I'll fight it with you! (Stolen Memories)

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It’s November 2, 1996. The top song is still the Macarena, may god have mercy on our souls. The top movie is Romeo + Juliet, one of the more commercially successful of the periodic “let’s do Shakespeare in a modern setting but use period language” films. In the news, the heavily sensationalized trial of O.J. Simpson has been going for a little over a week; al-Jazeera began regular broadcasting yesterday; and in three days Bill Clinton will be reelected as President following a substantially less interesting campaign than the previous one.
We’ve already seen how pieces of Krypton hurt Superman in the form of kryptonite, followed by the attack of an (essentially) robotic villain powered by kryptonite. Now we get a different vestige of Krypton: Brainiac.
The decision to make Brainiac a Kryptonian artificial intelligence, rather than Coluan as he (Brainiac presents masculine or genderless, and is consistently referred to with “he” pronouns in the DCAU, so I will follow suit) was in the comics, is an interesting one. Brainiac does have a connection to Krypton in the comics, but it’s a significantly less central one: some time before its destruction, Brainiac miniaturized the Kryptonian capital city of Kandor and kept it on his ship, inhabitants and all. This is largely an excuse to have Kandor eventually end up in Superman’s possession, however, so that he can be miniaturized and have adventures in a Kryptonian city in a bottle. Brainiac’s role as specifically a Superman villain is essentially random: he was first introduced in Superman comics, and therefore is associated with Superman, despite the lack of any innate connection between the characters.
“Last Son of Krypton,” however, ties Brainiac intimately into Superman’s originating trauma; indeed, as he serves the role of villain to Jor-El’s hero in the first part, he can be argued to be responsible for that trauma. It is certainly possible that, had Brainiac not prioritized saving himself and his store of data about Krypton over saving the people of Krypton, little Kal-El might not have ended up last of his kind, or indeed come to Earth at all.
Brainiac’s motives are ruthlessly logical, if we assume that his purpose is to record all of a civilization’s knowledge. On Krypton, this function would have been never-ending: between the physical and biological evolution of the planet, slow as it is, and the cultural evolution and creative output of the Kryptonians, there would always be new data for Brainiac to record. But once Krypton was destroyed, Brainiac possessed a snapshot of all Kryptonian knowledge at the moment of destruction, which is to say all the Kryptonian knowledge that would ever be. It would appear that his purpose has become to collect all the knowledge of other civilizations, which necessitates destroying them as well to achieve the “all” criterion.
It is odd, then, that he takes such interest in Superman. This may be because the data Lex Luthor is feeding him presents Superman as an enigma, and therefore Brainiac wishes to study him further, but that seems unlikely as Brainiac refers to Superman as Kal-El from the start, implying he knows Superman’s secrets. It’s also plausible he wished only to study Superman’s powers–an aspect of Kryptonian biology on which data may have been limited, although it seems the effect of yellow suns on Kryptonians was known to Jor-El at least–but that would appear to have been accomplished by siccing robots on him at their first meeting.
This is not the only odd behavior from Brainiac where Superman is concerned, however. Showing Superman the orb containing Krypton’s memories makes little sense if he wants to keep Superman for study, as presumably Brainiac knows everything the Kryptonians did about their psychology and would therefore know it would function like a delayed flashback trigger, causing Superman to have nightmares about Krypton’s destruction. (Consisting entirely of scenes for which he was not present, presumably picked up from the orb subconsciously.) This in turn served to turn Superman against Brainiac, where before he was cautious but open to the possibility that Brainiac was benign.
It is possible, then, that Brainiac was genuinely trying to recruit Superman as a partner in his explorations, but again, why? Presumably not all worlds have yellow suns, so Superman wouldn’t even have his powers at many of their stops, not to mention that Brainiac doesn’t appear to need any muscle on his side, assuming every one of the dozens of orbs he possesses corresponds to a planet he destroyed.
There doesn’t appear to be a logical explanation–but then, there’s no reason to expect logical behavior from a conscious agent. Brainiac can redefine his own functions, as witness his transformation from everyone’s servant on Krypton to knowledge-gathering destroyer of worlds thereafter. What can he be basing that redefinition on if not some underlying objectives or desires, which is to say that he has wants and needs upon which he can base his behavior. This is not to say that he necessarily possesses human emotion–we cannot conclude that he left the Kryptonians to die out of resentment, or seeks to bond with the last surviving Kryptonian out of guilt or loneliness–but he wants things, and those things aren’t necessarily going to always be possible or consistent. Conflicting desires lead him to undermine himself, and thus turn Superman against him.
Which, ironically, has the effect of driving Superman to team up with the other villain in this episode, Lex Luthor.  There is no real coordination between them, but nonetheless they destroy Brainiac’s ship together, the first of a handful of times they will work together, usually against relics of Krypton and occasionally other menaces from space.
This gives us a hint to a rather darker reading of the episode, and indeed of Superman’s role in general. However, it is one which we will unpack over the course of the remainder of the series, and so for now let us leave it to a single observation: Superman is himself an outsider, though he passes as an insider, and yet as time goes on he will increasingly police Earth against other outsiders–and frequently find himself allying with his personal nemesis, perhaps the most quintessentially reactionary villain in the DCAU, whenever he does so.

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2 thoughts on “I'll fight it with you! (Stolen Memories)

  1. Not odd at all, I’d say. As long as Kal-El remains independent of Brainiac, he represents a piece of Krypton’s knowledge that Brainiac does not control. The underlying principle remains consistent, even as his ways of acting on that motivation change with circumstance.

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