Friday, July 22, 2011

The Peculiar Morality of Saturday Morning Cartoons

I've been watching the '90s X-Men animated series continuously for the past couple weeks, whenever I didn't have something especially urgent to do. I'm hopefully in the final phase of a job search, so that's most of the time.

I loved the show as a kid. I think of myself loving comics generally, but the truth is I didn't spend a lot of time reading them until my teenage years, when I discovered Vertigo and later Chris Ware. Back then I was really more excited about the cartoon. At some point my schedule changed such that I missed many of the later episodes, though I can't figure out what would have pulled me away except by force. Watching it now, I'm honestly surprised by how good it is; there are painfully weak episodes in every season (the Christianity-themed Nightcrawler guest star episode is especially execrable) but the writers made a lot of smart choices that showed respect for and faith in their audience, and while the animation has its problems it rarely suffers from a lack of effort or interest. The multi-episode arcs are complex and interesting, with an ongoing time-travel thread that gets surprisingly convoluted without ever quite becoming ridiculous. The time-travel thread in particular is effective because it shows the viewers how wrong things can go, how high the stakes really are: because of the peculiar morality to which action shows for children subscribe, we can't actually see anything bad happen, but we can see the terrifying future results of hypothetical bad things that might eventually happen.

For instance, in the time-travel thread we occasionally see the glistening preserved adamantium skeleton of Wolverine. What the show never explicitly says, but what you have to know in looking at it, is that Wolverine died. He died so violently, in fact, that all his skin and meat were stripped from his metal-coated bones. That must have been awful. But we didn't see it! So it's all okay. As long as we supply the suffering, as long as we're responsible for that cognitive leap, it's acceptable for it to exist within the show.

Note: Overwrought Music Video for Comedy Purposes Only

A lot of the moral weirdness of the show centers on Wolverine. He's generally the most popular X-Man. I can't honestly say I know why -- his incredible longevity and ability to survive terrible circumstances allows the comics' writers to tell some interesting stories, but his basic schtick of being a grouchy guy who likes to kill stuff but also is secretly a teddy bear is not what I would call the core of a compelling character. Rather -- and this is especially true in the cartoons -- he's a bit one-dimensional. Anyway, he's popular, so you have to include him and you can't change much. But, as he exists, he sort of demands a lot of material the cartoon can't accomodate. His powers are, remember, the following:

1) He has these really sharp claws. 2) He has a mutant healing factor. 3) His skeleton is coated with metal. 4) He has sharp senses, like an animal.

Three of those four powers require violence to be relevant. You can't use sharp claws except by cutting things, and most of the time those "things" would have to be people. You can't heal unless someone does you harm. Your skeleton isn't likely to come up very often unless something's gone terribly wrong. So they tone Wolverine down a little. His healing factor doesn't seem to be as good anymore (one of his enemies seems to know he can die from excessive cold, and it takes him days rather than seconds to recover from a scratch across his torso) which is a good call, because otherwise there would be no danger for him in a world where most weapons do no visible harm. His claws seem a little smaller and a little less lethal (though this varies from episode to episode). But they can't change the underlying principle: Wolverine is the one X-Man who doesn't mind killing, who in fact kind of likes it. But they also can't change this: Wolverine is not allowed to kill anyone because it would upset children and their parents.

Their solution is that Wolverine is constantly planning to kill people. He just never gets to actually do it. In almost every episode, he pushes someone down on the ground, gets out his claws, and says something like "Now let's see what you had for breakfast" (they use that one several times). You can tell he's going to cut the guy's head off or gut him because there's no other way it can end, and because he's probably said at some point in the episode that he's planning to do this. And, well, it's what you would do, right? These are life-or-death situations. The lives of his loved ones are at stake. Nothing else makes sense. But you also know that he's not going to actually get to hurt the person. Each and every time, someone throws a rock at him, or punches him off, or shoots him with a (harmless, but forceful) laser. Then he just sort of forgets to try again, I guess. It's weird, and if you watch too many of them back to back it also gets pretty funny. Like Worf in Star Trek: TNG, Wolverine is ostensibly the deadliest character, and he's also usually the first one to go down.

Another weird thing is that someone apparently told the writers that they couldn't use the word "kill," as in, "I'm going to kill you." So the characters can literally threaten to cut each other into pieces, but they can't talk about what the result of doing that would be. (You know, death.) Instead, they have to say "destroy." I don't know about you, but I find the idea of destroying a person way more threatening than the idea of killing someone. To destroy a human being would be to ruin them thoroughly, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it mean breaking them down to their component parts? Wouldn't it mean wrecking their lives, and then maybe killing them even after the death was largely academic?

The underlying principle in these ways of avoiding violence is that intent doesn't matter as much as action. And in practice I agree, most of the time. Yet there must be something terribly corrosive about making the decision to end another person. There is surely a difference between a soldier trained to kill and one who's done it, but the difference doesn't seem to be moral, and it must diminish with every day that soldier renews his commitment to the inevitable killing. We see Wolverine decide, again and again, to kill other people. The fact that he apparently never gets to actually do it seems, at some point, irrelevant. We are still continually watching him live in that moment of choosing to kill.

I've always remembered the "destroy" thing as being more of a Gundam Wing tic. There were two English dubs for this surprisingly quiet entry into the giant robot 'splosion-fest genre, and the one aired during primetime was again directed at children. The blood was mostly edited out and the deaths were downplayed, but the series was about giant robot battles in a growing giant robot war wherein a core of powerful giant robots often blew up dozens of other giant robots in a matter of minutes. There's just no getting around the fact of death in a show like that, but you can still say "destroy" instead of kill.

The characters were naturally threatening and promising to kill each other constantly, and begging for their lives, and so basically the word "kill" came up in the script approximately forty times a minute. In the kiddie dub, it was "destroy" instead. The results were hilarious. (I don't know how there isn't a YouTube montage of this nonsense.) 

I wonder how cartoons today deal with these problems. I feel, from what I've seen, as if they're generally less ambitious and more good-natured to begin with and so avoid much of the awkwardness discussed here. But I'm not sure. What I do know is how weird I felt, at times, watching these shows as a kid; they suggested a morality I could never really understand.


  1. We've spent the weekend watching these in my apartment. Sarah was a fan as a kid and was relieved to find the cartoon hasn't aged terribly (like, say, TMNT, which we checked out last year only to realize that Shredder is essentially a middle-aged man hiding in bushes trying to thwart the plans of a handful of goofy do-gooders). X-Men seems to come a little closer to adult storytelling than TMNT, or other cartoons from the early 90s, even if there are a fair number of cackling aliens.

  2. I found this thread after specifically searching for "why doesn't wolverine kill anybody in the animated series." Also, Apocalypse could have easily crush the X-Men on plenty of episodes.