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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