Assuming his girlfriend (Mad Love)

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After the beginning, the end.

Nothing profound about that, of course. It is the one and only absolute certainty in life, that for every beginning, there is a corresponding end. For a new Batman to rise, the old must step aside.

It is fitting that it does so with more beginnings.

It’s still January 16, 1999. On TV, we have the end of an era that began seven years and four volumes ago: Batman: The Animated Series is ending with the final episode of The New Batman Adventures, “Mad Love,” an adaptation of the Batman Adventures comic of the same name. We’ve already discussed the main difference between the two versions, a sequence in which Batman gives an account of the pre-Arkham life of Harleen Quinzel that makes no sense whatsoever, and tied it to both the indelible contribution of Arleen Sorkin to the character and her erasure from almost all discussion thereof.

We won’t rehash that discussion here. Instead, we will focus on the choice for the one DCAU series* that does not start with an origin story to instead end with one–because of course that’s what “Mad Love” is, an unusually robust framing device around a core of Harley Quinn’s origin story.

It’s a familiar structure–a present-day adventure in which someone known to the audience as a joke character is depicted instead as a tragic figure who turns to crime for love and loses painfully, in the process letting the audience see how they came to this state in the first place. That’s exactly how “Heart of Ice” functioned, and while not the first episode of Batman: The Animated Series to be made or to air, it was the first episode that was recognizably part of a groundbreaking, award-winning, genre-transforming work of art. It was, in short, where BTAS earned that “The” in its title. Of course we end in the same kind of story. Of course we take the subgenre that BTAS so uniquely excels at, the sympathetic villain story, and apply it to the one villain who most deserves and needs it, who happens also to be the single best original character to come out of BTAS.

Who could it be but Harley?** And what a gut-punch it is. “Harley and Ivy” already gave us a stunning depiction of a woman who escaped her abusive partner into the arms of a far better match, only to return to the familiar suffering of being with her former partner. “Mad Love” takes that further, keeping the focus throughout on Harley’s feelings and desires. We see how the Joker tricked and seduced her, how he played to her expectations and fantasies. At first he seemed to be reaching out to her for support, flattering her ego and making her feel powerful and special at the vulnerable moment of first embarking on a new career. Then he used her burgeoning Nightingale syndrome to make her increasingly dependent on him, and finally a well-timed escape to make her realize that dependency could only be fed by freeing him and becoming truly dependent on him as his sidekick.

In her state of dependency, all she can do is try to please him and hope he gives her the attention and care she desperately needs–attention and care she deserves from someone who will actually treat her well. But she can’t see that, can’t see any way out. She blew up a world to make her own a little less dark, to make a tiny window of space in which maybe a tiny bit of queerness could be allowed–but she herself remains as trapped as ever.

Because although he is the guard and chief torturer in Harley’s dungeon, and creator of her prison, it’s not made of him–it’s made of her. She casts blame anywhere and everywhere she can–on Batman for “getting in the way,” on herself because she “didn’t get the joke”–but it’s the Joker’s fault, the Joker’s doing, the Joker who hits her right after commenting about taking blows from people who didn’t take the joke. He’s the one who’s humorless, and cruel, and neglectful, and not good enough.

Because as we’ve seen again and again, Harley is smarter than him, tougher than him, funnier than him, more chaotic than him. She, not the Joker, captures Batman near-effortlessly here, and she, not the Joker, makes him laugh. She even, as Batman acknowledges, comes closer to killing him than the Joker ever did. She is the most magical, transformative, powerful character in the DCAU to date, the wielder of the Magic Batte and destroyer of Krypton.

And this is where she ends. Oh, she’ll show up here and there, including one last appearance as Poison Ivy’s partner, but in her other appearances she’ll just be an echo of the Joker, his sidekick, the grandmother of Dee and Dee. She goes back to him, again and again, as abuse victims so often do, because he has persuaded her she needs him. That is her tragedy: bringer of the apocalypse, the revolution, the new art style, the one world she cannot transform is her own. She remains, forever and always, in the prison that is Harley Quinn.

And yet there is always that glimmer of hope. That moment just before she sees the flower in the vase–the same flower and vase that started her on the journey down into misery–when she is able to clearly see the Joker for what he is and the harm that is done to her. She returns to her prison again and again, but there is always hope that one day she will transform, and walk free.

Which is yet another reason why it has to end with her. Because as we’ve seen with so many other sympathetic villains–Two-Face especially–the person who most needs to believe that villains can change, that they can heal and grow and eventually leave their prisons, is Batman. If anyone else in this show lives in a prison built by someone else but made from their own selves, it’s him.

Batman has almost never been at the center of his own show. He is a creature of the shadows, and that is where he usually remains–in the shadows at the periphery of the narrative. It is entirely fitting that he should spend the last episode of his show there, too–and that the person at its center be the one character who perhaps most perfectly reflects him, trapped in a tortured persona whose suffering she cannot let end. She, here at the end, is the apocalypse-light, all red and black, that casts the shadows in which he lurks.

And neither of them will ever get that joke.

*Counting Justice League Unlimited as part of Justice League, The Batman and Robin Adventures and The New Batman Adventures as part of Batman: The Animated Series, and the Batman Beyond episode “Zeta” as the first episode of The Zeta Project, all of which seem reasonable enough choices to me.

**I checked. That really sounds like the title of a song from the 1930s, possibly in an obscure stage musical, but it’s not.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E3-4 “Signals” and “Roll With It”

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Given the short season–if it can even be called a season (see my last Retroactive Continuity on the show)–She-Ra needs to transition swiftly from resolving threads from last season to setting up threads for this season. One of those threads is introduced in this pair of episodes, first with the Horde, and then with the Princesses: characters feeling inadequate in the face of tasks that seem impossible to do alone, and seeking out (or begrudgingly accepting) help from others to complete them. Bow’s repeated “deaths” in “Roll With It” are a silly but obvious example; his admission in “Signals” that he doesn’t think he can live up to Entrapta’s technological skill and know-how is a better one. And he’s right, he can’t do that alone–he will need his parents’ help by season’s end. Catra likewise realizes she can’t run the Horde army singlehandedly and turns to Shadow Weaver for aid–foolishly, given Shadow Weaver’s penchant for treachery and manipulation and the fact that Scorpia is right there. Likewise, Scorpia can’t take on five princesses and Bow alone any more than Adora can take on total responsibility for the entire Rebellion alone, and Hordak can’t create a working portal alone.

