It’s February 6, 1999. Britney Spears still tops the charts; Monica, Brandy, and the Backstreet Boys also chart. At the box office, Payback opens at number one. In the news: on the 4th, New York City is outraged by the murder of an unarmed black immigrant by four cops, and yes, I double-checked this was the news for 1999, not 2019; King Hussein II of Jordan dies tomorrow.
Not much is going on, which is pretty apt for an episode with very little bearing on much of anything else. It’s an origin story for a character who will appear all of twice in Justice League, and only speak once. It’s an introduction of the DCAU to the Green Lantern mythos, but very little will ever actually be done with that mythos. What we see here is basically what we get: they’re space cops who forcibly recruit anyone they want and claim jurisdiction over the entire universe, enforcing laws of rather dubious origin, presumably the self-titled Guardians of the Universe.
I’m not exactly a fan, is what I’m saying. (Except Mogo. Mogo is one of my favorite characters in comics.)
It’s clear what this episode is going for as far as the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 himself is concerned. I refer to him by title because he appears to be a fusion of Kyle Rayner and Hal Jordan in much the same way that the Flash in “Speed Demons” was a hybrid of several versions of that character, and in a sense what they did with Batman. Batman is not a legacy character–or at least, he isn’t yet. He has always been Bruce Wayne; but he has been around across so many different eras, changing and adapting to fit them, that it is possible to create a “best of” character, which is essentially what Batman: The Animated Series did.
With the Flash and Green Lantern, on the other hand, you have multiple characters who have used the name, all with similar powers but different personalities and backstories. So the DCAU Flash can be at once Barry Allen and Wally West, with elements of both, and the DCAU Green Lantern can be at once Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner–a choice which makes particular sense in the late 1990s in a setting that has not involved Green Lanterns before.
Rewind back to The Death of Superman. In that event series, Hal Jordan’s home town was destroyed by Mongul, leading him to follow the traditional four stages of grief (90s comic book style): supervillainy, mass murder, attempted destruction of spacetime, and death. Kyle Rayner acquired a ring made from the shattered remnants of Hal Jordan’s, and was for a while the only Green Lantern left. This is obviously unusable for the DCAU, in part because it’s bullshit, but mostly because it’s too dark for kids and doesn’t work in a setting where the Green Lanterns were only just introduced. Jordan’s origin story–Green Lantern Abin Sur crashlanding on Earth and passing on his ring–is much better for an audience unfamiliar with the Green Lantern mythology, that being exactly what it was designed for when it was first told in the 1959 reboot of Green Lantern to be more science fiction-flavored.
However, the show’s Green Lantern has to be Kyle Rayner because, in 1999, he is the Green Lantern. More importantly, while Jordan’s origin story is a better fit for the show, Rayner’s background is more appropriate: he’s a struggling comics artist. The Green Lantern ring may be powered by courage, but it’s controlled by imagination, and the two characters being hybridized to create the DCAU Kyle Rayner exemplify those two aspects: Jordan the fearless test pilot, Rayner the creative artist. His constructs in the comic have frequently been among the most creative, including a safe big enough to hold a sun, anime-style power armor, and a giant version of himself playing a giant pinball machine with his opponent as the ball. There is so much potential for fights involving him to get complex and creative, and the flexibility of animation as a medium makes it the perfect place to showcase his imagination.
So of course we get absolutely none of that. This is really where the episode falls down; it introduces a major “cosmic” concept from the comics, an iconic villain, a character known for creative use of his powers, and then spends most of the episode on a by-the-numbers slugfest.
And it’s not just this episode, though this episode is the clearest example. Much like The New Batman Adventures in its dying days–which, being the last season of BTAS, comprised most of its days–Superman: The Animated Series is clearly running out of steam. There are still a couple of flashes of creativity to come, but by and large it’s settled into something of a rut.
We know how to fix this, in a sense. Batman Beyond is exactly what Batman needed to become interesting again, a fresh start with new characters and a renewed sense of where and what it is. But what is beyond Superman? The whole point of the character is that he’s essentially limitless, capable of rising to just about any challenge. He can fly at the speed of light and see through walls; how could anything be beyond him?
That is the question that will occupy us in the final days of this show. But, as we’ll find, it’s one that we’ve already answered.
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