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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