That last brings up something else that’s happening in these two episodes, which is that the show is trying to bring up potentially romantic character pairs other than Catra and Adora, because Catra and Adora are increasingly going to be depicted as an extremely unhealthy relationship. So, we get Scorpia very obviously head-over-heels for Catra, and an extended imaginary sequence in which Glimmer’s image of Catra is the most sexualized any character in the show has ever been. Most of all, we get Entrapta and Hordak working closely together and appreciating one another, with Hordak trusting Entrapta with more information about his plans than he ever trusted Shadow Weaver or Catra, and Entrapta commenting on him being her first “lab partner.”

Entrapta has come up quite a few times in this discussion already, which is fitting, because she’s also being used to open up another theme for this season, and it seems likely the show going forward: the convergence of magic and science. Consider her unusual status: she appears to be the only named, recurring princess who has no magical abilities at all. Not all princesses have the massive elemental powers of Glimmer or Mermista, but Spinerella and Netossa definitely have their own kind of magic. What, then, of Entrapta? This question is answered by another: why is her technological prowess treated as not just above Bow, but unattainably above him, impossible for him to reach on his own? How is it that a self-taught inventor from a “backwater planet” can seemingly surpass the work of Hordak, who as we will learn has scientific and engineering skills from a vastly more technologically advanced civilization?

The answer is simple: she isn’t the only princess without powers. Technology is her magical gift, her element if you will. Bow says it himself early in “Signals”: “Magic and tech aren’t totally separate things. Entrapta is one of the only people who really understands that.”

And he’s right. Magic is, after all, just symbolic manipulation in an effort to similarly manipulate reality. We all to some degree believe in it; that’s why we yell at technology that doesn’t work or call out for lost objects. It makes sense that we should believe in it, because using symbols to express what we want to happen is generally the most effective way to get it to happen what it involves other people, which is most of the time; add in that sometimes the car does start right after we yell at it, and of course it’s our go-to solution! The history of science, looked at closely, is not a rejection of magic but an evolution of magic. Look at two of the oldest sciences, astronomy and chemistry. People started out looking at the stars, noticing the regularity of their motion, and surmised that they reflected or even influenced the motion of objects on Earth. Eventually, after careful study, it was found that it doesn’t work like that–but by that time we had a carefully crafted system of symbols by which the movement of the stars could be predicted, which we call astronomy. The same thing happened with alchemy–after centuries of mixing this and melting that and writing down what happened and guesses as to why, eventually we worked out patterns and rules for how it worked, finding ways to manipulate substances to get what we wanted, and called that chemistry.

As it turns out, the rules that work are more mathematical than poetic, and machines aren’t actually very much like people at all, but it’s all still manipulating symbols. Press a key, labeled with a particular letter, on the keyboard and that letter appears on the screen–you have manipulated a symbol to effect change in the material world. Entrapta’s gift, her power, is that she’s one of the few people who really understands that.

It’s no accident that we’re introduced to Hordak’s interdimensional portal and holographic “ghosts” in the same episode, because they’re both technowank excuses to have fantasy phenomena, just as is the notion of elemental magic being characters tapping into an artificial planet’s environmental control systems. They come at it from opposite ends, of course: ghosts sound magic and holograms sound technological, while an interdimensional portal sounds technological from the start. But it’s really just the old fantasy notion of the magic door, a gateway to Faerie or the underworld, given a sci-fi makeover. (As is much of science fiction, for that matter. The distinction between science fiction, fantasy, and pulp adventure is often just surface aesthetics.)

This approach to magic can be seen as somewhat reductionist. If science and technology are just magic that works, is the rest of magic just failed science? Well, yes. But flip it around: there is magic that works. That’s not reductionist, that’s astounding. We live in a universe in which magic works, in which human minds and hands are capable of constructing and manipulating symbols which tap into cosmic forces to do whatever we can imagine and figure out how to do! How terrific is that?

And, as the end of “Signals” ominously looms, how terrifying?


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Light makes him lose his powers (Absolute Power)

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It’s January 16, 1999, and the charts are largely unchanged from last time, with only the order different–Brandy is on top at the moment with “Have You Ever?” Varsity Blues opens at number one in theaters. And in the news, earlier this month the euro was launched, as was the Mars Polar Lander, the latter at least to end in failure–it will eventually crashland on Mars.

On TV, “Absolute Power,” a fairly forgettable Superman: The Animated Series episode notable mostly for being a couple of second-and-lasts–the second and last episode narrated in flashback, and the second and last appearance of Mala and Jax-Ur. The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to the famous line by John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an English baron and marquess who strongly opposed centralized authority, a fan of U.S.-style federalism who vocally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War on states’ rights grounds. Knowing that, it’s worth reading his most famous quote a little more closely: “Power tends to corrupt.” In other words, it doesn’t always corrupt, just often does, while “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The repeated word “absolute” is here being used in two subtly different sentences: “absolute power” of course refers to the maximum possible amount of power, power which cannot be resisted or denied, but “corrupts absolutely” is constructed in opposition to “tends to corrupt,” and therefore reads as guaranteed corruption, not maximal corruption.

This is an important distinction to make, because again, the speaker here is an aristocrat who opposed any power above his own but supported slavery, just like the bulk of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution–no wonder he was a fan! In other words, someone who believed his own power as an aristocrat did not corrupt him, but rather that any higher level of power was necessarily corrupting–power which could be used to interfere with his exercise of his power over those subject to it. He’s basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day right-libertarian.

This is important, because despite the title, the episode isn’t built around his quote, but actually a saying (usually attributed to Edmund Burke) which arguably opposes the Acton quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The opposition comes in when one realizes the implication that absolute power is not guaranteed to corrupt if “good men” do something, though arguably preventing the consolidation of absolute power in the first place could be the something done.

