Oh yeah, the Lord of the Ring (In Brightest Day?)

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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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Goodbye YouTube

So if you follow my Patreon, as many of you do, you already know this. If not, it’s the first you’re hearing it: last month, I posted my final videos to Patreon.

It was a difficult decision but I believe the right one: I am quitting making videos. The backlog I have (about 40 videos already shared, plus some panels I still need to edit) are the last videos I’ll be doing for the foreseeable future.

Thank you to everyone who watched them. I hope you’ll stick around for the essays.

Retroactive Continuity: She-Ra S2E5-6

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As She-Ra‘s second season nears its end, it continues to feel more like it’s late in the second half of the season than nearly to the season finale, just as we’d expect if the second and third season were initially planned as one. Episodes 5 and 6 aren’t so much interested in ramping up tension or laying down groundwork for a big reveal, as they are about exploring characters–first by drawing out parallels between them and putting them into unfamiliar groupings, and second by giving us new insights into where one of the previously less-explored characters is coming from.

“White Out” takes advantage of an old writer’s trick, namely that characters are most interesting in pairs. Trios and larger groups allow for more complicated dynamics, but when you get two people alone together–especially when they’re people who don’t know each other well but have something to emote about to each other–the result is very often new insights into both. The Best Friend Squad might be more stable than the Catra-Adora friendship (by rather a lot), but it’s the latter that gives us the strongest emotional beats.

What “White Out” does, however, is take Adora off the table. Thanks to reinfection by the First Ones virus, she is unable to interact as herself, instead being either a violent berserker or obliviously drunk-like. In the former state, she isn’t so much a character to interact with as something for the other characters to emote about. In the latter state, she is easily ignored, so other than the brief period in which she and Scorpia are alone together, she doesn’t disrupt pair dynamics by being the third in the scene. As a result, for most of the episode we have an even number of characters–six, to be precise–which the show quickly separates into three pairs.

Glimmer and Bow are a bit obvious of a pair to produce anything interesting, but Scorpia and Sea Hawk have barely interacted before, and turn out to have much in common. Entrapta and Catra, by contrast, have actually spent quite a bit of time together, but very little of it without Scorpia around to act as a buffer. From them, we get two allies clashing, setting up Catra’s betrayal of Entrapta at the end of next season; the ostensible enemies, meanwhile, turn out to have much in common.

Of course, both pairs involve Scorpia, whose general affability helps quite a bit. She and Adora bond over what they have in common, including being in the closet–which is a deliciously pointed gag. Scorpia and Sea Hawk, meanwhile, are able to bond over being unappreciated by people they care about. This sets up Catra and Mermista as parallel characters, which hasn’t really been hinted at in the show before, but implies that Mermista’s cranky exterior may, like Catra, be the performative defensiveness of a tsundere, which in turn helps settle the ambiguity over whether Sea Hawk is actually Mermista’s off-again on-again boyfriend or just a stalker; it’s probably the former.

Even though they interact less than usual for episodes in which they occupy the same space, this episode also draws some new parallels between Catra and Adora–or more accurately, between Catra and infected Adora. Specifically, one of the main symptoms of the infection seems to be an inability to distinguish friend from foe. As berserk She-Ra, she sees everyone as a foe; as drunk Adora, she calls Scorpia and Sea Hawk her “best friends.” Catra has a similar problem, constantly seeking the approval of people who use and abuse her like Hordak and Shadow Weaver, and rejecting the people who offer her genuine acceptance and caring, like Scorpia (unconditionally) and Adora (if she leaves the Horde).

Implied is that Catra has an infection of her own in a sense, something inside of her that causes her to behave destructively and self-destructively–something which will, quite a bit later in the show, manifest not all that differently from the First Ones virus. Nonetheless, at the end of the episode, she seems to get it a little bit, allowing Scorpia to care for her by sharing a blanket.

But by the next episode, she’s reverted back to old behaviors. In “Light Spinner,” Shadow Weaver is able to easily manipulate Catra by preying on her desperation for approval from her caregiver. But her lies are only as effective as they are because they’re true: she probably does see herself in Catra, because they are very similar. They’re both power hungry, both ambitious, both scornful of authority (which is a good attitude to have) and unable to distinguish it from experience (which is not), and deeply suspicious of both their own feelings of attachment to others, and others’ feelings of attachment to them, making them badly isolated even when there are people willing to be close to them. Neither is able to accept that someone else wants to be their friend, and so both see not friends or allies, but tools–Micah and, later, Adora and Catra for Shadow Weaver, Scorpia and Entrapta for Catra.

Mostly, though, this episode is focused on Shadow Weaver’s fall from grace. Intriguingly, her hunger for power was originally focused not on her own status, but fear of the Horde. Driven by that fear, she uses magic to tap into dark powers–and that’s where this episode starts to feel a little off in the context of the show. Generally speaking, the metaphor the show has used for magic is that it’s a hyper-advanced technology. Ghosts are ancient recordings projected as holograms, spirit advisors are holographic AIs, and elemental magic is people with administrative access to the mainframe of an artificial planet–princesses–tapping into its environmental controls. In that context, other sorcerers seem most analogous to power users–they know how to make the system do what they want it to, but they don’t have the unfettered access to alter it that princesses do.

But in that context, what is “dark magic”? There’s at least two ways to read it. The much less appealing one is that it’s serving the same role it does in most fiction, namely that it signposts its users as Other–“corrupting” their bodies and behavior because they stepped over the accepted social bounds of magic. This is, to say the least, problematic in a show that tries as hard as She-Ra to appeal to queer and female audiences, which is to say people whose bodies and behaviors are constantly being othered by the larger society.

