Sunday, June 16, 2024

Supergirl Offers a Pointed Look at Radicalization in ‘Man of Steel’

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Well, that episode was terrifying and all too common. Let’s just jump right in.

When we ended last week’s episode, Mercy and her brother had been released by a DEO agent sympathetic to their rhetoric, and they promptly irradiated Earth’s atmosphere with Kryptonite, poisoning Kara and sending her into freefall. This week, she’s saved by J’onn, who immediately takes her to the DEO. Alex and Brainy try to get her stabilized, but there’s not a lot they can do when the entire atmosphere is now poisoned. Alex calls in Lena Luthor for a hail mary, and even though people don’t give Lena enough credit, she comes in on her mostly morally white horse to save the day. Or at least give them a temporary solution while they work for a more permanent one.

It’s a nice salve for the bizarre rift that formed last season. Alex acknowledging that Lena and Supergirl don’t always see eye to eye is a gentler way to present their ideological differences than the hammer heavy plots from season three.

Lena assures Alex that she cares and brings in a fully encased suit that will protect Supergirl… but she’ll have to stay in that suit until they can figure out fix for the kryptonite-laden Earth.

But Kori! You gave the big plot dangling thread away in the first three paragraphs! Yes, yes I did. It’s important, sure, but this isn’t the meat of “Man of Steel.”

No, that part is the story of Ben Lockwood (Sam Witwer), and his all too familiar descent into a radicalized, violent vigilante aka Agent Liberty. Now to preface, yes, we’ve seen countless origin stories of “nice guy has tragic circumstances and tragically becomes a supervillain” in movies and television. It’s easy to assume that this is what Supergirl is doing with Ben.

Instead, we’re treated to a subversion of that trope. The writers deftly lay out a story of a man who purports to be enlightened and all too quickly stumbles down the rabbit hole when his worldview is shaken. Ben begins as a “liberal” college professor who tries to argue against his father, Peter, a man who has already been consumed by anti-alien resentment. We’re treated to a flashback from two years ago when humans block an alien driver trying to deliver a shipment of Nth metal. You might remember this substance from season two, it’s strong enough to hold Supergirl captive. Far more powerful than steel, it’s not exactly a no-brainer on how Nth metal could become highly desired in construction.

But that’s a problem for Peter, who owns a steel company. Peter, who has also been advised several times that he needs to update his business model to stay competitive, is presumably given the tools to do so and refuses. He does nothing as his workers threaten the alien driver, so Ben steps in and tries to calm the situation. Unfortunately, Peter’s violent employees cause the alien to release a defensive shot of spikes, one of which stabs Ben in the shoulder. To recap, this situation was entirely preventable and completely escalated by Peter’s employees and Peter’s refusal to stop them.

But here starts Ben’s descent into blaming aliens wholesale for every problem in his life.

We’re treated to other snapshots. J’onn accidentally destroys Ben’s house during the Daxamite invasion as he’s fighting off Daxamite intruders. Ben is fired from his job at the university. Peter dies during Reign’s attack on National City.

Sure, it’s easy to see how a guy could be pushed over the edge. But Supergirl writers don’t let Ben off the hook. He’s fired from his job because he refuses to stop spouting anti-alien rhetoric during his lectures. After his dismissal, he even confronts an alien student and calls them a “Snowflake” accusing him of causing his firing.

Peter? Peter does nothing to adapt his business and sees it fail, and then goes directly into a dangerous battleground to his abandoned steel factory because he wants to “die at home.” Let me repeat that: Peter willingly entered a volatile and deadly area of his own volition because he wanted to die.

Peter and Ben are a violent, self-fulfilling prophecy, and a frightening look at male rage at being denied and facing adversity. Experts often quote that tribalism becomes rampant especially during tough economical times, and we see Peter’s economy anxiety parroting real world anger at “immigrants who are dangerous and take our jobs.” Except again, Peter was advised to update his business model, was given every chance to adapt, and refused.

Ben’s descent isn’t hard to track in our world. Several social media accounts document a professed liberal person slowly becoming radicalized over the course of a few years. I’ve watched it happen in a few instances in real time. Our lives become hard. We’re strapped economically, and it doesn’t look like our situation will ever get better. Then someone slides in with a whisper of “this isn’t your fault.” Followed with a “here’s the culprit” and points at a marginalized group. Because it’s easy. It’s always easier to blame all of our woes on someone else and say “yes, this is the problem, if there just wasn’t ‘X’ then my life would be better.”

The reality is that many, many factors have gone into creating the current climate, and that A, B, C, D and so on play a major role on why you struggle. X group is in the same boat as you are, except now they have a growing monolith of frustrated people looking for an easy target to blame to also contend with. Immigrants. Muslims. LGBT persons. Black people just trying to go about their normal damned day and enter their own apartment or pick up some groceries. Jews trying to worship.

Ben is, by far, Supergirl’s most terrifying villain.

He’s not superpowered (that we know of). He doesn’t have Lex Luthor resources as Mercy does.

No, he’s terrifying because he’s a mirror of the worst of us, and just how far and quickly we can fall.

Image courtesy of the CW

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