Your other reason (Riddler's Reform)

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It’s September 24, 1994.  Boyz II Men top the charts, followed by Lisa Loeb, Luther Vandross, Babyface, and Changing Faces.  The top movie is Timecop. Way down at #13, sleeper-hit-to-be The Shawshank Redemption opens in a mere 33 theaters; in a month it’ll be in nearly a thousand.
In the news, Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho, died yesterday. That’s about it, really.
With “Riddler’s Reform,” Batman: The Animated Series begins a triptych of sorts about villains released from prison. This first story is a fairly straightforward one: Riddler being Riddler, and hence pathologically incapable of not doing everything in his power to prove he’s the smartest person in the room, practically flaunts his parole violations in front of Batman, literally daring him to prove that Riddler’s behind a series of crimes.
He actually does unusually well; one of the character’s best moments in the DCAU is in this episode, when he tricks Batman into publicly humiliating himself by broadcasting to the party in the next room Batman’s aggressive accusations. Indeed these are probably the best riddles Riddler’s come up with to date; Batman only solves the first after the crime is committed, and the 10LESLIE/31753701 misdirect is nothing short of brilliant.
But ultimately this is a weak tragedy. We just don’t care about the Riddler enough to feel for him when his innate flaw–his need to flaunt his intelligence by feeding Batman cryptic clues–leads inevitably to his downfall. Instead it plays out as a mild triumph for Batman, successfully outwitting the Riddler by presenting him a puzzle he can’t solve.
But consider it from a different angle. Rather than a story–a tragedy–consider this episode as a depiction of a game. Riddler calls it one, after all, so let’s take him at his word. As for what game they’re playing, that’s fairly obvious: the riddle game.
An old staple of folklore, the riddle game is probably best known to modern audiences through its use in The Hobbit. The rules are simple: two players take turns presenting riddles, which can be in the form of questions, short poems, or gestures that the other player must interpret. The loser is the first player to be unable to give a satisfactory answer to the opponent’s riddle. Variations include the ruler who presents a set of riddles that must be solved to earn a boon (for example, “come neither naked nor clothed, neither during the day nor at night, and neither on horseback nor on foot,” so the clever peasant shows up wearing a fishing net at dusk and riding a donkey) or my personal favorite, “A Dispute in Sign Language,” where the contest is carried out entirely in gestures, and afterwards we find out that the two players interpreted each other’s questions and answers completely differently, yet agreed on who won.
This is the game which Batman wins–not the game between criminal and protector, but between two minds that present one another with puzzles. In the end, Batman’s victory lies not in proving that Riddler committed the crime, but in presenting him with a riddle he can’t solve.
Which is rather a neat way of dodging the uncomfortable question at the heart of this episode: if criminals leave Arkham unchanged, what’s the point of it? If they cannot reform, cannot heal, why does Batman even bother?
He is, after all, up against one of the most potent forces in the universe, narrative necessity. The Riddler is a more interesting character by far than Edward Nygma, toy designer and game developer. Coming up with a story where he can remain a man whose mind works in puzzles, driven to challenge others, and yet remain within the narrow confines of the law, not challenging the power structures of Gotham despite his certainty that his intellect means he belongs atop them? That’s quite a challenge. (Not impossible, however. Edward Nygma, P.I. has its virtues, as does Edward Nygma, cryptic knowledge broker.)
But Batman’s refusal to kill is rooted in his hope that people can change. Certainly he could save a lot of lives and trouble by just killing the Joker or Ra’s al Ghul, but that would be admitting that he is unable to find a way to get them to change, to get them to accept a role as protectors or protected rather than heralds of apocalypse and transformation. He can’t give up that game. He’s obsessed, just as Riddler is obsessed with his own game.
So in a sense, Batman has lost this game. He couldn’t find a solution to the real riddle of the Riddler: how to get him to use his intelligence and skills for the benefit of others. He couldn’t find a way to help him heal. Because that’s what Arkham is supposed to be–a hospital, a treatment center, a place where sick and broken minds can become healthy and whole.
Which is exactly the promise that will be dangled in front of another villain in the next episode.


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From the law (Showdown)

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It’s September 12, 1995, two days after “A Bullet for Bullock” and three before “The Lion and the Unicorn.”
Following up on Ra’s al Ghul’s lesser counterpart we get the man himself, but this time–as is generally the case with apocalypses–his latest near-apocalypse is located in a far-distant time, as this episode consists mostly of a flashback to the Old West, where Ra’s clashed with Jonah Hex, a bounty hunter with terrible scarring on one side of his face.
This is a curious episode. For starters, Hex is outright stated to have killed all of his previous bounties. On top of that, the barmaid helps him because Duvall hurt “one of [her] girls,” rather strongly implying that her saloon doubles as a brothel, as is often the case in Westerns. And Hex is hunting Duvall because of something he did to “a girl back east.” The implication is that this episode involves a madame helping a killer hunt a rapist, which is not exactly common territory for a children’s cartoon, even one that pushes the boundaries as much as Batman: The Animated Series.
On the other hand, it’s a fairly standard setup for a Western. Less standard is an acknowledgment of the imperialist nature of the U.S. westward expansion, though even there we get a whitewashing of history: Ra’s opposes it because it is destroying “wilderness,” leading me to wish someone on the staff had watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s pilot and decided to throw in a Native American character quoting it: “This ‘wilderness’ is my home!”
But it’s not like the American empire isn’t environmentally destructive, too–generally speaking, empires tend to provide no shortage of reasons to oppose them, after all. Of course Ra’s’ plan to reign destruction down on the railroads from above ends up destroying only one town, but that’s why he’s the walking incarnation of near-apocalypse; a protector always shows up to oppose him.
Hex is a curious protector, however. He’s established as a killer in his first scene, and openly states he doesn’t care about Ra’s’ plan to destroy the railroads, even though his pursuit of Duvall ends up destroying Ra’s’ airship and derailing the plan. He has more in common with Azrael, Batman’s temporary replacement after his back was broken by Bane in the comics, than Batman: a figure who takes the role of a protector, but whose willingness to kill and blasé attitude toward others belie that role.
In Giant Robo, we have seen a successful melding of the protector fantasy and the power fantasy, namely the golem and its pop cultural descendants. But here we see an unsuccessful attempt to do the same. The underlying reason is simple: the fantasy in the protector fantasy is that someone has both the power to protect the weak, downtrodden, and oppressed, and chooses to do so. A power fantasy in which we ourselves are that protector is thus quite doable–but that’s not what Jonah Hex is. The power which Jonah Hex possesses is the power of not caring, the power of walking away from society and its obligations. It is the power to kill the people we disagree with, to walk away from the systems we don’t like, and not worry about the consequences. It is great power with no responsibility.
And we’ve seen characters who represent that kind of power fantasy, the power of unlimited self-indulgence: the Mad Hatter, the Joker, Rupert Thorne. Like Azrael and so many other superheroes of the 90s, Hex isn’t so much a hero as he is a villain who fights villains. This positions him as an antihero, a broad term meaning any character who plays a heroic role while lacking key heroic traits. Hex and the antiheroes of the 90s, however, are one very specific type of antihero: they lack the heroic trait of being uncool.
After all, it is the job of a protector fantasy to care enough about others to protect them, and caring is the opposite of cool. Even when Hex spares Duvall’s life, he’s cool, which is to say outwardly uncaring: he insists he’s only doing it because it’s too much effort to carry Duvall’s corpse all the way to the east coast. Hex presents us with all the elements of a 90s antihero: in addition to being cool, he’s also badass (which is to say, given to casually performing acts of extreme violence, such as blowing up an airship), and gets the girl despite being grotesque in appearance (the madame/barmaid kisses him on his burn scar, which has already been depicted as horrifying everyone who sees it).
Not to put too fine a point on it, despite being created in the 70s, Hex is a perfect example of a 90s antihero, and the 90s antihero is a straightforward result of twin assumptions: that superheroes are power fantasies, and that the readers of comics are stereotypical nerds, which is to say entitled white men who got picked on as children, never got over it, and feel entitled to sex despite being unwilling to make any effort to be attractive.
Of course this doesn’t work as a protector fantasy! If your power fantasy is predicated on not protecting anyone, it’s never going to work as anything but a power fantasy. And what revolution would a bunch of angry, entitled white men bring about?
We have already seen the answer, courtesy of Miraculous Ladybug: a return to hierarchies of old, which they imagine themselves sitting on top of. In real life, there’s the alt-right, a movement with disturbing amounts of support in the nerd Mecca of Silicon Valley, which advocates for the elimination of democracy in favor of “running governments like corporations,” in what amounts to capitalist feudalism. Unsurprisingly, they tend to favor Trump or the Libertarians.
We need a better class of revolution, and for that we’re going to need a better class of power fantasy.