Either way, the probably-not-actually-Burke quote is the closer to true of the two, despite the emptiness of the category “good men”: we live in an amoral, and therefore immoral, universe, and have invented morality out of our own capacity for agency and judgment. If we wish it to exist in the world, rather than merely our imaginations, we must build and rebuild it constantly. And not just in the world, but in ourselves–to decide that one is, once and for all, good is to lose the capacity for self-correction, and thereby guarantee failure.

This episode is thus actually a crucial one to understanding Superman, because it shows that he is capable of error, and more importantly that he knows he is capable of error. He has, as many critics and commentators have noted over the years, a nigh-impossible balancing act to perform: on the one hand, given his great capacity to do what others cannot, him doing nothing gives evil a far greater chance to triumph than most; on the other, if he does too much to protect–which is to say, control–others, he becomes a tyrant. Mala and Jax-Ur choose to go much too much to the latter extreme, becoming dictators as a means of bringing “peace” and “order” to the divided planet they conquer, but initially Superman goes too far to the former, leaving their rule intact because he fears the consequences to the planet if he fights them.

Ultimately, however, he is Superman. He finds a way to stop them without it turning into a planet-busting kaiju fight, though they help by taking him out into space to throw him into a black hole. He finds a way to protect almost everyone, by fighting Mala and Jax-Ur in incredibly dangerous space until they slip up and die. He even saves their head of security/police, Alterus, over the protests of the rebel Cetea.

It’s an interesting choice, because although Alterus has a last-second change of heart to rescue Superman and Cetea from execution by black hole, he is still depicted as Mala and Jax-Ur’s second-in-command. He is doubtless responsible for executing many of the atrocities they are implied to have masterminded in their conquest of the planet, doubtless including actual executions. He’s also shown being sexually assaulted by Mala, which certainly makes him more sympathetic, but also provides a possible ulterior motive for turning against the regime.

What he is, in short, is a reminder that it isn’t actually necessary for “good men” to do anything to prevent the triumph of evil, which is good since people aren’t actions and therefore can’t be meaningfully assigned moral value. Apparent “bad men” can do it too, by taking good action.

This is not, in itself, redemption. Alterus does not really have a redemption arc; he’s barely a character. “Redemption” is a fuzzy concept when you’ve rejected the concept that a person can be good or evil, anyway; it’s connected to forgiveness, but forgiveness lies entirely in the free choice of one’s victims. Mostly it’s the realization of one’s own prior evil actions, acceptance of one’s capacity to do such things, and choice to start doing better, which certainly could be what’s going on with Alterus, but on the other hand he could just be taking advantage of an opportunity to rid himself of his abuser and take over the planet himself in the process. He could, in other words, just be upset about power greater than his own, and not see anything wrong with his own power over others, or he could be genuinely recognizing that power must be broken.

In the end, his redemption or lack thereof isn’t important. What is important is that it demonstrates for us that someone can serve a tyrannical regime in its conquest of a divided planet, then turn against that regime’s leaders. Doing so isn’t redemption in itself, but it’s better than not doing it, and that’s a start.

But surely we won’t see this precise sequence of events with a character we know much better at the end of this season, right?


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If I have a bat problem (Rebirth)

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It’s January 10, 1999, about six weeks since “Little Big Head Man.” The bizarre duo of R. Kelly and Celine Dion top the charts, with “I’m Your Angel.” Deborah Cox, Brandy, and Britney Spears also chart, the last with her first big hit, “…Baby One More Time.” The top movie is A Civil Action, which managed the rare feat of jumping up 44 places between weekends. Also in the top ten are Robin Williams vehicle Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, animated classic The Prince of Egypt and semi-classic A Bug’s Life, Shakespeare in Love, and cult horror favorite The Faculty.

And on TV, Batman dies the way he always had to: some punk with a gun. 20 years on from The New Batman Adventures, fighting to save what’s implied to be Veronica Vreeland’s teen daughter from a random gang of kidnappers, he suffers a heart attack and is nearly killed by one of the kidnappers. Desperate, he picks up a gun and threatens the man with it. Remember, he lives in a world of archetypes. For Batman, every night is The Night, and every gun is The Gun. Holding it, menacing someone with it, makes him The Punk and allows all the survivor’s guilt he feels about his parents, the guilt he made the Bat to keep at bay, to rush in at once. The Bat is dead, and with it, the Batman.

Bruce Wayne, however, is not free. He will never not be trapped in The Night, never not be that frightened, helpless eight-year-old boy, and now he is the murderer of his parents to boot. He shuts himself away from the world, cuts off his ties with others, retreats into solitude. The Punk, unleashed, flows into Gotham, and goes cyber.

Cue dead-television sky.

Terry McGinnis is an angry young man. We’re not given a clear reason for his anger–there’s some implication it’s his parents’ divorce, but it equally well could be the natural consequent of the dim world in which he lives. Certainly he seems to take his anger out primarily on manifestations of The Punk, starting the episode in a brawl with a member of the Jokerz street gang. This is not Bruce Wayne’s anger, however; that was cold, and he wore it like armor. Terry’s is hot, and it wears him.

At least until he steals the batsuit, anyway. He quickly finds it a way to channel his anger into righteous violence, which as uses for hot anger go is probably the most constructive one. He takes obvious joy in using the suit, a pleasure, almost playfulness, that we never saw in Bruce Wayne, though there were perhaps hints of it in Tim Drake. In all though, Terry is something new, neither the brooding darkness of Bruce Wayne nor the shining paragon that is Superman. He’s yet a third kind of hero: someone who never had power, only anger, and on receiving it, chooses to use it not for his own gain, but to fight against those who abuse power (and killed his dad, admittedly).

He is, in other words, a hero who is very nearly a villain, but not in the trite Dark Age of Comics sense of a “hero” who shoots lots of guns indiscriminately in service of some authority or ideal. Rather, he is a hero who is not entirely on the side of power, because this is cyberpunk and power–in the form of the unsubtly named Derek Powers–is suspect and corrupt.

And beside that, he has one key advantage over Bruce Wayne: he can take the suit off. Unlike Wayne, he has family who don’t know that he’s Batman, and genuine friends in his “civilian” persona. He has a life, and while that will create conflict down the line, it also creates opportunity: he can heal in a way Bruce Wayne never could. Ironically, the boy who now has the Bat doesn’t really need it. He is hurt and angry, but he has the support he’ll need to recover, in time.

