Crisis on N Earths: Devilman Crybaby S1E1 "I Need You"

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Quick heads up before we start: Very soon, possibly by this weekend, I will be transitioning (lol) to jenablue.com. This should be more or less seamless for most visitors, but if you have specific posts bookmarked or linked, please update them or they will redirect to the jenablue.com front page.
Commissioned post for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing!
There’s a story–an urban legend that’s hung around anime fandom for decades–that Lex Dunbar likes to tell at conventions. It goes like this:
This guy was going to his first con, and he wanted to go all out: he wanted to cosplay. He was a pretty big, buff guy, so he decided to cosplay Devilman. He put enormous effort into it, and the results were excellent: horns, wings, fangs, head-to-toe red body paint, no clothes except a pair of shorts.
The convention was held at one of those huge Midwestern conference hotels, the kind that can host two or three large conventions at once, and this year it happened to be sharing its space with an evangelical Christian prayer retreat. The guy’s room is on the top floor, and the convention is way down at the bottom, so he’s got a long elevator ride. After going down a few floors, the door opens, and he sees this little old lady waiting for the elevator, clutching a Bible.
And the little old lady sees him, in his amazing Devilman cosplay. Her eyes widen in horror, and her knuckles turn white she’s holding onto that Bible so hard. And the guy says, in the deepest, most sinister voice he can muster, “Going down?
The woman just stands there. The elevator doors close, and down he goes to the convention. Eventually he notices that there are ambulances parked outside and asks his friend if something happened.
“Oh man, didn’t you hear?” the friend replies. “Some old lady was waiting for the elevator, and she suddenly had a heart attack and died!”
Dunbar’s researched this story, and according to them the earliest versions they can find aren’t about anime at all: they’re set at a science fiction convention, and the cosplayer is dressed as Tim Curry’s devil character from the movie Legend. That’s not the point.
The point is that up until now, that story, and a prior, vague notion of what the character looked like, was the entirety of my knowledge of Devilman. So I entered this anime having essentially no idea what it was about.
Which turns out to be a pretty good approach, because it is clearly trying to be deliberately disorienting. First episodes of anime do that a lot–the first episode of Baccano!, for example, is essentially incomprehensible, then slowly starts to make sense retroactively as the series unfolds. But Devilman Crybaby does it differently: Baccano!confused the viewer by presenting overwhelming quantities of information, an enormous cast, and quick-cutting, complex images that tended toward sensory overload, while Devilman Crybaby focuses on just a few characters with a deceptively simplistic, slow-paced visual style and narrative. However, just as the viewer is lulled into complacency by this simplicity, the narrative throws in a strange reference or horrific image, before finally culminating in the nightmarish Sabbath.
It is, in short, probably not an accident that this first episode shares a title with the final scene of End of Evangelion (specifically, on-screen titles immediately before the final scene of that film read “Neon Genesis Evangelion One Last Final: I need you”), which is likewise slow, quiet, relatively simple, and utterly shocking.
In this confusing, almost hypnotic episode, it is tempting to latch onto the familiar. The equation of sex and debauchery to violence, for example, is a staple of horror. The aesthetic of carnival is the grotesque; the violation of social boundaries is reified in the violation of the body’s limits. So too is the colonialist depiction of an ancient Amazonian tribe–Othered in both space and time–as secret devils in the process of returning. Once again, that which is socially Other becomes equated to distortion of and violence against the body. But there are hints that there could be something else here, as well, in the person of Professor Fikira.
At least, that’s what the subtitles call him; however, when Ryo speaks to him in English in the flashback to the Amazon, he distinctly calls him Professor Ficula. Latin for “little fig,” the word may well be a reference to the Biblical fig leaf, donned by Adam and Eve to hide their suddenly shameful bodies. In other words, Ficula (or Fikira) is a costume being worn by something grotesque. But another interpretation is more interesting: that his name is a reference to Ficula religiosa, the bodhi tree. It was while meditating under the bodhi tree that the Buddha attained enlightenment; perhaps it is under Fikira–that is, inspired by and learning from him–that someone is seeking enlightenment.
The obvious candidate is Ryo, who is easily the most compelling character in the show so far. By all appearances he is, and has been since childhood, a violent, amoral killer who cares nothing for the rules of society–and thus cannot become a demon, because for him there is no transgression. If one’s entire life is carnivalesque, then one cannot experience the carnival. He thus tries to get his childhood friend possessed by Amon, so that he can learn more about the demons.
But a more interesting possibility is that it is Akira who is becoming enlightened. After all, the enlightened state necessarily lies outside the norms of society, and crossing those lines is the entire point of carnival. The “crybaby” of the title is almost certainly Akira, and refers to his profound compassion, to the point that he cries not for his own sadness, but for the suffering of others. Compassion, however, is not a weakness; it is a source of immense strength.
Strength enough to contain a demon, perhaps. And what would a compassionate demon be? One outside normal society, labeled grotesque, Other, and yet determined to protect and bring healing–that sounds like enlightenment to me.