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Retroactive Continuity 10: Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir: "Darkblade"

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Since last post we talked about mecha anime, let’s talk about their sister genre, magical girls. (Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the mangaka who created Giant Robo in the 1960s, also created the first magical girl, Sally the Witch.) Like mecha, magical girls can be understood as a variant of superhero, especially after 90s juggernaut Sailor Moon fused them with the action-heavy sentai genre.
A 2015-16 French/Japanese co-production years in the making, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir more-or-less successfully brings magical girls into 3D CGI, but in the process somehow turns them into an American cartoon from the 1980s, complete with visible corner-cutting on the animation, formulaic plots, network demands forcing the show to talk down to young children instead of across to tweens and teens, and “pro-social” messages like “ever getting upset about anything at all opens you up for demonic possession.” The primary difference between this and the majority of 1980s cartoons is that Miraculous Ladybug manages to be entertaining despite, and indeed partially because, of its shortcuts and limitations.
Ladybug herself is a straightforward example of the protector fantasy, described by her creator as a cross between the title character of the film Amelie and Spider-Man, whose powers include something American fans have dubbed the “status quo-yo,” a magical yo-yo that instantly repairs all damage done by the villains throughout Paris. She’s all the usual things we expect of a teen heroine–spunky, cute, loved by everyone except the “popular” kids but somehow one of the unpopular kids anyway, a bit of a clutz, and constantly late–but brings little new to the table. She exists to keep the villains contained and repair their damage, a good little girl who keeps everything as it is.
Which makes her a perfect candidate for class representative, doesn’t it? As episode 12 of the first season (as of this writing, the only season aired, but two more are in development), “Darkblade,” depicts, Marinette–Ladybug’s civilian identity–decides to run against the otherwise unopposed Chloe Bourgeois (yes, that is really her name), the class’ resident Regina George clone. So the choice is between a rich blonde bully who is completely self-centered and wants the job solely to lord it over others, and someone who promises change but (as demonstrated in later episodes, where her promised cushions for the classroom chairs are nowhere to be found) either can’t or chooses not to deliver.
As I write this, the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions have just ended, stamping gender-swapped Regina George clone Donald Trump and champion of the status quo Hillary Clinton as the candidates.
Let’s just let that sit for a bit and go back to the episode.
Intertwining with the class election is the episode’s instantiation of the Miraculous formula: fencing instructor D’Argencourt has just lost the election for Mayor of Paris, which Chloe’s father won in a massive landslide. D’Argencourt is naturally upset as a consequence, and therefore possessed by an evil butterfly–I wasn’t kidding about the demonic possession thing.
He becomes his distant ancestor, or more likely his fantasy of what his distant ancestor might have been like, Darkblade, a medieval lord who ruled over Paris, and begins transforming the people of Paris into his knights, then marches on town hall to seize control from Mayor Bourgeois.
So… unhappy with the way capitalist democracy has elevated a Bourgeois to power, someone bemoaning the “good old days” of brutal feudalism attempts to set himself up as a lord through a coup.
Subtle.
Again as I write this, I am watching arguments rage about “the lesser evil.” Some argue that Clinton is only marginally better than Trump, in that she continues an unacceptable status quo instead of replacing it with a somewhat worse one, so it’s better to vote for a third party or not at all, which is a reasonable point.  However, others argue that in the past, a failure of voters on one side of the spectrum to rally behind a single candidate have allowed the other side to win despite a numerical disadvantage, so we all need to vote for Clinton to prevent Trump from winning, which is also a reasonable point. But the impact of any individual voter is so small, especially in non-swing states, that it doesn’t matter, which is yet another reasonable point.
As is often the case when there are multiple, contradictory, equally reasonable points to be made, most of them are being made in the most unreasonable manner possible, of course.
Ultimately, it is D’Argencourt’s rage at Bourgeois, and the city that passively accepts Bourgeois, that leads him down the path that nearly plunges the city into the Dark Ages. But that’s because it’s, as we said, employing effectively the same aesthetic as an American cartoon of the 80s, so getting angry or complaining will always be depicted as wrong. In real life, maybe it’s a good thing that people are getting angrier and angrier about politics. Sure, it makes the system work less smoothly, but the system is terrible. And sure, angry people tend to let their prejudices guide them, which is how Trump has turned the Republican party into an openly white nationalist movement. But on the other hand, no one ever got justice by sitting politely and waiting to be noticed; ultimately, all justice comes from rage.
So the question is, is there any way to channel rage such that it creates justice only, without all these other destructive effects? Is there, in short, a way to achieve revolution without apocalypse?
Probably not.
But if there is, it’s on us to find it. After all, if it probably doesn’t exist, it’s no less likely to be found in the ideaspace surrounding a 20-year-old cartoon than anywhere else, right?


