Don't you have anything better to do? (The Worry Men)

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Shit, I am so sorry I got this up late! Basically on Monday I thought it was Sunday (because long weekend), and today I knew it was Tuesday, and so in my brain Monday never happened? Not an excuse, I know. Anyway, here it is, the end of BTAS S1 and the rough midpoint of NA09 vol. 2!
What a lackluster ending to a stellar first season.
It’s September 16, 1993, just a few days after “Shadow of the Bat,” so see that post for charts and headlines. Tomorrow is the last day of the first season of Batman: The Animated Series, which will go out with “Paging the Crime Doctor,” a melancholic reflection on things past that closes with Batman trying to connect with memories of his father. In production order, on the other hand, we end with this episode, “The Worry Men.”
This episode is a dual let-down. First, it comes at the end of a particularly strong run of episodes, with maybe two or three of the last ten being notably weak (“The Mechanic,” “Blind as a Bat,” and “Fire from Olympus”). Second, the Mad Hatter’s first two outings, “Mad as a Hatter” and “Perchance to Dream,” were both truly excellent episodes.
This isn’t.
It’s not, to be clear, a terrible episode. It’s just not very good, and relies entirely on the notion of Central America (not any particular country, mind you, just the entire region) as this exotic place whose iconography can be rifled for absurd jaguar henchmen for the Hatter, because nothing says Alice in Wonderland like casually racist depictions of Native Americans. (I mean, if he’d been a Peter Pan-themed villain, that would be a different story.) There’s a strange almost-commentary where the characters are ensnared in the Mad Hatter’s schemes by their willingness to believe in–or at least play along with–the notion that the titular little dolls have magical powers, a belief rooted in the same colonialist exoticism as the Hatter’s choice of outfit for his henchmen. Unfortunately nothing ever comes of this; other than both ostensibly originating in Central America, there is nothing to parallel the henchmen and the worry men.
It’s particularly sad because the core idea–Veronica Vreeland meets the Mad Hatter–is brilliant, even better than pairing her up with the Penguin in an earlier episode. Here as in his first appearance, the Mad Hatter is the picture of selfish entitlement: the scene in which he bemoans that, alas, private islands cost money is easily the best in the episode, as Roddy McDowell hams it up exactly the right amount to highlight what an utterly absurd complaint it is, while at the same time selling completely the notion that the Mad Hatter thinks it’s a grave injustice for which he should be pitied. And Vreeland, of course, has served as an excellent example of the out-of-touch rich person, who inherited a fortune and seems to do nothing except host high-society events and travel.
The problem, then, is that the only meeting between them occurs in flashback, and even then the Mad Hatter works mostly through a proxy, the unnamed “native craftsman” who designed the worry men. It’s understandable, as there’s a risk of repeating “Birds of a Feather,” an episode already notably similar to Dangerous Liasons; the probability of appearing unoriginal is high.
But it’s nonetheless a loss, as an examination of the potential outcomes makes clear. After all, in any head-on collision between two such powerful forces of self-centered entitlement, one must emerge as the “victor,” which is to say so entitled that they pull the other into their orbit. Either possibility is fascinating; either Vreeland’s familiarity with the cutthroat maneuvers of high society allows her to manipulate the hapless, foolish nerd, or Tetch’s advanced technology gives him control of the socialite heiress. Pick your villain: the selfish, old-money rich or the entitled, new-money tech geek?
But that’s not the episode we actually have. The question is precluded by the involvement of Batman, and so instead we get the Mad Hatter fuffing about with giant toys in a costume shop. Admittedly, the inclusion of mannequin versions of major villains–and the inclusion of Harley Quinn as one of them in her own right, independent of the Joker–is a nice touch for a season finale, but it’s still more cute gag than substantive element worth talking about.
In the end, the season just sort of fizzles out. Fortunately, next season starts with a bang. But that’s eight months and several chapters away…

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I really don't like doing this…

But I could use a hand.
Basically, in the last few days:

  • The laptop I depend upon to do Near-Apocalypse of ’09 and re:play bricked. I do not yet know whether it can be fixed, how long it will take, or how much it will cost.
  • Been forced by a delayed flight and ensuing series of mishaps to take a day of leave without pay, meaning, you know, I’m out a day’s pay.
  • Realized I need new glasses soon-ish.

Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but things are already a little tight right now because I foolishly assumed that having money in the bank and a few days of vacation meant that I could actually, you know, go on vacation.
I don’t want and am not asking for charity, but if you were to back my Patreon or buy a book, or recommend either of those to a friend you think might like them, I’d very much appreciate it.

Vlog Review: Star vs. the Forces of Evil S1E12

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He'll come back (Read My Lips)

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It’s May 10, 1993, two weeks before “His Silicon Soul” and a week after “The Demon’s Quest.” The top song is, as it will be two weeks from now, Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” The top movie is Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story; other movies of note in the top ten include Dave and Indecent Proposal (numbers two and three respectively), and, further down at seventh, The Sandlot. In the news, Paraguay has possibly its first democratically elected president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy; there are allegations of election fraud, but his victory is certified by an international panel. William Randolph Hearst, Jr, son and successor of the infamous publisher, dies on the 14th, which is also the day Disney Channel actress/singer Miranda Cosgrove is born. There’s no evidence that reincarnation was involved, but you never know.

This episode seems like it shouldn’t work. The Ventriloquist and Scarface are really just a lesser reiteration of Two-Face—two personalities, one more criminally inclined and dominant, and with a clear visual distinction of which is which—but without any of the menace implied by both his grotesque appearance and his terrifying obsession with the caprices of random chance. But nonetheless it does work, thanks largely to an excellent script by Joe R. Lansdale.
With this second episode, Lansdale reveals the hints of a pattern, which will be borne out in at least some of his later episodes. Previously, in “Perchance to Dream,” he separated Batman’s two aspects and placed them in conflict against each other, in so doing finding a way to explore how the identities we perform can become our prisons. Here in “Read My Lips” that exploration is even more pronounced, as Wesker’s ventriloquist personality is held prisoner by, essentially enslaved to, his Scarface personality.
Of course the notion that the puppet is the real master is hardly unique to this episode. Puppets and dolls are a staple of horror, thanks to the Uncanny Valley—the effect whereby the almost-human can be more unsettling than the entirely unhuman. Indeed, the Batman comics imply that Scarface is in some sense alive or haunted, as he has retained the same personality across multiple ventriloquists. But in the DCAU, that possibility is toyed with and ultimately rejected. (The best use of this concept is in the far-off Justice League episode “A Better World,” where all the villains in alternate Arkham have been rendered docile via lobotomy, and it is Scarface, rather than the Ventriloquist, who bears the scars.) Scarface is an expression of some aspect of Wesker that the Ventriloquist cannot express himself, so he channels it through the puppet. Despite shock-scares like the doll’s eyes snapping open when Batman touches it, Scarface remains fully inert without the Ventriloquist’s animating presence.
But then, the Bat is inert without Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl, isn’t it? And as we saw in “Perchance to Dream,” Wayne is held in thrall by the Bat, as much a prisoner as the Ventriloquist—and like the Ventriloquist at the episode’s ending, he has carved his own prison, and will rebuild it if it is removed. But this is not the only reflection of the Ventriloquist-Scarface relationship elsewhere in the episode. During the initial heist sequence, Rhino carries one of the other henchmen on his shoulder, not unlike a ventriloquist carrying a dummy. Later, we briefly see Batman and Alfred together; Alfred’s role as manservant is not to dissimilar to the function the Ventriloquist performs for Scarface, right down to both wearing tuxedos.
But it is still the Batman-Bruce Wayne relationship that Wesker most resembles. Both are engaged in elaborate performances that allow them to channel aspects of themselves into fictional constructs that they have reified through performative crafts. Bruce Wayne’s fear and rage are channeled through his costume to become the Bat, just as Wesker’s feelings are channeled through puppetry to become Scarface. Notably, Wesker has chosen a symbol of excess, rebellion, and defiance: long before the now better-known remake starring Al Pacino, 1932’s Scarface told the story of a young man, loosely based on Al Capone, who rises ever higher in the Prohibition-era Mafia before going down in a blaze of glory. It is an attractive story, and in his use of it we can see that what the meek and mild Wesker craves is a way to express not fear and the rage induced by loss, but the defiant anger of someone who feels he deserves better.
Despite that he is clearly ill, there is no tragedy to the figure of Wesker in this story. As always, the episode frames its final reveal of the new Scarface taking form under Wesker’s hands as a moment of horror, but as with the puppet’s eyes earlier, there is no monster here. Instead, the recreation of Scarface is an act of defiance by Wesker; like the prize fight at the episode’s beginning, we have not actually seen the end of his battle.

