Monday, June 13, 2005

Sympathy for the Devil

From a strictly fetishistic point of view--which is probably not the demographic they're aiming for--the WB's animated series The Batman has gotten a lot better in its second season. Way more death traps, injections of deadly substances, near-unmaskings, etc., and ample portrayals of our hero in the batsuit sans mask, gloves, etc.

Don't get me wrong: the show is still prrretttttttty bad in all other respects, like plot, dialogue, voice acting, etc. But I'm fairly shallow when it comes to getting my cartoon-superhero rocks off, and the first season was so thoroughly devoid of kink (and remarkably awful in every other way) that just about anything would be an improvement.

They're already into self-parody, with the episode "The Laughing Bat" featuring the Joker running around pretending to be the Batman (true to the show's ineptitude, it's never made clear exactly why he's doing this, or even if he's aware that he's not really Bats), then dosing the real BM with a poison that makes him giggle uncontrollably at other people's misfortune, thus reversing their time-honored roles. And, yes, this one features the obligatory Adam West cameo. (This time he plays the mayor; needless to say, it's not nearly as clever as his casting as The Grey Ghost in the beloved B:TAS, but we all know how left out Adam feels when they don't invite him to drop by.)

Another recent episode alllllllmost pulled off something truly surprising and moving. (Spoiler alert, for the five of you out there who actually might care about this show.) In part one of a two-parter, Joker captures one of those two police detectives whose lives have been intersecting with Batman's since the beginning of the series; J tortures him until he breaks, then gasses him with an untested compound that seems to mess up his complexion pretty badly. In part two, Batman has a brand-new enemy: Clayface!

Never mind that this is only the 200th completely different origin story for CF (and the cop is only the 201st person to assume the role). The big problem is the poor guy's abrupt (and, once again, badly explained) transformation into a sci-fi villain. The writers have provided some interesting tidbits, like CF's inability to speak coherently, leading everyone on the police force to assume he's simply a run-of-the-mill monster instead of a once-trusted colleague, and the police commissioner's longstanding war on "freaks," which includes both BM and CF, but these don't really go anywhere. And the dude also seems to figure out his poorly defined powers mighty quickly. Let's just say it pales in comparison to the origin story for Mr. Freeze in Sub-Zero, which remains the most single moving tweak to the classic Rogue's Gallery. Even so, there's an element of tragedy to this revised Clayface (the episode ends on a particularly poignant note) that is far beyond the usual grasp of the new series, and that's gotta be worth something. It's cool that they've taken a recurring character and completely pulled the rug out from under him.

Speaking of humanized super-villains, I still haven't seen Revenge of the Sith. (Let's face it, I'm just not that big of a Star Wars fan--and I get a little nervous every time one of these new movies opens and everyone laughs at the geeks who dress up like their favorite characters--little too close to home for moi.) But it certainly fits in with a larger trend in popular culture: bad guy as fallen hero, i.e., tragic victim rather than malicious perpetrator. As a reader of Paradise Lost in my English Major youth, I ain't gonna claim this trend is in any way NEW, but it does seem to have a distinctly twenty-first-century urgency nowadays. Film noir brought us the Anti-Hero and the concept got refined in the 60s and 70s, only to vanish during the Reagan era; now we have the Good Man Who is Driven to Evil Even Though He Knows Better. Episode Three is the only one of the SW movies, old or new, that I've actually been eager to see, because I can't wait to see Anakin's transformation into Vader.

If you've followed my own exploits in online bat-fantasy as chronicled here, you can surely guess why I'm so fascinated by this trope: because I've lived through it myself (at least in the virtual realm). As of this writing I've been Monk-free for about two months and my "Ratman" days are but a distant memory--but there's no getting around the fact that I was indeed broken, turned to the Dark Side, did things I'm not proud of and can't undo, yadda yadda yadda. But maybe I'll save the update on that front for some future "Knightfall" installment (or not: there really haven't been too many developments in the saga for a while, thanks in large part to my overly busy B. Wayne schedule--not much bat activity 'round these parts in weeks, sad to say).

What I find most interesting about the Bad-Guy-as-Good-Guy-Gone-Wrong scenario is how much more ethically complicated (and therefore more realistic) it is than the whole rhetoric of the Bush administration--you know, that "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" malarkey. Oh, and I've neglected to mention that the cop who becomes the shape-shifting, identity-borrowing Clayface, is a black man, a premise chock full of possibilities you just know the creators of The Batman cartoon won't even begin to explore.

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