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Crisis on N Earths (N=6): Giant Robo: The Animation: Episodes 3-5

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The middle three of the seven Giant Robo episodes, whose release broadly coincides with the second season of Batman: The Animated Series, are largely where the show’s core concerns arise. The concerns about Robo’s nuclear power supply persist into the third episode, leading to it being temporarily benched, but are largely dropped thereafter in favor of exploration of the relationship between Robo and Daisaku.
The precipitating event for this exploration is the cliffhanger at the end of the third episode. The giant power-nullifying sphere which emerged from Paris has now taken a meandering westward path, wreaking havoc in London, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and is closing in on Shanghai, location of the world’s last oil field still in operation. Big Fire’s goal is to take possession of the field and shut down all Shizuma drives with the Vogler sphere, thus giving them control of the world’s energy supply.
The Experts of Justice try to stop them, and into the middle of the chaotic action sequence that occurs, Giant Robo and Daisaku arrive despite orders to stay away from combat. (Quite understandable orders, given that one is a nuclear reactor and the other is a 12-year-old boy, neither things you really want to have in a combat zone.) Giant Robo attempts to punch the sphere, and in one of the most gloriously bonkers moments in a gloriously bonkers series, Robo smashes its own arm to pieces against the apparently impervious armor of the sphere, and then cries, a veritable waterfall pouring from its eyes and over its chest.
This is but one of several apparent deaths in these episodes. Enshiku, the deadliest of the Big Fire agents seen so far, seems to die at least three times over the course of these episodes, only to appear later none the worse for wear. On the heroes’ side, Taisho, Youshi, and Testugyu all die in attempts to save Daisaku and Ginrei, which because of the crisis-escape structure of the serial only serves to put them into position for the next threat on their lives.
Mostly, however, these three episodes are concerned with origins, giving us such reveals as that Tetsugyu and Daisaku share in common that their fathers worked for Big Fire, that Tetsugyu unknowingly killed his own father, and (the big one) Ginrei’s father was Professor Vogler himself, and the man piloting the sphere is her brother Emmanuel.
Twin flashbacks in Episode 5 give us the two most important origin stories, namely the hero and the villain. The latter shows us that the “tragedy of Bashtarle,” the apocalyptic event for which Vogler was blamed, was actually precipitated by Shizuma’s over-eagerness to bring the Shizuma drive online, while Vogler was a voice of caution trying to stop them. Now his son seeks to bring about a second tragedy of Bashtarle, to punish the world for unfairly blaming his father.
Less important for the overall plot, but perhaps more important for characterization as Daisaku honestly receives very little in the series, is the origin of Giant Robo, as Daisaku’s father, Dr. Kusama, hands him the controls and tells him to activate the robot, to determine whether “happiness can be gained without sacrifice.” (We’ll come back to that question in a later essay). Between the fact that Robo seems to activate for the first time when Dr. Kusama dies–the feed from its eyes appears in Daisaku’s watch at that moment–and the way Daisaku sees his father’s face repeating his dying words, superimposed over the victorious Robo at the end of the sequence, the implication appears to be that the reason Robo comes across as so much more alive than the other mecha in the series is that Robo contains Dr. Kusama’s soul or life force.
In Giant Robo we thus have a large, artificial person possessed of an animating life force. Despite being unable to speak, it has clear feelings and sensations, and is both a fierce protector and an expression of power for those it protects. In this, it closely resembles the golem of Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, arguably the origin of all fictional robots–and superheroes.
There are many variants on the golem legend, as with any folktale, but the most common runs like this: In 16th-century Prague, Rabbi Loew created a man of clay brought to life by a word carved into its forehead. This clay man served as a protector and servant of the ghetto, keeping them safe from pogroms–anti-Semitic riots–as well as sweeping the streets and performing other menial labor. However, one week Loew forgot to order it to stop working before sunset Friday. Even a golem must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath, and so it went berserk and had to be “killed” by altering the word on its forehead.
That this story helped inspire R.U.R., a story in which artificial laborers go berserk because they’re not allowed to rest, should be fairly obvious. (Note that Capek’s mother was a folklorist and Prague the largest city in his native Czech Republic.) Frankenstein’s monster and Asimov’s Three-Law robots alike descend from the Golem of Prague, the former in its berserk response to mistreatment and the latter in its role as a servant and protector of humans. The story of the golem also likely influenced the nature and origin stories of many superheroes, from Superman’s strength and resistance to harm, to Wonder Woman’s revamped origin as a clay sculpture brought to life, to Captain America’s creation by a Jewish scholar to fight the oppressor of the Jews of Europe, to the Thing’s appearance as a large, crude figure of a man made of earth.
After all, what is the golem but a protector fantasy and a power fantasy in one? It is a protector against the violence of the oppressor, but at the same time it is a fantasy of having the power to create such a protector, a fantasy that even if we cannot push back the oppressor ourselves, we can make something that will. Perhaps we cannot destroy robots with a punch, but we can ride on Giant Robo’s shoulder and give him orders to do it for us.
Of course, this isn’t the only Jewish tale in which we are protected by a power that overthrows our oppressor. It’s a fairly common theme. For instance, it is at the core of another story–indeed, an entire genre of stories–which may interest us, being closely related to both the core themes of this project and the final two episodes of Giant Robo. This genre, which exploded in popularity for a couple of centuries about two thousand years ago, produced countless stories of which dozens have survived, some of which are still commonly read to this very day. It is a form of satire, in which coded versions of modern-day oppressors are projected into the distant past or far future, and then destroyed by some overwhelming power, allowing the emergence of a new world of freedom and peace.
We call it the apocalypse.


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Something bad's going to happen the minute he leaves town (The Lion and the Unicorn)

