Vlog Review: Star vs Evil S2E04

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The horrible hats of the Haberdasher! (Blasts from the Past)

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It’s September 8 and 9, 1997. The top song is Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; Notorious B.I.G., the Backstreet Boys, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top movie this weekend is the Steven Seagal vehicle Fire Down Below; G.I. Jane, Air Force One, and Men in Black also make the top 10.
Since the last episode of Superman: The Animated Series, a great deal has happened: on May 2 the Labour Party won the British Parliament in a landslide as Tony Blair leads them in much the same strategy that brought Bill Clinton the Presidency: concede everything, adopt neocapitalist ideology wholeheartedly, and generally abandon the left and everything it stands for in favor of courting the center-right. On May 11, the IBM AI Deep Blue becomes the first computer to beat the World Champion in a tournament-conditions chess match, defeating Gary Kasparov in six games, 3.5-2.5. On June 26, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is published; four days later, the UK gives Hong Kong back to China, and three days after that, the Pathfinder probe lands on Mars. To top off a month of bad news for Britain, on August 31 Princess Diana dies in a car crush and the word paparazzi enters the lexicon.
And Superman: The Animated Series returns with its two-part second-season opener, “Blasts from the Past,” in which Superman decides that letting a fascist Kryptonian loose on Earth is a good idea, ultimately narrowly avoiding said fascist and her leader from taking over the planet. As in, he shows up at the signing ceremony for the global surrender, after the two superpowered fascists have demonstrated that nothing terrestrial can stop them, and then (together with Lois Lane and Professor Hamilton) tricks them back into the Phantom Zone–by which point they have been shown wreaking destruction around the globe, and (given the general hesitance of major world powers to give up their hegemony) racked up what have to be death tolls in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
In short, while depicted very differently and with a happier ending, this episode really isn’t that different from Left Behind or Supergods.
But let’s step back a moment. Not all dictators are fascists; why do I label Mala and Jax-Ur as such? Aren’t they just renamed versions of the Kryptonian supercriminals in Superman II? To an extent, yes, but this is colored by Superman using Brainiac’s orb to view what they actually did to get imprisoned. Jax-Ur’s speech to his troops contains telltale signs of fascist thought in particular, which as we have discussed is essentially a combination of the protector fantasy with an intense in-group/out-group divide. Jax-Ur argues that the Council has “weakened” Krypton militarily, leaving it exposed to its enemies–who those enemies are is never stated, and it’s likely Jax-Ur himself doesn’t know. The assumption is simply that anyone not Us is Them, and They are dangerous. That he blames the Council is telling; he’s employing the classic fascist “stabbed in the back myth.” See, fascists simultaneously have to believe that the in-group are inherently superior to the out-group, and that the out-group are an existential threat. Reconciling that belief is a challenge–if the out-group are inferior, how can they be a threat? Fascism’s go-to answer is that they wouldn’t be if not for the treason of certain (apparent) members of the in-group, who must be identified, isolated, and ejected from the in-group (read: killed).
Once Mala comes to Earth, however, the depiction shifts to the standard-issue American depiction of fighting fascism, which is to say treating it as an external invasion. That American fascists existed–that we stayed out of World War II for so long in part because significant portions of the population supported the Nazis–is largely elided in popular history. Fascism is something that happened over there,  so we went over there and killed it. If it shows up here, that’s because someone from over there must have snuck in–surely a homegrown American fascism can’t exist!
Well, as the last two years have made undeniable for even the most head-in-the-sand Americans: yes, it can, it does, and it has for decades.
But here in the mid-90s, there is denial. The only follower Jax-Ur finds on Earth is Mala; there are others who are cowed by the Kryptonians’ power, but nobody who follows them by choice. Only outsiders, in other words, are a threat–and they wouldn’t even be here if Superman hadn’t let them in. The in-group of humanity would be safe if one of us hadn’t foolishly–or, as Lex Luthor suggests in his cameo, traitorously–let the out-group in. But he’s not really one of us, is he? He’s one of them, sympathetic to them… and so it goes. The episode ends up endorsing an essentially fascist worldview, that mixture of fear of the out-group and protector fantasy.
The danger of superheroes is that, fun as they are, they’re already halfway to fascism. All it takes is a slight shift for the protector fantasy to turn very ugly, very quickly. And it’s a question with real-world consequences–after all, aren’t police and militaries based on the same fantasy, of someone who can be trusted to protect us?
In reality, as with superheroes, there are three questions we must never stop asking about the protector fantasy: Who is the protector? Who is being protected? And whom are they being protected from?

