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Rant #1: Shallow
by The Old Maid

August 16th, 2002

Did you ever watch BATMAN : THE ANIMATED SERIES? Silly question. B:TAS had it all : complex characters exploring psychological and moral issues. Suspense. Mystery. Just enough humor. The writing sparkled, and the animation looked more like liquid paintings than anything that might have sprung from a pen. Even at its worst B:TAS outclassed the competition at its best. Unfortunately this sometimes includes its successors.

TNBA traded some of the depth of B:TAS for action/adventure. Its characters rarely explored the consequences or morality of their decisions. An example is "You Scratch My Back," an episode which stops just short of wife-swapping. Selina/Catwoman calls Batman Nightwing's father but complains she'll never be his stepmother because Batman won't trust her. Meanwhile Barbara/Batgirl is unhappy to see that Nightwing has put their picture (and by extension their relationship) in a box to be packed away. (He rejects her four times in this story.) What both women conveniently forget is that they've given their respective men reason to distrust them. And so in a snit, each woman tries out the other one's man for a while -- the man who doesn't know what she's really capable of, and who doesn't impose pesky rules on her. Rules like, "Don't lie to me. Don't use me. Oh, and if you want to be with me, you have to quit."

Having gone to some lengths to create parallels between Catwoman and Batgirl ... the premise dies. Premises die a lot in TNBA, and later in BATMAN BEYOND. Instead of character development we get gimmicks : an idle experimentation with the characters, just to see how bad "bad" can get. The two series share another flaw : a situation- ethics mentality in which Good is when characters get what they want, and Bad is when they are deprived. Batman has spent much of his career trying to prove that those are not his beliefs or motivations. So when we don't see an emotional or moral consequence, we miss it.

BEYOND ended on an especially low note with "Unmasked." Terry McGinnis unmasks to soothe a frightened child in a disaster zone. Words fail as to just how dumb "Batman" must be to do this. (Goodness knows Kobra's men can't be the only villains who watch the six o'clock news.) Max Gibson makes the same erroneous assumptions, resulting in her blithe, "It wasn't a problem ; now let's go tell Dana." (The odds that Dana Tan will greet their announcement with joy or relief are remote. Far more likely that she'd run down Terry and Max in her two-ton sedan, ignoring their screams of "we only lied because we care about you!") The final nail in this episode's coffin is that Robin/Tim Drake handled the same situation so much better in TNBA's "Growing Pains." Here Robin saves a young girl who's inexplicably terrified of him. He concludes that his mask frightens her, but rather than remove it he rescues her first and befriends her afterwards. In fact he does it twice. It's embarassing when a 13-year- old sidekick who's been on the job for less than six months is smarter than the Batman of the future and his Oracle wannabe, both of whom turned pro 2-3 years ago.

Neither TNBA nor BATMAN BEYOND were actually terrible. They still trounced the competition in ratings and outshone almost everything else on television. It's just that their mistakes are more glaring because we have B:TAS for comparison. Maybe the TNBA Batgirl would still have earned the nickname "Valley Girl" or her sexual escapades still irked people even if a better version of Barbara had never existed. Maybe her weak characterization in BATMAN BEYOND (she shoots stuff a lot ; she's always blaming someone for something ; she had an affair with Bruce and everyone suffers for it but her) would have been just as weak. Maybe the self-absorbed, gum-snapping teenagers of BEYOND would've been just as tiresome. It's just that these shallower interpretations of Batman seem more unforgiveable when we recall the solid morality play that introduced him.

Let's shift gears to Superman. (Trust me, this is going somewhere.) Fredric Wertham, the gifted doctor who frittered away his time and reputation trying to clean the Augean stables of popular media, absolutely loathed Superman. Among the doctor's complaints were that Superman's comics never shut up about his superior race. Once you start talking like that, there's a danger of assigning roles to people based on their race. And so Wertham argued that Superman's presence encouraged passive, pet-like behavior in mere humans. He cited a comic-book example in which a dapper pedestrian observes an apartment building on fire. People are hanging out the windows, crying, pleading for their lives. Yet instead of hustling his sorry behind to a pay phone to summon the firemen, and then running next door to fetch ladders, mattresses, sheets, other people, or anything else that might prove useful, the man shakes his head and says, "Superman'd better do something about that." Drove Wertham bonkers.

In the beginning Superman was just an alien who passed by Earth as an adult, saw a lady in a harbor called Mother of Exiles, and took her up on her offer that "all homeless honest persons can live here." It was years before Superman was rewritten to be the adopted son of Eben and Martha Kent. This gave him both depth and moral authority. The simple, timeless values of the Kents served Clark well in a city with so many hidden evils. The S:TAS series portrayed the character, his values and his challenges beautifully. It demonstrated both sides of Superman's reputation : how the villains regard him suspiciously as too good to be true, while Clark sometimes asks himself if he has been good enough.

