Saturday, May 14, 2005

Look on the bright side, not on the black side

I don't think there's any way to discuss this without going off on an exceptionally geeky tangent, unfortunately, but bear with me. Though I don't make any conscious effort to watch it, and I'd certainly place the excellent early-90s Batman: The Animated Series far above it as animated adaptations of the DC universe go, I do catch Justice League from time to time. New episodes currently run on YTV about a month ahead of their premiere on the series' first-run American outlet of Cartoon Network, which is satisfyingly ironic, considering the normal trend of months or years passing before hot new properties are aired in Canada. It's pretty good, for an ensemble-cast series with rotating guest stars from the niche genres. In any event, last night's episode was kind of wonky. In a nutshell: Captain Marvel joins the Justice League. Being the naïve idiot man-child (literally - his secret identity is a plucky but overly optimistic ten-year-old) he is, he's quickly duped into saying complimentary things about perennial villain/corporate mogul/Machiavellian schemer Lex Luthor, and the team (Superman especially, who's exceptionally paranoid in this incarnation) soon thereafter determines he's no longer allowed to talk to the press alone. He and Superman are present at a charity event where Luthor is dedicating a new public housing project for Metropolis' poor (and orphans, even, just so we don't miss a cliché). Superman's X-ray vision leads him to see a large piece of machinery with a rapidly counting-down timer underneath the development, which he assumes is a bomb; he orders the press (and orphans) to clear the area, while he destroys it. Captain Marvel, increasingly resentful at being castigated for believing that Luthor is reformed and sincere in his charity and seeming goodwill, attempts to stop him. After a fight (and the complete destruction of the apartment blocks), Captain Marvel is subdued, and some other members of the Justice League arrive to determine that the mystery device is a fusion generator, whose nearly-free power Luthor had intended to be a further charitable surprise for the residents. Everyone is embarassed, and Captain Marvel quits the League, disgusted with the cynicism of his superhero colleagues. Meanwhile, in Expository Villain Mode, Luthor privately chortles about the publicity coup Superman has handed him, and how he still plans to take over the world, or something. (Does it really matter? We get the gist of it; he's still evil.) Captain Marvel is an innocent, given to assume the best of everyone, even when it's not necessarily warranted; Superman is here, conversely, a bitter paranoiac, who is humiliated for failing to prove the worst of his archnemesis. It's implied that Luthor is up to something, but Superman has already been tried and convicted in the eyes of the press, for being a reckless bully unable to move on from old grudges, and he (and the other senior members of the Justice League) perform a joint mea culpa in their last scene, admitting that Marvel is right; they're "not acting like heroes any more." I'm not even sure what this is saying, in the allegorical sense; given the show's past performance, it's hard to tell. Marvel gets the moral victory, and Superman is made to doubt his instincts and decisions - and that seems implicitly accepted, despite the later revelations. No doubt, given the season's larger story arc, there'll be future negative consequences for giving Luthor the benefit of the doubt, but the narrative doesn't seem to punish Marvel for causing the start of any such chain of events with his unwarranted sunny disposition. (Nor could it, when such consequences arrive; he'll be offstage, back in his hometown, leaving the League to clean up the mess.) I wonder if Superman will get the blame for "starting" hostilities with Luthor, whenever that episode comes around? It's almost enough to make you long for the days when superheroes didn't have subtext at all...

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