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Come on, Pops (Father's Day)

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It’s October 3, 1997. Top songs are still unchanged. The top movie is something called Kiss the Girls; Soul Food, L.A. Confidential, and The Full Monty are also in the top 10. In the news, British scientists demonstrate that Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans is caused by the same prion as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a.k.a. Mad Cow Disease.
And Superman: The Animated Series continues the DCAU tradition of airing holiday episodes nowhere near the holiday in question–in this case, an episode about fathers, set on Father’s Day, and called “Father’s Day,” broadcast in early October.
When I came out to my brother, he said, in effect, “All that matters to me is that you live in a way that makes you happy and share your gifts with the world. And, even though dad and I never talked about this kind of thing, I know that’s how he felt, too. He’d be proud of you.” I immediately began to sob. I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I needed to hear that. Dad died when I was 13 and my brother was 27; I have no idea how dad would relate to me as an adult, but my brother did get to experience that, so I believe him. But it’s something I’ve never gotten to have, and some part of me has always wondered. Would Dad be proud I am living my life under my terms? Or upset that I didn’t go into STEM, didn’t marry, won’t be having kids, all of which I know were part of his dreams for me when I was younger?
It shouldn’t matter what a dead man thinks of me. But it does, enough so that being told he would be proud, that he would support me in the massive changes I am starting to make, reduced me to tears.
So I get it. It doesn’t matter that Kalibak’s father is a vicious, tyrannical monster, the foundational evil of the DCAU (as the Batman Superman Adventures opening shows); Kalibak needs his approval, and tries desperately to earn it. Admittedly, Kalibak himself isn’t exactly a nice guy, so his father’s evil is unlikely to bother him; but Darkseid is also dismissive and demeaning toward Kalibak, a clear-cut example of emotional abuse. Darkseid’s motivation is not made clear, other than general contempt for Kalibak; however, looking at Kalibak’s two-toed, clawlike feet, squat, broad build, and head the same size as his torso, it is fairly obvious that he is a reference to Caliban, the half-human character in The Tempest. Caliban, an attempted rapist and murderer, is very often depicted as deformed; this is straightforward ableism in the play, but here at least Kalibak’s appearance is readable as not having a direct connection to his behavior. Instead, his behavior is a combination of the general villainy endemic to Apokoliptian culture, and his father’s disregard, which in turn results from his Darkseid’s judgment of Kalibak’s appearance.
In contrast, of course, we have Superman, who is traditionally attractive in a very masculine sort of way, a hero, and clearly doted on by his parents. (That the episode depicts Lois as not immediately catching on that he is their son amounts to slander–there is no conceivable way to reconcile it with her being so tenacious and dedicated a reporter that her response to an alien machine attacking her jogging path is to hide behind a tree, call the Daily Planet, and start dictating notes.)
Superman is the favored son of the kind father, handsome, proud, and strong; Kalibak the despised son of the cruel tyrant, ugly, sniveling, and, while immensely strong by human standards, no match for Superman. One of Kalibak’s first acts upon arrival in Metropolis is to (intentionally but not deliberately) seriously injure and trap Jonathan Kent. Similarly, Superman will hand defeat after defeat to Darkseid. Each son attacks the father of the other; in essence, they can be seen as agents of their fathers, who are at war.
And in that sense, we can see clearly how the DCAU is already positioning Darkseid. Jonathan Kent is typically portrayed as the source of Superman’s values, and hence as an exemplar of “human” (which is to say white Western middle-class* liberal) values. Darkseid is here presented as Kent’s opposite: tyrannical, controlling, malicious, cruel, violent, and ambitious.
And Darkseid is, indeed, all these things. But he is more than that, as well. We have already discussed the three pillars of our approach: near-apocalypse, the protector fantasy, and heroic trauma. Near-apocalypse, as we’ve discussed, is rooted in the simultaneous desire for revolutionary change as an escape from an intolerable status quo, and fear of revolutionary change as the destruction of the familiar. Darkseid is the lord of Apokolips, bent on destroying everything familiar and good and replacing it with a hellish, unending nightmare; he is, in short, the worst case scenario, the avatar of the fears that transform revolutionary fantasies into near-apocalypses. He is, in other words, everything we conjure the protector fantasy to shield us from. And in his relationship to Kalibak, we see that he is an abusive parent, which is to say a creator of trauma.
There’s a reason the opening to The Batman Superman Adventuresequates Darkseid to the destruction of Krypton, and hence to the birth of the DCAU: he is the birth of the DCAU. He is that which creates superheroes. He signifies something unitary, something which links all three pillars.
And, as we will soon see, we have already named that something.
*Yes, middle class. Kent owns property, namely his farm, though it’s almost certainly mortgaged and hence really owned by a bank. That’s what “middle-class” means: working-class, but permitted to roleplay owning private property, creating the illusion that one’s interests align with the ruling class more than the working class.


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So secret that I didn't even know (Ghost in the Machine)