Fortunately, “White Out” gives us a better read, or at least one that is both more interesting and less troubling. We can’t actually say for sure which read is stronger until we see what effect Glimmer’s use of dark magic in late Season 3 had, which presumably will be addressed in Season 4. Regardless, we’ve already seen the basis of this read: Shadow Weaver is much like Catra, and Shadow Weaver was driven by fear to ultimately betray the other mages and join the Horde. Fear is why she lost the ability to distinguish friend from foe and joined the very people she was afraid of; fear of attachment is why she abuses the children in her care. We have a name for the disease that infects her, and which she passed on to Catra–and thus we also have a read for the dark magic: it’s exploiting a virus in the planetary network, and just as the princess’ magic seems tied to their friendships, the virus is tied to the fear that severs friendships–just as it did for Shadow Weaver, and Catra, and even the Princess Alliance in Season 1, albeit temporarily.

And Shadow Weaver passes the virus on to Catra finally and completely in this episode. There is a straight line from her betrayal here to Catra’s unhinged behavior in the Season 3 finale.

Time and Season 4 will tell whether, like Adora in “White Out,” they can be healed–or if, as seems sadly likely, they are too far gone to even accept the help.

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On you from all sides (Black Out)

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It’s January 30, 1999. Britney Spears tops the charts with “…Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which definitely won’t be stuck in my head for the next two decades; Brandy, Deborah Cox, and Third Eye Blind also chart. The top movie is She’s All That; there’s not much else new in the box office. In the two weeks since Batman Beyond‘s premiere episode, on the 20th China issued new restrictions on Internet use, and on the 25th an earthquake in Colombia killed nearly 2,000 people.

On TV, our first new supervillain for the new Batman, Inque. (Powers doesn’t count–he is still on the road to becoming a supervillain.) She’s an intriguing figure; given almost no characterization, she just flows into and through the narrative, an amorphous entity that lurks in shadows and slips into the tiniest of cracks. She is very nearly literally her namesake, a black viscous liquid that can become an image of almost anything.

She also looks a lot like another character who hasn’t had much focus, Terry’s girlfriend Dana. This, of course, is because of the Dini style, as we’ve already discussed: they are both slender young women and therefore have the same body and face, with only coloration and hairstyle differing–and they both have dark hair and eyes. Elderly Barbara Gordon, whom we see near the episode, looks astoundingly like Dr. Leslie Thompkins from Batman: The Animated Series; it doesn’t imply a diegetic connection.

What’s more interesting is the role Dana plays, questioning the fairness and appropriateness of Terry’s relationship with Bruce Wayne. This is a role she’ll be playing a lot; likewise, Barbara Gordon expresses mild concern that Terry doesn’t understand what he’s getting into, and will express more serious concern later in the series. In between these two scenes, Inque invades the Batcave, the private sanctum of Terry and Wayne, and wreaks havoc.

Three women, and all three, in their own ways, seek to disrupt the newly forged friendship between two men–three women who map annoyingly neatly onto one of my least favorite archetypes, the Triple Goddess: Dana the Maiden, who wants her man to stay with her; Barbara the Mother, who chides gently and tries to protect the boy; Inque the Other,* who seeks to destroy both men. Together they try to put barriers between two men who just want to bond over their shared love of dressing up like bats and going out to get into fights; and they are, in order, the current lover of one of the men, the past lover of the other man, and someone who tries to forcibly penetrate the first man in a scene just a few sound effects away from tentacle hentai.

Nothing psychosexual to see here, folks. Also, the plant monster in “Pretty Poison” was just a plant.

Inque, notably, is going to be the series’ most frequently recurring villain, even beating out Powers/Blight. She makes clear in this episode what role she’s auditioning for when she, in rapid succession, slivers past a giant Joker playing card, smashes the display case containing Harley Quinn’s costume, and shreds it. She really is ink, which outlines every image in the series; just as Joker introduced himself to BTAS by claiming the medium of TV itself in an attempt to usurp control over the series in “Christmas with the Joker,” Inque seeks to claim the other half of animation: drawing.

Her mere presence threatens narrative collapse; it’s only the third episode and she enters the Batcave, nearly kills Terry, nearly sees Bruce Wayne’s face, and nearly finds the connection between the Batcave and Wayne Manor. Success at any one of those would upend the entire series, either by exploding the secret identity of the old Batman (and given Terry’s visibility as Wayne’s new assistant, the identity of the new Batman would shortly follow) or by killing the new Batman one episode after his debut. She is unquestionably a powerful figure.

But a mysterious one. Again, we get no characterization for her here. Her abilities are handwaved as the product of “mutagenic” experiments, implying she was created in a lab, and now she works as a saboteur for hire. That’s all we know, and all we really need to know: her role in this episode isn’t to be sympathetic or tell us who she is, but rather to tell us what this show is.

Of course we know what this show is: it’s a show about Batman. But is it? Batman: The Animated Series was rarely actually about Batman; he was often a liminal figure, lurking in the shadows on the edges of the narrative except to swoop in and fight someone, much the role Inque plays here. But look at our threefold antagonist–yes, antagonist, as all three are ultimately presented as obstacles for the protagonist, even though only one is actually villainous–and what they have in common. All three are set up in opposition or as a threat to Terry and Bruce’s relationship.

Because that’s what this show is, and what it means to be Beyond (the old conception of) Batman. Batman isn’t a person anymore. Terry goes out in the suit and fights, but when he ignores Bruce’s warnings early in the episode, he’s nearly killed by Inque. Bruce is still a vital part; they are Batman together, another triple being: the boy who’s dating the Maiden, the paternal old man who used to be the Mother’s partner, and the Bat who fights the Other.

That’s what this show is. No longer a Boy and his Bat; now they are a Boy, his Bat, and Bruce, and that will make all the difference.

*Traditionally, the Crone. In modern versions, most often the Temptress, the Monster, or both.

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