PART ONE: AMERICAN HEROES AT "THE END OF HISTORY"
The end of the Cold War led to a seismic transformation of American pop culture. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Soviet Union had collapsed. The Rebel Alliance had destroyed not only the last Death Star but also defeated the Emperor as well. In all sorts of ways the Cold War was ending faster than pop culture and political theorists could keep up. By the time Rambo III was released the Soviet Union had already pulled out of Afghanistan, rendering the film redundant.
Neither the Soviet invasion John Milius imagined in Red Dawn nor the nuclear Armageddon imagined by James Cameron in Terminator actually transpired. Such was the apocalyptic fervor of the Cold War, so high were the stakes imagined, it was not possible to imagine any end to the Cold War except through nuclear holocaust or disarmament. The Cold War couldn’t really be over … could it?
In place of Stallone we saw the rise of Bruce Willis. Arnold managed to transition with little effort into post-Cold War roles in films like Total Recall. When James Cameron discovered, to his dismay, that people were rooting for the Terminator he contrived a storyline to bring the Terminator back as a protagonist. He began the 1990s with Terminator 2 and his feature film work in that decade came to a bluntly literal Titanic ending. As a Canadian, Cameron was perhaps better situated to roll with the punches of a Cold War that ended in such a surprising way.
Meanwhile, Superman's quest for peace showed he was a spent force on the silver screen and comics sales were dropping. The Big Blue Boy Scout who seemed like the embodiment of all that was supposed to be great about America, became a bit of an embarrassment (even if Superman IV: the Quest for Peace hadn’t been such a poor movie!). If Superman represented the ideals of truth, justice and the American way and the United States survived while the Soviet Union collapsed what did this mean?
It was as though the end of the Cold War shoved Superman and all of Western culture into a strange existential crisis. We began to suspect that maybe T.S. Eliot was right, that the Apocalypse was not going to end with a nuclear bang but a whimper. Francis Fukuyama began to talk about "the end of history" and how Western style democratic government and philosophy were the endpoint toward which humanity was moving. Meanwhile, Marxists continued to speak of late capitalism as if the fall of the Soviet Union signaled nothing more than a speed bump in the ultimate realization of proletarian revolution. Where could the Man of Steel possibly go?
As if to sum up this anxiety of post-Cold War purpose, Superman died defeating Doomsday, a monstrous creature of destruction, in 1992. It was as though DC had announced that Superman was dead and gone, no longer relevant to what America faced in a world without an Evil Empire. Never mind that Superman was brought back from the dead a mere eight months later and subjected to a series of reboots (even sporting a mullet), the symbolism was important.
If Superman was on the wane in comics and the silver screen, and if Cold War pop culture narratives no longer applied, who would be the American comic book hero for this age? Even by 1989 an answer was clear: Batman. But Batman was not necessarily the hero we wanted. When the Tim Burton’s film came out, reviewers saw Batman as less interesting than his antagonist, the Joker. Burton himself said the film was more a pop culture phenomenon than an actually good movie. But what a pop culture phenomenon it was!
Tim Burton's Batman was indebted to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns: a bitter, angry, even psychopathic vigilante who comes out of retirement as society and its capacity to restrain evil ages and crumbles around him. Miller's Batman ultimately takes on the establishment itself in a battle with Superman. Clark has become the lapdog to the Reagan administration, having sold out to the worst excesses of Cold War moral simplification. Bruce Wayne tells Clark Kent that he’s become a joke, the kind of person who says "yes" to anyone with a badge. Miller’s mid-80s Batman told us that it wasn’t enough just to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. Depending on which American way was being followed truth and justice were nowhere to be found.
Batman’s final confrontation with Superman in The Dark Knight Returns can be misunderstood. Batman’s real goal was to confront Superman about his damaged moral compass. Batman, always living with the irrevocable loss of his parents and the impossible desire to see a Gotham rid of crime, confronts Superman about the fact that no goal, no matter how great, is worth sacrificing the life and liberty of another. In one of the ironies of pop culture history Frank Miller’s take on Batman inspired the sort of characters Miller’s Batman would have hated, self-serving anti-heroes that were lucky, cynical survivors.
For people outside of America it might be hard to fully appreciate how seismic and representative this pop culture eruption of inwardly directed criticism was. This was nothing less than a collective questioning of whether the very ideals and methods we had used to "win" the Cold War were worth the moral, social, and economic costs we paid. Tom Cruise’s Maverick was replaced with David Duchovney’s paranoid Fox Mulder. The 1990s were years in which The Cosby Show and Family Ties got supplanted by Seinfeld, Married: With Children, and, most importantly, The Simpsons.
The emergence of The Simpsons as the longest running comedy on television signaled several things. First and foremost it was a cartoon that satirized all of the things that had been held up as virtuous in the 1980s. Second and more revolutionary, it was animation geared toward adults, a form that had been reserved almost exclusively for children up until that point. The success of The Simpsons meant that cartoons were no longer just for kids.
Where The Simpsons revolutionized the larger pop culture landscape by making a cartoon for grown-ups, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm would revolutionize children’s' entertainment by giving us with a cartoon that turned the values and aesthetics of 1980s cartoons on their heads. Here we had a cartoon that was not selling toys, that made use of talent from outside the animation profession, and would approach its storytelling enterprise first as art and then as commerce. Perhaps most importantly, Batman: The Animated Series would comprehensively destroy the moralism of 80s cartoons without succumbing to either satirizing Cold War values or unreservedly retaining them. America was going to get a cartoon Batman unlike any we had seen before. A cartoon revolution was under way.