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It’s September 29, 1997. The charts are largely unchanged, although Boyz II Men is now at #1 and Mariah Carey at #2, a reverse of last week. It’s only Monday, so the box office is unchanged; in the news, nothing much continues to happen.
This episode is another step in the loose Luthor/Brainiac saga that will culminate in Justice League Unlimited‘s “Divided We Fall,” but by far the most interesting part of it is just how obvious it makes the fact that Luthor and Mercy are lovers.
It starts with Mercy’s comment about not letting Luthor go off “half-cocked,” before picking some of her own hair off of his lapel (at least, it’s the same color as hers, and it’s unlikely to be his). Double entendres and innuendos appear throughout the episode–it’s practically all Lois does in this one–creating a very strong implication that every character sees that Mercy and Luthor are a thing.
However, their relationship is clearly far from equal. Mercy protects Luthor, serves him, but he shows her no tenderness or favor in return, and at the end of the episode, he abandons her to her fate when he flees the collapsing Sector Six without even trying to help her. If not for Superman, she would have died, and it seems likely Luthor would not have mourned. At most, he might have felt the loss of a thing from which he derived use and pleasure.
In this we see that even the person closest to Luthor (usually literally, but also in the sense of the person he clearly trusts the most) is simply a thing he uses–a human resource to be consumed. Luthor is the capitalist villain par excellence–he only values that which has value in the economic sense, that which he can use. She is simply another machine, like his videophone or LexCorp itself.
But Luthor doesn’t want to be treated that way himself. As he protests to Brainiac, who has him enslaved in Sector Six, he’s “not a machine! I need rest and food!” Brainiac denies him rest and gives him vending machine doughnuts, failing to understand what Luthor needs–but then, it doesn’t matter to Brainiac as long as Luthor continues to work. Once he has what he wants, Luthor is disposable.
Mercy practically worships Luthor. She tells Superman that he earned her loyalty by saving her from the streets. That’s her doughnut; he’ll leave her to die to save himself, but because he saved her once, she’ll continue to function. And since all he cares about is that she continues to function, he has no incentive to give her anything else that she might need–dignity, respect, genuine affection.
That’s the thing about the Luthors of the world. Even suffering can’t teach them empathy. He goes through exactly what Mercy suffers–exactly what all employees suffer at the hands of the rich shareholders who command the soulless corporate machines that use employees as both cogs and fuel–and yet he doesn’t hesitate a moment to discard her, doesn’t even stop to consider that she might change her mind about serving him after he tries to abandon her.
And she doesn’t, because what choice does she have? Go back out on the streets? She felt subhuman there, too–she describes herself as being like a dog. Perhaps being ground in a machine is better–at least there she’s not alone.
It doesn’t matter to Luthor and his ilk. So long as they get what they want, they will continue to grind and grind and grind. Nothing can convince them to change. That’s what guillotines are for.
But Superman would never allow that. An angry mob of LexCorp employees who’ve had enough would be committing a crime if they executed Luthor–and Superman doesn’t allow himself to consider that there might be a higher law. He can’t, for fear of declaring himself that law–which is a legitimate fear, as fascism lurks in the DNA of every superhero, as we’ve discussed.
But instead it makes him an agent of the police state. The Superman who fought political corruption and the KKK in the early years of his comic died in the patriotic fervor of World War II, and was buried forever in the Comics Code. In his place is a Superman who respects the “rule of law” (laws written by and for the powerful, of course). And as the police state serves the Luthors of the world, so ultimately must Superman. There can be no superheroes of the revolution.
Can there?

 

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Let's check out the pet store (Monkey Fun)

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Note: This post was written a hair over two weeks after I realized I was trans. I’m not sure that has any visible impact on the post, but on the other hand, how could it not?
It’s still September 27, 1997, and…
No.
I can’t do this.
I can’t not ask this question.
What the fuck is that title? “Monkey Fun”? Is it supposed to sound dirty? Was it a joke title they forgot to change? Because it is a uniquely terrible title–it sounds like it ought to be a pun or a reference to something while utterly failing to refer to anything whatsoever. Titano isn’t even a monkey; he is visibly, obviously a chimp!
So the title just leaves you out there dangling, searching for meaning that doesn’t exist. Which on some episodes might work, but on a fun piece of cotton-candy Silver-Age froth like this, really, really doesn’t.
But, with that off my chest, let’s dive into this.
This episode is most interesting as a superior rework of the same concept as “The Prometheon”–a giant monster from space terrorizes the city, but it’s not evil, just a creature doing what it does by nature. But this episode does a far better job of being a “sympathetic villain” story, and in so doing shows how Superman: The Animated Seriescan approach that Batman: The Animated Series staple.
The key is that BTAS is psychologically complex, and so its sympathetic villain episodes are about people in extreme situations who respond by doing terrible things–they are explorations of the psychology of villainy, which necessarily requires empathizing with the villain, and usually building that empathy results in audience sympathy as well.
STAS is not psychologically complex. Characters have big, singular motivations; for all that we talk about Superman as a reification of Kal-El’s  trauma (which he is), he ultimately is summed up in a single word: he is the Protector, plain and simple. Lex Luthor has no tragic backstory or complex motivation; he just wants to control and possess everything he sees.
So that can’t be what an STAS sympathetic villain story is about–and without a psyche to delve into, how can the audience empathize with the villain? Sympathy must come from elsewhere, and this episode finds three places to derive it. First is the same as that attempted in “The Prometheon”: Titano has no idea of the damage he’s causing. He is just an animal acting on its instincts.
But as “The Prometheon” shows, that alone is not enough, and so the episode tries something different by employing one simple reversal: it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey up, and General Lane who brings the key to peacefully shutting the monkey down–not in his role as a military man, but as Lois’ father.
And yes, I did just type “it’s Superman who just wants to beat the monkey,” because his actions in this episode are perfectly masturbatory: he is protecting people from Titano, but doing so in a way that exacerbates Titano’s rampage. The protector fantasy turns easily into the fantasy that something is a threat we need protecting from, and oftentimes leads to the manufacture of that very threat. Superheroes create their own villains; fear-driven societies create their own enemies.
Add in Titano’s bond with Lois–the fact that we first see him as a fun, gentle playmate to a small child, so that we can recognize the same behaviors when he grows enormous–and we have a perfect recipe for sympathy. Superman is now in General Hardcastle’s former role as the over-aggressive protector, which is to say a bully, and so we sympathize with Titano as the innocent victim.
Which, in turn, reveals why sympathetic villain stories, in general, just don’t work for STAS: its simpler aesthetic means that in order for a villain to be sympathetic, Superman must be unsympathetic. Where sympathetic villain stories frequently show Batman as his best (“Baby Doll” being, as always, the standout example here), they show Superman at his worst.
Which makes them indispensable for us.
After all, it takes only a perspective shift to turn Superman into General Hardcastle. A slight difference in how events play out, and he becomes the alternate Superman of “Brave New Metropolis.” There is less daylight between him and Mala or Jax-Ur than it once appeared. We saw in “Brave New Metropolis” how ill-suited he is to the role of revolutionary, and here we see that he really isn’t on the side of the innocent at all–given a threat to the innocent posed by the innocent, he is on the side against the threat.
What Lois shouts to Superman when he flies off to fight Titano is telling, here: “He’s just a baby!” That is how the episode positions Titano, as essentially childlike–confused, frightened, hungry, clumsy, and fond of his stuffed animal. Superman, in other words, is willing to hurt a child to protect the Children–he is more interested in maintaining peace and order than determining the right of a situation and acting accordingly. Superman’s actions here are precisely what I meant when, long ago, I described Fredric Wortham as a superhero.
And so our challenge becomes clearer and clearer: can we salvage something of the rich, vibrant superhero tradition without falling into this trap of valuing abstract social order over concrete, material good? The answer may well be no–but we have a long way to go yet, and the answer may very well be yes.

