It’s September 15, 1997. It’s been two days; the top songs and movies haven’t budged, and nothing really newsworthy has happened.
It’s been an ordinary couple of days for a pretty ordinary Superman: The Animated Series episode. “Identity Crisis” is notable mostly for being one of STAS’s most successful attempts at the kind of “sympathetic villain” episode that BTAS did so well, but even taking that into account, it is still a repetition of things done more interestingly in other episodes: the sympathetic villain was done much better in BTAS episodes like “Heart of Ice” and “Baby Doll,” and the villainous version of Superman done better in “Blasts from the Past.”
Still, it makes a good stab at Bizarro–aptly named, as he is one of Superman’s more bizarre villains. Certainly the idea of a villain that is in some sense an opposite number to the hero isn’t new: the DCAU started by pitting Batman against Man-Bat, and STAS with Lex Luthor, who is human rather than alien, urban and wealthy rather than rural and working class, ruthless rather than compassionate, and so on. But Bizarro in his original conception took the Anti-Superman concept rather literally; he wasn’t so much evil as he was possessed of a bizarre value system.
This version, however, has less in common with the Silver Age Bizarro that Alan Moore killed off in the opening pages of “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” than he does with the bizarre creature that Victor Frankenstein brought to life in the 1931 film. Like the iconic Boris Karloff monster, he emerges from an effort to create life in an isolated laboratory, speaks in broken, ungrammatical sentences, and ultimately is immolated in fire.
In this, Bizarro is quite distinct from the the monster depicted in the original novel, who was highly intelligent and articulate, and at the end of the book is still alive and headed into the frozen Arctic, though he does say he intends to incinerate himself. But all three monsters–the two Frankensteins* and Bizarro–share that they are tragic figures, ultimately more sinned against than sinning. But even there Bizarro takes more after the film Frankenstein than the book version, since the problem is an innate flaw in his creation–in Frankenstein’s case, that he was given the brain of a murderer; in Bizarro’s that the process of replicating alien DNA isn’t fully understood.
The result for film Frankenstein is that he is inarticulate and prone to violence when frightened or upset; for Bizarro, it’s that he gradually breaks down physically and mentally. Initially he looks and acts just like Superman, except for not knowing who Clark Kent is; as the episode goes on, his skin turns completely white, his posture more slumped, and his face increasingly asymmetrical and elongated, while his understanding and language degrade to “Me am hero” and the like. The end result, however, is still violence; the difference is that Bizarro is initially acting not out of anger but confusion, and genuinely believes he’s helping.
That gives us the first reason this doesn’t really work as a sympathetic villain story: Bizarro is sympathetic, but not the villain. The real villains are Lex Luthor and the unnamed scientist, but they’re barely in the episode and entirely unsympathetic.
The second, and more important reason, that it doesn’t work is encapsulated at the end of the episode, in the contrast between two of Lois Lane’s last lines. When Bizarro sacrifices himself so that Lois and Superman can escape, she tells him, “You are a hero,” and he smiles as he dies. Shortly after, in the final line of the episode, Lois tells Superman that his clone turning out to be a hero in the end is to be expected, because “he came from good stock.”
Here the show stumbles in the same way that the 1931 Frankensteindid. In the novel, the monster becomes violent because he is rejected and abandoned by its father, and left to survive on his own in a world that all too often regards him with terror and loathing. He is abject, that which is neither subject (the self) nor object (that which we accept having around us) but entirely Other, pushed to and beyond the margins of society, and he is understandably hurt and angry as a result. By contrast, the film’s monster is violent because he was created with bad material from a bad person, and Bizarro ultimately turns out to be heroic because he was created with good material from a good person. Their moral status is not a result of their choices, but rather an inevitable, albeit tragic, result of their biology.
Consider the most effective sympathetic villains we’ve seen. All are, in some sense, abject: Mister Freeze is cut off from all human contact, literally by his suit and metaphorically by the loss of his wife. Killer Croc is, like the monster in the novel, rejected for his grotesque appearance; in her own way, so is Baby Doll. Even Poison Ivy is treated as a femme fatale, objectified to the point of becoming abject. In all cases, it is the conflict between a deeply human character–a subject–and their abjection that creates the pathosessential for tragedy; we recognize that in their circumstances, we probably wouldn’t make the most prosocial choices either, and thus sympathize with them.
Bizarro is just as abject as they are, but we are never given a subject to contrast that abjection with. He is Superman, and then he’s this strange, distorted version of Superman; there is no sense of who Bizarro is when he’s himself. Even his strange “date” with Lois comes from his belief that he’s Superman, not his own wishes or desires, whatever they are. Lois’ final line then denies completely that he has any identity of his own; he is just his biology, and his struggle throughout the episode was not a sympathetic one between subject and abjection, but an abstract one between “good stock” and flawed construction.
Lois Lane shares vastly more DNA with Lex Luthor than with Superman, seeing as she and Lex are the same species while she and Superman aren’t even from the same planet; technically speaking, Superman isn’t even an animal–he’s not a member of the evolutionary clade that includes both sponges and dogs. Does Luthor’s existence prove that humans are “bad stock”? Or all mammals, all animals, all Earth life? How are Superman and Jax-ur from the same species?
Of course not. Which is entirely the problem, and one of the most important reasons the protector fantasy has to remain just a fantasy: Superman isn’t innately good. He just keeps choosing to do (ostensibly) the right thing.
What if he stops?
*No, pedants, it is not incorrect to refer to the monster as Frankenstein. While he is given no name in the book, many film versions, especially the later Universal films, establish in their titles that their monster is named Frankenstein, just like the scientist. Additionally, the novel depicts Victor Frankenstein as being in essence the monster’s father; that would make the monster a Frankenstein.**
**Why yes, I am preempting pedantry by being even more pedantic.
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