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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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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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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Retroactive Continuity: Supergod

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!

Warren Ellis’ five-issue limited comic series Supergod reads very, very much like a response to Grant Morrison’s Supergods, which is interesting given that book wasn’t published until two years after Ellis’ comic. But then, the idea of superheroes as gods or “modern mythology” has been around for some time, and Ellis is right about how horrifying the reality would be–as we have to an extent discussed with Left Behind.

The argument is simple: far from making someone a paragon of morality as Morrison claims in both JLA and All-Star Superman, possessing superhuman capabilities and senses would mean (by definition) perceiving things humans can’t and being able to respond with actions impossible for humans. The thoughts of a superhuman being would therefore necessarily be alien, its behavior incomprehensible to humans. It would, in short, be eldritch.

The word “eldritch” refers to that which is alien and weird–depending on which of two possible derivations is true, it either shares an origin with else or elf. In either case, it is not from here, not human–it is inherently and necessarily Other. But as we discussed with Left Behind, the protector fantasy is inherently about dividing in-group from out-group, “the people” vs. “the criminal element,” Us vs. Them. As defender of the in-group, the superhero stands outside it, and hence becomes part of the out-group.

Ellis sees no distinction between this interpretation of superhumanity and the divine; in this he approaches the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft, a denial of both humanism and theism. Human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, but neither are the gods we humans have created; the universe itself is bigger, older, more powerful, and weirder than we can imagine, and it is not human in the slightest. It is not even accurate to describe the universe as uncaring for much the same reason as the Supergod character Dajjal cannot be described as insane–the concept just doesn’t apply enough for its negation to be meaningful.

Faced with this horror, we project out humanity out onto it, or try to. It never quite works–the whole point is to have the gods be superhuman humans, but they never end up being fully comprehensible because that which we’re projecting them onto is incomprehensible. In Supergod, that  projection is literal: the first superhuman is three people sent out into space in an unshielded ship by the British. In a twisted parody of the Fantastic Four, they return as Morrigan Lugus, all three fused into one body by an alien fungus. As befits a being named after the crow-goddess of the battlefield, it ends up taking over the world by devouring the corpses left strewn across Eurasia by the battling supergods.

The Indian government tries to make themselves a savior, and create an AI-controlled nanobot-swarm Krishna; it saves India by killing 90% of the population. Strip away the religious elements and it’s the classic problem of AI ethics, Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer: a godlike machine, programmed to make as many paperclips as possible, wipes out humanity because (a) if they turned it off, there would not be as many paperclips as if it kept running, and (b) human bodies contain materials from which paperclips could be made. (Like most things originating from LessWrong, this is a silly thing to worry about, but it’s also clearly the kind of issue Ellis is talking about–it and the essentially identical Gray Goo problem, and generally the whole idea of science’s creations run amok to kill us all.)

The Chinese make a Maitreya who can see the quantum flux of reality itself, and it transforms a huge number of people into literally Cthulhu and rides it to battle with Krishna. The Americans make Dajjal as a weapon in the Iraq war; able to see all possible futures, it sacrifices itself to prevent Krishna and the other American supergod, whose initials are of course J.C., from bringing about utopia, which it finds boring.

We need gods, Ellis has Morrigan say, because we are addicts and they are our stash. He’s not entirely wrong, though he has it a bit backwards; addiction is now understood as largely a product of social isolation, and one of the major functions of religion is to provide community. Of course this carries the risk, as any community does, of creating that in-group/out-group divide that, combined with the protector fantasy, gives rise to fascist superheroes like the Left Behind Christ.

But then, most religious people somehow manage not to be fascists, and do not recognize their gods in the authoritarian tyrants or eldritch horrors of LaHaye/Jenkins or Ellis. The most extreme reading is not necessarily the only reading, or the best one. For all that our gods are eldritch tyrants and our superheroes fascist thugs, they can also be other things.

The question, going forward, is what.


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Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin

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It’s June 20, 1997. The top song is Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112 with “I’ll Be Missing You”; Hanson, Mark Morrison, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top film is, regrettably, this; lower in the top 10 we find My Best Friend’s Wedding, Con Air, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and The Fifth Element.

And here we have the movie which, legendarily, killed the Batman film franchise started by Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it really that bad?

Well, yes, but not for the reasons usually given.