I say “has the Bat,” but the Bat isn’t really something you have. It’s something you are, or are not–and Terry is not. The episode title is a misnomer: the Bat is dead and remains such. Instead we have something more interesting: a boy who isn’t substantially different between civilian and heroic personae, who seems to deliberately resist fragmenting his identity as so many superheroes do. This isn’t a rebirth of something we’ve seen before; this is, fittingly for an episode revolving around a destructive mutagen, an evolution. Rebirth implies on some level a return to where we’ve been, but that’s not where we’re going; we’re going Beyond.

And as for McGinnis, a Batperson who can take the suit off and be just a person? We’ve seen that before, in a previous partner of Bruce Wayne: Batgirl. Of course she was his partner in more ways than one, but then so will Terry be, albeit in a very different way.

We’ll be meeting her next episode.


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Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Sucked into the game. I’ve always hated that premise. I hated it in Tron and Captain N and the countless 80s cartoons that used it to for a one-off episode when I was a kid. I hated it in Reboot when I was a teen, and I hate it in the glut of isekai anime now. If I’d known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon–acknowledged by writer Kieron Gillen as one of Die‘s major inspirations–when it was on the air, I would doubtless have hated the premise there.

Fortunately, Die hates that premise, too.

And it deserves that hatred. (Of course I think so, why else would I hate it?) In college, I read an essay about games whose title and author I no longer remember, but a key point stuck with me. The essay discussed, in its introduction, a child trying to learn to play chess, but who kept losing because they refused to do anything to put the queen’s-side knight in danger. They had developed an emotional attachment to that piece, embued it personality as children sometimes do, and could not set that feeling aside to play the game. Part of what makes games games, the essay argued, is that they don’t really have stakes. Oh, we may wager something on the outcome of the game–money, pride, advancement in a tournament–but the individual actions and moves, the actual playing, has no stakes. Nobody is tortured when a pawn is captured, no fields razed when a football team loses ground. We do not care about the queen’s-side knight, or empathize with the pain our marker feels when devoured by snakes in its effort to climb to the top of the ladder.

But this begins to complexify in the latter half of the twentieth century, as various new genres–interactive books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, video games, roleplaying games–begin incorporating gamelike elements into fiction or using games as a storytelling medium. Now we do care about our gamepieces, because now they are characters, and become emotionally invested in characters–though never in quite the same way as real people. Much of what is interesting about games as storytelling media arises from this tension between ludic elements and narrative, the knowledge that an errant roll of a d20 could spell the difference between a dramatic rescue and a tragicomic fumble, that our own button-pressing skill is all that stands between the brave hero taking a stand against evil and annihilation.

Or you can just abandon all that and use a traditional medium for a story about a bunch of characters sucked into a game, which accomplishes nothing except giving you an excuse to have characters make pop culture references in a fantasy world.

Die takes a different approach. It recognizes that fantasy worlds and games alike are frequently rife with violence, death, and suffering, and that most people have lives to which they feel some degree of attachment, so being sucked into the fantasy world of a game is a fucking nightmare. And, too, that if the worlds evoked by narrative games are in any sense real–as the geek-default “suspension of disbelief”/secondary creation school of narrative engagement insists on treating them–players are monsters, and game creators even more so.

Being sucked into a game is a horror premise, and for once Die actually treats it as such, briefly exploring how having been sucked into a game as teens warped the lives of a quintet of fortysomethings, and perhaps more importantly how it didn’t–for all their trauma, most of them actually lead pretty normative lives of marriage, children, employment–before flinging them back into the game once more. Bad enough having to live your fantasies; how much worse having to live the fantasies of the immature, overwrought teen you once were?

It helps, too, that the story acknowledges one of my longheld critiques of D&D-style fantasy, namely that people are nowhere near frightened enough of bards and enchanters. A powerful necromancer may send a zombie horde to enslave the kingdom, but a powerful bard can make them happy to be enslaved–and that is essentially the main character’s power, to tell others what to feel. (Intriguingly, they are also to all appearances a het man in the real world and a het woman in the game world. When asked about this by other characters, we are privy to their thoughts that they feel more free as Lady Ash, but they change the subject before we can learn much. Mind control is an extremely common fantasy among trans women, almost to the point of being an ingroup stereotype, I’m just saying.)

And yet despite all of that, there are still people who think they want to go to a fantasy world. Enough of them to keep isekai the latest obnoxiously big thing in anime, anyway. And in Die, we see them too: ultimately, the characters split between those who wish to escape the nightmare world of fantasy and those who, whether out of a sense of duty or because they’ve bought into the power fantasy aspect, want to stay longer.

Fools.


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Of the Future (Recapitulation)

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The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

-William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

What the famous opening line of Gibson’s cyberpunk classic describes is not a Metropolis-blue sky, though that is the color of a dead channel today. Nor is it the apocalypse-red sky of Gotham with which our first opening began, at the very beginning of near-apocalypse. No, Gibson’s sky is a dead television in 1984, and that means the mottled, ever-shifting grays of static.

(No, not him. He’s later.)

Static has retained a curious power as a signifier, despite its relatively brief presence in actual life. It is an acutely analogue phenomenon, near-vanished in a digital world, and equally unknown to our pre-electronic great grandparents. Even in 1999, it was increasingly uncommon.

But nonetheless, it remains in our collective visual memory. In Neuromancer, of course, it refers to a dense layer of gray clouds, and so here in our new opening it does as well: we open with a burst of static, and then pan up over gray ocean to gray looming city and gray industrial kanji-flecked towers looming over that, with, yes, patches of gray sky visible between a few buildings.

Static is so many things. It denotes something lost, a gap, a place where the message is missing, a flickering discontinuity. A sky of static offers no hope and betides no apocalypse; it speaks nothing. But too, it is noise, speaking too much for anything to be made out but a sibilant hiss. Inundated with information, we retain nothing; that is the future, and how can we respond but with apathy?

