A soulless little doll (Golem)

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We’ve discussed golems before, but it’s been a long time, so let’s recap the basics: the golem is a figure from Ashkenazi Jewish folklore. The typical golem legend runs that a rabbi in an embattled Jewish community–most commonly Rabbi Loew of 16th-century Prague–created a golem, a giant made of clay who served the community by performing menial tasks and fighting back against pogroms. However, the people abused the golem–in the version I know best, by making it keep sweeping the streets even on the Sabbath–and it went berserk. Its creator thus had to destroy it, or in some versions render it dormant. In the latter, the golem still exists somewhere, but the secret of how to bring it to life has been forgotten.

Golems are one of the major sources of both robot and superhero lore. Multiple lines of descent can be traced, but the short version is that a lot of Golden Age science fiction and comics were written by Ashkenazi Jews, and our folklore is represented therein.

In today’s Batman Beyond, meanwhile, the titular Golem is a piece of construction equipment, stolen and controlled by picked-on nerd Willie Watts. He is not, however, a sympathetic villain. None of the main characters of the episode come off as sympathetic: Nelson bullies Willie and is aggressive and pushy with Blade, including what I believe is the first instance of a character outright sexually propositioning another in the DCAU, when he asks if she wants a ride and clarifies he’s not talking about his car. Blade is manipulative and condescending, taking advantage of Willie’s crush to make Nelson jealous. And Willie himself is vengeful toward Nelson and possessive of Blade, with some justification for the former and none at all for the latter.

In that, he rather resembles the depiction of the Mad Hatter in “Mad as a Hatter,” which was similarly structured like a sympathetic villain story, but remained unsympathetic toward and critical of its villain protagonist. His character design has some common elements, too, with an enlarged, pointed chin and nose that appear to be how the DCAU signifies “ugly male.” His ability to use his mind to control technology is even an inversion of the Mad Hatter’s use of technology to control minds.

But unsympathetic though he may be, he still has the protection of the Golem, the defender of the marginalized from abuse by the powerful. And Willie is abused. By Nelson, who insults, threatens, and hits him, but also by his father, who passes on a nugget of truth–that sometimes you have to stand your ground and assert your boundaries–but drowns it in toxic masculinity with comments like “hit him where it hurts” or calling his son a “wuss.” The thing is, abuse doesn’t make people better. It breeds fear and anger, and frightened, angry people don’t always focus on the right targets when they strike back. The abused–and the marginalized, who are the same dynamic scaled up to an entire population–can easily internalize negative attitudes about themselves that serve as justifications for their abuse, and these can in turn be made into justifications for abusing others. In Willie’s case, he internalizes the subtext of his father’s statements–the he deserved to be bullied because he’s a wuss, and can only stop being a wuss by enacting violent revenge–and then uses that to justify attacking Nelson and numerous bystanders. They don’t succeed in hitting him back where it hurts, after all, and therefore must be wusses.

This is the problem with golems; they get abused. It’s so important for marginalized communities to have boundaries and safe spaces, to find ways to protect themselves from the abuse they face in the larger society. But it is so tempting, and so easy, to progress from “we deserve safe spaces and to be protected from the harm society perpetrates against the marginalized” to “we are to be protected, they are to be policed.” Which, you may recognize, is another way of stating the in-group/out-group, Us/Other binary from which marginalization itself derives. It’s the core problem of the protector fantasy: who gets protected, and from whom?

And that goes back to how Willie sees the world. He is a picked-on, abused outcast in his own eyes, which isn’t untrue. But we also see from his interactions with Blade what he thinks he should be, what he aspires to be: able to command her attention and affection, which he sees as rightfully his and resents when she directs it elsewhere. He thinks, in other words, that he should have hegemonic power over her; he doesn’t want to end abuse but to escape it by becoming the abuser. He’s internalized his father’s “hit them where it hurts” long before we first hear it in the episode. And again, it scales up neatly: he doesn’t want to end marginalization, which necessarily means ending hegemony, but to become hegemonic himself. He wants what he sees as the rightful power of masculinity, with which to force Blade to perform according to his desires.

And this is, unfortunately, often the case in marginalized communities. We’ve talked about it before in regards to lesbian cop Maggie Sawyer. Which is where we all too often end up with golems: they go berserk and start hurting people they should be protecting. It’s easy to tell that they’re doing that when they go around hunting high-schoolers and smashing through buildings; it’s less obvious, but no less damaging, when they do it by becoming cops, Terry–both of you.