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Retroactive Continuity: Supergod

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks Shane!
Warren Ellis’ five-issue limited comic series Supergod reads very, very much like a response to Grant Morrison’s Supergods, which is interesting given that book wasn’t published until two years after Ellis’ comic. But then, the idea of superheroes as gods or “modern mythology” has been around for some time, and Ellis is right about how horrifying the reality would be–as we have to an extent discussed with Left Behind.
The argument is simple: far from making someone a paragon of morality as Morrison claims in both JLA and All-Star Superman, possessing superhuman capabilities and senses would mean (by definition) perceiving things humans can’t and being able to respond with actions impossible for humans. The thoughts of a superhuman being would therefore necessarily be alien, its behavior incomprehensible to humans. It would, in short, be eldritch.
The word “eldritch” refers to that which is alien and weird–depending on which of two possible derivations is true, it either shares an origin with else or elf. In either case, it is not from here, not human–it is inherently and necessarily Other. But as we discussed with Left Behind, the protector fantasy is inherently about dividing in-group from out-group, “the people” vs. “the criminal element,” Us vs. Them. As defender of the in-group, the superhero stands outside it, and hence becomes part of the out-group.
Ellis sees no distinction between this interpretation of superhumanity and the divine; in this he approaches the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft, a denial of both humanism and theism. Human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, but neither are the gods we humans have created; the universe itself is bigger, older, more powerful, and weirder than we can imagine, and it is not human in the slightest. It is not even accurate to describe the universe as uncaring for much the same reason as the Supergod character Dajjal cannot be described as insane–the concept just doesn’t apply enough for its negation to be meaningful.
Faced with this horror, we project out humanity out onto it, or try to. It never quite works–the whole point is to have the gods be superhuman humans, but they never end up being fully comprehensible because that which we’re projecting them onto is incomprehensible. In Supergod, that  projection is literal: the first superhuman is three people sent out into space in an unshielded ship by the British. In a twisted parody of the Fantastic Four, they return as Morrigan Lugus, all three fused into one body by an alien fungus. As befits a being named after the crow-goddess of the battlefield, it ends up taking over the world by devouring the corpses left strewn across Eurasia by the battling supergods.
The Indian government tries to make themselves a savior, and create an AI-controlled nanobot-swarm Krishna; it saves India by killing 90% of the population. Strip away the religious elements and it’s the classic problem of AI ethics, Nick Bostrom’s paperclip maximizer: a godlike machine, programmed to make as many paperclips as possible, wipes out humanity because (a) if they turned it off, there would not be as many paperclips as if it kept running, and (b) human bodies contain materials from which paperclips could be made. (Like most things originating from LessWrong, this is a silly thing to worry about, but it’s also clearly the kind of issue Ellis is talking about–it and the essentially identical Gray Goo problem, and generally the whole idea of science’s creations run amok to kill us all.)
The Chinese make a Maitreya who can see the quantum flux of reality itself, and it transforms a huge number of people into literally Cthulhu and rides it to battle with Krishna. The Americans make Dajjal as a weapon in the Iraq war; able to see all possible futures, it sacrifices itself to prevent Krishna and the other American supergod, whose initials are of course J.C., from bringing about utopia, which it finds boring.
We need gods, Ellis has Morrigan say, because we are addicts and they are our stash. He’s not entirely wrong, though he has it a bit backwards; addiction is now understood as largely a product of social isolation, and one of the major functions of religion is to provide community. Of course this carries the risk, as any community does, of creating that in-group/out-group divide that, combined with the protector fantasy, gives rise to fascist superheroes like the Left Behind Christ.
But then, most religious people somehow manage not to be fascists, and do not recognize their gods in the authoritarian tyrants or eldritch horrors of LaHaye/Jenkins or Ellis. The most extreme reading is not necessarily the only reading, or the best one. For all that our gods are eldritch tyrants and our superheroes fascist thugs, they can also be other things.
The question, going forward, is what.