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It’s September 15, 1995, four days after “The Terrible Trio.”
Taken together with “Baby-Doll,” this episode really highlights the tonal range of which Batman: The Animated Series is capable. We go from last episode’s mildly surreal tragedy to 15 minutes of self-parody, followed by a surprisingly solid action sequence with near-apocalyptic stakes. In a lesser show, this would seem badly uneven, but somehow, although “The Lion and the Unicorn” definitely isn’t a classic by any means, it still holds together.
Most of the first part of the episode is, as I said, spent in self-parody. Specifically, it is parodying the “adventure serial” style of the Ra’s al Ghul episodes. It presents a London which is anachronistic in much the same way as Gotham is anachronistic, with Victorian elements like dense fog, iron lampposts, and minor baddies who dress like Dickens characters sharing the screen with red double-decker buses of the sort seen in London today. Coupled with atrocious accents from basically everyone but Alfred, the constant stream of “old boy” and other stereotypical Britishisms from him and his spy counterpart Frederick, and the shift of action from the streets of London to a dark Scottish castle on a cliff, this feels like a tour of Britainland, a theme park based on Britain’s depiction in American movies.
And the episode knows it. While I’m sure the funniest line in the episode (“Five… billion… pounds!”) was not actually written as a joke, seeing as the first Austin Powers movie was still two years in the future when this episode aired, on the other hand this episode is so full of anachronisms already, what’s one more? Add onto that the fact that Frederick looks exactly like David Niven, master of Bond parodies, and his tux is near-identical to both Alfred’s butler uniform (which he never changes out of!) and Bond’s signature tuxedo, and this episode begins to take on a decidedly 60s pastiche feel, along with the Victorian and modern elements.
Of course if we’re dealing with Batman and the 60s, we need a near-limitless supply of henchmen in themed costumes, which rather explains the Dickensian outfits, and absurd death traps, which the castle is happy to provide as Batman tries to sneak in and rescue Alfred.
And then all of a sudden a nuclear missile is headed for London, Red Claw is in the Batwing, and apocalypse is at hand. But then, near-apocalypse is what Ra’s al Ghul is all about, so no surprise that this budget version/parody pulls one off as well. Batman of course destroys the nuclear missile at the last second, right over London, Alfred comes home, and no mention is ever made of the massive quantities of radioactive dust the explosion would have scattered across London.
This is, in a word, a romp, and after the self-seriousness of the last two episodes, a welcome one. But again, Batman only thinks he has stopped the apocalypse. Off camera, it’s ongoing, a radioactive cloud settling on a major city. He cannot stop the changing of the world ushered in by Harley Quinn, only delay and divert it. The 15 minutes of levity we saw in this episode are, while not quite the characteristic tone that will dominate the DCAU in years and shows to come, still closer than the tragedy of “Baby-Doll,” and much closer than the machismo of “Bane.” Out of the three, this  is the episode that points to the future.
But then, we said it was anachronistic, didn’t we?


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The poor kid's going to cry (Baby-Doll)

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It’s October 1, 1994, a week before “Time Out of Joint.” The top song is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men, who are having a very good couple of years. Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow also chart. The top movie is something called The River Wild; Timecop, Forest Gump, and Natural Born Killers are also in the top ten. In the news, Iraqi and U.S. troop buildup along the Kuwait-Iraq border continues; today Palau becomes an independent country; the 5th is the first ever World Teachers’ Day.
This is quite probably the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series.  It has everything: a bizarre and psychologically troubled villain who reflects Batman in many ways, a convoluted scheme, henchmen in themed costumes, anachronism, pathos, and camp, all somehow crammed into 22 minutes without ever feeling the least bit crowded or overdone.
At the core of all this is the fantastic titular villain, a woman trapped in the body of a tiny, adorable child. In a way, she is a darker take on Elmyra Duff, the recurring “villain” of Tiny Toon Adventures, whose genuine childish persona turned her into a force of chaos and destruction. By contrast, Mary “Baby-Doll” Dahl (who, once you account for differences in art style, looks astoundingly like Elmyra, with near-identical proportions and face shape, and near-identical-except-for-color hair and clothing) weaponizes her childlike persona to manipulate others, but at times seems to get lost in that persona.
It is difficult to tell when Baby-Doll is just playing at being a child and when she actually thinks like one; when she is terrorizing her TV family and when she slips into believing that they’re really her family. Certainly, as Robin (in disguise as her former costar) points out, her rage is misplaced; her upstaging on her birthday episode was scripted by the writers, not a malicious act of sabotage by the other actors. But on the other hand, she is sufficiently aware that she’s not a child to acquire the resources necessary to hire her henchmen and Miriam.
Consider what it must be like to be Mary Dahl. She is an adult woman–20 when she filmed her old TV show, 30 in the present-day of BTAS. (Hence the anachronism–last episode Batman was able to run a computer search for information on Bane, and yet 10 years prior to this episode, people were making sitcoms in the style of the 1950s and 60s. Nothing new for BTAS, of course.) Yet she has the body of a child, literally looked down upon by everyone she meets. She is doubtless assumed to be a child by every stranger she meets, meaning her every encounter begins with patronizing disrespect. Even people who know she’s an adult are likely to treat her as a curiosity, an object of pity, or a freak.
Is it any surprise that she uses the character she played on TV as a shield against this constant dehumanization? Baby-Doll is a protective persona, a mischievous child adored by millions who can get away with anything. With Baby-Doll, she could replace that patronizing disrespect with autograph requests; she’d still be treated like a child, but now that just meant she was doing her job as an actress. So she wrapped herself up in her persona, and soon lost track of where she ended and it began.
Sound familiar?
Baby-Doll is a protector fantasy gone horribly awry. Underneath her violent, dangerous protector-self, she is a selfish and frightened child, who uses her protector-persona to lash out. Her identity is incoherent as her personality swings wildly between the playful child, the terrifyingly violent child with access to very adult weapons, and the broken-hearted woman who has never been loved for who she is, and only briefly for who she pretended to be.
And Batman has no defense against her. Absurdly, given that this episode comes after one in which Batman went toe-to-toe with and defeated Bane, Baby-Doll continually eludes him, disappearing into crowds or down tunnels that force him to crawl. But then, Bane acknowledged and accepted the power structures from which Batman arose, and in so doing he granted Batman the power to defeat him. By contrast, Baby-Doll doesn’t play by the rules, and as such can’t be confronted directly. (The fact that she looks like a small child helps, of course–TV Standards and Practices is among the most potent of allies a cartoon character can have.)
In the end, Baby-Doll defeats herself in a tragic confrontation with what she calls “the real me”–a distorted reflection that looks like the “normal” people around her. She surrenders, sobbing, and Batman quietly holds her–making her defeat complete. For a few minutes in the middle of the episode, her former castmates, Batman, and Robin treated her like an adult–a dangerous adult, yes, but nonetheless she was a villain, with all the power that entails. After her breakdown, however, Batman treats her like the child she resembles; her brief taste of being perceived as an equal is over.
For all that Baby-Doll is a broken protector fantasy, she is just as much a failed power fantasy. For a brief, shining moment, she had the power to make people take her seriously, to get revenge on the people who looked down on her. Even though we defined two classes of villains as those who seek power in existing structures and those who seek to destroy those structures, and placed Baby-Doll in the latter, she is no enemy of power. Rather, she craves power, specifically the power to destroy, just as Bane craves the power to dominate.
And phrased that way, the nebulous categories we laid out two essays ago snap into focus. Both are power fantasies, because ultimately that’s what supervillains are; but villains in the one category seek power primarily so they can dominate others, while villains in the second seek power so that they can destroy things that they see as being unacceptable. Admittedly, there is a great deal of overlap–Bane, for instance, expresses dominance by killing, which of course is highly destructive–but broadly we can assign villains to the two categories. Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Clock King, Clayface, and Baby-Doll are clearly examples of destroyers, for instance, while the Mad Hatter, Joker, Two-Face, Scarface, and Bane are dominators. The fact that most of the female characters fall into the destroyers makes sense, too, because another word for the power to dominate others is hegemony, and it’s frequently positioned as being synonymous with masculinity in our culture.
Of course these categories are, ultimately, rather arbitrary. But then, all categories are. The important thing is to define them in ways that are illustrative and useful. Are these categories, then, of dominators and destroyers, useful to our project? Given that one of the main themes is near-apocalypse, quite probably, yes.