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Retroactive Continuity: Lovecraft Country

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman

Sometimes we choose to separate the author from the work; sometimes we choose not to. And sometimes, we don’t have the option.

The latter is really the case with the work of H.P. Lovecraft. He is notorious for his virulent, vicious racism, and like all racism his arises from a combination of needing an Other in order to define an Us, and fear of that Other, which is why an Us seems necessary in the first place. His fiction, meanwhile, finds horror in the alien, the unfamiliar, and the new; his most famous work begins with the depiction of human life as a “placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity.” His prose describes a universe of infinite complexity and difference, a universe full of people and things which do not follow the norms with which he is familiar or accord with what he expects, a universe in which there are an infinitude of ways of being other than those of a pathologically frightened little Anglophile nerd, and in response to those visions, he curls up into a tiny ball and wishes not to have to see it anymore. His stories are rife with aristocratic white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, who get a glimpse of a hint of the notion that their privileged existence is not the universal norm, and shatter into gibbering, helpless piles of purple prose.

There just isn’t any way to separate these two facts: he pioneered the literature of the terror of the unknown, and he was jaw-droppingly racist. His horror is, ultimately, the horror of being forced to acknowledge that not everyone is just like you. That’s what weird horror is–it’s horror about invaders from beyond the “normal” world, about discovering the world isn’t “normal” at all. And you know how we feel about “normal” in these parts.

This is, very clearly–indeed, heavy-handedly–what Matt Ruff is addressing with Lovecraft Country. The premise of the book is straightforward: a black family in the 1950s get tangled in the affairs of aristocrat white New England men, scions of wealthy families and dilettante amateur academics, and find themselves being offered in magical blood rituals intended to summon forth the powers of creation, sent on interplanetary errands by ghosts, used as pawns in a war between sorcerers, and so on. Throughout, however, the greatest threats to their well-being remain what was, to Lovecraft, part of the “normal” world: cops, hospitals that refuse black patients even in emergencies, lynch mobs and racist neighbors. Lovecraftian protagonists–most notably, an amateur academic who is the young and ambitious heir to a line of New England aristocrats with a sordid past full of ill-advised “natural philosophy”–are their enemies, while Lovecraftian menaces such as a nameless lurking darkness in the woods, the ghost of a Hecate-worshiping sorcerer whose home one purchases cheap, and an alien tentacle monster end up helping them, usually by killing or terrorizing the white people who would harm them.

But despite that heavy-handedness–indeed, in part because of it–there are two ways to read this book.

On the one hand, it’s a clever reclamation of weird fiction, by reading the phrase “fear of the Other” differently. Instead of the fear engendered by the Other, Lovecraft Country looks at the fear felt by the Other–that is, to the fear that comes from being othered, of living in a society built for the benefit of people that fear and hate you. The Other can be beautiful, as Hippolyta’s experience with the “observatory” that opens into other worlds demonstrates. The Other can destroy that which needs destroying, as when the presence in the woods kills or drives off the racist cops. And by contrast, to be part of Us can be corrupting, as Ruby’s growing addiction to transforming into Hillary shows. Indeed, the only time an othered figure is depicted as actually harmful to one of the protagonists is when the “devil doll” hunts Horace–and that doll is a racist caricature created and animated by white men. It is, in other words, not a manifestation of the Other but of the fear of the Other, the same fear that drives all the racism the protagonists face and serves as the root of the weird horror genre.

But on the other hand, Matt Ruff is white, and he’s arrogating to himself the right to tell, not a story with black people in it, but the story of being black in America. It’s to his credit that he at least recognizes that it’s a horror story, but it’s still not his story. He is still a white person speaking for, and over, black people, and from his comments when questioned about that, it’s clear that he genuinely doesn’t see any problem with that.

Which is the problem, because claiming ownership of everything in sight is what whiteness is. It’s absorbing local gods and spitting them back out as saints. It’s capitalism and nationalism and colonialism. It’s manifest destiny and lebensraum. It’s genocide and slavery. Whiteness as we know it is inseparable from hegemony and fragility, a toxic combination of the power to tilt the playing field and an inability to tolerate any questioning of whether the playing field is flat. Ruff is, it seems, oblivious to the possibility that it might be wrong to set out to tell the genre-redefining story of someone else, and offended by anyone suggesting that it is wrong.