The usual complaints one hears about this movie is that it is silly and campy; straight male reviewers also often complain of discomfort at the way the camera frames the titular characters, especially in their “suiting up” montage. But the 1960s Batman film was silly and campy, and it was the best live-action Batman film of them all, so that can’t be what’s wrong with Batman and Robin. As for the framing of the characters: yes, the camera lingers on Batman and Robin’s legs, buttocks, and chests, and their costumes now emphasize their nipples. But the camera also lingers on Batgirl’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes her nipples, and it lingers on Poison Ivy’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes practically everything else. In short, Batman and Robin are just being subjected to the same male gaze as practically every woman in practically every movie ever, and critics’ selective discomfort is down to them not liking it when characters who resemble them are sliced by the frame into discrete, objectified body parts. They’ll survive.

No, the problem is that this is still the world where the Joker won. The garish neon colors of Batman Forever have faded into the sickly glow of a black-light poster on some weed-addled college freshman’s wall, the unfunny slapstick antics replaced by an endless stream of unfunny puns, but it’s otherwise pretty much the same.

Added to all the problems of Batman Forever are an overstuffed (and interminable–the film is two hours long and feels like seven) script that tries to juggle three origin stories, character arcs for both the titular characters, an “Alfred is dying” melodrama, and multiple races, car chases, and fight scenes. Then on top of that are severe tone issues, the most obvious of which is the choice to adapt Mister Freeze’s tragic DCAU origin story while trying also to have him be the film’s main source of comic relief.

But again, this isn’t a review. If the surface-level problems were all that was wrong with Batman and Robin, we wouldn’t be talking about its problems; the point here is to dig deeper. We’ll start by looking at how it handles Batgirl.

At first glance, she is horribly miscast. Not even a leather jacket and a motorcycle, or a bat-themed rubber fetish costume, can make Alicia Silverstone seem like anything other than a sheltered ingenue. She is simply not convincing as someone who got kicked out of a private school and made her living in London’s underground racing scene, let alone as someone who can take on a supervillain in a fight.

But this may be deliberate. During the otherwise pointless motorcyle race, her helmet clearly has an angel painted on it, mirroring the “devil horns” hairstyle Poison Ivy sports for much of the film. And indeed, Ivy is in full-on femme fatale mode in this movie, her main superpower no longer control over plants, but rather control over men. Batgirl is the innocent, purehearted schoolgirl to Ivy’s wicked, seductive mad scientist, the angel to her devil, the caregiver to her succubus. In short, the two are a straightforward Madonna/whore pair, and in that light Silverstone’s casting is spot-on.

Of course, the Madonna/whore complex is deeply misogynistic, as we’ve discussed before. The “good” girl is–as Batgirl is here–basically helpless, lacking any agency of her own, and indeed Batgirl has no apparent desires other than driving motorcycles and caring for her uncle, Alfred. It is his choice for her to become Batgirl, and he leads her down that path, even making a costume for her. Poison Ivy, meanwhile, uses her agency solely to hurt and manipulate men, including attempting to murder Freeze’s wife and pin the blame on Batman.

Indeed, Ivy’s–or, rather, Pamela Isley’s–politics are equated to evil throughout the film. Much of her early dialogue is a twisted parody of feminism, in which she blames all the ills of the world on “men” and “mankind” (with heavy emphasis on the first syllable), and replies to Bruce Wayne’s rejection of her scheme by asserting that a few million dead men are no real loss. It’s not just her, either; Dr. Woodrue’s rain forest restoration project is a front for developing super-soldiers. Environmentalism is characterized as blind opposition to industry and humanity, with an end to fossil fuel use described as an economic disaster that would lead to famine and people freezing from lack of fuel. There is, in Schumacher’s Batman, no making things better; your choices are pollution or destruction, the subjugation of one gender or slaughter of another.

There’s a third woman in the film, one presented as even more angelic than Batgirl: Nora Fries. She floats serenely between life and death, draped in a gauzy, flowing gown, the only character in the film who is never subjected to the ugly colored lighting that suffuses practically every scene. That, apparently, is the ideal, out-Madonna-ing the Madonna: a frozen, helpless, trapped woman unable to say or do anything, a woman literally reduced to an object. She has a reflection, too: Madison, Bruce Wayne’s disposable girlfriend of the indeterminate time period, who dares to express desires of her own–specifically, a desire for Bruce and for a commitment from Bruce, framed in the least aggressive or demanding terms imagineable–and then leaves him because he’s fixated on another woman. She never shows up in the film again.

