Retroactive Continuity: The Batman S3E13 "Gotham's Ultimate Criminal Mastermind"

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman.
“Gotham’s Ultimate Criminal Mastermind” exists in a major moment of transition, in terms of computers, as social media are in the midst of emerging. Airing in May 2006, this episode predates Twitter by nearly three months; YouTube is a year old but not yet purchased by Google; Facebook is still restricted to students at select colleges and high schools; Netflix is still strictly a DVD-by-mail service. In short, online activity and “IRL” are still distinct for most people, as witness the then-ubiquitous initialism–“in real life”–but their merger is approaching. Within just a few short years, texting, tweeting, and social-media interactions will be as much a part of the typical friendship as phone calls.
As with any transition, there are those to whom it appears an apocalypse. They are still with us, convinced that we are losing ourselves to an alien online world of pure simulacra, all material reality lost and with it all ability to interact meaningfully with one another, as if we ever lived anywhere but inside our own heads. That apocalypse is reified in the amusingly named D.A.V.E., a concatenation of robot references rather shallower than those in Batman: The Animated Series’ “Heart of Steel”: the sinister monotone of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL-9000, making it disappointing that Batman never actually utters the line “I can’t let you do that, D.A.V.E”; the mediocre 1985 family movie D.A.R.Y.L., about a seemingly human boy who doesn’t know he’s a robot, the overall plot of which only manages to avoid being an inferior retread of Short Circuit (hardly a masterpiece itself) by dint of predating it by a year; the voice actor of BTAS’ H.A.R.D.A.C., Jeff Bennett; and an inverted version of the trio of red dots that serve as Brainiac’s symbol in Superman: The Animated Series (themselves a variant of a recurring motif in his various comic designs).
That last is the most interesting to us, as in many ways D.A.V.E. is an inversion of Brainiac. Brainiac, after all, has no doubt about who he is, and indeed is never doubted to be a person by the narrative: at no point in the DCAU is he ever defeated by a logical paradox or an irreconcilable contradiction, as AIs in fiction tend to be. Instead he is treated as a villain like any other, albeit one with a specific set of powers mostly to do with technology. D.A.V.E., by contrast, is defeated specifically by the realization that he is not a person when Batman points out that he has no origin story.
This is not the only time the episode equates origin to identity: D.A.V.E. describes how it figured out Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne as a series of deductions based on medical and financial data. It narrowed the list of all males in Gotham by age and body type, then further narrowed that list to those sufficiently wealthy to be able to field the same resources as Batman. The final step by which it identified Bruce Wayne, however, was motive: news records of the death of Martha and Thomas Wayne made Batman’s identity “obvious.”
This is no surprise to us. A superhero’s origin, as we’ve discussed, is the trauma that fractures their original identity, after which one of the pieces dons a costume and goes out to fulfill the protector fantasy. That trauma can never be healed, since then the series would end, and so it becomes an indelible, root part of the character’s identity.
But Batman suggests in this episode that the same is true of supervillains, that “all great villains have a great origin.” We already know that’s not true thanks to the DCAU, where neither Catwoman nor the Joker have anything like an origin story. Catwoman is just a wealthy woman who decided to become a thief to fund animal rights activism; the Joker a killer who used to work for the mob, then at some point changed his appearance and adopted a clown theme. But the suggestion alone is enough to get D.A.V.E. to analyze his own memories and realize he has none: he is merely a simulation, or rather a gestalt composed of multiple simulations of supervillains. He has no self, and that realization distracts him long enough for Batman to (quite ruthlessly, actually) kill him.
In his seminal Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard argued for a spectrum of sorts from simulations, which are perceived as a faithful representation of an underlying reality, to simulacra, which have no relationship to any kind of underlying reality. In between lie unfaithful or incomplete attempts at simulation, and simulacra which pretend to be simulations.
Brainiac spends much of his time creating that last: he constructs symbolic representations of entire worlds, and then destroys those worlds to ensure his simulations can remain statically “perfect.” The result is that they cease to be simulations and become simulacra, since the underlying reality they represent no longer exists. D.A.V.E., appropriately, exists as an inversion of Brainiac’s catalogs: he is a set of simulations pretending to be a simulacrum.
D.A.V.E.’s realization is that everything he is refers to some underlying reality, namely the memories and behavior of a supervillain. But who are you, without your memories? Memories are just simulations of things that happened to you (and generally pretty poor ones at that). Who is the you to which those events occurred? What is the self? It has no underlying reality–a self is not a representation of a brain or body, though it purports to speak for one, any more than the story printed on its pages is a simulation of the book. Rather, the self is a simulacrum, a simulation of itself reflecting itself ad infinitum. We are all simulacra.
But not D.A.V.E. He is a simulation; paradoxically, because he is a faithful representation of an underlying reality, he is therefore not a real self. His ego and arrogance cannot survive the revelation that he is simply acting in imitation of others, but he has no other basis on which to act, and so freezes into indecision, where Batman can destroy him.
Which brings us back to the anxieties surrounding the dawn of social media and the growing presence of online activity in daily life. The fear, essentially, is that the symbolic interactions of “real life” (in opposition to “online”) at least have real referents (though Baudrillard would largely disagree at least as far as the “real life” of late capitalism is concerned) and are therefore rooted in simulation; online activity exists without physical interaction, being mediated largely through prose text, and thus are mere simulacra. But that fear is misplaced: most of us have had little difficulty in integrating social media as part of our social interaction, a means of supplementing relationships when physical interaction isn’t an option.
We already are simulacra. Going online doesn’t threaten our humanity; it is simply a different avenue by which to explore aspects of it.