But the book is pretty good, is the thing. Which means we have a choice: to read this as a pretty good book that recontextualizes Lovecraftian horror by contrasting it with the experience of being black in America, or to read it as an act of appropriation by a white author who decides to tell the horror story of being black.

Or, as I’ve tried to do here, we can try to do both at once, and see how it shakes out.


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Oh yeah, the Lord of the Ring (In Brightest Day?)

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It’s February 6, 1999. Britney Spears still tops the charts; Monica, Brandy, and the Backstreet Boys also chart. At the box office, Payback opens at number one. In the news: on the 4th, New York City is outraged by the murder of an unarmed black immigrant by four cops, and yes, I double-checked this was the news for 1999, not 2019; King Hussein II of Jordan dies tomorrow.

Not much is going on, which is pretty apt for an episode with very little bearing on much of anything else. It’s an origin story for a character who will appear all of twice in Justice League, and only speak once. It’s an introduction of the DCAU to the Green Lantern mythos, but very little will ever actually be done with that mythos. What we see here is basically what we get: they’re space cops who forcibly recruit anyone they want and claim jurisdiction over the entire universe, enforcing laws of rather dubious origin, presumably the self-titled Guardians of the Universe.

I’m not exactly a fan, is what I’m saying. (Except Mogo. Mogo is one of my favorite characters in comics.)

It’s clear what this episode is going for as far as the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 himself is concerned. I refer to him by title because he appears to be a fusion of Kyle Rayner and Hal Jordan in much the same way that the Flash in “Speed Demons” was a hybrid of several versions of that character, and in a sense what they did with Batman. Batman is not a legacy character–or at least, he isn’t yet. He has always been Bruce Wayne; but he has been around across so many different eras, changing and adapting to fit them, that it is possible to create a “best of” character, which is essentially what Batman: The Animated Series did.

With the Flash and Green Lantern, on the other hand, you have multiple characters who have used the name, all with similar powers but different personalities and backstories. So the DCAU Flash can be at once Barry Allen and Wally West, with elements of both, and the DCAU Green Lantern can be at once Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner–a choice which makes particular sense in the late 1990s in a setting that has not involved Green Lanterns before.

Rewind back to The Death of Superman. In that event series, Hal Jordan’s home town was destroyed by Mongul, leading him to follow the traditional four stages of grief (90s comic book style): supervillainy, mass murder, attempted destruction of spacetime, and death. Kyle Rayner acquired a ring made from the shattered remnants of Hal Jordan’s, and was for a while the only Green Lantern left. This is obviously unusable for the DCAU, in part because it’s bullshit, but mostly because it’s too dark for kids and doesn’t work in a setting where the Green Lanterns were only just introduced. Jordan’s origin story–Green Lantern Abin Sur crashlanding on Earth and passing on his ring–is much better for an audience unfamiliar with the Green Lantern mythology, that being exactly what it was designed for when it was first told in the 1959 reboot of Green Lantern to be more science fiction-flavored.

However, the show’s Green Lantern has to be Kyle Rayner because, in 1999, he is the Green Lantern. More importantly, while Jordan’s origin story is a better fit for the show, Rayner’s background is more appropriate: he’s a struggling comics artist. The Green Lantern ring may be powered by courage, but it’s controlled by imagination, and the two characters being hybridized to create the DCAU Kyle Rayner exemplify those two aspects: Jordan the fearless test pilot, Rayner the creative artist. His constructs in the comic have frequently been among the most creative, including a safe big enough to hold a sun, anime-style power armor, and a giant version of himself playing a giant pinball machine with his opponent as the ball. There is so much potential for fights involving him to get complex and creative, and the flexibility of animation as a medium makes it the perfect place to showcase his imagination.

So of course we get absolutely none of that. This is really where the episode falls down; it introduces a major “cosmic” concept from the comics, an iconic villain, a character known for creative use of his powers, and then spends most of the episode on a by-the-numbers slugfest.

And it’s not just this episode, though this episode is the clearest example. Much like The New Batman Adventures in its dying days–which, being the last season of BTAS, comprised most of its days–Superman: The Animated Series is clearly running out of steam. There are still a couple of flashes of creativity to come, but by and large it’s settled into something of a rut.

