Sunday, June 14, 2009

SilverHawks Sunday VI: Another hit

As I mentioned last week, I was kind of surprised by the depth given to Mon*Star's character in the series' first episode. It was odd enough that they'd spend the entire first act introducing us to the villain; the way he was introduced, though, was even stranger.

Let me remind you a bit about the state of cartoon supervillains in the '80s: they weren't deep. The vast majority of them were evil for no apparent reason. When Skeletor explained his motivation for doing bad things (in "The Christmas Special," where his holiday-induced character derailment actually represented some decent character development), he said "I like feeling evil." Megatron's motivation was apparently the acquisition of power and energy, no matter what the cost. At least Galvatron was crazy. Cobra Commander was a straightforward megalomaniac. Even Mumm-Ra only wanted the power of the Eye of took most of the series before his character developed beyond that. Their characters are almost universally defined in the broadest of strokes: insulting the protagonist, devising elaborately doomed schemes, retreating effectively, vowing revenge. Lather, rinse, repeat, until cancellation.

And to be honest, I don't recall Mon*Star ever rising above the bar set by those contemporaries. It's certainly possible, but I think his prime motivations were still the acquisition of money and power, and revenge on Stargazer. But for that first act, there sure seemed to be some fantastic potential. Mon*Star doesn't begin the series with some grand show of power. The Mutants nearly committed genocide in the first episode of ThunderCats, and even though He-Man never had an origin episode, the first aired ("Diamond Ray of Disappearance") still features Skeletor defeating the Sorceress and nearly banishing our hero to another dimension. Mon*Star starts the series in a jail cell. He comes across as nothing less than desperate, bribing, threatening, and even begging the guards to allow him to see the Moon*Star burst.

That isn't the behavior of a terrifying supervillain, that's the behavior of a junkie.

Imprisoned in Penal Planet 10, it's been a long time since Mon*Star had his last fix. When the guards seal his window, he pounds at it relentlessly, shouting "No! This may be my last chance!" When he finally cracks the barrier, letting a sliver of light fall onto his eye, he quivers for a moment, then says "Yes! Yes! Give me your power, your energy!" Since he first appeared on screen, he's been throwing himself at the bars against his window, clawing at the guards through the bars in the door, and moving continually, frantically. When that light hits him, for the first time since he showed on screen, he calms down. In fact, the camera (such as it is) goes to a slow motion effect as the countdown nears its end and the starburst nears its apex.

Mon*Star speaks the power chant and transforms--and let's consider that chant for a moment. On first glance, it's pretty much exactly what Mumm-Ra's incantation is in ThunderCats--imploring some external entity for its power, which transforms the summoner into a more powerful form (incidentally, now that I think of it, this was an interesting reversal of the He-Man/She-Ra model, where the hero is the one with the transformation sequence--in both SilverHawks and ThunderCats, only the villains seem to have Prince Adam-esque alternate forms). Mumm-Ra's is slightly different; he wants to transform from "this decayed form" into "Mumm-Ra the Everliving." It was years before I realized that the "Everliving" part was actually significant. Sure, he's still Mumm-Ra when he's in the red robe and bandages, but he's not Mumm-Ra the Everliving any more than all the Voltron lions together-but-unconnected are Voltron, or something.

There's no such honorific with Mon*Star. When he summons the power of the Moon*Star, he asks it to give him "the might, the muscle, the menace, of Mon*Star." I'm sure I'm reading a bit too far into this at this point, but the implication is one of incompleteness. The Moon*Star's power doesn't change him from Mon*Star into Mon*Star the Omnipotent or Mon*Star the Destroyer, it just changes him into Mon*Star. It's the children's sci-fi equivalent of the people who take drugs to feel "normal" or "more like themselves," to fill some personal void.

When Mon*Star transforms, he nonchalantly, casually, almost mechanically, tears the wall off his cell. The guards open the doors to stop him, and he merely turns around calmly, implacably, while the robotic one shoots at him. The blast is apparently absorbed and redirected, though Mon*Star stays motionless and aloof, hitting and destroying the robotic guard. He then leaves his cell through the hole where the window was, proclaiming his freedom to a distant Stargazer.

And then we see him effortlessly re-tame his giant space squid.

I remember mentioning that '80s cartoon supervillains, when introduced, tended to get some major demonstration of their power, to show that they actually pose a threat to heroes (so perhaps we can suspend our disbelief for the next 129 consecutive defeats). Watching Mon*Star go from neurotic and desperate to destructively and mercilessly cold over the course of a single act is particularly effective at doing just that. We didn't even need to see him interact with the protagonists at all, Mon*Star acts as his own point of comparison. If the Moon*Star is powerful enough that it can turn a sniveling convict into Darth Vader, then our protagonists are in for an uphill battle.

If there's one thing that all '80s supervillains had in common, it was a desire for power. Mon*Star is the only one I remember who made that desire into a literal addiction. Mon*Star is a power junkie, empty and impotent without the influence of the Moon*Star's energy, but brutally effective with it. If the show followed through with this (and I don't remember it doing so), it would have been downright brilliant. Regardless, this was a magnificent introduction to the character, and in a single act, it provided us with more characterization than most of his contemporaries received over entire seasons.

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