But the apathy predates the static. The first frame of this opening is not the gray sky of the city; it is a brief flash of an image seen more fully later, a lurid spiral centered on a hand holding an eye, quickly vanishing into the static. This is not a difficult image to interpret, especially associated with the static of a dead television: it is at once lurid and hypnotic, a vision given to us by an unseen hand. It is television itself, entertainment masquerading as information, propagandized news that sells itself as entertainment, all in the service of power, corruption, and greed. The word “Apathy” itself flickers past soon after, followed by images of our main characters, mired as they are in apathy at the start of this story: elderly Bruce Wayne, and young Terry McGinnis, standing in a graveyard, the quick flickering between them suggesting that they are standing together in that graveyard, and yet they are not both on the screen at once.

But all of this is buried in the first second, nigh-subliminal, and fittingly is soon after buried in the liminal image of the sea. It is only after we see the city and its dead-television sky that we get a fuller view of the hand, eye, and spiral, animated now to make it clear that the hand is giving the eye to us–and then, flickering long enough to read and associate with that image, the word “Apathy” once more.

The image flickers again: people in futuristic armor with futuristic guns, again in lurid colors, and a young woman screaming, all in shades of gray. She is not pure light, it seems, a victim but not no innocent, while the armored people are blood and darkness against a backdrop of fire, unquestionably an image of menace and evil. This, we are told, is “Greed.” That, after all, is what comes after apathy: if we no longer care, then what else is there but to selfishly pursue our own desires?

The images accelerate. Briefly, we see police cars, and then the word “Corruption.” Enough said; we know where the greed of the powerful leads. Wayne, alone once more; his word is “Power,” followed immediately by that image of Terry in the graveyard and “Hope.” The progression continues: greed and corruption intensify power and encourage the continued apathy of the powerful, while placing their hope in another, a heroic figure perhaps, gives the powerless a reason to continue to be apathetic, abetting the cycle anew.

But then something cuts through all that. There is another direction hope can go: not hope that we will be rescued, but hope that we can find a way out ourselves, an encouragement to action rather than apathy. A swarm of bats flies past to reveal a figure standing atop a roof, at once familiar and new, while a distorted but familiar melody shrieks out over what was until now a driving but directionless bassline: the notes are different lengths and the key has changed, but the progression of intervals remains, so that with only a little effort we can recognize that we are hearing a version of the Elfman-Walker Batman theme.

Briefly, we see what he sees, a thick, hunched figure with a gun, a silhouette much like the ones we saw in the Batman: The Animated Series opening. Hazy images of the city flicker past, forming a name we know: Batman, of course, and then in a white flash a new word appears over it: Beyond.

But beyond what? What lies between the sharp, noir contrasts of Gotham and the neo-noir cyberpunk grays and neon of New Gotham? It will be quite a few episodes before the show gives us an answer, but it is one we have been anticipating since the beginning of this project: the near-apocalypse of ’09 happened. We never find out the details of this event, but we know what it is–a near-apocalypse. And we know what its aftermath, its consequent is: a dingy world of smog and darkness, corporate greed and biological horrors, a world where all the problems of the present have continued and metastasized into the pustulant growth that is this world of power and greed, apathy and corruption.

More images flicker past, a sequence bookended by images denoting Terry’s enemies: an ace of spades pierced by a bullet for the Royal Flush Gang, a feminine silhouette in swirling blues for Inque. In between, two images: the “blind justice” statue in a jumbled sea of words, looming menacingly closer, followed by “Courage,” and Terry’s classmates dancing energetically against a background of writhing, flickering figures, followed by a brief focus on his girlfriend Dana and the word “Honor.” Dana, from whom Terry consistently keeps the truth throughout the series, to whom he constantly lies–that is who receives “Honor”? A choice as bitterly ironic as assigning “Courage” to the symbol of the justice system, institutional violence wielded by the powerful from a position of safety to keep themselves safe. This is cyberpunk: our heroes and their allies are light gray in a dark gray world, at best. Look at what comes next: images of violence in the street, but now it’s Batman doing it at Bruce’s instruction, and so it gets the word “Justice.” Precious little of that here; just superheroics.

Because, outside the show, we know what near-apocalypse is. Apocalypse is just revolution seen from above; near-apocalypse is failed or aborted revolution. It’s a vision of justice that consists solely of protecting the status quo from those who would upset it, whether for their own gain or in an effort to accomplish something better. It is the same old stagnation and decay, because we fear toppling the structures might be worse. It’s what superheroes do, and thus that is what this future is Beyond: it is beyond the choice not to take the risk and try for something better. It is beyond the decision to stay safe, to indulge our protector fantasies.

It is a world of political corruption, corporate greed, public apathy, and environmental decay. It is, in short, the world we chose.

The pilot opens in 2019.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power S2E1-2

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It’s April 26, 2019. I don’t always bother with a date for these Retroactive Continuity posts, but this time it matters, because today is Lesbian Visibility Day, and Netflix just happens to suddenly drop several episodes of She-Ra–a show the central relationships of which are all, to put it in sober, clinical terms, gay as fuck.

And actually, that would be completely believable as a coincidence, if not for three facts: first, this is much faster than new seasons of Netflix shows typically drop, barely six months since Season 1. Second, the episode count is much lower, a mere seven to Season 1’s thirteen. And third, this doesn’t feel like a complete season, but more like half of one.

Fully unpacking that statement is easier now that Season 3 has dropped–four months after Season 2, meaning that the two together came out 10 months after Season 1, a much more reasonable time span between Netflix seasons. In addition, Season 3 is six episodes, meaning the two seasons combined have the same episode count as Season 1. And finally, Season 2 has a premiere, but then just sort of… stops, not ending with any kind of final spectacle but simply a cliffhanger on an otherwise cute-but-inconsequential episode. Season 3, by contrast, doesn’t so much have a premiere as just start, but it ends in a massive spectacle.

In other words, despite statements to the contrary from showrunner Noelle Stevenson, it seems very likely that Seasons 2 and 3 were planned and written as a single season that was later divided in two–and finishing in time to release on Lesbian Visibility Day seems as likely an explanation as any. Of course, Netflix also seems to be moving toward more frequent releases with smaller episode counts, so it’s plausible the split was made for that reason–but even so, the release’s timing is probably not coincidental.