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A Dose of Reality (Bane)

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It’s September 10, 1994. The top song is “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. Lisa Loeb, John Mellencamp, Babyface, and Changing Faces also chart. The last two are rather appropriate, given Bane’s interest in unmasking Batman and the eventual reveal that Bane is actually quite boyish-looking under his mask.
The top film this weekend is Forrest Gump; Natural Born Killers and Clear and Present Danger are second and third, respectively. In the news, on the 8th USAir Flight 427 crashes outside Pittsburgh, killing all 132 people on board; today a Wollemia Pine, previously believed to be an extinct, prehistoric tree, will be found growing in Australia; tomorrow actress Jessica Tandy dies.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that the animated Batman would have to fight Bane. Introduced in the comics for the prior year’s massive Batman story “Knightfall,” Bane was essentially the evil Batman: a violent masked man who asserts his power and dominance by beating his chosen enemies to a pulp, but who is also extremely clever and cunning, carefully studying his enemies and patiently planning exactly when and how to strike against them. More plot device than character, his narrative purpose was to render Batman incapable of fighting so that a different “evil Batman,” Azrael, could temporarily take over before the original Batman would eventually be restored, essentially the same storyline as The Death of Superman.
In the years since, Bane’s developed a reputation as one of DC Comics’ most “90s” characters. He is hugely overmuscled, a wrestler who uses the “super-steroid” Venom to amplify his power at a time when professional wrestling in the U.S. was being rocked by steroid abuse scandals, kicked off by a 1991 federal investigation. He’s a dual Latino stereotype–he’s a drug-related criminal who enters the U.S. to kill people and a masked wrestler–at a time when anxiety about and racism against the U.S.’s growing Latinx population was on the rise. (As of this writing that rise is still ongoing, having become, along with Islamophobia, a key element of Donald Trump’s campaign to become our first white nationalist President in at least eight years.)
In short, he is a cocktail of the anxieties and concerns of his time, coupled with the deeply questionable aesthetics that gave us characters like Cable, pre-parody Deadpool, and the Youngblood team–which is to say, aesthetics which placed massive piles of badly drawn muscle with absurdly overhuge guns at the highest pinnacle of comic-book art.
But BTAS is not the comics. Between its efforts to be anachronistic and thereby timeless, and the constraints of airing as children’s television, it is unable to fully embrace the aesthetics of 90s comics, and therefore the more restrained Batman, the Batman who holds himself back, must win decisively over the equally intelligent, even stronger murderer.
The result is that Bane’s Batman-like qualities are downplayed. He does not, as he does in the comics, wear Batman slowly down by staging a mass breakout of Arkham, delaying his own attack until after an exhausted Batman finishes capturing all the other villains. He instead stages a trap worthy of the Adam West show, kidnapping Robin and placing him in an absurdly slow death trap to lure Batman to him, then confronting a reasonably well-rested Batman one-on-one.
In short, Bane is clever and powerful, but his confidence is misplaced; his actions reveal it to be the arrogance of a man who has yet to lose, not the confidence of a man who has lost massively and returned from the brink. But he’s still a reflection of Batman in one respect: he’s rich and entitled. Not initially; he comes from prison, not a wealthy family that controls a massive corporation. But he charges five million dollars per assassination, and he’s done enough of them to be reasonably well known, at least enough so that both Candice (Rupert Thorne’s assistant, last seen manipulating Harvey Dent in “Two-Face”) and Batman have heard of him.
Given what we see of Bane’s history in the episode–the product of an experiment conducted on prisoners to develop a super-soldier drug, who even before that was “obsessed” with Batman in Candice’s words–we can see a path through his life. A man surrounded by criminals who read about the adventures of Batman, the world’s most powerful criminal, who hunts and dominates the other criminals of Gotham, to become the ruler of its underworld. Given physical power by the experiments, Bane used that to acquire the power of wealth, and happily came to Gotham to prove himself the new most powerful criminal in the world.
He barely blinks at Candice’s offer to betray Rupert Thorne and help Bane become the new ruler of Gotham. In his mind, that is hardly even important; what matters is proving himself the most powerful. He is exactly what we talked about in the last entry, the hypermasculine (literally; he’s hopped up on anabolic steroids, which simulate or amplify the effects of testosterone in the body) figure who seeks to climb the existing structures of power until he sits atop them.
But in the end, it is Batman who stands atop those structures, and he will not allow himself to be toppled. He breaks Bane just as Bane threatened to break him, removing his mask and presenting it to Thorne, and then turning Thorne and Candice against each other on the way out. (Thorne’s “Candice!” is presented as a comedic moment, like he’s simply very annoyed, but he’s a mob boss who’s just been betrayed. Candice never appears in the series again.)
Bane’s failure comes from a simple source: the structures of power, by their very nature, empower those at the top more than those at the bottom. Climbing them is very difficult, and knocking someone off their perch so you can claim it requires either very, very careful work or major mistakes by the person at the top. Power structures which don’t work this way, where the people at the higher levels are easily unseated by those below, are unstable, easily toppled and replaced with more stable power structures by people like Bane–or, for that matter, Batman, who over the course of his career has transformed Gotham from a city with multiple unstable power structures (including the ineffectual police and city government, and the endlessly squabbling gangs) into a city with one, very stable power structure with Batman at the top, both police and crime below him, and the citizens/victims below them.
This episode’s villains all underestimate the ruthless efficiency of the power structures of Gotham. Thorne believes that his wealth and the organization at his command will allow him to bring in Bane, knock out Batman, and take his place as lord of the city. Candice believes that she can seduce Bane and use him to take out both Batman and Thorne, becoming the number two to the lord of the city instead of an also-ran. And Bane believes he can defeat Batman and take the city. But Batman demonstrates they’re all wrong, beating each of them at their own game. He defeats Bane in direct confrontation, kills Candice by manipulating another into doing his dirty work, and before the episode even began had defeated Thorne by “stealing” from him, leading the police to disrupt Thorne’s activities and cost him millions.
In all three we see how a taste of power led them to embrace wholeheartedly the extant power structures and try to move higher within those structures. But what about a villain who’s never had any kind of power at all? We turn to that next.


