Think she won’t (Target)

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It’s September 19, 1997. The top song is still Mariah Carey’s “Honey”; the Backstreet Boys, Usher, and Leann Rimes also chart. The top movie is something called In & Out; LA Confidential, The Full Monty, and GI Jane are also doing well.

Nothing newsworthy continues to happen.

It’s kind of a slow day for Superman: The Animated Series, too, with the rather forgettable (and equally forgettably titled) “Target.” (I thought I remembered one scene in particular, but as the episode went on I realized I was thinking of its sequel, which had a bit more sparkle.) As is often the case with subpar episodes, this one fails due to its very mundane villain, who combines a bit of the “mad scientist” with quite a lot of Nice Guy Syndrome.

Unfortunately, that’s a combination we’ve seen before with a much more memorable villain, the Mad Hatter. By comparison, Lytener is quite boring: just an entitled, whiny little LexCorp engineer who thought he could get into Lois’ pants (well, pleated white skirt) by helping her with her story, and then decides it’s her fault that she did her job as opposed to picking up on the signals he never actually sent.

Even more than dealing with Luthor, this puts Superman outside his normal element. Lytener is unpowered and has limited resources, at least until he suddenly has magic red sun-powered armor so that the requisite (and rather anti-) climactic fight sequence can happen, so his main defense is that no one knows who he is. Batman would have followed a trail of clues to Lytener, but Superman is not as much of a detective, so instead he rescues Lois from Lytener’s traps while being essentially no help whatsoever in determining who’s causing them.

That means it is largely up to Lois herself to solve the mystery, which she does in classic whodunnit fashion, realizing days later that Lytener accidentally let slip that he was spying on her when she won her award. The main challenge in getting to that point, for both Lois and the audience, is the sheer number of suspects: a corrupt cop who hates Lois for, if not exposing him entirely, at least casting enough suspicion on him to disrupt his career; a rival journalist furious that Lois won the award when he didn’t; and of course Lex Luthor, whose business empire was the subject of the investigation that Lois won for.

The presence of these other characters, especially Luthor, helps frame Lytener’s behavior. Luthor has already been shown to be a powerful, ruthless man with an enormous sense of entitlement–in the pilot, he claimed all of Metropolis as his territory, his fiefdom. His schemes have frequently been motivated by a desire to “reclaim” his territory from the interloper, Superman, who has “robbed” him. Bowman, the police officer, has a similar motivation: according to Lois, he believes she “cost him a promotion,” which is to say he felt entitled to it and blames Lois for him not getting it. Frey, the rival journalist, is likewise motivated by entitlement and blames Lois for his own failure. More to the point, all three want to be chosen by others: Luthor wants to be idolized by the people, Bowman to be selected for a promotion, and Frey to be awarded the Excalibur Prize.

In that company, Lytener manages to be even more pathetic. Like Luthor, Bowman, and Frey, he constructs a fantasy world where something belongs to him just because he wants it, ignoring that someone else has to decide to give it to him first. Like them, he believes himself to have earned it, only to have it stolen away by someone else. What makes him even more pathetic than them is that the person who would have to decide to give it to him, and the person who “stole” it, are the same person: Lois.

Contrast her closing interactions with Superman to Lytener. By this point, Superman has rescued Lois multiple times, and Lois has rescued him a couple, as well. But there’s no sense of entitlement in their exchange: Lois flirts a little, Superman replies noncommittally, and they leave it there. Superman is not entitled to Lois’ affection no matter how many times he rescues her, any more than Lois is entitled to his. Relationships aren’t transactional. Lois doesn’t like Superman because of what he does for her and Superman doesn’t like Lois because of what she does for him; rather, they do things for each other because they like each other.

That’s why the mad scientist and Nice Guy Syndrome fit so well together as a character concept: Nice Guy Syndrome is the product of an excessively systematic approach to relationships, an attempt to analyze them in terms of inputs and outputs: drop kindness coins in here, sex falls out there. Like the mad scientist, Nice Guy Syndrome blends entitlement, a warped perspective on the world, and an analytical bent of mind into a (self- and otherwise) destructive cocktail of behaviors.

Fortunately, in real life, people with Nice Guy Syndrome rarely have access to power armor and death lasers. The damage they do with reddit and Twitter is already more than enough.


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2 thoughts on “Think she won’t (Target)

  1. Note to self: when I revise this for the book, expand on WHY Lytener is uninteresting/disappointing as a villain.

    Also emphasize that this is basically the one time Lois gets to shine as an investigator, one of her core skills.

    Like

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