Caped Crusader Theatre Part 1: The Flash’s Modern Approach To Superheroing Towards The Mentally Ill

I like superheroes. Always have.

To this day, I fondly remember the animated series Justice League – a team of seven superheroes saving the world (and other worlds), which in the United Kingdom began airing circa 2001-2002. By its third season, it was given a retool dubbed Justice League Unlimited and its roster expanded to around 60 members (probably). In any case, it was through this series that I discovered the The Flash, who may well have been my second favourite hero after Superman, thanks to his wise-cracking, showboating, skirt-chasing antics and awesome and creative applications of his powers -which for those who aren’t aware (who at this point isn’t?) is super-speed. He was also one of the heroes that I knew the least about, that is until I borrowed the comic-books of one of my best friends in primary school – Secret identity: Barry All-, sorry, Wally West, Origin: nephew of original best previous Flash, Barry Allen, lightning hits chemicals in room he’s in, doused in chemicals, can now tap into Speed Force and runs at light-speed (and beyond), blah, blah, blah.

In any case, The Flash thanks to as much stellar writing and the performance of the voice actors as jam-packed action, was one of my favourites, and I believe a fan favourite. Hell, even a writer favourite.

The episode “Flash and Substance”, is a much-needed “day in the limelight” for the scarlet speedster in which he’s opening a new museum based on his heroic exploits in his home-town of Central City, only that his “rogues gallery” team up to make sure that they finally get their nemesis this time. The Flash for years at this point has been treated as something of a big-headed, and immature jackass. In this episode, the audience learns that he’s beloved in Central City, knows the name of every one of its citizens, and even offers to help one of his “arch-enemies” – The Trickster. Unlike his other one-time compatriots Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, and some other jerk who messes with weather or something, The Trckster’s “super-villainy” is largely ineffectual and isn’t treated with respect by cohorts as a consequence. Additionally, his odd thought processes provide little help to endear him to them, and they eventually abandon him in a “bad-guy bar” while they do the “serious work” of setting up a trap for the Flash. Eventually, Flash, Batman & Orion (more on him later) hear trouble’s afoot and find him drowning his sorrows, even as the others, criminals themselves, abandon the store.  Here is what I personally thought was his best scene throughout the entire series, and yes, that includes when he soloed a nigh-omnipotent Brainiac/Lex Luthor “fusion” which the other six of the original roster couldn’t handle:

What happens is that the Flash uses an approach to deal with the Trickster successfully that even Batman wouldn’t when it comes to dealing with members of his own rogues gallery who happen to be mentally ill (read: all of them, pretty much) – he strikes a conversation with him. In this brief conversation, we learn a few things about the “bad guy” calling himself The Trickster:

  • His real name is James (Jesse), and he’s a patient at one of Central City’s mental hospitals.
  • He stopped taking his medication, mentioning that he only takes them “when he’s feeling down”.*
  • In ceasing his regular intake of medication to cope with his mental illness, he left himself prone to delusions. These delusions led him to create the supervillain identity: “The Trickster”.
  • James does not seem to be fully aware of his actions as “The Trickster”. Indeed, he seems bemused when the Flash points out to him that he’s wearing “his supervillain costume again”.
  • James is a pretty amiable guy once you get to know him. And he likes to play darts. He even gives up his former allies and agrees to turn himself in under the promise that the Flash will play darts with him…the soft kind.

“Got me again, Flash!” – The Trickster, raising his glass to the Flash.

So, in a single conversation, the Flash managed to accomplish two of the four core aims to superheroics**: Help those in need (James needs help), and foil villainous schemes. The thing is, The Trickster, or rather, James, isn’t a villain. He’s barely an anti-villain. He’s merely a man with a serious mental illness that he’s struggling to cope with. Yes, he has violent impulses and it’s just one more in a very tiresome trope in the portrayal of the mentally ill, but it is refreshing that in a genre so defined by conflict (enjoyable conflict, mind you) where motives and reasons for criminality are often contrived, that this solution was met. This is why I love(d) the Justice League series, and especially, the character of the Flash.

Notes

  • I’d like to imagine that when James returned to hospital, he got medication that was better for his condition. That would be wonderful.

** The four core aims in superheroics are: Help those in need, Foil villainous schemes, Protect civilians and innocent from harm, set a moral example.

#analysing-superheroes, #caped-crusader-theatre, #justice-league, #mental-health-in-media, #superheroes, #television-shows, #the-flash, #western-animation-of-the-2000s

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