In  “The Frozen Forest,” the focus is on cleaning up after the finale, in a  couple of senses. Most literally, the magic forest that protects Bright  Moon was severely damaged by Entrapta’s hacking of the Black Garnet  Runestone and the Horde army led by Catra, so the titular Princesses of  Power (plus Bow) are holding off Horde robots while seeking a way to  restore the forest. At the same time, individual characters deal with  the repercussions of the events of and around the finale, most notably  Adora training alone to better control the powers of She-Ra while the  Princesses deal with interpersonal conflicts in their still-new team.  Most overtly, this involves Glimmer adapting to a leadership role and  dealing with Frosta, who behaves (as Glimmer eventually acknowledges)  much like Glimmer did in the first season. However, the team as a whole  also show issues coordinating, stepping on each other’s attacks and  sniping at one another verbally.

Once  they put these issues aside and fight cooperatively, however, the  rainbow glow they shared at the climax of “The Battle of Bright Moon”  returns and restores the forest to life. As in the finale, this is a manifestation of that cartoon classic, the “power of friendship.” But much of what these two episodes are doing is exploring exactly what that means, and perhaps just as importantly, what it doesn’t. In “The Frozen Forest,” the initial conflict, followed by cooperation, of the largely egalitarian rebels is contrasted with the hierarchy and enforced unity of the Horde. Even though Catra, Scorpia, and Entrapta are developing into a parallel trio to the “Best Friends Squad” of Adora, Glimmer, and Bow, they remain at odds, each too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice the others. Even Scorpia is oblivious to Catra’s indifference and hostility, while Entrapta is too wrapped up in her work to really acknowledge others, and Catra is, well, indifferent and hostile. What holds the Horde together is obedience to hierarchy and discipline that keeps everyone working to the same goals, which is not friendship at all.

By contrast, the two examples of the power of friendship we get in these episodes–the aforementioned rainbow glow and the “sacred bond” of She-Ra and Swift Wind–are both examples of people initially at loggerheads (Glimmer and Frosta, She-Ra and Swift Wind) recognizing both the common traits that make empathizing and connecting with one another possible, and the differences that make it worthwhile. They see each other, including where they are different, and choose to embrace that difference rather than being annoyed by it or seeking to stamp it out.

That last–dealing with being annoyed by others–is a recurring theme throughout the episodes. Already mentioned are Glimmer’s frustration with Frosta’s overeagerness and tendency to act without thinking, and Adora’s frustration with Swift Wind seemingly not taking their mission seriously. But there are also two other instances of characters having to deal with a nuisance, and how they play out is telling. First, in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is exasperated by Entrapta and Scorpia as usual, most notably when they treat the fight between the ELS bots and the Princesses as a game or show; second, when Glitter and Bow capture Catra in “The Ties That Bind,” Catra spends their entire journey needling Glitter and trying to get her to exhaust her powers.

Neither of these conflicts is resolved by characters talking it out and coming to an understanding, which is how both the Glimmer/Frosta and Adora/Swift Wind conflicts play out. Instead, Catra remains exasperated with Scorpia and Entrapta while they remain oblivious to her exasperation, while Glimmer and Catra ultimately fight, inconclusively (though Glimmer does demonstrate she is not as easily manipulated as Catra thinks). Notably, it is the conflicts in which Catra is involved that do not end well, because, as Adora and Light Hope discuss early in “The Frozen Forest,” Catra is “mean”: she doesn’t accept the foibles of others, their difference, as anything other than levers by which they can be manipulated, and therefore she cannot connect with anyone, and no conflict with her can ever truly be resolved.

The final bit of “cleanup” from the finale is the loose end that the Rebellion don’t know Entrapta has defected to the Horde. By the end of “The Ties That Bind,” Bow and Glimmer learn the truth, and the episode closes with them about to reveal that Entrapta has “fallen,” as it were. Unlike them, we saw the circumstances of Entrapta’s fall, and understand that, ultimately, it was because she felt (rightly or wrongly) that there were things she needed to do that were worth the risk of destabilizing the planet. In this, she serves as foreshadowing for the other “fallen” woman in “The Ties That Bind,” Mara, who (as we are reminded) cared about “the wrong things” in Light Hope’s view and attacked Etheria. Like Entrapta, as we will learn, she did what seemed right to her, and seriously damaged the planet–and understanding what she did and why will drive much of the rest of this and the next season.


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Can’t get rid of us that easily (Little Big Head Man)

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It’s November 21, 1998. The top song is “Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill; 98 Degrees, Barenaked Ladies, and Faith Hill also chart. The Rugrats Movie and Enemy of the State open at numbers 1 and 2 in the box office, respectively.

Two days ago, the House Judiciary Committee initiated impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton; yesterday, the first component of the International Space Station launched; today, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time releases in Japan. It’ll be out in the U.S. the day after tomorrow, and ultimately accomplish the feat of being really quite good and massively overrated at the same time.

I’ve been absent for a while, in multiple senses. First, I took a lengthy and much-needed break from this series in the couple of months between writing the last entry and this one. Second, I-as-I-was-at-the-time-of-broadcast have not made an appearance in quite some time. There’s a simple reason for that: I wasn’t doing too well.

In late 1998, I am badly underweight and somewhat malnourished due to physical illness. I am also deeply depressed and failing at some critical courses that mean I will not be getting the special diploma issued to graduates of my elitist pressure-cooker high school, but merely the “higher” of the two diplomas issued in my county. I’m pretty messed up about that, and turning inward more than ever. I feel helpless and alone, and repulsed by the wrongness of my distorted, failing, grotesque body. (It’s still nearly twenty years until I figure out that’s gender dysphoria.)

We’ve talked about the grotesque before, and we have two clear examples in this episode, Bizarro and Mr. Mxyzptlk are both distorted human forms, Bizarro a troll-like twisting of Superman, while Mr. Mxyzptlk, with his tiny body and disproportionately large feet, hands, and head, is more like a classical homunculus. It is perhaps inevitable that they would be teamed, not because there is actually any commonality between them, but because we lump the grotesque together; all Other is treated as homogenously Other, while the relatively far more homogenous extended Self is treated as multifaceted and complex.