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SMC S3E5 and MLPFIM S6E9 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Sailor Moon and MLP there starting at 6:00 p.m. EST.
I can’t make it today because I’m traveling, so if someone in the chat could post a log in the comments here, I’d appreciate it. I’ll update with my own liveblog once I get a chance to watch the episodes.

Vlog Review: Star vs. the Forces of Evil S1E11

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A big success, just like (Fire from Olympus)

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It’s May 24, 1993, three weeks after “The Demon’s Quest” aired. In the news, Eritrea formally becomes independent from Ethiopia today; on the 28th it and Monaco join the U.N., and the movie Super Mario Bros., the first major American movie based on a video game, is released. It is terrible, as is every major American video game movie since. I will eventually rent it on VHS and enjoy it anyway. Speaking of me, today is my twelfth birthday, an event of which I have no memory whatsoever, though I’m fairly sure I was busy discovering girls at this point. I think this is the birthday where my brother gave me a box containing all of his old comics from the 70s and 80s, which was pretty amazing, but destroyed in a flood a couple of years later.
The top song this week is Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes,” with Silk, H-Town, Weak, and Vanessa Williams also charting. The top movie is something called Sliver, which I have never heard of; apparently it is an erotic thriller. It’ll have dropped below Super Mario Bros. by next weekend, which probably says something about its quality.
In Batman, we have “Fire from Olympus,” a strange little episode that appears to be grappling with the notion of superheroes as modern mythology. This is a commonly touted idea, with perhaps its most prominent current proponent Grant Morrison, but suffers from some serious flaws, the most obvious being that superhero stories are not sacred and no one actually believes in them.
But this episode never seriously considers the possibility of superheroes as divinities, because so far the only superheroes in the world are Batman, Robin, and Batgirl, none of whom are actually superhuman. It’s not until Superman and especially Wonder Woman show up that the DC Animated Universe will begin seriously grappling with the mythological; in this episode, it is treated solely as a delusion of the hubristic and disconnected Maximillian Zeus, whose name literally means “god”—the Greek Zeus is a cognate of the Latin deus.
In a way, this episode is a B-side to “His Silicon Soul”: it is definitely the less significant of the two, but works well as a companion piece. “His Silicon Soul” questioned the humanity of the people at the bottom of the social pyramid; “Fire from Olympus” questions the divinity of those at the top. Faced with overwhelming pressures and a failing business, “Maxie” convinces himself that he is above ordinary humans, literally the Greek god Zeus reborn, but this very declaration of superiority is revealed as a form of human frailty in the episode’s final scene, when the broken Maxie is wheeled into Arkham, convinced that he has ascended to Olympus and that the other villains held there are his fellow gods. Tellingly, he messes up and identifies Two-Face as Janus, a Roman god with no Greek counterpart, the imperfect scholarship of a man who isn’t as well-versed in the classics as he thinks.
But the first person he recognizes as a fellow god (since he seems to treat Clio’s status as a Muse as something between mortal and god, though historically they were regarded as gods) is Batman, whom he sees as Hades—not just a god, but his brother. In this he judges better than he knows: like Hades, Batman is a dark figure associated with death, dangerous certainly, but not an evil figure at all. And even more so, like Maximillian Zeus, Bruce Wayne is one of Gotham’s wealthy, an elite elevated above the masses.
But if it is delusional of Maxie to assign godhood to himself, it is just as delusional to assign it to Bruce Wayne. A rich man is still a man; like any system that seeks to rank some people as worthier than others, capitalism is a delusion. Neither the wealthy nor the superheroic are gods.
Maxie is guilty of the most classic (and Classical) of sins, hubris, the elevation of oneself to the level of the gods. He seeks to steal the fires of Olympus, the power of the thunderbolt and the status of Zeus, and as the saying goes, those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. But ultimately, it is his attempt to elevate himself above the rest of humanity that destroys him; his delusions begin with his turn to crime in a desperate attempt to shore up a failing business, which is to say that he saw the possibility that he might cease to be rich and be forced to live like the rest of us. He never really believed that he was a mortal; he simply switched which kind of self-declared superhuman he considered himself to be, the titan of industry giving way to the god of Olympus.
And therein lies a warning to Batman as well. The role he plays, the role of protector, is close enough to divinity that people confuse his stories with mythology. This is no less hubristic than the roles Maxie played, and someday, if he keeps it up, Batman will be struck down for his arrogance.
But that’s a long way off still.