We know how to fix this, in a sense. Batman Beyond is exactly what Batman needed to become interesting again, a fresh start with new characters and a renewed sense of where and what it is. But what is beyond Superman? The whole point of the character is that he’s essentially limitless, capable of rising to just about any challenge. He can fly at the speed of light and see through walls; how could anything be beyond him?

That is the question that will occupy us in the final days of this show. But, as we’ll find, it’s one that we’ve already answered.


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Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S2E5-6

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As She-Ra‘s second season nears its end, it continues to feel more like it’s late in the second half of the season than nearly to the season finale, just as we’d expect if the second and third season were initially planned as one. Episodes 5 and 6 aren’t so much interested in ramping up tension or laying down groundwork for a big reveal, as they are about exploring characters–first by drawing out parallels between them and putting them into unfamiliar groupings, and second by giving us new insights into where one of the previously less-explored characters is coming from.

“White Out” takes advantage of an old writer’s trick, namely that characters are most interesting in pairs. Trios and larger groups allow for more complicated dynamics, but when you get two people alone together–especially when they’re people who don’t know each other well but have something to emote about to each other–the result is very often new insights into both. The Best Friend Squad might be more stable than the Catra-Adora friendship (by rather a lot), but it’s the latter that gives us the strongest emotional beats.

What “White Out” does, however, is take Adora off the table. Thanks to reinfection by the First Ones virus, she is unable to interact as herself, instead being either a violent berserker or obliviously drunk-like. In the former state, she isn’t so much a character to interact with as something for the other characters to emote about. In the latter state, she is easily ignored, so other than the brief period in which she and Scorpia are alone together, she doesn’t disrupt pair dynamics by being the third in the scene. As a result, for most of the episode we have an even number of characters–six, to be precise–which the show quickly separates into three pairs.

Glimmer and Bow are a bit obvious of a pair to produce anything interesting, but Scorpia and Sea Hawk have barely interacted before, and turn out to have much in common. Entrapta and Catra, by contrast, have actually spent quite a bit of time together, but very little of it without Scorpia around to act as a buffer. From them, we get two allies clashing, setting up Catra’s betrayal of Entrapta at the end of next season; the ostensible enemies, meanwhile, turn out to have much in common.

Of course, both pairs involve Scorpia, whose general affability helps quite a bit. She and Adora bond over what they have in common, including being in the closet–which is a deliciously pointed gag. Scorpia and Sea Hawk, meanwhile, are able to bond over being unappreciated by people they care about. This sets up Catra and Mermista as parallel characters, which hasn’t really been hinted at in the show before, but implies that Mermista’s cranky exterior may, like Catra, be the performative defensiveness of a tsundere, which in turn helps settle the ambiguity over whether Sea Hawk is actually Mermista’s off-again on-again boyfriend or just a stalker; it’s probably the former.

Even though they interact less than usual for episodes in which they occupy the same space, this episode also draws some new parallels between Catra and Adora–or more accurately, between Catra and infected Adora. Specifically, one of the main symptoms of the infection seems to be an inability to distinguish friend from foe. As berserk She-Ra, she sees everyone as a foe; as drunk Adora, she calls Scorpia and Sea Hawk her “best friends.” Catra has a similar problem, constantly seeking the approval of people who use and abuse her like Hordak and Shadow Weaver, and rejecting the people who offer her genuine acceptance and caring, like Scorpia (unconditionally) and Adora (if she leaves the Horde).

Implied is that Catra has an infection of her own in a sense, something inside of her that causes her to behave destructively and self-destructively–something which will, quite a bit later in the show, manifest not all that differently from the First Ones virus. Nonetheless, at the end of the episode, she seems to get it a little bit, allowing Scorpia to care for her by sharing a blanket.

But by the next episode, she’s reverted back to old behaviors. In “Light Spinner,” Shadow Weaver is able to easily manipulate Catra by preying on her desperation for approval from her caregiver. But her lies are only as effective as they are because they’re true: she probably does see herself in Catra, because they are very similar. They’re both power hungry, both ambitious, both scornful of authority (which is a good attitude to have) and unable to distinguish it from experience (which is not), and deeply suspicious of both their own feelings of attachment to others, and others’ feelings of attachment to them, making them badly isolated even when there are people willing to be close to them. Neither is able to accept that someone else wants to be their friend, and so both see not friends or allies, but tools–Micah and, later, Adora and Catra for Shadow Weaver, Scorpia and Entrapta for Catra.