That said, the two do have something in common besides being Other, however: neither considers themselves an Other. This is for very different reasons, however. Mr. Mxyzptlk, for all his misbehavior, is a normative member of fifth-dimensional society. His life in his own realm is depicted as resembling that of a typical comics character–beautiful redheaded love interest, nice home without clear indicator of how he affords it, in a culture enough like ours to have recognizable trials. In other words, he is part of a culture that maintains a “normal”/Other distinction–the existence of courts alone demonstrates that–but thinks of himself as “normal” and humans as Other.

Bizarro, meanwhile, crudely imitates the typical superhero life, “patrolling” his stone model city and pretending to save its citizens (failing as often as not, not that he lets it stop him). He is not part of a society at all, but thinks he is successfully mimicking, and therefore part of, normative Metropolis society. Note that in his play, he rescues his “citizens” from a natural disaster, a rolling boulder, not a criminal–there is no indication that he recognizes that such a thing as an Other exists!

Until, that is, Mr. Mxyzptlk reveals it to him. It’s a horrifying moment, when you first realize that you’re different and other people hate you for it. It’s like drowning, shrinking, being swallowed into the earth, a moment of overwhelming shame that never entirely ends. Suddenly, you have to see yourself not as the subject of your life, the “I” who experiences and acts, but an object perceived and judged by others. It hurts, and it isn’t fair, and it unsurprisingly produces a great deal of anger.

What we have here is a clearly drawn bridge between the grotesque, the state of being both Self and Other, both person and body, and double consciousness, the state of being both subject and object. That liminal space between is one we know well at this point: abjection. Kristelva’s and duBois’ concepts, arrived at independently from being subject to sexism and racism, are facets of the same phenomenon. Which of course we knew: they’re both experiences of being marginalized, and so broadly similar in their psychological effects, though obviously the details differ.

I don’t remember watching this episode in the late 90s. Honestly, I don’t remember much of being late-90s me at all. But I remember the constant awareness of difference, the awareness that everyone who looked at me saw something broken, wrong, repulsive. Watching it now, I feel for Bizarro, and I hate the conclusion of this episode. I hate that it pairs him and Mxyzptlk, because it ultimately buys into the normal/Other binary and puts Superman on the normal side, Bizarro and Mxyzptlk on the Other side. They’re not alike at all; Mxyzptlk is malicious and cruel, and should be depowered and separated from the rest of us for that reason, not because he’s “strange”; Bizarro, meanwhile, only ever causes problems through misunderstanding. He needs teaching, not isolation!

But Superman isn’t like Bizarro. Superman is the normal/Other binary, its defender and enforcer, and in his stories, the purpose of the grotesque is to illustrate where that boundary lies and thereby reinforce it. No, he doesn’t actually laugh at Bizarro the way Mxyzptlk claimed; nonetheless, he buys into the same narrative that depicts Bizarro as something to be laughed at. And I can’t just let that go, because that narrative also says someone like me–physically and mentally chronically ill, gay, trans–is more like Bizarro than I am Superman. It says that we’re more like Mxyzptlk, a villain, than we are like Superman or the people he defends. It says, in short, that we’re the villains.

Is it any wonder that they’re our power fantasies?


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Retroactive Continuity: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

Commissioned entry for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Children are not tiny adults; in particular, children’s tastes are not necessarily the same as adult tastes. This is fairly obvious in the realm of flavor, which physically changes as a person matures: children tend to like sweet and dislike bitter flavors more than adults do, for example. But it’s equally true in the arts; for example, children tend to be more entertained by scatological humor than adults are.* The benign violation theory of humor makes sense of this phenomenon: references to taboo topics are funny because, as taboos, they violate norms, but as mere references they are not as risky as actually breaking the taboo. The more intense the violation–which is to say, the greater the taboo–the greater the laughter, but at the same time, the greater the violation, the greater the likelihood it will no longer be seen as benign, and hence stop being funny entirely. Adults are aware of much greater taboos than the merely scatalogical, which is largely just a chore, and so we find scatalogical humor unfunny because it’s boring; for prebuscent children, however, nudity and the scatalogical are the only taboos to which they have ready access, and therefore the greatest of taboos. At the same time, they are basically harmless, which is why they’re relatively minor taboos for adults; they are thus ideal joke topics for children.

The variance between children’s tastes and adults’ tastes can be navigated in a few ways. The four most common are appealing to adult tastes while maintaining accessibility for children; appealing to a mixture of adult’s and children’s tastes; appealing to children’s tastes in particular; and mistaking the differences between child and adult tastes for a lack of discernment by children, and just shoveling something out.** In practice, most works combine multiple approaches, but in general my writing focuses on works that take the first two. Captain Underpants is thus a little bit outside my usual wheelhouse, as it’s very emphatically and enthusiastically taking the third approach.

That said, it is still a superhero film, and we can still approach it in terms of the themes we have discussed regarding superheroes in the past. Notably, the Captain Underpants character created by the children in their comics has a classic traumatic origin, namely a parody of the Superman origin story, but the Captain Underpants persona they create within their teacher does not. His dual identity is imposed entirely externally, through hypnosis by the boys, as opposed to arising to cope with trauma. In this, it somewhat resembles the Hulk, in that the superhero persona is not consciously adopted by the character, but rather triggered unwillingly by events.

Nonetheless, the Hulk is still an expression of trauma, namely the trauma of the accident that created him, and an expression of Bruce Banner’s rage over his experience and loss. By contrast, Captain Underpants appears not to be an expression of anything Krupp feels–rather, he is an expression of precisely what Krupp doesn’t feel, joy and fun.

However, the boys’ post-hypnotic suggestion to Krupp is simply that he is Captain Underpants. A great deal of a subject’s response to hypnosis has to do with their own interpretation; for example, guided imagery of floating down a river could be relaxing for some, but provoke anxiety about drowning in others. That Krupp interprets the instruction to be Captain Underpants exactly as the boys do implies, first, that he’s read the comics he confiscated from the boys, and second that he has the capacity to imagine what Captain Underpants who do in the scenarios he encounters throughout the movie–and his imagination matches the boys’.