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MLPFIM S7E9-10 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

Actually doing it this time!
How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. This is one hour before the usual time.
Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.

What's up with (My Girl)

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It’s November 23, 1996. The top movie is Star Trek: First Contact, a solid time travel adventure that’s had a decent zombie movie and a boring, cliche Star Trek Does Moby Dick for the Nth Time smashed into it. Space Jam and Jingle All the Way also chart. The top song is still “No Diggety,” but the Macarena and Donna Lewis have finally been knocked out of the top five by Merrill Bainbridge (with “Mouth”) and Keith Sweat feat. Athena Cage, which is an amazing pair of names. In the news this week, bird expert Tony Silva goes to prison for running a parrot smuggling ring, Romania and Zambia hold their presidential elections, and Angola joins the WTO.
“My Girl” may be the best early showcase of how well Harley Quinn’s apocalyptic spell has worked. Lana Lang arrives in the episode as a redhead in a slinky green dress, on the arm of a powerful man. She is confident, sexy, smart enough to figure out that Clark is Superman on her own (a feat otherwise matched only by Batman), independent, and successful. She owns her sexuality, blatantly trying multiple times to seduce Clark, and her power, commenting on her ability to get others to do what she wants. In short, she is a near-perfect mirror of Poison Ivy in “Pretty Poison,” her introductory Batman: The Animated Series episode, with one critical difference: Lana is not depicted as dangerous or evil.
Lana has all the traits of the “bad girl” without being bad. Alternatively, she is able to be the “good girl” without a trace of submissiveness, foolishness, or weakness. She does get herself into trouble, and does need rescuing, but this isn’t because she’s weak, but rather because her strengths lie elsewhere. At the end of the episode she is still a successful, globetrotting fashion designer, still confident and powerful; she simply isn’t a crimefighter, and comes to that conclusion on her own, without losing one whit of her power or confidence.
This is not, of course, the first time the DCAU has presented us with a woman who breaks the Madonna/whore complex by being both good and powerful. Renee Montoya is the first, most obvious example, but (in sharp contrast to the comics) Montoya is never shown in any context other than her work as a police officer. She is given no life outside that work, and in particular does not display any hint of sexuality, so her ability to serve as a contrast to Poison Ivy’s femme fatale is limited. Batgirl might be a better example; she owns her sexuality in the sense that she feels free to say “no” to her father’s picks, which is good as far as it goes, but in combination with being Batgirl the implication is of an ingenue, a young woman who can be an object of attraction but lacks experience and independence.
Remember that the root of the Madonna/whore complex is a fear of feminine sexuality, and more importantly of women’s sexual agency–a fear that women can and will make their own choices about their sexual activity, based on their own desires and needs. This fear applies powerfully to Poison Ivy because she weaponizes her sexuality to destructive ends. By contrast, Montoya is not frightening because (in the DCAU) she demonstrates no sexuality; Batgirl is not frightening because, the sexual agency demonstrated by rejecting her father’s choice of suitors notwithstanding, she pursues no one and accepts a subordinate (and infantilized) position as one of Batman’s sidekicks.