Mostly, though, this episode is focused on Shadow Weaver’s fall from grace. Intriguingly, her hunger for power was originally focused not on her own status, but fear of the Horde. Driven by that fear, she uses magic to tap into dark powers–and that’s where this episode starts to feel a little off in the context of the show. Generally speaking, the metaphor the show has used for magic is that it’s a hyper-advanced technology. Ghosts are ancient recordings projected as holograms, spirit advisors are holographic AIs, and elemental magic is people with administrative access to the mainframe of an artificial planet–princesses–tapping into its environmental controls. In that context, other sorcerers seem most analogous to power users–they know how to make the system do what they want it to, but they don’t have the unfettered access to alter it that princesses do.

But in that context, what is “dark magic”? There’s at least two ways to read it. The much less appealing one is that it’s serving the same role it does in most fiction, namely that it signposts its users as Other–“corrupting” their bodies and behavior because they stepped over the accepted social bounds of magic. This is, to say the least, problematic in a show that tries as hard as She-Ra to appeal to queer and female audiences, which is to say people whose bodies and behaviors are constantly being othered by the larger society.

Fortunately, “White Out” gives us a better read, or at least one that is both more interesting and less troubling. We can’t actually say for sure which read is stronger until we see what effect Glimmer’s use of dark magic in late Season 3 had, which presumably will be addressed in Season 4. Regardless, we’ve already seen the basis of this read: Shadow Weaver is much like Catra, and Shadow Weaver was driven by fear to ultimately betray the other mages and join the Horde. Fear is why she lost the ability to distinguish friend from foe and joined the very people she was afraid of; fear of attachment is why she abuses the children in her care. We have a name for the disease that infects her, and which she passed on to Catra–and thus we also have a read for the dark magic: it’s exploiting a virus in the planetary network, and just as the princess’ magic seems tied to their friendships, the virus is tied to the fear that severs friendships–just as it did for Shadow Weaver, and Catra, and even the Princess Alliance in Season 1, albeit temporarily.

And Shadow Weaver passes the virus on to Catra finally and completely in this episode. There is a straight line from her betrayal here to Catra’s unhinged behavior in the Season 3 finale.

Time and Season 4 will tell whether, like Adora in “White Out,” they can be healed–or if, as seems sadly likely, they are too far gone to even accept the help.


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On you from all sides (Black Out)

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It’s January 30, 1999. Britney Spears tops the charts with “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which definitely won’t be stuck in my head for the next two decades; Brandy, Deborah Cox, and Third Eye Blind also chart. The top movie is She’s All That; there’s not much else new in the box office. In the two weeks since Batman Beyond‘s premiere episode, on the 20th China issued new restrictions on Internet use, and on the 25th an earthquake in Colombia killed nearly 2,000 people.

On TV, our first new supervillain for the new Batman, Inque. (Powers doesn’t count–he is still on the road to becoming a supervillain.) She’s an intriguing figure; given almost no characterization, she just flows into and through the narrative, an amorphous entity that lurks in shadows and slips into the tiniest of cracks. She is very nearly literally her namesake, a black viscous liquid that can become an image of almost anything.

She also looks a lot like another character who hasn’t had much focus, Terry’s girlfriend Dana. This, of course, is because of the Dini style, as we’ve already discussed: they are both slender young women and therefore have the same body and face, with only coloration and hairstyle differing–and they both have dark hair and eyes. Elderly Barbara Gordon, whom we see near the episode, looks astoundingly like Dr. Leslie Thompkins from Batman: The Animated Series; it doesn’t imply a diegetic connection.

What’s more interesting is the role Dana plays, questioning the fairness and appropriateness of Terry’s relationship with Bruce Wayne. This is a role she’ll be playing a lot; likewise, Barbara Gordon expresses mild concern that Terry doesn’t understand what he’s getting into, and will express more serious concern later in the series. In between these two scenes, Inque invades the Batcave, the private sanctum of Terry and Wayne, and wreaks havoc.

