Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Kiddie Cronenberg and Raging Hubris: A Comparison Between 4Kids and Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman

I'm calling it now: 4Kids Baxter Stockman is Fred Wolf Baxter Stockman done right.

Of course, "done right" usually suggests a lack of the original's flaws, or a preference on the part of the person making the statement. In this case, neither of those things is true.

Instead, 4Kids Baxter Stockman has the same flaws as his counterpart, but he's better-written and these faults aren't as exaggerated. And I do like both characters equally, since they appeal to me in a lot of the same ways, but also have differences beyond the physical…yet I know what makes a good character, and 4Kids Baxter is that. He's handled in a way that suggests more craft and care on the part of the writers.

I realize the comparison might seem surprising. After all, one Baxter is racelifted and the other isn't (which is also part of "done right"). 4Kids Baxter Stockman doesn't turn into a fly, but instead loses more and more of his body and then becomes a brain/eyeball/spine travelling through various robotic forms.

Characterization-wise, you could also say 4Kids Baxter is defined by his arrogance, while Fred Wolf Baxter is defined by his cowardly nature, at least as a human. (I'm primarily thinking of Fred Wolf Baxter as a human character, 'cause the personality he has in that form is the one that makes this comparison work). But again, they have more in common beyond that difference.

However, I don't actually believe the 4Kids writers were actually drawing on Baxter's portrayal in the old cartoon in any way, just that, because both these versions of Baxter Stockman have similar flaws and both of them transform,  they will be compared.

Pride is their chief flaw: 4Kids Baxter expresses it more openly and consistently, but Fred Wolf Baxter is also an arrogant character. It's just that in this case, his arrogance is easily buried by how scared he is of the Shredder, but he gets in small expressions of vanity when he can.

You could go all the way to pre-madness Baxter, someone who thought he was so worth being recognized in "A Thing About Rats"—"Well, it's about time somebody discovered me!"—that he didn't stop to consider who he might be working for. '

And Baxter still put his name on the Mousers, which is actually acknowledged as stupid in-story, and shows that same arrogance. You must be really full of yourself to do something that other Fred Wolf characters acknowledge as stupid, even in the halcyon days of the first season.

Through most of his human episodes, Fred Wolf Baxter has little moments that suggest an ego. In "The Mean Machines", he tries to claim, "Impossible, Master, only someone of my genius—" before the Shredder glowers at him and he corrects himself.

In the same episode, Baxter is prissily badmouthing the evil computer he and the Shredder are using, claiming he prefers "the real thing" to "artificial intelligence" (a fun irony for anybody who knows that a computer will be his only friend in the series), likely talking about himself.

In "Curse of the Evil Eye", before the rest of that stuff happens, Baxter makes sure to note, "My calculations were correct. The third fragment did land in the river. And I recovered it!" when giving Shredder the final piece of the Eye of Sarnath.

While his transformation angst is minimal, in "Son of Return of the Fly II", fly-Baxter also claims he used to be a "great scientist".

The most obvious example of Fred Wolf Baxter's arrogance is the rest of "Curse of the Evil Eye", which also has him being unusually vicious and competent, even before he steals the title MacGuffin for his own use. Some fans think his malevolence is due to the effects of the Eye of Sarnath, the story works as a guy who's had enough and thinks he deserves better—and it's framed by the suggestion that Baxter thinks he's been underestimated.

Choice quotes:

"I'll make the world pay for not recognizing the genius of Baxter Stockman!"

"Surrender, Turtles, and I might spare you! If you admit that I, Baxter Stockman, have accomplished what Shredder could not!"

Baxter in this episode states his anger in terms of the insult to his "genius", that he's attacking everybody because he wants to hear that he's the smart one, dammit. Baxter is an evil, pompous little jackass whose evil is only kept in check by his spinelessness.

The arrogance of 4Kids's Stockman is everywhere, and far stronger. While he also has some very familiar moments of henchmanly submission, Stockman is also someone who, no matter how dire his situation, finds time to express arrogance.