Early in the film, Professor Poopypants says that the capacity for humor appears to be a necessity for survival. Even he, despite his quest to rid the world of laughter, has things he finds funny. The only character entirely devoid of a sense of humor, and the first such person Poopypants has encountered–and who “doesn’t get” the Captain Underpants comics. Krupp does get them, however, at least enough that his subconscious can call forth a version of the character accurate enough to convince its creators. He does have the capacity for joy, humor, and imagination that the boys do, because without it, he couldn’t be Captain Underpants. He might try to be, under hypnosis, but he wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise.

So what, then, has buried his joy so deeply that he can become the humorless, authoritarian jailer of children that is Principle Krupp? We don’t know. The movie never really hints at it; his life is solitary and sad, yes, but is that the cause of his joylessness or caused by it? Authoritarians usually come from authoritarian households, though sometimes they come from overcorrecting for an upbringing with too few, or too vague, boundaries. There may well be something in his past–some trauma, if you will–that robbed him of joy.

If so, then we have an unusual case: a superhero whose non-heroic identity is the one defined by trauma. Captain Underpants is, in the end, too silly to be the solution we’re seeking. Silly is a register in which superheroes work, and work well, but it’s not the only register; a hero who cannot handle any other is not a complete answer to our quest for a less toxic version of the hero. But the inversion is worth keeping an eye out for; perhaps it can help lead us to the answer we do seek.

*We are, of course, speaking here of tendencies. As a child, I liked bitter flavors more than most; as adults, my sister and mother like scatological humor more than most. And that’s before we even get into cultural variations, or variations across time within a culture.

**The attitude immortalized by Lindsay Ellis when she quipped, “Entertainment is the only area where parents say, ‘Who cares if it’s good? It’s just for my children.'”


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Young, gifted, and about to be squashed (Obsession)

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OK, fixing this shit for real now. I am WEEKS behind on posts, so here’s what I’ll do:

  • Queue posts as soon as I post them on Patreon.
  • Post three NA09 entries a week until I’m 3 months behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.
  • Post two sets of 3 videos a week until I’m 1 month behind the Patreon, which is where I should stay.

It’s November 15, 1998. Lauryn Hill tops the charts with “Doo Wop (That Thing)”; Divine, 98 Degrees, Monica, and Deborah Cox also chart. At the box office, the top movie is The Waterboy; I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Meet Joe Black open at second and third, respectively. In the week since last episode, literally nothing has happened, or at least nothing I could find in my exhaustive research strategy of looking up “1998” on Wikipedia.

We’ve talked before about Superman and gaze theory, and particularly Superman weaponizing it against Lobo in the “The Main Man.” At the beginning of “Obsession,” however, we have Clark Kent and Jimmy Olson unapologetically employing that gaze while they gawk at models. The frame in this sequence centers the two men while models pass back and forth between them and the camera, their heads and limbs severed by the edge of the screen. Clark initially claims not to be looking at the models that way, but once the big-name model Darci comes out, he can’t take his eyes off her, as Jimmy points out.

Darci is, right from the start, objectified by everyone who sees her, but that objectification is not limited to her: the other models are likewise depicted as torsos upon which to hang swimwear. It’s no accident that, just as in “The Main Man,” this scene is almost immediately followed by robots getting their heads and limbs torn off, dismembered just as the camera dismembered the models. As far as the camera is concerned, they’re all just things, robots and women alike.

This is complicated, however, by Darci herself, a robot who spontaneously attained human emotion and free will. In contrast to the models, who are people reduced to things by the way they’re framed, Darci is framed as a thing ascended to personhood. The camera’s gaze is thereby equated to Toyman, who is the one trying to reduce Darci back into being a thing in his possession.

Specifically, he created her as a life-sized version of a doll very clearly based on Mattel’s Barbie, criticism of which had been much in the air around the time this episode would have been written–Aqua’s satirical song “Barbie Girl” peaked in the charts in September 1997, and in November the doll was redesigned to have less absurdly unrealistic proportions. In both cases, the doll is presented as an unrealistic model of human femininity–the redesign tacitly agrees with decades of criticism that Barbie is physically unrealistic, while the song uses Barbie as a frame to critique the idea of women as existing to fulfill male fantasies and desires.

Toyman, in other words, is being positioned in very much the same way that the Mad Hatter was in his origin episode, as someone who desires an entirely compliant woman because he cannot understand or cope with the idea that women are people with wants and needs of our own. He is, in short, an incel: a whiny manchild upset that real life isn’t all fun and games and immediate gratification, upset that others don’t cater to his every whim. Small wonder he builds a sex robot; men who hate women tend to love the idea, as it gives them a way to get their rocks off without having to care about another person, or for that matter acknowledge that a woman is another person and could be cared about.

Toyman views Darci’s escape, independence, and disdain for him as malfunctions, which recalls the bon mot that when men describe their exes as “crazy,” what they mean is “she had an emotion I didn’t want her to have.” He is convinced he can “fix” her, and indeed, having forgotten how the episode ends prior to rewatching it for this essay, her silence and stillness during the climax made me worried he had deleted her personality or “repaired” her emotions. Fortunately, that’s not the case: instead, she finds a loophole in her programmed inability to harm him, and takes down his helicopter, seemingly killing them both.

But this is where the episode’s uncertainty about her comes to a head. Throughout, the show has seemed unable to decide whether Darci is an out-of-control machine, a danger to the people around her, such as when she leaves Lana Lang to die in the fire Darci accidentally started; or if she’s a person trapped in a bad situation, as when she initially starts toward Lana, seemingly wanting to help her, before realizing she cannot make it past the burning chandelier. This ambiguity remains right through to the final scene, which reveals Darci survived and is leaving town with a very heavy case. This is good news, and yet the music seems to imply this is an ominous moment, leaving one to wonder what’s in the case–Toyman, perhaps?

But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Darci is at least an attempted murderer, and she’s made very clear that it was deliberate, commenting on how much she wants to hurt Toyman even though her programming prevents it. She is either an out-of-control robot, or an attempted murderer, and in either case has escaped from Superman and her creator alike. (At least as far as this episode, and Superman: The Animated Series, is concerned. We’ll address her return when we get to Static Shock.) In the eyes of the show, that apparently isn’t a happy ending; in the eyes of the show, Darci is morally ambiguous.

But then, the eyes of the show started the episode by slicing women’s heads and limbs off. We can hardly be surprised it thinks Darci is less than she is.


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