Three women, and all three, in their own ways, seek to disrupt the newly forged friendship between two men–three women who map annoyingly neatly onto one of my least favorite archetypes, the Triple Goddess: Dana the Maiden, who wants her man to stay with her; Barbara the Mother, who chides gently and tries to protect the boy; Inque the Other,* who seeks to destroy both men. Together they try to put barriers between two men who just want to bond over their shared love of dressing up like bats and going out to get into fights; and they are, in order, the current lover of one of the men, the past lover of the other man, and someone who tries to forcibly penetrate the first man in a scene just a few sound effects away from tentacle hentai.

Nothing psychosexual to see here, folks. Also, the plant monster in “Pretty Poison” was just a plant.

Inque, notably, is going to be the series’ most frequently recurring villain, even beating out Powers/Blight. She makes clear in this episode what role she’s auditioning for when she, in rapid succession, slivers past a giant Joker playing card, smashes the display case containing Harley Quinn’s costume, and shreds it. She really is ink, which outlines every image in the series; just as Joker introduced himself to BTAS by claiming the medium of TV itself in an attempt to usurp control over the series in “Christmas with the Joker,” Inque seeks to claim the other half of animation: drawing.

Her mere presence threatens narrative collapse; it’s only the third episode and she enters the Batcave, nearly kills Terry, nearly sees Bruce Wayne’s face, and nearly finds the connection between the Batcave and Wayne Manor. Success at any one of those would upend the entire series, either by exploding the secret identity of the old Batman (and given Terry’s visibility as Wayne’s new assistant, the identity of the new Batman would shortly follow) or by killing the new Batman one episode after his debut. She is unquestionably a powerful figure.

But a mysterious one. Again, we get no characterization for her here. Her abilities are handwaved as the product of “mutagenic” experiments, implying she was created in a lab, and now she works as a saboteur for hire. That’s all we know, and all we really need to know: her role in this episode isn’t to be sympathetic or tell us who she is, but rather to tell us what this show is.

Of course we know what this show is: it’s a show about Batman. But is it? Batman: The Animated Series was rarely actually about Batman; he was often a liminal figure, lurking in the shadows on the edges of the narrative except to swoop in and fight someone, much the role Inque plays here. But look at our threefold antagonist–yes, antagonist, as all three are ultimately presented as obstacles for the protagonist, even though only one is actually villainous–and what they have in common. All three are set up in opposition or as a threat to Terry and Bruce’s relationship.

Because that’s what this show is, and what it means to be Beyond (the old conception of) Batman. Batman isn’t a person anymore. Terry goes out in the suit and fights, but when he ignores Bruce’s warnings early in the episode, he’s nearly killed by Inque. Bruce is still a vital part; they are Batman together, another triple being: the boy who’s dating the Maiden, the paternal old man who used to be the Mother’s partner, and the Bat who fights the Other.

That’s what this show is. No longer a Boy and his Bat; now they are a Boy, his Bat, and Bruce, and that will make all the difference.

*Traditionally, the Crone. In modern versions, most often the Temptress, the Monster, or both.


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Retroactive Continuity: Base Raiders

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If you want to get me to throw your book across the room in disgust, quoting Nietzsche on the first page is a great start. His On the Genealogy of Morality remains the only book to which I have actually done this, though I have threatened it to other books. Unless you’re going to pull a Xenosaga and spend the next 100+ hours of gameplay across three games taking the piss out of him, referencing the Ayn Rand of humanities majors is just going to get my guard up from the start.

Base Raiders: Superpowered Dungeon Crawling, a FATE RPG by Ross Payton, starts with just such a quote, and it’s one of the worst ones–the Will to Power. Admittedly, this is in the forward, which is by one Caleb Stokes–but Stokes is also named in the book’s acknowledgments of family, friends, and playtesters, implying he bears least one of those relationships to the author. His description of the philosophy behind Base Raiders can be taken as, if not a direct description of its authors’ views, at least not antithetical to them.

Stokes lays it on thick; the quote is immediately followed by a lament that superheroes–referring to the characters, but implying the genre as well–reject the idea of seeking power over others, and label those who do seek power as villains. He actually notes that superheroes almost never want their power–though he doesn’t go quite as far as to label it as trauma–but then describes this as being “ungrateful.” The point of Base Raiders, he writes, is to present a vision of superheroes for “the generation that stopped being purely ‘human’ twenty years ago and couldn’t be happier about it.* It’s for the people that never met something they didn’t want to hack, customize, remix, or make better, including their own bodies. It’s a vision of superpowers tailor-made for a people that… won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'”

I’m not sure I’ve ever read something as pure straight white male Silicon Valley technocrat incel nerdbro as self-describing as “a people that won’t tolerate being told ‘no.'” It’s almost beautiful in its pure, disgusting selfishness, the utter lack of self-awareness with which it explains why power fantasies work better as villains, because the fantasy of power is precisely that, fantasizing about no one being able to tell you “no.” The fantasy is to override the consent and wishes of everyone you meet, to act devoid of anything other than compassionless self-interest.

