It’s January 16, 1999, and the charts are largely unchanged from last time, with only the order different–Brandy is on top at the moment with “Have You Ever?” Varsity Blues opens at number one in theaters. And in the news, earlier this month the euro was launched, as was the Mars Polar Lander, the latter at least to end in failure–it will eventually crashland on Mars.
On TV, “Absolute Power,” a fairly forgettable Superman: The Animated Series episode notable mostly for being a couple of second-and-lasts–the second and last episode narrated in flashback, and the second and last appearance of Mala and Jax-Ur. The title of the episode is, of course, a reference to the famous line by John Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an English baron and marquess who strongly opposed centralized authority, a fan of U.S.-style federalism who vocally supported the Confederacy during the Civil War on states’ rights grounds. Knowing that, it’s worth reading his most famous quote a little more closely: “Power tends to corrupt.” In other words, it doesn’t always corrupt, just often does, while “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The repeated word “absolute” is here being used in two subtly different sentences: “absolute power” of course refers to the maximum possible amount of power, power which cannot be resisted or denied, but “corrupts absolutely” is constructed in opposition to “tends to corrupt,” and therefore reads as guaranteed corruption, not maximal corruption.
This is an important distinction to make, because again, the speaker here is an aristocrat who opposed any power above his own but supported slavery, just like the bulk of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution–no wonder he was a fan! In other words, someone who believed his own power as an aristocrat did not corrupt him, but rather that any higher level of power was necessarily corrupting–power which could be used to interfere with his exercise of his power over those subject to it. He’s basically the nineteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day right-libertarian.
This is important, because despite the title, the episode isn’t built around his quote, but actually a saying (usually attributed to Edmund Burke) which arguably opposes the Acton quote: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The opposition comes in when one realizes the implication that absolute power is not guaranteed to corrupt if “good men” do something, though arguably preventing the consolidation of absolute power in the first place could be the something done.
Either way, the probably-not-actually-Burke quote is the closer to true of the two, despite the emptiness of the category “good men”: we live in an amoral, and therefore immoral, universe, and have invented morality out of our own capacity for agency and judgment. If we wish it to exist in the world, rather than merely our imaginations, we must build and rebuild it constantly. And not just in the world, but in ourselves–to decide that one is, once and for all, good is to lose the capacity for self-correction, and thereby guarantee failure.
This episode is thus actually a crucial one to understanding Superman, because it shows that he is capable of error, and more importantly that he knows he is capable of error. He has, as many critics and commentators have noted over the years, a nigh-impossible balancing act to perform: on the one hand, given his great capacity to do what others cannot, him doing nothing gives evil a far greater chance to triumph than most; on the other, if he does too much to protect–which is to say, control–others, he becomes a tyrant. Mala and Jax-Ur choose to go much too much to the latter extreme, becoming dictators as a means of bringing “peace” and “order” to the divided planet they conquer, but initially Superman goes too far to the former, leaving their rule intact because he fears the consequences to the planet if he fights them.
Ultimately, however, he is Superman. He finds a way to stop them without it turning into a planet-busting kaiju fight, though they help by taking him out into space to throw him into a black hole. He finds a way to protect almost everyone, by fighting Mala and Jax-Ur in incredibly dangerous space until they slip up and die. He even saves their head of security/police, Alterus, over the protests of the rebel Cetea.
It’s an interesting choice, because although Alterus has a last-second change of heart to rescue Superman and Cetea from execution by black hole, he is still depicted as Mala and Jax-Ur’s second-in-command. He is doubtless responsible for executing many of the atrocities they are implied to have masterminded in their conquest of the planet, doubtless including actual executions. He’s also shown being sexually assaulted by Mala, which certainly makes him more sympathetic, but also provides a possible ulterior motive for turning against the regime.
What he is, in short, is a reminder that it isn’t actually necessary for “good men” to do anything to prevent the triumph of evil, which is good since people aren’t actions and therefore can’t be meaningfully assigned moral value. Apparent “bad men” can do it too, by taking good action.
This is not, in itself, redemption. Alterus does not really have a redemption arc; he’s barely a character. “Redemption” is a fuzzy concept when you’ve rejected the concept that a person can be good or evil, anyway; it’s connected to forgiveness, but forgiveness lies entirely in the free choice of one’s victims. Mostly it’s the realization of one’s own prior evil actions, acceptance of one’s capacity to do such things, and choice to start doing better, which certainly could be what’s going on with Alterus, but on the other hand he could just be taking advantage of an opportunity to rid himself of his abuser and take over the planet himself in the process. He could, in other words, just be upset about power greater than his own, and not see anything wrong with his own power over others, or he could be genuinely recognizing that power must be broken.
In the end, his redemption or lack thereof isn’t important. What is important is that it demonstrates for us that someone can serve a tyrannical regime in its conquest of a divided planet, then turn against that regime’s leaders. Doing so isn’t redemption in itself, but it’s better than not doing it, and that’s a start.
But surely we won’t see this precise sequence of events with a character we know much better at the end of this season, right?
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