Those are the four categories of women the film acknowledges: evil sexpots, women with agency (who try to entrap or abandon men), perfectly pure innocents whose greatest achievement and fulfillment of their potential is to become a man’s sidekick, and little statues carved of ice that can be carted around and, occasionally, gazed upon longingly.

Things don’t get much better when we look at the men. Just as Batgirl and Poison Ivy reflect one another, so do Robin and Mister Freeze. Both spend much of the film denying how emotional they are; both are driven by anger that they paper over with jokes, and both turn against Batman because they believe he took away, or is trying to take away, a woman that “belongs to” them. Ultimately, both are manipulated by Poison Ivy, but turn against her thanks to finally listening to Batman–whose own arc is about learning to ignore his (artificial) feelings for Ivy and admit to his feelings for Alfred.

Batman and Robin is, quite simply, a misogynistic movie. It is not only sexist in the ways action movies and superhero are usually sexist; it presents female agency as evil, and desire for women as the source of evil in men. Its happy ending is that one woman vanishes out of the film entirely, another remains frozen forever, a third becomes subordinated to male authority, and the last is stuck, stripped of her power and freedom, in a cell with a man who hates her and expresses sadistic delight at having her in his power.

We established with Batman Forever that the Schumacher Batman films represent the Joker triumphant. The same violence for violence’s sake that is the aesthetic of Batman Forever holds here; but just as Joker hates everyone, but treats women specifically with contempt, so does this film now single out women for worse treatment, limiting its violence against men to fistfights and a bit of metaphorical dismemberment by the camera.

This misogyny, misanthropy, Joker-ism, is why calling the films campy is a misnomer. Camp is fun; it entertains because it is silly, because it looks at the absurdity of life and celebrates it. The 60s were an era of camp because the pop culture of the 60s–or at least those bits of it we think of when we think of “the 60s”–was in love with life. It was anti-violence and anti-authority, anti-taking things too seriously, pro-joy and pro-silliness. There’s no trace of any of that in Batman Forever or Batman and Robin; the hammy delivery of the villains’ lines and equally flat delivery of the heroes’ may recall the 60s Batman, but surrounded by decay, ugliness, and hatred, they become grating reminders that something called “fun” might possibly have existed in some long-forgotten era.

By the next live-action Batman film, even the word will have been forgotten. But that’s a story for much later. For now, let’s let Superman bring some sun back in.


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Imaginary Story: JLA #1-41

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In “Calliope” (Sandman #17), Neil Gaiman tells the story of Richard Madoc, a writer who imprisoned a muse, giving him a few years of brilliance. Afterwards, however, Madoc was cursed with an excess of inspiration, an endless bubbling stream of ideas that come so quickly and ceaselessly that it’s impossible to work on any one before the next shoves its way in.

I’m not saying Richard Madoc is Grant Morrison, but it does rather describe his DC career.

JLA #1-41 is generally referred to as Grant Morrison’s run; though eight issues scattered throughout were actually by guest writers, it is Morrison’s writing which sets the tone for the run. The series began in January 1997, after the cancellation of the various struggling Justice League spin-offs and formation of a new Justice League; the intention was to go back to the League’s roots as a core team of the seven most powerful and well-known DC heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Note that this is almost the same lineup as the eventual Justice League cartoon; the only changes are that Aquaman was swapped out for Hawkgirl and the Kyle Rainer Green Lantern for John Stewart, in an effort to add some more diversity to a team that was otherwise very white and very male.

This is far from the only influence of JLA on Justice League, however. Quite a few Justice League stories are more or less adaptations of JLA stories. Both start with a White Martian invasion of Earth, for example, but in the comics the White Martians initially pretend to be friendly; in the show they don’t, but then the Thanagarian invaders two seasons later do. The “Only a Dream” Justice League two-parter and JLA #8-9 both involve villains trapping the Justice League in their dreams, while an unpowered hero works to outwit the superpowered villain and save them. A storyline beginning in #24 introduces the Ultramarine Corps, who bear more than a little resemblence to Justice League‘s Ultimen–and the same arc has General Eiling becoming a nigh-unstoppable monster, which the cartoon would make a separate story in Unlimited. And both issue 27 and “The Return” have Ray Palmer coming out of semi-retirement to help the League against an upgraded Amazo who can overpower the entire team. Even the very, very Grant Morrison-y final battle against Mageddon in issues 40-41 bears some resemblance to the fight against an Apokolips-devouring Brainiac in “Twilight,” which aired about a year and a half after the comics came out–just enough time for them to have been an influence.