And that fantasy is repeated everywhere in this book. I mentioned above that it’s based on the FATE system, which caught my attention immediately, because FATE is my favorite tabletop RPG. Yes, I’ve played D&D more than it, and BESM more than anything, but FATE is the one which I appreciate aesthetically, the one whose design philosophy seems to align best with how I like to play. I won’t go in-depth into game mechanics here, but the short version is, FATE emphasizes tabletop roleplaying as a form of collaborative storytelling. The rules are relatively simple and highly flexible, and character abilities are deliberately rendered somewhat vaguely, because the assumption is that players will work with the GM and each other to tell an unfolding story about their characters, and thus cooperate on interpreting their characters rather than needing detailed adjudication up front.

So, for example, there is a mechanism by which the GM can tell players to act according to particular aspects of their character previously defined by the player, but must offer the player Fate Points for doing so–points which the player can later spend to reject such an instruction from the GM or make story declarations of their own. FATE quite deliberately has no character flaws or merits; players are encouraged to define aspects in such a way that they can serve both roles, allowing the player to spend FP on an aspect to receive a bonus, or receive FP when the GM uses an aspect against them. The game, in other words, can make aspects flexible, multi-faceted, and highly subject to interpretation because it is assumed that the GM and players are going to work together to make the game enjoyable for all.

Base Raiders retains these aspects–but it adds various forms of merits and flaws. It complicates the skill system enormously to far more carefully define what characters can do, and how hard it is for others to stop them from doing it, and in the process discards that assumption of cooperation. Of course it does! Power inherently cannot cooperate; it is, as Stokes so accidentally eloquently put it, unable to tolerate hearing “no,” unable to negotiate or take turns. It must subjugate or be subjugated, and so to build a game with power as its core value, it is necessary to carefully delineate how to determine who dominates whom and when. The game outright admits this is what it’s doing in the discussion of one of the new mechanics, skill tiers, when it notes that, in a struggle between characters in very different skill tiers, it is impossible for the lower-tier character to succeed, “As it should be.”

The addition of merits and flaws, the increased crunchiness, and even the emphasis on numerical dominance over cooperative roleplay, however, are not where I finally broke down and exasperatedly asked the air, “So why are you even using FATE then?” No, that cry came when I noticed a subtle change in character creation. You see, the Fate Point system is not particularly unusual for more narratively focused RPGs; the flexibility of aspects is slightly more so, but still not by that much. One of the truly unusual features of FATE, however, is the incorporation of character creation into play, and specifically the way in which it’s rendered as collaborative as the rest of the game.

You see, character creation in FATE is done in the group. Players take turns defining aspects, and in the process each tells the story of their character’s origin and first adventure, prior to the game’s start. Then, each player picks another character’s first adventure, and works with that character’s player to describe what role the first player’s character played in their adventure, this role serving to set up their final aspect. Base Raiders, however, changes this subtly: to define their character’s final aspect, the player is instructed to “pick another player character as your associate and incorporate them into the adventure.” This eliminates the collaborative element entirely! Players must no longer work with each other to figure out how to fit their character into someone else’s adventure idea; each acts unilaterally, declaring someone else’s character to have had a role in their own development. The FATE Core rulebook emphasizes that, in this final phase of character creation, the character receiving the aspect is a minor figure in the other character’s prior adventures; Base Raiders instead describes the player taking another’s character for their own “greatest adventure.”

This is where superheroes-as-power-fantasy leads: the fantasy of being so much more powerful than anyone else that you can impose your will on them. The fantasy of ignoring consent, compassion, and community to be a lone figure, “free” at the expense of the freedom of everyone else around them. It is the fantasy of people who want nothing more than to violate the boundaries of every person they meet; which is to say, the fantasy of people who can’t tolerate being told “no.”

What other word can there be for people like that, besides “villain”?

*No, I have no clue what technofetishist nonsense this is referring to, either.


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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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