Robotic Supervillains

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Magnus Robot Fighter vol. 1 #15 © 1966 Gold Key Comics. COVER ART BY RUSS MANNING.

Robotic Supervillains

(pop culture)
Reflecting both the anxieties of the nuclear age and fears of Soviet Communism, the robot-as-conquering- menace proliferated in the print, film, and television media of the post–World War II era. Jack Williamson's classic story “With Folded Hands” is a seminal example, portraying a human race tranquilized into sedentary helplessness by their industrious, overprotective robot slaves-cum-caretakers. Throughout the 1950s, robots are often portrayed as fearsome killers or as laughably over-the-top threats in such campy films as Robot Monster (1953), in which an actor in a gorilla suit topped with an antennae-festooned diving helmet tries to carry off a human woman. Even Gort (Lock Martin), the giant, gleaming robotic servant of the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) in Robert Wise's landmark film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) qualifies for villain status by threatening Earth with annihilation unless humanity abandons its warlike ways. Robot villains abounded in the comics of the 1950s and 1960s. The team of robot heroes called the Metal Men (created by writer and editor Robert Kanigher and illustrators Ross Andru and Mike Esposito for DC's Showcase #37, 1962) faced its own cadre of cybernetic scoundrels, including a group whose members, like the Metal Men themselves, embodied the chemical properties of particular metallic elements (the Metal Men, whose powers, appearance, and names were based on iron, gold, lead, tin, mercury, and platinum went up against robotic villains crafted from aluminum, barium, calcium, zirconium, sodium, and plutonium). Far from being indicators of pop culture technophobia, these robotic villains—and the Metal Men themselves—existed mainly to deliver chemistry lessons to DC's young readership. While the Metal Men were built by a scientist named Will Magnus, another Magnus engaged in mortal combat against an endless array of killer automata: Gold Key Comics' Magnus, Robot Fighter, 4000 AD (1963–1977), whose title character protected the futuristic city of North Am from marauding automata. The creation of writer/artist Russ Manning, Magnus was trained from childhood by the benevolent Robot 1A, who honed Magnus' martial abilities until he could take on any robot barehanded, and equipped him with implanted robot eavesdropping devices. Resurrected by Valiant/Acclaim (Magnus, Robot Fighter #1, 1992), Magnus faced grittier mechanical menaces than Manning's, including vampire-like robots that fed on human lifeenergy. Since human comic-book villains have been known occasionally to “go straight,” it is unsurprising that “evil robots” also occasionally cross the aisle to become superheroes. While the 1960s incarnations of DC's Red Tornado and Marvel's Vision began their four-color careers as nemeses, respectively, of the Justice League of America and the Avengers, both weathered existential crises that resulted in their joining their former foes (Justice League of America #64, 1968; Avengers vol. 1 #57–#58, 1968). Like the comics, the toy industry has made a number of significant contributions to the annals of robotic villainy. Among these are the Decepticons, created in the 1980s as foils for the Transformers, a line of Japanese-style robot toys that can be reconfigured with a few Rubik's Cube–style moves into various cars and trucks; the evil Decepticons, created purely to wage war against the good Autobot Transformers of the planet Cybertron, subsequently made their way onto the pages of comic books published by Marvel (1984–1991), Blackthorne (1987– 1988), and Dreamwave (2002–2004). Lego has introduced a successful line of robots known as Bionicle, whose perpetually clashing villains and heroes come not only with intricate back stories rife with internecine mechanical conflicts, and have also generated collectible card games, CDs, comics, a video game, and three popular animated DVD features: Bionicle: Mask of Light (2003), Bionicle 2: Legends of Metru Nui (2004), and Bionicle 3: Web of Shadows (2005). As literary science fiction became increasingly sophisticated in the 1960s and 1970s, so-called “killer robots” migrated steadily into film and television. Being creations of the mass media, many of these robot stories naturally dealt with the evergreen working-class anxiety over advancing mechanization, as the implacably murder-minded, wheeled tin-can Dalek armies of the BBC's Doctor Who (1963–1996) and the conquest-bent, technoorganic drones of the Borg Collective demonstrate (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987–1994; Star Trek: First Contact, 1996). The original Star Trek television series (1966–1969) pitted the crew of the Enterprise against robot adversaries on several occasions as well, including: Dr. Roger Korby, who made a failed attempt to replace Captain James Kirk, as well as other influential humans, with android duplicates (in the episode titled “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”); the planet-destroying space probe known as Nomad, which Kirk persuaded to commit suicide (“The Changeling”); an automated, solar-system-devouring berserker weapon built eons ago by aliens (“The Doomsday Machine”); and a multitude of Jack Williamson–esque androids whose attempt to conquer humanity through kindness fails in the face of Captain Kirk's deliberately orchestrated operetta of android-slaying illogic (“I, Mudd”). Even the kindly Lieutenant Commander Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation had a dark opposite number—his android “brother” Lore, an earlier creation of Dr. Noonien Soong who routinely violated Asimov's Laws and had to be deactivated because of his paranoia and aggression (“Datalore”; “Brothers”; and “Descent, Parts I and II”). ABC's The Six Million Dollar Man (1973–1978) featured android assassins intended to pass themselves off either as the title character (the super-strong bionic hero Col. Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors) or as various supporting cast members or guest stars. These implacable killers (dubbed collectively as “Maskatron” by the show's action-figure licensees) were all but indistinguishable from their human templates until their lifelike face-masks were dislodged, revealing the blinking, inhuman circuitry that lay beneath the skin. Col. Austin also faced numerous “Fembots”—female android killers—as did the campy 1960s-era British superspy Austin D. Powers (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997), who not only was tricked into marrying a Fembot, but also nearly succumbed to the lethal effects of her “machine-gun jubblies” (breast-mounted automatic weaponry) in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). The androids of Westworld (1973) and its film and television sequels—such as the kill-crazed android cowboy gunfighter portrayed by the steely-eyed Yul Brynner—are cut from far more frightening cloth; these amusements turned assassins anticipated the self-emancipating, human-exterminating robots as seen in the Terminator film franchise, and on television's Battlestar Galactica (1978–1979) and its spin-offs, including the Sci-Fi Channel's Galactica reboot (2003–present). The android-as-antagonist received an ambiguous, discomfiting veneer of humanity in Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and its film adaptation, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Though the two works differed in many respects, both focused on the sometimes blurry line between humans and robots (or “replicants”), making the story's murderous android bad guy Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) arguably at least as sympathetic as the former policeman Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who was tasked with assassinating (“retiring”) him. The historic ambivalence with which storytellers treat the ethical capabilities of robots continues to this day. The servile humanoid robots from the film version of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot (2004) are constrained by Asimov's famous Laws that prevent robots from harming humans—until the sentient computer that governs robot design and manufacture (V.I.K.I., the Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) decides to set a horde of robots free of their behavioral constraints, enabling a robot named Sonny (Alan Tudyk) to make a moral decision that might save the human race from cybernetic anarchy. By contrast, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) shows Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) slaying the aggressive cyborg General Grievous, who is presented as a thoroughgoing villain despite his many doubtless legitimate grievances against the treatment of his fellow droids by the Galactic Republic. Like the often deceptive boundary between mankind and her technological offspring, the line between heroism and villainy can be as difficult to see among robots as it is among humans.
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