The modern Superman has also paid more attention to the argument that a superhero absolves ordinary earthlings from their responsibilities. This is touched on in SUPERMAN II. Then S:TAS took the accusation and crushed it : Dan Turpin defies a tyrant ("Apokolips Now!") and pays for it with his life. Others then take his place. As Superman mourns by Dan's grave, he observes, "In the end the world didn't need a SUPER man, just a brave one." Well done.

As good as S:TAS was, it did have a few small areas that could be better. Ursula K. LeGuin once wrote, "One alien is a curiosity, two an invasion." When Superman was the only known alien on earth he could stand or fall on his own merits. But when more aliens arrived -- almost all of them bad -- he came to be held accountable for the behavior of all of them. It's called prejudice. The series portrayed its examples ambiguously, which made it possible to explain the topic away. The most egregious offenders (Lex Luthor and General Hardcastle) are control freaks who, presumably, would fear and hate Superman even if he'd been of the human race. Then we see "Legacy."

Darkseid plans to shatter Earth so thoroughly that it can't be rebuilt without his help. It never happens. Why? Because of Luthor and Hardcastle's prejudice. They automatically assume the worst about Superman and Supergirl solely because they hate aliens. So what's the worst that CAN be assumed? That the two are plotting with other aliens. And since all aliens are bad ... No, Luthor and Hardcastle are ready for alien invasions. This is the reason -- in fact it's the only reason -- that Earth's forces defeat Darkseid's people.

There are other examples scattered throughout the series, but at no time does S:TAS seriously wrestle with what it would be like for humans to discover they're not alone in the universe. They simply seem content to have a token alien, best demonstrated in "Stolen Memories." (What better ambassador to an alien race than our own alien? You know, what with them all being interchangeable so they must think alike. Uh-huh.) "Legacy" shows the flip side of this pleasant fantasy. Superman gets one strike and he's out. No second chances for him ; second chances are for our own kind.

Which brings us to JUSTICE LEAGUE : THE ANIMATED SERIES. The JL carpetbagged its way through S:TAS and BB before it found a home of its own. BATMAN BEYOND probably would have been the worst place in the world to put it : BB had done a lousy job of developing the supporting characters it had already got. Where would it find room for ten to twenty more? Viewers complain enough as it is that Batman dominates JL:TAS, and he's not even in every episode! How much worse to put a League (two Leagues, actually) into an already troubled Batman series.

Now in a perfect world the Justice League would have grown organically through the continuing series S:TAS. Traditionally Superman has organized and led the League as an extension of his beliefs and personality. (Every Boy Scout Leader needs a troup.) When S:TAS was cancelled, "Legacy" became the last word on that version of Superman. Oh, Supes still appears in JL:TAS, stoically punching a time clock and doing his duty methodically and silently. (As one fan put it, "He's not exactly having a good time.") Naturally fans ask, has Superman been given a post-Legacy personality without actually exploring the ramifications of the previous series? Could Superman have built a League with his damaged reputation? Or did the others build the JL and bring him into it to keep an eye on him? Tantalizing possibilities, never developed.

Instead the Justice League forms as a function of an external threat (the Martian civil war spilling over to its neighbors) rather than as a function of Superman's character. That makes it an action series first. Developing seven heroes, plus uncounted villains, becomes a major undertaking. The result may be that this series explores concepts and ideals using characters to embody those ideals. File it under the category, "wish it were better ; glad it's not worse." Does it bother me that Green Lantern was chosen for his race? Not really. Superman had his chance to explore prejudice in S:TAS and never did. Does it bother me that Hawkgirl was introduced because she's a woman? No. It's nice to have a woman on the team who didn't have to get a boyfriend to get a script (always the Achilles' Heel of the Bat- females), and who doesn't think men are scum.

Let's face it. Jim "Dick Grayson" Harvey warned us two years ago (rant, "EXPECTATIONS") that this would happen. B:TAS has simply spoiled us for anything else Batman, and S:TAS may have spoiled us for anything else Superman. Truth is, JL:TAS would be a hard series to write for all by itself, without having to live up to S:TAS too. And analyzing the series and offering suggestions would be hard enough without people boo-hooing each other's opinions simply because they don't agree with your own. Don't make it personal. The series, and our fellow viewers, are not shallow simply because they're different. If JL:TAS turns out to be shallow, it'll earn that on its own. Comparisons to the past make it hurt worse, but they don't actually create a series' problems.

JL:TAS will make mistakes never made on earlier DC shows. It will also have triumphs not seen on earlier shows. It's simply unlike anything that's gone before. If you want to see the deeply personal intensity of B:TAS, campaign for a Nightwing series. That's the only undeveloped major property capable of delivering it. But JL:TAS is aiming for dreams rather than specific dreamers. Let's give it a chance to follow those dreams.

 

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