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Superman: The Animated Series – Ghost in the Machine (Review)

To celebrate the release of Man of Steel this month, we’re going Superman mad. Check back daily for Superman-related reviews.

Ah, Lex Luthor. Luthor is, in the right hands, an absolutely fascinating character. The arrogant, ruthless, egocentric hero of his own story – the man who resents the world for not acknowledging his genius are recognising his boundless compassion. He’s a crusader against the alien threat that has lulled his city into a false sense of security, and he’s willing to make untold sacrifices in order to expose Superman as the menace that Luthor knows deep down that he is.

Well, not really. Luthor is a greedy and manipulative sociopath with delusions of grandeur and a ruthless streak a mile wide. However, there’s something quite intoxicating about the romantic mythology he’s created from himself. Ghost in the Machine is really the first time we’ve focused on a character taken in by that mythology, somebody won over by Luthor’s propaganda and his alpha male charisma.

Mercy Graves was never the break-out character that Harley Quinn was, but she’s another valuable addition to the DC universe made by Bruce Timm and the rest of DC animation. Ghost in the Machine is as much her story as Superman’s or Brainiac’s, as she finds herself caught in the middle.

Another day in the body shop...

Another day in the body shop…

Ghost in the Machine is a strong example of the approach to storytelling that Bruce Timm and his fellow writers took with Superman: The Animated Series. While it was never quite serialised, the show did have its own internal continuity. Events one week would lead to things down the line, rippling and bouncing off each other in a way that made it seem like the writers were not just making it up as they went along.

The pilot, Last Son of Krypton, set up plot points for the show’s first season, and things fed into one another. The phantom zone projector in Blasts from the Past was hinted at in Last Son of Krypton. Brainiac’s appearance in Stolen Memories was also established in that first episode. When Lex Luthor constructs Metallo in The Way of All Flesh, he uses Kryptonite as established in A Little Piece of Home.

Graves danger...

Graves danger…

With Batman: The Animated Series, you got the sense that you could really just shuffle the episodes and view them in any order. However, with Superman: The Animated Series, there’s a sense of logical progression. Darkseid would be revealed over time, his first confrontation with the Man of Steel in Apokolips… Now! foreshadowed with two smaller lead-in roles. Here, in Ghost in the Machine, we’re clearly building off the events of Stolen Memories. As he does quite a few times over the course of the DC animated universe, Brainiac proves that he’s remarkably difficult to kill.

As such, writer Rich Fogel provides us with an affectionate shout-out to the Bronze Age team-ups between Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Indeed, he paves the way for an even more direct homage in the Justice League Unlimited episode Divided We Fall. Fogel’s storytelling feels somewhat more organic than most supervillain team-ups. Rather than treating it as a mutual appreciation society of eeeeevil!, he suggests that two ruthless sociopaths working together might not be doing so under the most constructive of circumstances.

Shattered self-image...

Shattered self-image…

Brainiac needs a set of hands (a brain might come in handy too) and so kidnaps Luthor. Working the executive like a slave, he forces Luthor to help him construct a new body. He makes it quite clear that when he finishes, he plans to kill Luthor. For an cybernetic organism with a dry sense of humour (“… I’m not myself,” he quips from inside a computer), he’s really not a people person. It’s an effective way of teaming the duo up, and one which feels organic.

It also puts Luthor in a position of vulnerability, which helps make him seem a bit more sympathetic than usual. We’re so used to seeing Lex in complete control of everything. Sure, he loses his temper from time to time, but don’t we all? It’s not as if the loss of any of those weapons prototypes or the defeat of any of his schemes to undermine Superman have blown back in any significant way, is it? At the worst, Luthor is generally no worse off than he started the episode.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

Of course, for Luthor, embarrassment is probably just as severe as material loss and the fear of incarceration, but Ghost in the Machine is still a different animal. Lex isn’t sitting behind a desk risking an expensive battle suit. He’s starving and exhausted, helping to construct a robot which will execute him as soon as he is finished. We’ve never seen Luthor like this, and it works quite well on multiple levels.

For one thing, it makes it quite clear what Luthor fears. He resents being powerless or weak. There’s a lovely scene where he admits that he’s hungry, only for Brainiac to burst open a vending machine for him. Luthor hungry chows down on the precious candy, before catching sight of his reflection in a shard of broken glass. This is a version of himself Luthor probably never expected to see, certainly not since he established Lexcorp.

Luthor should screen his calls better...

Luthor should screen his calls better…

This is a weak and broken man at the mercy of forces far stronger than he is, unable to manoeuvre himself back into a position of power, scrounging for food. Not too far removed from the life that Mercy Graves had before he took her in. Was it some rare measure of sympathy which prompted Luthor to recruit his chauffeur? A freak moment of empathy in an otherwise self-centred life? Or did he merely cynically recognise a hunger and a need that he could buy over with the promise of security and power?

Luthor’s ordeal also underscores the idea that Luthor is just a man inhabiting a world full of gods and aliens. Despite his sociopathic tendencies and his mean streak, it’s hard not to feel some distant pang of sympathy for a man caught up in a world beyond his capacity to comprehend. Luthor is muddling through, trying to find his way – but he’s just a small fish in a large ocean. It’s easy enough to justify terrible things when you have personal experiences like this to back it up.

If you're so smart, why isn't Superman dead yet?