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Making sure she can't (Catwalk)

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It’s September 13, 1995, a day before “A Bullet for Bullock,” so see that entry for headlines and charts. In Batman: The Animated Series, we have “Catwalk,” which in many ways is a reiteration of themes we’ve already seen with Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, namely that the women of BTAS feel trapped.

It is important here to note a distinction which seems to be forming, at least within BTAS, between male and female supervillains. We’ve discussed before that superheroes are not, generally, power fantasies, but supervillains are. Supervillains represent our desire to be able to force the world to be the way we want it to be, whether that’s the ability to make other people do what we want on an interpersonal level (Mad Hatter), the ability to transform ourselves to fit into any situation and get away with anything (Clayface), or being able to indulge our every impulse and caprice at a whim because everyone around us is too frightened to stop us (Joker and Two-Face). But increasingly, as we approach the midpoint of Season 2, the female villains are representing a very different kind of fantasy, not a power fantasy but an empowerment fantasy.
The difference lies in an important distinction which our culture has an unfortunate tendency to elide, to the point that it’s built into our language: namely, the difference between two distinct concepts for which I have chosen the terms freedom and power, even though under certain circumstances we use both words for both concepts. Briefly, freedom is a sufficient space in which one can make meaningful choices between plausible courses of action; power is the capacity to influence or direct the choices of others. When we speak of empowerment, what we are usually referring to is actually freedom; on the other hand, the word freedom is also frequently used to refer to the unrestrained exercise of power, as in the phrase “free market.”
But let’s unpack empowerment a bit more as a concept, because like basically any binary, the power/freedom distinction elides gradations between the two poles, and empowerment is a good example of one such. Ultimately, the concept of empowerment only really has meaning within a context of oppression, which is to say a context in which people or institutions with power apply it to strip others of their freedom. Empowerment is, essentially, the acquisition of power with which to push back against power, because only power can oppose power–by definition, taking away someone’s power to oppress you is taking away at least one of their possible courses of action, and thus an exercise of power in itself. When a person becomes empowered, they gain the power with which to destroy, disrupt, or defend against the power of others, thus creating a space in which they can be more free.
It is exactly this that Catwoman seeks in “Catwalk.” The references to Rudyard Kipling’s “The Cat Who Walked by Itself” in Catwoman’s opening and ending monologue are apropos; in that story, one of Kipling’s series of Just So Stories providing fanciful answers for children to questions of why the world is as it is, Cat negotiates with Woman to be allowed access to the warm fire and food humans possess, without surrendering its freedom as Dog and Horse do.  But because it insists on independence, it is subject to eternal animosity from Man and Dog, who were not present for the negotiations. Although it was almost certainly not Kipling’s intent, given his role as an apologist for colonialism and apparently happy embrace of the inherently regressive notion of writing stories that root specific cultural norms in a primordial, universalized humanity living at the dawn of time–the family from “The Cat Who Walks by Himself” also appear in another of the Just So Stories, in which they create the first alphabet, which just happens to be the one used for English–the story nonetheless depicts the animosity of the powerful toward those who claim freedom for themselves.
This is Catwoman’s experience of the world. Remember, she began in a position of power–indeed, much the same kind of power as Batman: athleticism, fighting skills, the technical skills necessary for breaking and entering and beating security systems, and of course substantial wealth. Even with that power, however, she lacks freedom–as she puts it, she feels she is still in a cage, restrained by a society (represented by Veronica Vreeland) that rejects her quite reasonable critiques. This is not, of course, to say that she is straightforwardly a wronged innocent–she does rob and injure people fairly frequently, after all. Then again, Batman hurts people all the time, as we’ve observed frequently in these essays, and he gets to be a hero. The only real difference between the two is that Batman wields his power against people whom our society judges undeserving of freedom–criminals–while Catwoman mostly wields her power against people who have either wronged her or, in her eyes, abused their power. Catwoman, in other words, wields power against the established power approved of by social authority; Batman wields power in accordance with that social authority.
Or to put it yet another way, Catwoman is a revolutionary. What we are seeing here is, as I said, the emergence of two different types of villain. Both are, more or less, power fantasies, but one is a fantasy of ambition, seeking to climb to the top of existing power structures, and the other a fantasy of revolution, seeking to destroy those power structures. Broadly these have broken out along gender lines, but that makes sense within a patriarchal society: men have, or believe they should have, access to the top of the heap and therefore seek to climb it; women live within a power structure designed to oppress them, and hence seek to break it. Certainly one can have a male villain who seeks only to topple existing power structures (the Joker at least imagines himself to be one such) or a female villain who seeks to use or rise within those power structures (Livewire comes to mind), but it makes sense that villains with experience of oppression would fit more readily into the former group than villains with relative privilege.
Either way, it is difficult to find better examples of this division than the next two  episodes, both of which introduce new villains.


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Crisis on N Earths (N=5): Giant Robo: The Animation Episodes 1 and 2

