My Netflix queue often suggests interesting animated series for me. I never know quite what I’m getting into. Sometimes I am rewarded, as I was when I discovered Rosario + Vampire (an overtly raunchy monster high school drama that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone unless they understood the context of the sexualization of female characters in anime).
Other times I’m not convinced of the recommendation. Batman Beyond is a good example. While I’m unlikely to turn my back on Batman, I find the series frustratingly incomplete in its portrait of a futuristic Gotham. I’ve always found Batman an intensively spiritual character. While religion is never operating at the surface, Batman’s moral core–especially his principle of not killing enemies–is likely the reason for his enduring appeal. (This is the show’s premise, too: Bruce Wayne’s age makes him unable to uphold this principle.)
While I don’t know that I want to set the boundaries on categories of ethics and religion, it is often the case that shows like Batman Beyond rely almost exclusively on secularly-derived moral principles and not on obvious religiously ones. I should be clear here. I don’t we can easily parse the morals presented in the show and derive them from two categories, secular morals and religious morals. It may even be impossible.
What I mean is that the writers of Batman Beyond have consciously removed the structures of religious belief and practice that might suggest religious origins for the moral cores of the characters. Why does Batman fight crime? He has a personal stake in preventing the kind of crime that took the life of his parents. Why does the youthful Batman fight crime? Because he too has a personal stake in stopping crime. They are both compelled by some hidden moral imperative and orientation to do good. So I say secular-derived moral principles because the show gives me no contextual information that these laudable values have arisen out of religious training or devotion.
Let’s look at a counter-example. The Legend of Korra is a spin-off of Nickelodeon’s seminal series Avatar the Last Airbender. The second season, which started just a few weeks ago and can be watched on Nick.com, is profoundly and explicitly religious. There is a demonstrable religious world, complete with an active and engaging cosmology, ritual practices, and shades of religious belief.
Frankly, I was a bit stunned when I saw the start of this season’s plot arc. The spirit world is out of balance and Avatar Korra, as the bridge between the human and spirit world, must figure out how to repair the damage. Korra’s journey this season, like Aang’s before her in the original series, is one of wrestling with destiny, fulfilling her role as spiritual leader, and defeating those who would upset the balance of the world. (Aang, for instance, had to resolve his principle of not killing anyone with the inevitable to-the-death battle he would have with the warmongering Fire Lord.) Korra will surely face a similar test of her principles this season.
There’s more here than just the overt or covert presence of religion and morality. I believe–and it is just my opinion–that Korra is just a better show than Batman Beyond. The animation, plot, character development, world creation, and so on, they are all superior. This doesn’t mean that I picked Batman Beyond as a straw man. I enjoy the show, despite its defects. And I’m still watching its several seasons, so I haven’t ruled out the possibility that it may pick up its game.
What I think is crucial is that nearly all animated shows (perhaps because they are made for children) fall in a grid plot made by the intersection poles of overt/covert, religious/moral. Batman Beyond is overtly moral but neither overtly or covertly religious. The Legend of Korra is both overtly religious and overtly moral. And so on. Sure, this is simplistic, but it is a start for thinking about the ways that animated television deals with the problem of introducing ethical questions. Moreover, it differentiates between those questions asked in religious terms, “What is the right thing to do as the Avatar,” and those asked in moral ones, “What is the right thing to do?” These aren’t the same.
I suppose that’s a beginning. It also reminds me of the excellent lawful evil/good charts that often appear as memes for popular cultural works. In the world of The Dark Knight, for instance, the Joker is the epitome of chaotic evil. As the saying goes, some folks just want to watch the world burn. Superman is the perennial contender for lawful good–he’s the pinnacle of justice. (And that’s part of the reason that the story arc of Superman: Red Son, where baby Superman lands in Communist Russia, is so amazing.)
I often have to defend my interest in children’s and young adult anime to friends and colleagues. Graphic novels have attained an air of respectability that comes with multi-million dollar movie franchises. So if you look at those, you’re going to escape some of the criticism. When I was young, in that post-Vietnam era, G. I. Joe and its portrait of American militarism suggested exactly the kind of narrative that emerged in Desert Storm. Similarly, Ducktales highlighted the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that would become essential in the dot com boom.
If today’s youths retreat to Korra and Batman, I sure want to think about what the effects of these shows are going to be. For instance, Batman Beyond and Korra are both terribly suspicious of experimental technology in the hands of aggressive corporate interests. How quickly the lessons of the recession have inflected the moral elements of children’s television! Animated series are cultural mana for young persons and we ignore them at our own peril.