It’s September 19, 1998. Not much has changed since yesterday.
In more ways than one, as Superman: The Animated Series decides to regress and introduce Volcana in pretty much exactly the same way Batman: The Animated Series did Poison Ivy years ago, as a straightforward and unironic femme fatale. Here her association is not with the vagina dentata that was so blatantly used in “Pretty Poison,” but rather with fire and heat, which of course are so common as metaphors for sexual desire that they cross into cliches.
But there is a key difference here, one that resonates well with Insexts vol. 2 (once again, the timing for my Insexts commissions always works out to be weirdly apropos): this episode was written by a woman, Hilary J. Bader to be precise. So while the story she is telling is the familiar tale of the woman who refuses to be a princess/victim and therefore becomes a witch/monster, the perspective she brings to it is far more sympathetic to that woman. The episode never loses sight of its real villains, the SHIELD-analogues of Project Firestorm. (They’re a clandestine government agency headed by a man with an eyepatch, whose main muscle is a man with a bowler hat and handlebar mustache. There’s no way that’s not a reference to Marvel’s SHIELD.)
For a moment, the episode even flirts with the idea of stepping outside of the normal limitations of the genre, as Superman appears to be fighting against the government, as he angrily tears apart a secret facility already in the process of being abandoned. Of course it would not be the first time a superhero fought the government without crossing into genuinely revolutionary territory, and that’s what proves to be happening here: Project Firestorm (its name another comics reference, to any of several fusion-themed DC superheroes by that name, none of whom ever appear in the DCAU proper) is a rogue operation. Superman isn’t really fighting against the government, he’s fighting against corruption, maintaining the implication that the system is fine, it’s just that some people abuse it.
But the mere presence of Volcana pushes back against that implication. She remains the woman who had power, and whom men therefore tried to make a monster–and who, when they succeeded, turned that very monstrosity against them. Set free from our culture and its patriarchy, she ceases to be a femme fatale as well. Even though her expression of sexuality is still there at the end, it is no longer framed as manipulative, but rather as playful banter of the sort Lois Lane and Clark Kent frequently exchange. She uses her fire, but flirtatiously, to make a little heart she blows into Superman’s cheek knowing he won’t be burned by it.
Except of course that she isn’t free. Her exile to a tropical island is framed as an alternative to prison, but in truth even an outdoor tropical prison is still prison, and solitary confinement at that. She has not attained freedom, which is to say the space in which to be her own best self unhindered by but participating in the culture around her; she has no culture. She has not been accepted but rather Othered completely, Othered so far that, as far as the culture is concerned, she no longer exists.
Meaning, in the end, we are back to the same old choice, which has always had three options, not two: princess, witch, or nonexistence. Utena even admitted that, by having Utena leave Ohtori rather than destroying it; from the perspective of Ohtori, she never existed. Only the destruction of Ohtori, by Anthy’s refusal to participate any longer and insistence on finding Utena, is enough to truly break the princess/witch, victim/monster, Madonna/whore binary.
So, despite ending on friendly terms with Superman and seemingly done with stealing, it should be no surprise that Volcana will return as a villain–eventually.
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