 

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Retroactive Continuity: Insexts Vol. 1

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Commissioned post for Shane deNota Hoffman.
Note: This post was written three days before I realized, in fairly rapid succession, that I was (a) a trans woman, (b) a sub, and (c) a lesbian. In that light, I really ought to rewrite or expand it. Alas, I very much do not have the time–this is going up late as it is.
So, instead, please enjoy this snapshot of a mind on the cusp of life-altering revelation, somehow managing to write phrases like “infected with the knowledge that he is a body” and “all human bodies are equally disgusting” without recognizing them as blatantly obvious expressions of dysphoria.
Insexts lays out what it’s about right from writer Margeurite Bennett’s introduction to the collected first volume: “To be a woman is to live a life of body horror.”
It is hardly a new observation–neither culturally nor even within this series–that there is a relationship between marginalization and abjection. At its most literal and concrete, the abject is that which once was a part of the Self but has been rejected and separated into an Other–excrement, vomit, and the like. More abstractly, it is that which is of the Self but is rejected–reminders that we are made of meat, taboo impulses, actions of which we are ashamed. But go up another level of abstraction, so that even the Self dissolves from a Me into an Us, and then the abject becomes that which is part of Us, but gets pushed into being Other–women, people of color, LGBTQA+ people, religious minorities, the very poor.
And, too, it is hardly a new observation that the abject and the grotesque are closely related. The abject disrupts the social order in the same way that the grotesque disrupts the order of the body; the transformation of a woman into a bug-monster is a transgression of the physical boundaries of what we think of as a human being in much the same way that the socially abjectified–the marginalized–are treated as transgressing the social boundaries of human society.
Only not really, because to be a woman is, as Bennett says, to already live a life of body horror: most of the introduction is a laundry list of the ways in which women’s bodies are policed by society, treated as dangerous. “Authorities will make you cover your body… Your classmates cannot be expected to behave with respect or control–your body is to blame.” The bodies of women are treated as being both objects of desire and dangerous, destructive monstrosities. (And it is the bodies of women that are treated this way, not just cis women–fetishistic pornography of trans women abounds that treats them in exactly this way.)
This is the realm of carnival, of the grotesque, of that which both allures and disgusts–the train wreck from which we cannot turn our gaze, the freak show, and, of course, erotic horror. So, essentially, what Insexts does is simply lean into the way we already treat women’s bodies in media. The main character has a literal vagina dentata in several scenes–one even more blatant than Poison Ivy’s plant monster in “Pretty Poison.” She is a literal femme fatale, someone whose femininity–her abjectivity–is directly connected with her lethality. But where “Pretty Poison” positions Ivy as the villain, the Lady is a dark hero, killing those who prey upon women.
This is not a subtle story. The Lady–who has a name, but is stated to prefer her title–and Mariah are multiply abject: women, lesbians, a servant (in Mariah’s case), and mixed race (the Lady). They are both victims of an abusive man, the Lady’s husband, who is implied to have raped Mariah. Mariah passes an infection to the Lady from her mouth to the Lady’s, who then kills her husband with it and creates a child–a miracle or a monster, depending on how you look at it, a boy born from the genetic material of two mothers and birthed from the belly of a man.
But remember, to be a woman is already to be abject, just as to be a servant, a lesbian, or a person of color is to be abject. What passes from mouth to mouth is not monstrosity, but the awareness of monstrosity–Mariah infects the Lady with the knowledge that she is both abject and powerful, and the Lady infects her husband with the knowledge that he, too, is a body, which destroys him. (As it must, since unmarked identities are defined by the abjection of all other identities; a society which acknowledges that all human bodies are equally disgusting is one in which whiteness, masculinity, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and class cannot exist, at least not as we know them.)
The main villain of the volume is an amorphous monster that feeds on pain, and takes the form of women who gain the approval of men and power over women by denigrating other women (in particular, the Lady’s highly conventional and judgmental sister-in-law, and a cruel brothel madame who caters to sadists and pedophiles). This is the first volume, so  for “main villain” we should read “first villain”–and of course the first villain is the closest, the woman who oppresses other women. But note that Brother Asher–part of an apparently all-male order of monstrous monks that hunt other monsters–tries to opportunistically destroy the Lady and Mariah just as they defeat the Hag. Women oppress other women in an attempt to gain power within a structure that is itself patriarchal; the chief role of male allies like William or Brother Talal is not to lead the fight, but to either police their own (as Talal does when he kills Asher) or to act as shields (as William does when he throws himself in front of the Hag).
No, this isn’t subtle at all–but then, it really shouldn’t be. Some things should be said as loudly, as garishly, as spectacularly as possible. How better to spread an infection than by splattering it around everywhere? After all, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross”; and another word for “gross” is..?