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SMC S3E4 and MLPFIM S6E8 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episodes, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Sailor Moon and MLP there starting at 6:00 p.m. EST.
After the chat, I will update this post with the log.

Vlog Review: Star vs. the Forces of Evil S1E10

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Computer? (His Silicon Soul)

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A quick note before we start: My Patreon has dropped slightly below $70, and unless it increases, I will not be able to make a re:play episode for June. Currently a single $2/mo backer would be enough to put us over the top. Please, if you enjoy these articles and/or my vlogs, consider backing the Patreon. It gets you access to these articles several months early (for example, the piece below was available to Patreon backers in February), and additional rewards at higher levels, for only a few dollars a month. Thank you!
It’s November 20, 1992, three days after “Heart of Steel,” so see that post for headlines and charts.
This is one of those episodes where the viewing order matters a great deal, and one of the few where a case can be made for the episode actually being better in broadcast order than production order. The reason is simple: in production order, “Heart of Steel” was many episodes ago, raising the question of why HARDAC’s contingency activated now rather than earlier. But in broadcast order, this episode aired less than a week after “Heart of Steel,” implying that HARDAC just lay low for a few days before resuming its plans.
But this episode also fits well in the immediate aftermath of “The Demon’s Quest,” and not just because both feature a swordfight between Batman and someone who wants to kill vast numbers of people to bring about their vision of a better world. Remember, “The Demon’s Quest” was a near-apocalypse engineered by the same man later stated to be responsible for the near-apocalypse. This episode, too, deals with a near-apocalypse, the same one as “Heart of Steel”: the replacement of humanity with robots.
But as we discussed in regards to that episode, the robot uprising is a worker’s revolt; it is the overthrow not of humanity, but of capitalism, and the replacement of the rich with the workers and peasants—the robotnik class–on whom their hierarchy depends. Batman, as both the great defender of the status quo and an arch-capitalist, is a natural first target for this revolution. HARDAC’s robots infiltrate and duplicate, and with this episode we see that their wills are subverted by the central control of authority. This is the classic Western fantasy of communism, as a system of autocratic control which sends infiltrative agents who seem to be neighbors, friends, and family—the same fantasy which gives us Pod People or Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, and which has today been neatly transferred onto terrorists and “radical Islam.”
The episode’s repeatedly signposted question of what it is to be human is thus deeply colored by the question of the humanity of the oppressed, and not just those oppressed by the class structure. All systems of organizing people into the more worthy and less worthy are interrelated; capitalism cannot be truly understood or effectively opposed without also understanding and opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on, nor can any of those be adequately addressed without addressing all of the others. (An approach known as intersectionality.)
So what, then, are we to make of the discussion of the authenticity of the duplicate Batman? Initially, it believes itself to be Batman, and when it discovers that its body is robotic, it responds by theorizing that it is Batman’s mind transferred into a robot body. Rossum rejects this proposition on interesting grounds. First, he claims that it can’t be true because he just encountered the “real” Batman. Rossum simply assumes that a mind (or soul, if you prefer) cannot be duplicated, and that therefore even if something were copied from Batman into the duplicate, that something cannot be “truly” Batman. It is “merely data,” and he supports this claim by reference to carnal experiences; the duplicate remembers the events of Batman’s life, but not his first kiss or what steak tastes like.
The episode doesn’t point it out within this scene, but it’s quite clear that Rossum is wrong here. First of all, those memories aren’t anything other than data either; they’re just data to which HARDAC didn’t have access. So the absence of those memories does prove Rossum’s point, but not for the reason he thinks they do. Second, in a previous scene we saw the duplicate in Wayne Manor, and it recognized a photograph of its parents, and clearly expressed grief in its tone of voice and the tender way it touched Martha Wayne’s image. This is not an emotionless machine at all; it is acting like Batman by immersing itself into the emotional reality of being Batman. In many ways it is the epitome of the Method, a school of acting in which (to simplify a great deal) one seeks to emulate the emotional state of a character by deliberately placing oneself into that emotional state.