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A commissioned essay for Bennett Jackson. Thanks for backing my Patreon!
We have not much discussed anime in this series thus far, but it is a fairly significant influence on American animation in general and the DCAU in particular. This will become especially true when a certain electric rodent kicks off the U.S. anime boom in a few years, but right from the start the influence of anime has been present in Batman: The Animated Series, as a consequence of the fact that the bulk of the animation is done by anime studios.
It is not always easy or even possible, however, to determine the direction of that influence. At times it seems quite apparent that the DCAU is being influenced by anime, especially when we get to Batman Beyond, and at other times it’s clear that particular anime are influenced by the DCAU and particularly Batman: The Animated Series, such as the Cowboy Bebop episode “Pierrot le Fou” or pretty much all of Big O. At still other times, however, similarities of tone, theme, and even visuals belie the impossibility of influence occurring in either direction.
For an example, we need look no further than Giant Robo: The Animation: The Day the Earth Stood Still, a seven-part anime series released direct to video one episode at a time over much of the 1990s. Before that, however, it is important to note that OVAs (Original Video Animations, the term in Japan for DTV anime) had quite a different cachet in the 1980s and 1990s than DTV releases have generally enjoyed in the U.S. Broadly, where in the U.S. DTV movies, and especially animated movies, are usually productions which lack the budget or quality to make it as feature films (the example most of us have encountered are Disney’s DTV sequels to their animated films, which are almost all terrible), while anime OVAs are works too expensive, niche, or ambitious to be profitable on television. Generally speaking, OVAs of the time had higher animation quality than televised anime, longer and more varied running times per episode, and fewer content restrictions; perhaps a better modern comparison would be a Netflix Original Series.
Giant Robo: The Animation is a particularly odd case, however. Like many anime, it is an adaptation of a manga series, but somewhat unusually, the manga being adapted, Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Giant Robo, was more than 20 years old at the time the first episodes of Giant Robo: The Animation were released. To further complicate matters, the terms by which the manga were licensed severely restricted the animators; in particular, they were not allowed to use any of the supporting cast from the original manga or its live-action adaptation, forcing them to develop an original story. However, they were given permission by Yokoyama to use characters from his other works, resulting in most of the cast being imported directly from his adaptations of two classics of Chinese literature, The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a handful from his other works.
The result is a truly bizarre spectacle, even for anime. A near-future setting firmly in the late-80s conception of what the future would look like–think half Blade Runner, half Star Trek: The Next Generation–contains battles between giant robot designs straight out of children’s cartoons of the 1960s. Thrown into that mix are ninjas, medieval Chinese warriors with superpowers, and a generic villainous organization full of disposable mooks with the absurd name of Big Fire, and against this is set a surprisingly dark tale of environmental disaster, coverup, and revenge.
It is, in short, intensely anachronistic, relatively dark for its genre at the time (both in tone and frequently in terms of color palette), and populated with a mix of characters who belong in pulp science fiction, fantasy, and crime stories–and all rooted in reviving a comic book property that’s best known prior adaptation was a goofy live-action children’s show from the 1960s.
Sounding familiar?
But neither Giant Robo: The Animation nor Batman: The Animated Series could have influenced each other. The studio that animated Giant Robo, Mu, is not one of the ones that worked on BTAS (surprisingly, given how many did). And too much of what they have in common was determined in pre-production for there to be a reasonable chance for Giant Robo to have influenced BTAS in the mere five weeks between the first episode of the former and the first episode of the latter.
This isn’t the only case of Giant Robo‘s obvious influences turning out to be chronologically impossible. The first two episodes establish an initial plot that is obviously about nuclear power: the Shizuma Drive, a seemingly inexhaustible, clean, safe energy source, turns out to have an exploitable flaw being targeted by Big Fire, who essentially destroy Paris, unleashing an effect very much like the pop-cultural (and rather exaggerated) understanding of what the electromagnetic pulse effect produced by a high-altitude nuclear detonation would do: power shuts down, the lights go out, cars crash, trains derail, airplanes plummet from the sky. All of this is connected to a past disaster involving the first Shizuma Drive power plant, which essentially melted down, destroying an entire country.
All of this is clearly referencing the series of nuclear plant disasters and related coverups that ignited a furious debate over the use of nuclear power in Japan: the Monju sodium leak in 1995 and reveal that the operating company had concealed evidence they knew about the problem in advance; the fire and explosion at the Tokaimura reprocessing plant, information about which was initially repressed by the same company; and two incidents in 1999, the last of which killed two people.
Except for two problems: first, look at those dates again. They all occurred after the first two episodes had been released, and thus could not possibly have influenced them–just as BTAS couldn’t have. And the story itself is much more ambiguous in its attitude toward nuclear power than initially seems to be the case, given the big reveal at the end of the second episode: Giant Robo itself is powered by a nuclear reactor, the only one remaining in the world after the universal adoption of Shizuma Drives, which makes it immune to the effects Big Fire is exploiting and hence the best weapon against them.
This is particularly interesting because, unlike the Shizuma Drive-powered robots and vehicles that populate the series, Giant Robo is clearly in some sense alive. Anthropomorphizing the robots is common in mecha anime, of course, but Giant Robo appears to be fully independently sentient, more like the loyal pet (or, perhaps more appropriately, the Pokemon) of 12-year-old main character Daisaku Kusama than a tool. In particular, the resolution of the first episode’s cliffhanger involves Giant Robo bursting out of its hangar and flying off to rescue Daisaku from the attacking villain’s robot.
This in turn provides an interesting counterpoint to Daisaku and Robo’s first appearance, when he rides the robot in to rescue Ginrei–an Interpol agent whose slinky dresses and skill with a pistol suggest a character more at home in a 1960s spy thriller than a mecha show of the same period–and a fellow Interpol agent with costume, weapons, and powers out of the fantasy theme park version of medieval China. (Roughly eighty billion Interpol agents with costumes, weapons, and powers out of the fantasy theme park version of medieval China appear over the course of the story, mostly to get killed off within an episode or two of being introduced, and then about half of those come back later–the overall effect is astoundingly like trying to follow a big summer crossover event from Marvel or DC when you only regularly read one or two of the comics involved.)
But regardless of the characters involved, Daisaku’s entry in that first episode, riding on his gigantic toy, is the pure power fantasy of a child on the cusp of adolescence, wielding enormous power against evil, rescuing the beautiful young woman, and not entirely incidentally showing up the adult man accompanying her. By contrast, Robo’s arrival in the second episode is pure protector fantasy, the independent hero come to save the day and stop evil people from hurting us. Robo thus represents both the heroic power fantasy of the child–which, recall, is the kind of power fantasy that superheroes represent in the rare instance that they represent any kind of power fantasy–and the protector fantasy that is the usual fantasy represented by superheroes.
But this shouldn’t surprise us, given all the tonal and thematic similarities between Giant Robo: The Animation and Batman: The Animated Series. As with those other similarities, this is not evidence that one influenced the other, as that is basically impossible, but it may point to a shared influence between the two. And, as it turns out, there’s a case to be made that mecha–especially the quasi-sentient, independently acting mecha of the more old-fashioned mecha series, which Giant Robo rather self-consciously is–and superheroes share a common origin.
But we’ll cover that–along with more of Giant Robo–in a later essay…


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Retroactive Continuity 9: Teen Titans Go, "The Return of Slade"

