It’s November 8, 1997. The top song is still Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Over the weekend, Starship Troopers opened at number one; I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Devil’s Advocate also chart. According to my exhaustive review of the news of the period (looking at the Wikipedia page for the year), nothing much is going on in the news.
And Superman: The Animated Series continues its brief flirtation with a weekly release schedule with “Heavy Metal,” written by Hilary Bader and directed by Curt Geda. I don’t usually call out specific writers and directors in this series, but in this case it matters, because it’s really, really obvious that this episode was made by white people.
Not that it’s overtly racist or anything like that; just that it’s clearly written and directed by people who have never considered the possibility that people of color might have a different relationship with the police than white people do. Only white people can be unaware of that fact–though admittedly, it takes more effort to ignore in 2018 than it did in 1997–therefore the episode was written and directed by white people. (As Bader and Geda indeed turn out to be.)
Quite simply, the behavior of literally none of the black characters in this episode makes sense, which is a problem when not only is the episode focused on and about black characters, it’s the introduction of the very first superhero of color in the DCAU. It’s one thing to write Superman as naively assuming that criminals are bad and authority figures are good; especially in a setting that contains Batman’s rather more fraught relationship with the police, it’s at least readable as a character trait rather than an underlying assumption.
But Steel engages a group of armed, masked bank robbers carrying a weapon of his own. This is before he puts on the armor, so his face is fully exposed: a black man, with a weapon, during a violent crime in progress. He gives no indication of concern that the police would assume he’s a criminal too and gun him down, even as a risk that he’s willing to take. He just blithely walks out, every indication, every action by him and Nat, making clear that they see the criminals and only the criminals as a potential threat. When a police car does show up, unnamed black characters then assume the cop within can be trusted; it’s only when they see that it’s Metallo rather than a cop that they react with fear.
We then get a car chase/gunfight, in which a black man and his teen niece trade fire with someone in a police car, once again without apparent concern that they are putting themselves at serious risk from a highly organized, heavily armed gang of very violent people who happen to be on the municipal payroll.
Statistics for police brutality in the 1990s are nontrivial to come by, but it was a known issue, as was the fact that it involved a racial disparity–the infamous L.A. riots of 1992 were provoked by exactly that issue. It was, before social media, easier to ignore if you were white–certainly sheltered 16-year-old me was mostly unaware of it–but it was there, and this episode fails utterly to address it.
Not that it should necessarily have to; the best solution would probably be to have left out high-profile crimes with direct police involvement. That this didn’t occur to the creators–that they instead went with their underlying, unquestioned assumption that the police, and the structures of power they represent, are basically benevolent–just highlights the ignorance born of their unacknowledged privilege.
Related is the reason Steel falls flat as a character: he has no trauma. There’s not really any motivation for him to become a superhero beyond “crime bad, violence against criminals good.” This is not to say that making the world a better place is not an understandable or sympathetic motive–it very much is, and the bleak 90s in particular had a need for characters who choose to be good for the sake of being good, precisely why Steel was the best thing to come out of The Death of Superman. But the choice to do good specifically as a superhero does not work if it is motivated solely by a desire to do good; some further reason why the character would choose that particular (violent, dangerous, and wildly inefficient) path to virtue is needed. “Because it’s a superhero franchise” is, of course, an answer–but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character.
What’s absurd is, John Henry Irons absolutely does have trauma; it’s just never depicted. He is a black man in America: of course he has trauma, or at least double consciousness, which is broadly similar. I’ll repeat here what I said about it in my entry on Ms. Marvel:
Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.
This could have been fascinating to explore, in the hands of creators to whom it would occur to explore it. It is endlessly frustrating that they failed to do so: a superhero whose own culture is hostile to them, not just as a hero (a la Batman or Spider-Man) but in their day-to-day, secret identity life, is a veritable font of story and characterization opportunities, not to mention fulfilling a need for representation that goes beyond token presence and into depicting marginalized people’s stories. Instead, Steel will vanish almost immediately into obscurity–after this, he will never appear in STAS again, and have only cameos and minor roles in Justice League Unlimited.
What this episode does is betray a fatal flaw in STAS: it’s being made by people who have a particular experience of the world, one in which the structures of power generally appear to be working in their favor, and hence blind to the systemic injustices inherent to those structures. It is, in short, the same problem BTAS had: it doesn’t really want apocalypse at all. It is firmly on the side of keeping things near-.
Like Harley Quinn before him, Steel exposes the systemic injustices that the show around him takes as given, but in ways that the show cannot make room for. It once again strains and cracks, but unlike BTAS’ embrace of Harley Quinn, STAS rejects Steel, never including him again.
But the damage is done. It’s clear, now, that massive change is once again needed. The DCAU needs a shock to its system.
The good news is that a massive one is coming. The bad news is that it’s the wrong one.
Current status of the Patreon:
- Latest gaming video ($1+/mo patrons can view): Let’s Play Undertale Episode 11
- Latest Near-Apocalypse article ($2+/mo patrons can view): Imaginary Story: Superman Adventures Annual #1
- Latest vlog ($5+/mo patrons can view): Vlog Review: Thundercats (1985) S1E1-2
- Latest Milestone: $150/mo: More bonus vlogs! Two bonus vlogs a month instead of just one!
- Next Milestone: $300/mo (only $132 away!): Third bonus monthly vlog–that’s almost two vlogs a week!