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…this is new… (Brave New Metropolis)

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It’s September 27, 1997, and nothing of interest has happened in the day since the prior episode, nor have any charts changed.
“Brave New Metropolis” is a difficult episode to talk about, because it is essentially a rough draft of the much-superior Justice Leaguetwo-parter “A Better World.” Still, it does have a few elements of its own that are worth looking at, most particularly its biggest flaw: its attempt to keep Superman’s hands clean.
This is, or should be, the much-needed counterpart to “Blasts from the Past”: the story in which fascism rises from within instead of being imposed from without. The story in which Superman (as the exemplar of “truth, justice, and the American way”) reveals the ease with which “the American way” becomes fascism. It should practically write itself: beyond even the ease with which the protector fantasy slides into fascism, the fact that Superman’s powers are inborn, racial traits makes for an easy connection to the American eugenics movement that Hitler cited as a model.
But the episode shies away from this, unwilling to make that confrontation (yet–“A Better World” will do rather better on this front). Instead, it makes Lex Luthor the true tyrant. Fair enough: capitalism, and capitalist-driven imperialism (aka “mercantilism”), are the root causes for American slavery and genocide. But ultimately this results in the same problems as “Blasts from the Past”: fascism is still othered, the creation of greedy individuals, slavery and genocide located safely in the (by American standards) distant past.
But they’re not. They are here and present, so deeply embedded in our culture that they might as well be in the air we breath and the water we drink. They are not some alternate universe, viewed through a twisted, crackling mirror cooked up by a not-quite-mad scientist; they are our world.
The episode almost gets it. Superman’s black costume is basically the same as he wears in The Death of Superman, but without the dual machine guns, and the usual S-shield replaced with one based on the Nazi SS logo. The line between a Superman given over to violent, toxic masculinity, and one who is outright leading a fascist state, is thin. But by losing its nerve and having Superman be essentially Luthor’s patsy, the episode loses the thread of that critique–we end up with the rather incoherent image of a Superman in a Hugo Boss version of his costume that doesn’t realize that he’s involved with a fascist regime and never bothered to notice that Jimmy Olson was in a resistance cell. (The That Mitchell and Webb Look “Are We the Baddies?” sketch comes immediately to mind.)
But if “SSuperman” isn’t actually engaged in actively oppressing the populace, how is what he does any different than “our” Superman? He flies around, ignoring the established structures of power, and when he sees a criminal as defined by the powers that be, he helps capture them. (Note that in the scene where we see him fighting the resistance cell members, he doesn’t actually kill any of them–he is slightly reckless, but overall treats them pretty much the same as our Superman treats violent criminals.) The only change is that Luthor and his security forces, rather than the city government and police, are the powers that be.
In short, this episode is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to explore the terrifying prospect of a Superman gone full fascist, but it wants him to also be a revolutionary figure who kills the tyrannical Lex Luthor, but in a deniable way that keeps his hands clean, “accidentally” tearing the tail off his aircraft so it crashes into the giant Luthor/Superman statue.
Consider the title. Brave New World is not about fascism per se; rather, it is more about eugenics and industrialization, the application of the logic of the assembly line to all of human life. Of course the distance from there to fascism isn’t at all far: Henry Ford, revered as essentially a prophet in Brave New World, was an anti-Semite who profited off Nazi-provided slave labor, and the Holocaust was the Nazi application of the techniques of mass production to the already extant idea of concentration camps (another American invention, though to be fair the British came up with the same idea in the same year, 1899).
But the episode blurs that (admittedly fine) distinction by making Luthor, rather than Superman, the real dictator–Brave New Worlddoesn’t even have a dictator, its dystopia being oligarchical instead, as “meritocracies” tend to be. But a superhero story must have its supervillains, so there must be a singular dictator, perhaps with some henchmen, whom our hero can punch and thereby save the day.
It is, in other words, a very rough draft indeed.

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The light makes him lose his powers (Solar Power)

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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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Maybe that's what's depressin' her (Double Dose)