If you’re so smart, why isn’t Superman dead yet?

Luthor is, despite his pettiness and vindictiveness, just small fry in the grand cosmic scheme of things. With Brainiac and Darkseid out there, what chance does he have? It makes him seem a little more tragic, a little more pathetic than he does when he’s portrayed as the smirking all-knowing power-broker who has the law on his side. This is Lex Luthor tasting desperate, forced into the position of underdog. It’s hard not to pity him.

At the same time, Ghost in the Machine is really the story of Mercy Graves. She’s one of several characters that was created for Superman: The Animated Series. Other solid contributions include the electricity villainess Livewire and the light-themed bad guy Luminus. None of the characters here caught on half-as-well as Harley Quinn did, even though I’d argue that Livewire and Luminus are solid second-tier Superman adversaries. Then again “second-tier Superman adversaries” ranks them very low indeed in the grand scheme of comic book villainy. They can hang out with Parasite! Or the Atomic Skull!

Up, up and away!

Up, up and away!

However, Mercy Graves is a fascinating character. Again, she’s a character who benefits from the long-form storytelling approach of Superman: The Animated Series. We’ve seen her around so much that we’ve become accustomed to her, so her focus here seems organic. Even if voice actress Lisa Edelstein isn’t in every episode, Mercy is frequently seen skulking around Luthor, acting as his hired muscle in her fascist chic uniform.

Here, we finally get a back story for Graves. “What does he have on you?” Superman wonders, only to be surprised that Luthor hasn’t coerced her loyalty. She was living on the streets when Luthor found her. “He took me in, made me what I am.” He earned her loyalty, he didn’t have to threaten, blackmail or cajole to get it. More than that, her loyalty is more than just professional. Lois points out that she’s obviously in love with him, and she remains on first name terms with her employers. She even mothers him, picking a stray hair (ha!) off his suit jacket.

So... happy?... together...

So… happy?… together…

She very clear harbours a deep affection for him, and it’s all the more tragic because he’s too self-centred to reciprocate. “What would you do without me?” she teases at the start of the episode. Luthor doesn’t reassure her too much, replying, “Let’s hope it never comes to that.” Luthor can’t bring himself to let her in, to trust her. When his demonstrating back fires spectacularly, she’s eager to begin making inquiries. Luthor can’t bring himself to accept anybody else’s help, even his right-hand woman. “I prefer to investigate this matter first-hand and alone.”

Of course, the most crushing disappointment comes at the climax of the episode, as Luthor mounts his escape from Brainiac. Mercy is following him, running for her life. She’s trapped by falling machinery. She calls for help… and he abandons her. It’s everybody for themselves, the ultimate expression of Luthor’s philosophy. He is incapably of matching her loyalty. For all her affection and efficiency, she’s just another cog in the machine to him, easily replaceable.

Show no Mercy...

Show no Mercy…

Graves can’t help but evoke Harley Quinn, even if she was never quite as popular. Both are intelligent women who fall under the spell of men pathologically incapable of returning their affection – motivated at least in part by an intense fixation of another male figure. Harley’s relationship is more explicitly abusive. The Joker has physically beaten her on occasion and even tried to kill her. His attempts to win her affection and to keep her on-side are nothing but cruel jokes, transparent ploys that everyone but Harley can see right through.

Mercy’s situation is a bit more nuanced. Her loyalty to Lex is easier to understand. He helped her when nobody else would, and put her in a position of trust and authority. Luthor might not be able to return her affections, but he trusts her as much as he trusts another human being. Granted, that’s not a lot of trust – but Mercy is definitely the inner circle of Lex’s confidantes. At the same time, he’s not physically violent towards her. He has never (that we’re aware of) led her to believe that he returns her affections, nor has he indicated that he thinks their relationship anything more than professional.

A crushing revelation...

A crushing revelation…

However, that doesn’t take the sting out of his willingness to cast her aside. Just because he’s not going to directly kill her doesn’t make the relationship particularly healthy. One of the stronger aspects of Ghost in the Machine is the way that the episode offers a relatively ambiguous ending. Graves is still working for Luthor, she’s still responding to his every whim. However, we’re not sure whether her loyalty was strong enough to withstand that revelation.

We know that Harley will keep going back to the Joker for more, unable to recognise the abusive cycle. Graves might have another problem; she has nowhere else to go. That’s a particularly tragic ending, to find yourself working with somebody you loved, staring at them everyday, obeying their every whim – but knowing that they are incapable to return your affections and that they will cast you aside at the first opportunity. Superman: The Animated Series never had as broad a pool of villains as its older sibling, but it did try to balance that out by developing its characters a little further.

Speaking of Freudian...

Speaking of Freudian…

Rich Fogel’s script is solid and smart. There’s a delightful action sequence in the middle featuring Brainiac’s attempt to kill Clark Kent. The phone call to check he’s actually in the apartment is a delightfully creepy touch. Fogel also gets some nice lines as well. In particular, I can’t believe that the show got away with Lois’ none-too-subtle Freudian jab at Lex’s botched demonstration. “What went wrong? Premature product launch?” I see what she did there!

Ghost in the Machine is a wonderfully character-driven half-hour which demonstrates that while the show might not have a lot of diverse baddies, that doesn’t mean that the writing team are skimping of development and characterisation.

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