result of their biology.

Consider the most effective sympathetic villains we’ve seen. All are, in some sense, abject: Mister Freeze is cut off from all human contact, literally by his suit and metaphorically by the loss of his wife. Killer Croc is, like the monster in the novel, rejected for his grotesque appearance; in her own way, so is Baby Doll. Even Poison Ivy is treated as a femme fatale, objectified to the point of becoming abject. In all cases, it is the conflict between a deeply human character–a subject–and their abjection that creates the pathosessential for tragedy; we recognize that in their circumstances, we probably wouldn’t make the most prosocial choices either, and thus sympathize with them.

Bizarro is just as abject as they are, but we are never given a subject to contrast that abjection with. He is Superman, and then he’s this strange, distorted version of Superman; there is no sense of who Bizarro is when he’s himself. Even his strange “date” with Lois comes from his belief that he’s Superman, not his own wishes or desires, whatever they are. Lois’ final line then denies completely that he has any identity of his own; he is just his biology, and his struggle throughout the episode was not a sympathetic one between subject and abjection, but an abstract one between “good stock” and flawed construction.

Lois Lane shares vastly more DNA with Lex Luthor than with Superman, seeing as she and Lex are the same species while she and Superman aren’t even from the same planet; technically speaking, Superman isn’t even an animal–he’s not a member of the evolutionary clade that includes both sponges and dogs. Does Luthor’s existence prove that humans are “bad stock”? Or all mammals, all animals, all Earth life? How are Superman and Jax-ur from the same species?

Of course not. Which is entirely the problem, and one of the most important reasons the protector fantasy has to remain just a fantasy: Superman isn’t innately good. He just keeps choosing to do (ostensibly) the right thing.

What if he stops?

*No, pedants, it is not incorrect to refer to the monster as Frankenstein. While he is given no name in the book, many film versions, especially the later Universal films, establish in their titles that their monster is named Frankenstein, just like the scientist. Additionally, the novel depicts Victor Frankenstein as being in essence the monster’s father; that would make the monster a Frankenstein.**

**Why yes, I am preempting pedantry by being even more pedantic.

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