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Much-Needed Housekeeping

After months and months of needing to, I have FINALLY updated the tags and site menu. Vlogs are now appropriately filed–the two completed series are under Completed Projects, and the rest are under Current Projects->Vlogs. The menus now acknowledge the existence of Let’s Plays–I’ve added them to both Current Projects and Completed Projects. Most importantly, I’ve completely restructured how NA09 is organized. All entries are now tagged by what volume they’re (going to be) in. The BTAS and STAS tags still exist, but they now only go to entries about the specific shows–Imaginary Story, Retroactive Continuity, and Crisis on N Earths posts are tagged by volume but no longer have the BTAS or STAS tag.
Hopefully this all helps make the site a little more navigable and content more easy to find. I’m going to try to be better about keeping the tags and menus up to date, but no promises.

Imaginary Story: Batman and Robin

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It’s June 20, 1997. The top song is Puff Daddy and Faith Evans feat. 112 with “I’ll Be Missing You”; Hanson, Mark Morrison, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and the Spice Girls also chart. The top film is, regrettably, this; lower in the top 10 we find My Best Friend’s Wedding, Con Air, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, and The Fifth Element.
And here we have the movie which, legendarily, killed the Batman film franchise started by Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it really that bad?
Well, yes, but not for the reasons usually given.
The usual complaints one hears about this movie is that it is silly and campy; straight male reviewers also often complain of discomfort at the way the camera frames the titular characters, especially in their “suiting up” montage. But the 1960s Batman film was silly and campy, and it was the best live-action Batman film of them all, so that can’t be what’s wrong with Batman and Robin. As for the framing of the characters: yes, the camera lingers on Batman and Robin’s legs, buttocks, and chests, and their costumes now emphasize their nipples. But the camera also lingers on Batgirl’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes her nipples, and it lingers on Poison Ivy’s legs, buttocks, and chest, in a costume that emphasizes practically everything else. In short, Batman and Robin are just being subjected to the same male gaze as practically every woman in practically every movie ever, and critics’ selective discomfort is down to them not liking it when characters who resemble them are sliced by the frame into discrete, objectified body parts. They’ll survive.
No, the problem is that this is still the world where the Joker won. The garish neon colors of Batman Forever have faded into the sickly glow of a black-light poster on some weed-addled college freshman’s wall, the unfunny slapstick antics replaced by an endless stream of unfunny puns, but it’s otherwise pretty much the same.
Added to all the problems of Batman Forever are an overstuffed (and interminable–the film is two hours long and feels like seven) script that tries to juggle three origin stories, character arcs for both the titular characters, an “Alfred is dying” melodrama, and multiple races, car chases, and fight scenes. Then on top of that are severe tone issues, the most obvious of which is the choice to adapt Mister Freeze’s tragic DCAU origin story while trying also to have him be the film’s main source of comic relief.
But again, this isn’t a review. If the surface-level problems were all that was wrong with Batman and Robin, we wouldn’t be talking about its problems; the point here is to dig deeper. We’ll start by looking at how it handles Batgirl.
At first glance, she is horribly miscast. Not even a leather jacket and a motorcycle, or a bat-themed rubber fetish costume, can make Alicia Silverstone seem like anything other than a sheltered ingenue. She is simply not convincing as someone who got kicked out of a private school and made her living in London’s underground racing scene, let alone as someone who can take on a supervillain in a fight.
But this may be deliberate. During the otherwise pointless motorcyle race, her helmet clearly has an angel painted on it, mirroring the “devil horns” hairstyle Poison Ivy sports for much of the film. And indeed, Ivy is in full-on femme fatale mode in this movie, her main superpower no longer control over plants, but rather control over men. Batgirl is the innocent, purehearted schoolgirl to Ivy’s wicked, seductive mad scientist, the angel to her devil, the caregiver to her succubus. In short, the two are a straightforward Madonna/whore pair, and in that light Silverstone’s casting is spot-on.
Of course, the Madonna/whore complex is deeply misogynistic, as we’ve discussed before. The “good” girl is–as Batgirl is here–basically helpless, lacking any agency of her own, and indeed Batgirl has no apparent desires other than driving motorcycles and caring for her uncle, Alfred. It is his choice for her to become Batgirl, and he leads her down that path, even making a costume for her. Poison Ivy, meanwhile, uses her agency solely to hurt and manipulate men, including attempting to murder Freeze’s wife and pin the blame on Batman.