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Commissioned essay for Shane DeNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!
It’s July 28, 2015. The top song is Omi with “Cheerleader”; The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa, and Taylor Swift also chart.  The top movie this weekend is Ant-Man, closely followed by Pixels and Minions; lower down in the top ten are Inside Out and Jurassic World. In the news, NASA’s New Horizons craft performed a flyby of Pluto, the first ever, two weeks ago; on the 20th the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations after 54 years of mutual hostility; Nintendo President Satoru Iwata died on the 11th and historical fiction author E. L. Doctorow died on the 21st.
There is, perhaps, a question to be asked in regards to the lightening of the DC Animated Universe that will occur in the wake of Batman: The Animated Series: why? The argument for it has been largely couched in quasidiegetic terms thus far: there is no room within the brooding darkness of BTAS for teamwork or lesbian love, so Harley Quinn sets in motion the tonal shift that leads to the destruction of Krypton. Of course, written out like that, from a consensus-reality perspective it’s utter nonsense.
But there is a reason to start pulling away from the aesthetic of Batman: The Animated Series. That reason is, in a word, grimdark.
The dominant aesthetic of narrative entertainment in the 1990s, grimdark was to story what grunge was to fashion and music: a rejection of happiness and traditional notions of beauty, instead celebrating the dingy, drab, gritty, and angsty. This is not to say that grimdark is inherently negative any more than grunge was: it gave us Batman: The Animated Series, for starters, not to mention the entire cyberpunk genre of science fiction, the modern crime drama, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (grimdark being always a relative term; DS9 and BTAS may be shiny, happy rays of sunshine compared to most cyberpunk, but compared to prior Star Trek and Batman shows, they’re extremely dark and brooding).
However–and it is here that the topic of this essay becomes relevant–there are two major issues with grimdark. The first is that grimdark and superheroes are fundamentally incompatible, because the darkness within the protector fantasy is that it’s the same thing which drives people to vote for Donald Trump and other authoritarian leaders: the desire for security and the fear of change. Superheroes stop being superheroes when they are given the grimdark treatment; to use the classic example, Watchmen doesn’t work because it takes superheroes seriously, but because it demonstrates that taking them seriously makes them impossible. Similarly, Deadpool works where Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman rather infamously don’t because, first, Deadpool isn’t a superhero and makes that very clear from the start, and second, because Deadpool resolutely refuses to take its subject matter remotely seriously.
The other issue is specific to superheroes as children’s entertainment, which of course they always have been. The problem here is that angst is fundamentally an adolescent emotion; this is not to say that only adolescents experience angst or that angst is inherently immature, but rather that the feeling of angst signifies that one is in need of change and growth in order to move beyond that angst, which of course can occur at any point in one’s life, but is particularly associated with adolescence. Nonetheless, grimdark retains a generally adolescent tone. For the teen, who generally speaking exists in a state of perpetual angst, happiness is a memory of childhood and therefore childish, and so the inescapable, grinding misery of grimdark is attractive. Similarly, the brooding hero who bucks conventional morality, as well as grimdark’s (usually) higher levels of violence compared to other media, are both emblematic of power and rebellion, which teens in the process of establishing independence from their families often crave.
Generally speaking, however, the signatures of grimdark entertainment–violence, relentless misery, and “moral ambiguity” (usually of the “being a terrible person for an ostensibly good cause” variety rather than any actual ambiguity)–are not what we typically regard as being appropriate for children. Which, 650 words into the essay and 300 after the point at which I declared them relevant, brings us to Teen Titans Go and “The Return of Slade.”
2013’s Teen Titans Go is a spinoff of the 2003 cartoon series Teen Titans, which in turn is based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name.  The first two years of the Teen Titans cartoon thus overlap the last two years of the DCAU, but despite sharing a number of creative figures and deriving from the same comics line, it is not generally regarded as part of the DCAU. Notably, in 2004 series creator Glenn Murakami stated that the reason the characters in the show don’t have secret identities is because he deemed that potentially confusing for small children, and executive producer Sam Register said that the show was deliberately designed to appeal to younger children than the DCAU, 6-to-8-year-olds as opposed to the DCAU’s 9-to-14.
Teen Titans did, especially after the first season when its creators became aware that they had significant in both the 6-to-8 and 9-to-14 age groups, incorporate season-long storylines, some of which could be relatively dark, such as the second season’s adaptation of the comics’ “Judas Contract” arc, or the fourth season’s reveal of Raven’s demonic parentage and subsequent role in bringing about (and then reversing) the apocalypse. However, even these arcs never descended into grimdark: they remained bloodless, had clear moral lines between good and evil, and always worked out to a win for the good guys in the end.
Ten years later, Teen Titans Go took a very different approach. Where most Teen Titans episodes followed the titular Titans in their superheroic adventures, with the occasional, usually comedic, interlude, introduction, or epilogue focusing on their lives as five apparently parentless and independent roommates in their early teens, Teen Titans Go is almost entirely a comedy about their day-to-day lives. Visually it is even more stylized and cartoony than its predecessor, which in turn was more cartoony and anime-esque than the DCAU, and it relies heavily on slapstick and visual gags, which were an element in the older series but didn’t dominate.
And therein lie the common complaints of Teen Titans fans regarding the spinoff: it’s too childish, too cartoony, all bright colors and silly jokes with no storylines or adventures. (Perhaps predictably, I rather like the scattered handful of episodes I’ve seen.) After all, how dare a children’s show be made with children in mind, rather than catering to people who were children a decade ago when its predecessor was new?
“The Return of Slade” is almost certainly a response to these complaints. Slade was the main villain of the first two seasons of the 2003 show, and his return appearances in the third and fourth season marked some of the darkest episodes of that show; the title thus appears to promise something more serious than is typical for Teen Titans Go, something more like what the complaining fans want. The episode then resolutely refuses to deliver on this apparent promise, cutting from the Titans leaving to deal with Slade to them returning after their adventure (which screen titles suggest comprised a three-part episode and a TV movie). Just to rub it in, the Titans talk excitedly about how “epic” the battle was, and Robin notes that Slade is now utterly defeated forever and can never return.
The bulk of the episode is actually about the consequences of Beast Boy and Cyborg requesting a clown for the victory party, despite Starfire’s fear of clowns and Raven’s assertion that clowns are for children younger than the Teen Titans. Despite Beast Boy and Cyborg’s vague childhood memories that clowns are “cool,” the goofy slapstick antics of the clown Robin hires for their party are rejected by them as “kid stuff.” In the face of Raven’s “told you so,” they deny that their nostalgia might be inaccurate, and instead try to make the clown “cool”–which in practice consists of making him uglier and more violent.
This isn’t exactly subtle; Beast Boy and Cyborg are depicted as being about the right age to have been 6-to-8-year-olds ten years ago, which is to say that this iteration of them are the right age to have been in Teen Titans‘ target audience. The thing they remember as being “cool” from their childhood–with teen boys’ notions of what’s cool, namely violence, cruelty, and corruption–was always for kids, and all their demands for it to be something other than it is are childish absurdities. This is not specifically a swipe at Teen Titans fans, however; Raven’s favorite show, a colorful children’s show called Pretty Pretty Pegasus, is corrupted by the transformed clown, in what is fairly obviously a reference to the occasional tendency of My Little Pony‘s teen and young adult fans to create violent or sexualized fanworks.
In both cases the criticism, as voiced by Raven, is the same: the demand that children’s entertainment cater to the tastes of older viewers is appropriative and damaging.  It takes that which belongs by right to children and renders it inappropriate for and unavailable to them. It is, essentially, an attempt to steal candy from babies–proverbially easy to do, but reprehensible to attempt.
And more than anything else, that’s why the DCAU needs to lighten up, and why apocalypse/revolution is necessary: because superheroes belong to children, and BTAS is getting dangerously close to trying to take them away.


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