Lana, by contrast, owns herself and her sexuality, and the episode treats this with respect. For example, there is a male gaze-y shot early in the episode of Lana’s rear and legs as she ascends a staircase; however, where in “Pretty Poison” a similar shot had every man in the room seemingly irresistibly drawn to watch Lana, here the cut to a watching Lex Luthor makes clear that the male gaze is specifically his–that is, that it’s the supervillain who has reduced Lana to a butt with legs with his eyes. The universalized male gaze in “Pretty Poison” implied a helplessness on the part of the men, that the ability to draw their gaze was a dangerous power Ivy possessed; here, looking at Lana in a sexualized, objectifying way is a choice made by the episode’s villain. She owns her own sexuality; how others respond is their own choice and their own responsibility.
In this respect, the episode’s ending has implications of the beginning of a character arc for Clark. Lana is still attracted to him, but recognizes that their lives are on different trajectories, so she tells him that someday he’ll find the woman that’s right for him, describing that woman (in contrast to herself) as quiet, understanding, and patient. However, Clark is called away by Lois, who shouts across the office, demanding he come immediately, either not noticing or not caring that he is having a fairly important personal conversation with his ex.
This is simple dramatic irony; the audience knows that Lois Lane is famously Superman’s primary love interest, and here she is being loud, impatient, and a bit insensitive, not at all the woman Lana described. But Lana is an intelligent and perceptive woman who knows Clark extremely well; she is correct that right now he is looking for someone quiet, understanding, and patient. (Someone rather like his parents, actually.) There is a reason for this: his body language and tone throughout the scene where Lana tries to seduce him most directly, in her suite after he rescues her from the thieves in the elevator, is profoundly uncomfortable. Her open, mildly aggressive sexuality unnerves and intimidates him.
By contrast, Luthor enjoys that same attitude. He clearly has genuine feelings for Lana: he is excited by her, seeming to relish the challenge she represents, as when he speaks approvingly of her curiosity after Mercy catches her spying on him. It is only after she clearly chooses Superman over him that he turns against her, at which point he tries to have her killed. Even then he is the most upset we have ever seen him, unwilling even to hear Mercy’s snarky comments.
Luthor overreacts, but it is an in-character response to understandable feelings: Lana is cheating on him, and he naturally feels angry, hurt, and betrayed. This doesn’t justify murder in the slightest, but he’s a comic-book supervillain, and murder is how he deals with those kinds of feelings. Ultimately, however, his problem is that he misread Lana as a “bad girl,” assuming that her defiance of patriarchal convention also meant that she would ignore his defiance of basic morality.
Clark, meanwhile, struggles with the fact that Lana isn’t a traditional “good girl.” Contrasted to a Neanderthal like Lobo last episode, Superman comes across as the more progressive figure, but he’s still a small-town boy from rural Kansas new-come to the big city, while Lana has presumably been traveling the world for quite some time, if she’s already made enough of a name for herself as a designer to command the kind of show we see at the episode’s beginning. He lacks experience with confident, sexual, powerful women willing to take charge, and therefore has not yet realized that that is what he truly wants in a partner.
He is, in short, not ready to love Lois. He is still too immature, still too rooted in patriarchal traditions. He has some growing up to do. Time around Lois will help, but one suspects something–someone–more extreme and less familiar is needed, and unfortunately it will be several years before she arrives.


Current status of the Patreon:

MLPFIM S7E7-8 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

Actually doing it this time!
How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching MLP there starting at 1:00 p.m. EST. This is one hour before the usual time.
Afterwards, I’ll update this post with the chatlog.
ETA: Chatlog below the cut!
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