It’s September 26, 1997. The top songs are the same as a few days ago, but the box office has updated–the top movie this weekend is The Peacemaker, an action thriller I’ve never heard of, starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, and hey, they were both in Batman movies, so that’s almost relevant-esque.
Superman the Animated Series starts the usual Saturday block off with a villain I’m sure everyone was clamoring to see again, Edward Lytener. You know, Lois’ stalker from “Target”? Yeah, I barely remember him either, and I wrote about that episode just six entries ago. This time, he somehow manages to find the resources to make an invisibility belt in prison, breaks out, then creates a forcefield around the earth that simulates having a red sun, as part of a plan to kill Superman by sapping his powers. (That this plan will also eventually kill off everyone and everything else except the weird creatures that live in ocean-floor thermal vents appears not to have occurred to him.)
Lytener continues to be a fairly boring villain, but there is something interesting happening here nonetheless. In the (roughly contemporaneous) Earthworm Jimepisode “Bring Me the Head of Earthworm Jim,” the villainous Professor Monkey-for-a-Head taunts the titular hero after depowering him by saying he now has only the power of an “ordinary person.” A moment later, Jim tackles him, leading Monkey-for-a-Head to revise: “Correction, an ordinary really big person.”
At the episode’s climax, when Superman initially confronts Lytener, basically the same occurs: even reduced to the strength he would have had on Krypton, Superman is still taller than Lytener, much broader and more muscular, and has been fighting regularly for more than a year. (Possibly much more–we know little of what his life was like prior to donning the costume.) If not for the fact that Lytener has a few more protective gadgets at his disposal than Professor Monkey-for-a-Head, he still would have posed no threat at all.
Remember this is a show primarily aimed at children and young teens, which means that this scene is easily readable in terms of the schoolyard: this is a jock beating up a nerd. But where that is usually depicted as bullying (and, on the rare occasion it actually still occurred in real life by the late 90s, usually was bullying), it is the opposite here: Lytener is still entitled, still believes that he deserves to have what he wants just because he wanted it. He’s made the step from the nerd with Nice Guy Syndrome who will not leave the girl he likes alone, to the to the angry white boy who shoots up the school.
And that really isn’t a big step at all. As stated, they’re both cases of an entitled child unable or unwilling to deal with the fact that he can’t have what he wants. Lytener continues to think of Lois as an object rather than a person, so he doesn’t blame her for not wanting him–he blames Superman for taking her away from him. Ultimately both are about power: Lytener desired power over Lois and learned that Superman has power over him, so he engaged in an elaborate plan (involving a gigantic, invisible Lexcorp facility that looks like it cost billions and a network of Lexcorp satellites, rather demonstrating that Luthor is lying when he claims not to be backing Lytener’s scheme) to take that power away from Superman.
Lytener, in short, continues to be a character ahead of his time, not the “lovable” misogynistic or objectifying nerd common in television of the 1990s (such as Saved by the Bell‘s Screech or Family Matters‘ Steve Urkel–nor are such figures limited to the 1990s, as witness the entire male cast of The Big Bang Theory), but rather the more realistic nerd who is as invested in hegemonic masculinity as anyone, the bitter, angry, self-pitying, mediocre man who thinks he deserves to be special by dint of his manhood, and therefore feels the need to enact his power through harassment. Lytener’s abuse of his invisibility, his ability to craft illusions through which he is difficult to find–viewed from 2017, these look very much like the anonymity and pseudonimity that Internet trolls use in their harassment campaigns. Lytener is a precursor to every entitled manchild who helped fuel GamerGate and the alt-right. Denied what he incorrectly believes to be his by right, he decides to just go all-in on destroying whoever he has fixated upon as his enemy, and he’s willing to burn down the world to do it. Who cares if we unleash massive suffering at best and multiple existential threats to the human species at worst, as long as we stick it to those libtards and cultural Marxist cucks, right? (Please excuse me while I scrub myself very hard for several hours in an effort to get the stench of that sentence off.)
Look, too, at how Lytener threatens to wipe out life on Earth and, incidentally, depower Superman: by turning STAS into BTAS. Just like Batman: The Animated Series‘ first opening, the skies are apocalypse red, and Superman loses his powers. The clock is rolled back to before the art shift, before Harley Quinn destroyed Krypton, before superpowered heroes existed, so of course Superman cannot be one.
Note that this has essentially the same effect on Superman as kryptonite. It doesn’t send him into a panic attack, true, but that’s because his trauma isn’t being triggered, it’s being removed. Either way, however, he’s weakened. We’ve examined a lot why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than apocalypse; here is why the superhero is a creature of near-apocalypse rather than no apocalypse. Without their personal apocalypse, their trauma, their origin story, they can’t be a superhero at all.
In the red-skied world of BTAS, Superman’s apocalypse, his trauma, has been taken away from him–and with them, his superpowers. Without that pain, without balancing on the knife-edge between safety and apocalypse, he isn’t a superhero.
He’s just an ordinary really big person.
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