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TW: Sexual assault, rape, victim-blaming, rape cultureIt’s September 22, 1997. The top song is still Mariah Carey’s “Honey,” but there’s been some shuffling just below it, with Boyz II Men taking The Backstreet Boys’ #2 spot with “4 Seasons of Loneliness,” which may be the most 90s sentence I’ve ever written. We still haven’t reached a weekend, so the box office is unchanged; we’re still waiting for something interesting to happen in the news.
The first twenty-odd episodes of the second season of Superman: The Animated Series were released absurdly quickly, with the result that Livewire’s escape from prison in this episode–which includes her drawing a janitor’s attention with her complaints about being bored and lonely after her long imprisonment–aired only nine days after her introduction and subsequent capture by Superman. This rather puts the lie to her complaints, but it places her actions throughout the rest of the episode in context: she lies about her intentions, implies sexual favors could be in the offing, and then takes what she wants from the janitor, just as she will attempt to do with Parasite–who, remember, was once a janitor.
It’s a strange take on the character, to be sure–she’s somehow gone from an angry nihilist to a manipulative vamp, which isn’t contradictory, but doesn’t really follow organically, either. But it becomes distinctly uncomfortable when paired to a similarly out-of-nowhere development with Parasite’s character, namely that he’s a rapist now. His repeated attempts to touch Livewire are framed not as his usual draining of powers but as sexual assault–he even tells her not to worry because he can refrain from draining her if he wishes, and later she tells him “no means no”–and this strong subtext is made outright text when he talks about Lois during his fight with Superman.
As I discussed in regards to the last episode, villains are a reification of the abject. Livewire and Parasite, as the two major STAS villains who partake of the grotesque, work particularly well as examples of this: their bodies are hybrids of human and not-human, violations of the boundaries of what we regard as the physical norms of humanity, just as their behavior violates social norms. And, as I discussed last time, a consequence of their ability to cross social boundaries is that they cross the boundaries that are there for a reason–they are terrible people.
But there is another factor to this, another function of the grotesque: by performatively crossing social boundaries, they draw attention to those same boundaries. The depiction of a figure as grotesque reinforces that it is abject–this is the function of racist caricatures, for example, which turn natural human features into grotesque parodies of themselves, and thereby declare that those features are undesirable and not “normal.”
With that in mind, look again at how Livewire and Parasite’s villainy are gendered. Parasite, a man, threatens sexual violence; Livewire, a woman, uses sexual allure to deceive and manipulate. These are not remotely equivalent, of course–Parasite is obviously a lot worse–but both are violations of social norms and moral acceptability. But these very violations draw attention to and reinforce the boundaries they’re violating, and just as the violations are gendered, so are the boundaries.
In other words, what we’re seeing is a straightforward example of hegemonic masculinity and performative femininity: Parasite is a man and so for him, sex and violence are equated; Livewire is a woman, and so for her sex and performance or deception are equated. This, in turn, a question I brought up briefly in discussing Parasite’s last appearance, “Two’s a Crowd”: namely, how can characters like Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and now Livewire be at once grotesque and heavily sexualized? They are, after all, women designed to be sexy by a pinup artist–in what sense is that grotesque?
And the answer is that all contain key departures from the “normal” feminine form–which, in the DCAU, is the default Timm design on which almost all his female characters are based–that signify the grotesque without actually making them less conventionally attractive. Specifically, Harley Quinn’s skintight outfit serves as the model here, evoking the clown–a deliberately grotesque figure rooted in the same carnival tradition as all the ideas we’re discussing here–while still presenting her in a way designed to be appealing to the heterosexual male gaze. Poison Ivy is the same: her green costume (pre-redesign) and unnatural pallor (post-redesign) evoke the plants she has the power to control, and in turn the fact that she is not entirely human, while still allowing her to be a shapely woman with a pretty face. Finally, Livewire has her pallor and her hair, reminding us that she is likewise a monstrous hybrid of human and electricity, but leaving her free to be a Timm pinup in a skimpy costume at the same time.
In terms of abject behavior, all of them–now that Livewire is playing the vamp–express their sexuality in similarly boundary-violating ways. Harley is in a relationship with a man who abuses her; Harley and Ivy are lesbian lovers; Ivy and Livewire seduce and manipulate men for their own ends. All three are violations of what women are “supposed” to do by the standards of heteronormative patriarchy, which is to wait passively for a “good man” to claim them as his property, a standard which is reinforced by the vilification of those who cross it.
In turn, their abject status is used to justify violations against them: the Parasite betraying Livewire and stealing her powers is portrayed both as satisfaction of his earlier attempts to touch her–which, as I said above, were portrayed as attempts at sexual assault–and as motivated by her refusal to make herself sexually available to him, even though the most she ever “led him on” was to say “maybe” and then immediately walk it back.
Parasite is ultimately punished severely as well: absorbing Livewire’s powers gave him her weaknesses, and absorbing Superman’s gave him Superman’s as well. It is never stated, but throughout the DCAU, Superman is consistently depicted as being vulnerable to electrical shocks, and so when Parasite is sprayed with a large amount of water, he not only shorts out like Livewire, but electrocutes himself as well, with the end of the episode implying he has suffered severe brain damage as a result. But Livewire’s fury at his betrayal and violation is depicted as therefore inappropriate, as if the fact that he cannot remember his actions means they didn’t happen.
She is, after all, a villain and a woman. Doubly abject, in the eyes of society, her opinions and feelings matter not at all.

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People who care about you (Action Figures)