That last arc is a good example of the problem with this run, however–ideas piled on top of ideas with no room to breathe. Just in the last couple of issues, we get the approaching alien monster Mageddon blanketing the Earth is psychic waves that increase aggression and territoriality, heralding World War III; Metron telling the Justice League that Earth is destined to become the home of the new New Gods and seed of the next universe when the current universe ends; Martian Manhunter helping Batman psychically connect to a Mageddon-controlled Superman in order to remind him that hope exists; Zauriel persuading a significant fraction of the angelic host to intervene on Earth and prevent World War III from becoming a nuclear holocaust; and Animal Man helping a group of Justice Leaguers build a device that temporarily gives everyone in the world the superpowers their descendants will someday have.

Any one of these ideas could take up an issue on its own, but most of them get little to no exploration because they’re bumping up against the others. Metron’s little revelation is dropped and then ignored–apparently none of the Leaguers present are interested in that revelation about their future. Similarly, everyone on Earth briefly has Superman-level powers, which somehow causes them also to decide to use them only for good despite the aggression blanketing the Earth–admittedly, this one rather bizarre idea, that omniscience leads inevitably to moral behavior, would eventually get something like exploration and explanation, or at least a few panels of expansion, in All-Star Superman a few years later–and no space is given to exploring the aftermath of their experiences. Or, for that matter, the aftermath of all major world leaders seeing first-hand that angels exist and look more or less how European Renaissance painters depicted them.

Morrison’s instincts about which idea most needs room to breathe are, generally, correct. In this case, it’s the psychic struggle between Batman’s hope and Superman’s rage and despair, including one gorgeous panel which plays on their similar appearances to show a single boy representing both, mourning the death of the Waynes and the death of Krypton simultaneously. Superman despairs of every life they fail to save, the endlessness and impossibility of protecting everyone; they couldn’t save Krypton/the Waynes, and therefore they will always lose in the end. Batman’s counterargument, in essence, is that they save Krypton and the Waynes every time they save anyone, and that therefore they always win.

It’s not that the story is confusing or doesn’t make sense; each idea gets enough story beats that the reader can fill in the gaps. The problem is that those gaps cover a great deal that would be interesting to see, to explore–but Morrison has to skip over it to make room for the next idea. In essence, JLA is the antithesis of The Death of Superman; one has too many ideas to give any one the space it really deserves, while the other spends far too long on an utter dearth of ideas.

Pretty much necessarily, this means JLA is a lot more fun than Death of Superman; though separated by only a few years, they clearly sit on opposite sides of the era divide epitomized by Kingdom Come.  Death of Superman sits in a place of rage and despair devoid of intellectual playfulness; JLA is essentially nothing but playing with ideas, so many that they can’t be contained. The latter is a vastly better problem to have if you want comics to be entertaining, varied, and interesting.

The future, at least for comics, is suddenly looking surprisingly bright.


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Crisis on N Earths: Pokémon

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To say that Pokémon completely transformed the American children’s television landscape is, perhaps, overstating matters, but not by much. It almost singlehandedly created the US anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s, paved the way for other child-friendly anime to fill the last waning days of Saturday-morning and weekday-afternoon cartoon blocks on network TV, and in turn made space for the growing number of anime-esque and anime-influenced cartoons of the mid-2000s to the present, from Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender to Steven Universe.

It is also very much in a cousin genre to superhero cartoons such as the DCAU, though that may not be obvious at first glance. A brief explanation of terminology: anime is frequently divided into categories by (presumed) target audience, following a similar division that exists in manga. In this division, Pokémon would be considered a shōnen series, which is to say targeted at boys aged roughly 8-14. More precisely, Pokémon is a shōnen fighting anime, a genre which typically focuses on the adventures of a boy in the same age range as the target audience and a group of friends he gathers as he battles a series of ever-stronger enemies en route to some goal–pretty standard coming-of-age stuff. The protagonist is generally eager to battle and prove himself, remaining so throughout the series (or, if he loses his enthusiasm, regains it at a critical moment just in time to overcome the enemy of the week), and there is usually a heavy emphasis on themes of cooperation, teamwork, and friendship. Very often, at least one of the protagonist’s friends is a former antagonist, emphasizing that those themes apply even to those who were once enemies. In addition, there is often a character (usually older than the protagonist) whose primary role is to provide exposition during fights, explaining to the audience what the characters are doing and why it is impressive or unexpected.