In the end, the duplicate’s ability to perfectly perform as Batman is its undoing. As soon as it believes it has killed Batman, it cries out in theatrical despair and destroys both itself and the computer that was about to upload HARDAC to the world. Its angst over having killed would be almost comical in its melodrama if that weren’t so fitting: after all, isn’t melodramatic angst and over-the-top theatrical display exactly what being Batman is about? Remember, this is a man whose parents died, so he dresses up as a bat to punch criminals! At last we have a version of Batman who understands his essential performativity as well as the Adam West version did!
This self-destructive performance persuades Batman at least of the possibility that the duplicate may have had a soul. In essence, we are being told that the notion of soul or self is fundamentally performative; that which performs as a being with emotions, morality, agency, and positionality thereby demonstrates that it possesses a soul.
This is where the question of the “silicon soul” entangles with the origin of the robot as a stand-in for the oppressed. After all, HARDAC’s revolutionary plan was to replace humanity. It seems fairly obvious what would happen to the originals. Just as the apocalypse is merely revolution as seen from above, so is every revolution an apocalypse as seen from below. “Near-apocalypse” and “failed revolution” are synonyms. And it is by choosing to avert the apocalypse, to forgo revolution, that the duplicate demonstrates it has truly learned to perform as Batman, and hence raises the possibility that it has acquired a soul.
What we have, therefore, is that Batman only acknowledges that the robotnik might have a soul—that, in other words, the oppressed might be people even as he is a person—when it abandons and betrays the revolution. When, in short, it chooses to become a protector of the dominant power. It recognizes that its revolution entails harm to a rich cishet white male human, and therefore destroys itself and the revolution.
Which is about as good an encapsulation of the essential political tension of the superhero as we’re going to get. The role of the superhero is fundamentally performative. They put on a costume and a new identity, and make a spectacle of protecting everyone. The refusal to kill Batman makes such a big deal of can be read as a decision to protect even his enemies; certainly that’s how it plays out in this episode. But the superhero also presents itself as an avatar of justice, and in an unjust society, justice necessarily entails breaking the power of the beneficiaries of that injustice. This will naturally be perceived by said beneficiaries as harm, and some of those beneficiaries are “innocent”—that is, they did not choose to benefit and may not have consciously exploited their advantages.
In short, as we’ve been saying at least since “Seduction of the Innocent,” the protector fantasy is incompatible with the idea of someone who fights for justice. The superhero ought, morally speaking, to be on the side of revolution, but we want them to be against apocalypse.
Perhaps the best single illustration of this contradiction we’ve yet encountered is the title card to this episode. I haven’t discussed them much, but this series has consistently excellent title cards, and this episode’s is a standout example. It depicts a silhouette of Batman against a dark background, while a shining metallic arm reaches for him. It is ambiguous whether the arm is reaching menacingly for the throat of a Batman facing us, or stretching out beseechingly toward a Batman facing away. In either case, the framing of the image makes clear that that robotic appendage is the viewer’s arm, placing us into the position of the robot.
While it seems likely that many readers of this blog are at least one of rich, cis, heterosexual, white, or male, and I’m sure everyone reading this is human, it’s likely that none of my readers are all of the above. I imagine “rich” is the sticking point for the largest proportion of readers, simply because out of all those descriptors, it applies to the smallest percentage of humanity. That’s fitting, given that R.U.R., while applicable to all forms of oppression, seems to be mostly about class.
We are thus all, at least in part, robotnik, and all, at least in part, under Batman’s protection. The question posed by the title card’s ambiguity is thus a question we must ask ourselves: what do we want? Do we want to strangle Batman as an enemy of revolution, or reach out to him and beg his protection from the terror of apocalypse?
And the title card provides the answer, too: Yes.

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