Indeed, Ivy’s–or, rather, Pamela Isley’s–politics are equated to evil throughout the film. Much of her early dialogue is a twisted parody of feminism, in which she blames all the ills of the world on “men” and “mankind” (with heavy emphasis on the first syllable), and replies to Bruce Wayne’s rejection of her scheme by asserting that a few million dead men are no real loss. It’s not just her, either; Dr. Woodrue’s rain forest restoration project is a front for developing super-soldiers. Environmentalism is characterized as blind opposition to industry and humanity, with an end to fossil fuel use described as an economic disaster that would lead to famine and people freezing from lack of fuel. There is, in Schumacher’s Batman, no making things better; your choices are pollution or destruction, the subjugation of one gender or slaughter of another.
There’s a third woman in the film, one presented as even more angelic than Batgirl: Nora Fries. She floats serenely between life and death, draped in a gauzy, flowing gown, the only character in the film who is never subjected to the ugly colored lighting that suffuses practically every scene. That, apparently, is the ideal, out-Madonna-ing the Madonna: a frozen, helpless, trapped woman unable to say or do anything, a woman literally reduced to an object. She has a reflection, too: Madison, Bruce Wayne’s disposable girlfriend of the indeterminate time period, who dares to express desires of her own–specifically, a desire for Bruce and for a commitment from Bruce, framed in the least aggressive or demanding terms imagineable–and then leaves him because he’s fixated on another woman. She never shows up in the film again.
Those are the four categories of women the film acknowledges: evil sexpots, women with agency (who try to entrap or abandon men), perfectly pure innocents whose greatest achievement and fulfillment of their potential is to become a man’s sidekick, and little statues carved of ice that can be carted around and, occasionally, gazed upon longingly.
Things don’t get much better when we look at the men. Just as Batgirl and Poison Ivy reflect one another, so do Robin and Mister Freeze. Both spend much of the film denying how emotional they are; both are driven by anger that they paper over with jokes, and both turn against Batman because they believe he took away, or is trying to take away, a woman that “belongs to” them. Ultimately, both are manipulated by Poison Ivy, but turn against her thanks to finally listening to Batman–whose own arc is about learning to ignore his (artificial) feelings for Ivy and admit to his feelings for Alfred.
Batman and Robin is, quite simply, a misogynistic movie. It is not only sexist in the ways action movies and superhero are usually sexist; it presents female agency as evil, and desire for women as the source of evil in men. Its happy ending is that one woman vanishes out of the film entirely, another remains frozen forever, a third becomes subordinated to male authority, and the last is stuck, stripped of her power and freedom, in a cell with a man who hates her and expresses sadistic delight at having her in his power.
We established with Batman Forever that the Schumacher Batman films represent the Joker triumphant. The same violence for violence’s sake that is the aesthetic of Batman Forever holds here; but just as Joker hates everyone, but treats women specifically with contempt, so does this film now single out women for worse treatment, limiting its violence against men to fistfights and a bit of metaphorical dismemberment by the camera.
This misogyny, misanthropy, Joker-ism, is why calling the films campy is a misnomer. Camp is fun; it entertains because it is silly, because it looks at the absurdity of life and celebrates it. The 60s were an era of camp because the pop culture of the 60s–or at least those bits of it we think of when we think of “the 60s”–was in love with life. It was anti-violence and anti-authority, anti-taking things too seriously, pro-joy and pro-silliness. There’s no trace of any of that in Batman Forever or Batman and Robin; the hammy delivery of the villains’ lines and equally flat delivery of the heroes’ may recall the 60s Batman, but surrounded by decay, ugliness, and hatred, they become grating reminders that something called “fun” might possibly have existed in some long-forgotten era.
By the next live-action Batman film, even the word will have been forgotten. But that’s a story for much later. For now, let’s let Superman bring some sun back in.

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I am aware I am behind on everything this week

I’ve been traveling since last Thursday, and it’s thrown me completely off. Sorry!
I will post this week’s NA09 when I get home tonight.
ETA: Or I’ll have a flight that consists of nothing but turbulence, get home feeling exhausted and sick, and crash hard.
NA09 will go up in place of the Thursday vlog post at noon EST. The vlog will go up Friday at noon EST.