While, as the name of the genre implies, shōnen fighting anime typically involve some kind of warfare or martial arts, the same narrative structures and character archetypes can be applied to essentially anything that can be framed as metaphorical combat: shōnen fighting series about drift racing, go, competitive baking, music, and drawing manga all exist. In the case of Pokémon, we have a shōnen fighting series about collecting “monsters” to  fight in “battles” against one another, this comprising the dominant sport in main character Ash Ketchum’s world. This element of the premise draws a great deal of criticism, which is not entirely undeserved: Ash does frequently use Pokémon he defeated in battle to fight for him, which is to say he uses imprisoned animals to capture more animals for himself to use in a bloodsport. It gets even worse if one recognizes the implication of  episodes like “Isle of the Giant Pokémon,” which subtitles interactions  between Pokémon: they are fully sapient, and the battles are thus not cockfighting, but gladiatorial combat between slaves!

Except this is the shōnen fighting genre. Defeated opponents joining the hero is a staple of the genre. So where are Ash’s defeated opponents on his team? It is not, though it is an easy mistake to make, Misty and Brock–though they are gym leaders (the closest things the game has to bosses), in the anime they each join Ash before he defeats them. (Indeed, he never actually does beat Misty, as their gym battle is interrupted by Team Rocket.) Instead, Brock is primarily the aforementioned exposition character, explaining Pokémon moves and their significance to other characters and thereby the audience; Misty is more or less the love interest.

But Ash does face an opponent in the first episode whom he battles, overcomes, and befriends: Pikachu. Pikachu initially attacks Ash at every opportunity. Later, when Ash figures out a way to keep Pikachu from shocking him quite so easily, Pikachu still refuses to fight his battles for him. It is only after Ash risks serious injury protecting Pikachu from a flock of attacking bird Pokémon that Pikachu fights to protect Ash in turn–and after Ash rushes Pikachu into medical care in the following episode, they are thereafter fast friends. Later Pokémon join Ash because he has helped them, befriended them, or, yes, defeated them through his other Pokémon, forming the ever-expanding circle of friends and allies characteristic of the genre.

None of this negates the twin specters of slavery and animal cruelty that haunt the show, but they provide it context. Twenty years later, when Steven Universe‘s title character made the first of many (mostly successful) attempts to convert enemies into friends in classic shōnen fighting style, in the first season’s “Monster Buddies,” Pokémon references abounded, from the very fact that his first attempt was a monster, to its newly cute appearance and smaller size, to the Pokéball-like appearance of its gem.

More broadly, Pokémon became the gateway for anime to flood American children’s television. Prior to Pokémon, anime’s reputation in the U.S. was as violent science fiction and pornography; after Pokémon, it was Pokémon. Suddenly anime adaptation was a growth industry, and for a time, it was everywhere, from television–most notably, the Fox Box, Kids’ WB (which aired Pokémon itself) and Cartoon Network’s Toonami block–to a growing number of specialty stores, to movie theaters, which in the late 90s and early 2000s increasingly showed anime-based films as varied as the first few Pokémon movies and Hayao Miyazaki’s contemplative-yet-violent fantasy epic Princess Mononoke.

This boom impacted Western animation, as well. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the line between Western animation and anime was never as hard and bright as fans of the latter generally liked to maintain, and the anime boom of the late 90s and early 2000s caused it to fade away almost completely. Shows like Powerpuff Girls incorporated anime-esque action sequences and a soupcon of design elements into a show primarily influenced by Western cartoons and comics; later shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender combined heavily anime-influenced designs and backgrounds with Western-style animation techniques and character archetypes.

But another show looms on the horizon, just a few years away, a point of contact between the DCAU, anime, and one other major source we’ve yet to touch, though here in 1997 it is happening as we speak. But, though closer than it’s ever been, it’s still just a bit beyond our grasp, too much of the future to touch just yet.

We will arrive in due time.


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