s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: February 2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Tribond Tuesday

Tristan und Isolde

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lois & Clark and Batman

A couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Netflix and Hulu*, I found myself watching old episodes of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Batman: The Animated Series. (I suppose it was my week for '90s television series based on DC Comics characters.)

I was a fan of both series during their original runs, although hadn't seen episodes of either one in over ten years. When I finally saw both series again (and back-to-back), I was amazed at how well the Batman cartoon had aged, and equally amazed at how dated Lois & Clark looked: No internet, no cell phones (but then, phone booths play an important role in the Superman mythos), and it turns out that the fashions of 1993 still held some disturbing echoes of the '80s.

Batman: The Animated Series actually premiered a year earlier, in 1992. However, the production style was strongly inspired by Superman cartoons from the 1940s, as well as the style of the more recent Tim Burton Batman movies. Consequently, the look of the show was a deliberately anachronistic mix of early 20th century props (black and white TVs, fedoras, old-fashioned leather football helmets) and modern or even futuristic technology (computers, all of the various Bat-gadgets, plus any nefarious devices used by the Bat-villain of the week).

Of course, it's not entirely fair to compare a the settings of a live-action series and a cartoon. When the producers of Batman decided on the look of the series, they could just draw whatever props and backgrounds they needed. The producers of Lois & Clark, on the other hand, needed to physically produce clothing, props, and buildings from whatever time period they chose, so it would be much easier to set their story in the present day. (I suppose they could have created whatever they needed digitally—it's not as if the show didn't already have its share of special effects—but that gets expensive, plus, most actors perform better in a physical environment than they do in a digital one.)

The strength of Lois & Clark was always in the writing. Certain elements of the Superman story must remain consistent, but the writers of Lois & Clark worked very hard to come up with reasonable explanations for some of the more far-fetched aspects of the premise. (E.g., Why does a being with godlike powers go around pretending to be a nerdy human reporter? Clark wants a chance at a "normal" life, but he can't resist using his powers to help people once he moves to Metropolis, so he creates the Superman alter ego as a misdirection.) However, making Clark the real person and Superman the disguise, instead of the reverse, actually widened the plot hole (premise hole?) of Lois not being able to recognize that Clark is Superman, since Clark didn't go out of his way to act clumsy or nerdy. The writers also had a lot of fun making Lois and Clark's relationship believable, putting Clark in awkward situations, and cleverly working in references to old Superman catchphrases.

In the end, the show's commitment to more believable characters may have been its undoing. The writers of L&C didn't seem to know what to do with the show after Lois figured out Clark's secret identity, eventually leading to a 5-part episode in which Clark accidentally marries a clone of Lois, while the real Lois develops amnesia. (I wish I was joking.) There's a certain stability to the classic Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle, and moving beyond that may throw the character structure irredeemably off balance. (Perhaps we can even generalize and say that the most durable superhero stories are also the most static.)

One final thing I noticed was that the Lex Luthor of Lois & Clark is actually pretty similar to Bruce Wayne: Both are billionaire businessmen who cultivate a positive public image, but have a hidden agenda. Of course, Lex's hidden agenda is motivated by megalomania, while Bruce Wayne's hidden agenda is motivated by fighting crime. It seems reasonable, then, to end a post on classic superheroes with the reminder that, whatever your powers may be, the important thing is to use them for good.

*The episodes of Lois & Clark were actually on the WB website, which I found through a Hulu redirect. It might seem like bad marketing for Hulu to point to a competing video streaming site, but it's actually brilliant because it turns Hulu into both an online video service and a directory of online video services, which ensures that I'll always start with Hulu, even if I ultimately end up somewhere else.