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It’s still September 20, 1997. Little to nothing has changed.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about “Action Figures,” as an episode, is that it pulls the same trick on the audience that Metallo pulls on the children, albeit significantly sooner. Specifically, at least at first this looks to be setting up a “sympathetic villain” story of the kind Batman: The Animated Series did so well and Superman: The Animated Series does basically not at all.
In the past, such stories have usually been origin stories, since it helps to see the villain before they became a villain, if we’re to have any sympathy for them. However, amnesia works nearly as well, because it poses the question of whether the villain would be a villain if their life had gone differently–if they are, at heart, a basically decent person who went badly astray due to bad circumstances. It thus implies that, had their lives been different, they would be better people, that they are more sinned against than sinning–exactly as sympathetic villain stories do.
“Action Figures” appears to be setting us up for such a tale, as Metallo comes ashore on a deserted island and is found by a pair of young children, who adopt him as a sort of pet superhero and keep him in a cave. This is the classic E.T. scenario, in which children have a strange friend who is unjustly pursued and must be kept secret–a common story device in everything from 1980s sitcoms to cartoons to one of the best chapters of Desolation Road to Stranger Things. However, STAS almost immediately complicates the scenario by adding in a degree of ambiguity–flashes of memory experienced by Metallo when asked who he is and where he came from. Are these flashes indicators that his memory is fragmented, that he genuinely doesn’t remember? Or do they belie his claims not to remember? Or, a third option, is it that he doesn’t want to remember, that he is hoping for some kind of fresh start?
Regardless, he does save the little girl shortly before that moment. Nothing compelled him to do that, and it wasn’t part of any cover–he just arrived, saw her in danger, and acted. It was an act of good, even if not the act of a good man. It is entirely possible that his memory only started to return when the children questioned him, and only completely returned when he held the Superman doll. Certainly, it is only after that point that he begins unambiguously lying, claiming to be even more E.T.-like–an alien hiding out from “bad men.”
Before that point, the ambiguity remains. This looks like a sympathetic villain episode, as Metallo’s “unjust persecutors”–Lois Lane and Superman–realize he is on the island and set out to investigate. At that point, a confrontation with a tragic end is inevitable–even if this were a sympathetic villain story, Metallo would still end up going back to villainy out of anger at Superman and possibly Lois, because that is how tragic villain stories work. However, by lying to the children, he is scheming against them before he even knows they are coming–a proactive, deliberate choice.
What is his plan, exactly? To sneak off the island in his absurd “disguise,” and then–what? He was always a violent person with little respect for law or civilization–a mercenary and terrorist-for-hire–and became even more so when he lost all possibility of physical pleasure and sensation. None of that has changed; unlike the “monsters” of the E.T.-style story, he actually is as monstrous as he appears.
Metallo’s heart is a major focus this episode, with Metallo’s defeat hinging on its exposed position; it is fitting, then, that a man who lives to destroy and inflict pain has a heart made of reified trauma. Here kryptonite does not represent Superman’s trauma specifically–though, as always, it triggers him, dramatically reducing his ability to fight as the lava erupts around the two–nor even Metallo’s, but rather the trauma John Corben has inflicted upon the world. Just as his cold, numb skin reflects the callousness with which he has inflicted pain upon the world, his kryptonite heart reflects the trauma he creates. It is the core of his being: he is that which hurts others.
John Corben, in short, is an evil man, whether or not he’s Metallo. (This is, of course, fiction, where the complexity of real humans is drastically dialed down to create characters, and there can therefore exist such a thing as a still-living “evil man”–someone who is programmatically, consistently evil, as opposed to someone who has done many evil things but could do something completely different tomorrow.) For all that–as we have discussed–the power fantasies of adults tend to resemble supervillains rather than superheroes, it does not therefore follow that all supervillains represent a power fantasy, or at least not a good or healthy one. Corben is the fantasy of being untouchable, unfeeling, uncaring, impossible to hurt and very able of hurting others–he is the power fantasy of someone who is already a bully. (The resemblance of that description to a typical Internet troll is no accident.)
The reason power fantasies, transformed into characters, end up as villains is not that villains are innately power fantasies; rather, it is that villains represent the abject, that-which-is-unacceptable. So even a villain like Poison Ivy–who represents the fantasy of a world in which feminism and environmentalism have power, an obviously preferable state to the unsustainable late-capitalist patriarchy we have now–is a reification not of the fantasy, but of its unacceptability: she is a signifier of the fact that we are not “supposed” to have that fantasy. As a result, as a character as opposed to a symbol, she is still a terrible person–violent, destructive, domineering.
This is why the answer to our question–of how to build a better superhero, one that keeps what is good but isn’t pulled constantly in the direction of the fascistic–cannot simply be to embrace the supervillain. That way lies 90s comics and the DCEU. No, what we are looking for is a hero that represents a fantasy of the power to change the world for the better–not the fantasy to impose one will on all others, a protector who will keep us safe from change, or a human-shaped kaiju monster, but an apocalyptic fantasy that leads into utopia, all reified into a character with cool powers and a nice costume.
We will get there, but neither villains, nor antiheroes in the popular sense, are a viable path to do it.

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Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E33 "The Power is Yours"

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We have already discussed the degree to which OK KO is a recreation of creator Ian Jones-Quartey’s childhood. It is thus perhaps inevitably that some earnest, well-meaning, terrible cartoon of the 1980s would be featured or parodied, and there is perhaps no better example of the genre than Captain Planet and the Planeteers. (The fact that it aired 1990-96 doesn’t change that it is a prime example of this genre of 80s cartoons–that’s why we have long decades.)
Captain Planet is everything that the Animaniacs singled out for mockery in “Back in Style”: stiffly animated, repetitive, poorly characterized, and painfully, intensely determined to hamfistedly hammer home the same prosocial lesson every episode: pollution bad, environment good.
Which, of course, is true, but that doesn’t make Captain Planet‘s delivery any less patronizingly simplistic or painfully unnuanced. It showcases the biggest problem of trying to use the structures of heroic narrative in a socially responsible way: heroic narrative is predicated on a Great Man theory of history. In Captain Planet, the destruction of the environment is the result of a few bad actors, who are doing it because it makes them money (somehow), and can likewise be stopped by a combination of the titular team’s superheroics and viewers being responsible, “green” consumers, as instructed by episode-ending “Planeteer Alert” segments in which the show’s characters gave advice on how to “save the planet,” always ending with “The power is yours!”
The show thus hides in the ambiguity of the term “Anthropocene.” Proposed by Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s (although it was used in a different sense by Russian geologists in the 1960s), the Anthropocene is a proposed name for the geological period in which we now live. The Holocene (the period between the end of the last major Ice Age 12,000 years ago and modernity), Stoermer and later users of the term argue, has ended as a result of human activity; climate change and the ongoing, largely human-caused mass extinction event–already the largest mass extinction since the death of the non-avian dinosaurs–are in the process of creating a distinct divide between the Holocene and what comes after much as the retreat of the glaciers created a divide between the Pleistocene and Holocene.
The problem with the name “Anthropocene,” however, is that it lays the blame on either humanity–which is to say, all of humanity, equally, and with the implication that this destruction is an inevitable part of who we are–or humans, individual bad actors. But neither is true. Yes, mass extinctions have occurred anywhere humans have gone on this planet–it’s essentially a truism in paleontology that as soon as humans arrive on a landmass, any animal bigger than us goes extinct–but after the initial shock of our invasive species showing up, things generally settled down. It is only in the last few centuries that the pace of mass extinctions has increased again, and only in the last few centuries that human activity has significantly impacted the climate. Climate change and mass extinction are thus not a natural consequence of some innate human savagery; at the same time, no one person causes an extinction or changes the climate, and no one person can change it.
Environmental historian Jason Moore (not to be confused with the Pitch Perfect director of the same name) thus proposes an alternate term for both the mass extinction and the period it ushers in: the Capitalocene. It is capitalism run amok that is “destroying the planet” (or, rather, rendering it inhospitable for many species, possibly including us and almost certainly including our civilization). As individuals, there is nothing we can do to save the planet–there is, as the saying goes, no ethical consumption under late capitalism. It is only by fundamentally changing the assumptions, processes, and power structures upon which our culture is built that we can hope to stop the Capitalocene–if it’s not already too late.
Which is where OK KO comes in, ready to mock the earnest futility of Captain Planet. The opening scene sets the stage: efficiency expert and Captain Planet villain Dr. Blight (voiced by Tessa Auberjonois, because her original voice actress, Meg Ryan, is too high-profile for this, and her second voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, is too dead) and her sidekick MAL (unvoiced, because original voice actor David Rappaport is likewise too dead, and second voice actor Tim Curry too ill) tells Lord Boxman that he can make his evil corporation more profitable by using a giant machine she happens to have that does nothing but spray pollution into the atmosphere, because it’s a “scientific fact” that pollution leads to profit. This scene is doing a lot of work: on the one hand, it is mocking the capitalist definition of efficiency. Pollution is inherently wasteful–it is made of waste products, after all–but efficiency for a corporation doesn’t mean lack of waste, it means spending less money, and pollution is a way of dumping part of the costs of production on the community. Cleaning up a mess requires labor and equipment; if the community has to do it instead of the corporation, then the corporation saves those labor and equipment costs. If the mess is left uncleaned, as it often is, the cost is instead paid by the environment itself. This is why people pollute: not because it somehow creates wealth (quite the opposite), but because it’s cheaper and easier for the polluter than being actuallyefficient, and therefore clean.
Put this way, the solution to pollution is obvious: use regulations and fines to ensure that polluting ceases to be cheaper and easier than not polluting. Unfortunately, just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s politically easy or even feasible: between regulatory capture, government corruption, and neoliberal distaste for regulation of any kind, corporate pollution remains economically viable.
And pollution is far from the only form of environmental destruction. Direct destruction itself–fracking, deforestation, overfishing–is driven by the demands of late capitalism for perpetual growth, that an already unsustainable economy must always keep getting bigger, and thus constantly dig deeper and go farther to fill an insatiable appetite for resources and raw materials.
Capitalism is the real villain that Captain Planet tries to reify in its cackling industrialist supervillains, but in so doing it misses the point, just as badly as it does in its “Planeteer Alert” segments. You can’t kill capitalism by killing billionaires (though it’s a start), any more than you can kill it by buying “green” products or recycling. The only way to save the world is to change the world, and the only way to change the world is collective action to fundamentally alter the structures of power.
But, of course, finding a villain to kill is much more heroic, much more fun. We can just sit back with our recycling bins, feeling like we’re doing our part, and hope five magic teenagers and an Earth elemental take out the bad guys. That’s where the bulk of the episode finds its humor, with the arrival of Captain Planet hero Kwame (voiced by his original and only actor, LeVar Burton). The rest of the Planeteers quit to get “real jobs,” he explains: in other words, they were swallowed by the engines of capitalism, forced to concede the idealism of their youth by the desperate struggle to survive that capitalism imposes on working-class adulthood. He recruits the OK KO cast to wear the rings and summon Captain Planet, but after Blight and Boxman defeat him, the new Planeteers fall apart in squabbling. The natural formation of the left is the circular firing squad, after all: every setback is an opportunity to turn on one another, because that’s so much easier and more satisfying than endlessly chipping away at structures that feel as big as civilization itself.
Fortunately, KO is there with the power of Heart. In Captain Planet, Heart was talked up as the strongest of the five powers granted by the Planeteers’ rings, as it should be–the other four being the traditional alchemical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air (Wind), that makes Heart the show’s name for the quintessence, the aether, the substance of which the heavens and human soul alike are made, the philosopher’s stone that grants the ultimate power: the power to change.
In KO’s hands, it becomes the power of solidarity, of remembering who your allies are. It allows the group to resummon their elemental hero, and this time defeat the evil polluters and save the plaza–leaving the rest of the planet in ruins. The show here transitions to its own version of a “Planeteer Alert” segment, with even the art style changing to match Captain Planet, while the characters give advice such as unplugging unused cell phone chargers and separating compost from recycling while all the coastal regions of the world are flooded and most of the world’s atmosphere is toxic. It is hard to imagine a more comically inadequate response, and yet that is exactly what “green” consumerism entails: futile, solitary action while the ice caps melt and the forests burn.
It might not have to go this way. If every household in the world recycled… the rain forests would still be destroyed, and the seas overfished, and the mountains blown up for strip-mining. But if we rose up to impose limits on the corporate actors that do these things… well, it’s conceivably possible that it’s merely almost too late. And even if it is too late, well, at least the last years of our civilization, and possibly species, could be a bit more equitable than they otherwise would have been.
The power is, or at least could be, ours.

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