Stockman bluffs Shredder to save his life in "Tales of Leonardo", but still finds time to praise himself for finding the "evidence" for the Turtles being destroyed. In "Rogue in the House, part 1", the now-bodiless Stockman boasts that he's responsible for all the Foot's technology. He's also willing to sabotage Dr. Chaplin's work in order to make his shine, obviously out of desperation not to be thrown out as medical waste, but contempt for a young usurper could underlie it, too.

Before all this, in "Return to New York Part 2" 4Kids Stockman boards a giant exosuit to attack the Shredder, taking revenge for his crippled body and ill treatment. Just as with "Curse of the Evil Eye", this attack is also framed as anger that he is not respected enough and is smarter than his overlord, which suggests a similarity of arrogance between them.

Choice quotes:

"You blind, ignorant, self-important fool. I made [the exo-suit] to destroy you. For every punishment you inflicted upon me, I will make you suffer tenfold. You will finally learn to respect my superior intellect."

"You'll all pay, all of you! Not one of you will leave this room alive! You'll all be crushed by the genius of Baxter Stockman!"

In the larger view, 4Kids Stockman is still a weak man, and seems to have annoyed some viewers with that fact. Pride alone can't make one a great man, and often Stockman's pride is the only thing he's got. However, this makes for a more compelling story than that of FW Baxter, who seems to have largely given up on real pride unless there's a magic jewel handy.

By giving 4Kids Stockman this unshakable pride, it brings out the potential for dark humour in his character. He's like Wile E. Coyote was in his speaking roles, constantly seeing himself as a "super genius" while constantly thwarted and in Stockman's case, constantly losing pieces of his body for his trouble. And it's very, very funny.

One of the best moments is at the end of "Rogue in the House Part 2" where 4Kids Baxter, the mere brain in tube, cheers his freedom as he floats helplessly in the ocean."Ah-ha! Once again, Baxter Stockman has cheated death!"…and then promptly sinks.

In comparison, while the slapstick involving Fred Wolf Baxter is funny, it doesn't make this picture of a character whose life is supposed to be hilariously terrible. There's just a bunch of stuff that happens. And Baxter's arrogance, suppressed or not, doesn't contribute to this absent picture.

Overall, it's better when the dark humour of Baxter's situation is brought out. It makes the writers seem like they care enough to build up a focused image of a character, and it makes the character himself richer because now there's a sort of rhythm to the crap he goes through.

And this dark humour is connected to pride. It's even more funny if Stockman doesn't give up, because the higher you go, the further you have to fall. Both versions of Stockman have the potential for this, but only 4Kids Stockman brings it out. Even if he hardly ever wins and is pathetic in his own way, the fact that 4Kids Stockman maintains his pride, even without reason, makes him a smidge more respectable.

Now, let's talk about transformation. The exact nature of a transformation doesn't change the fact that both versions of Baxter are transformed. They also both desire to be human, and both seem to have nine lives, always showing up when you thought you'd gotten rid of them.

The "nine lives" issue is done better in the 4Kids version. Each time the 4Kids Stockman cheats death, he gets a new body instead of falling into the formula of most (but not all) Baxterfly episodes, which just end with him stuck in another dimension. That keeps things fresher.

Furthermore, FW Baxter is one of the few mutated humans whose personality changes when he's transformed, which, while it probably makes him more memorable, is a mistake from a storytelling viewpoint. It makes it harder to create this consistency of character I mentioned above, which is a virtue for the same reasons.

The 4Kids series does more with Stockman's desire to be human. First there is "Insane in the Membrane", which details Stockman's rush to get a new human body and its subsequent horrific degeneration, while hallucinating his lost childhood. Stockman appears to die at the end, only to be salvaged again in later episodes.

There is also fallout, as Stockman remains arrogant, but now much more sour, with an annoyed desire to die. And then, in "Head of State", it is suggested that in the far-flung future, Stockman will finally get what he wants.

In comparison, Fred Wolf Baxter's desire to be human is noted but never achieved, and never an important plot point. The character even tends to forget the idea due to his mental degeneration, such as in "Revenge of the Fly", in which it takes half the episode for Baxter to remember that he actually wanted to be human. Little ever comes from this desire, except that it's an easy way for Shredder to bribe him.

Some viewers are surprised at this difference, surprised because the 4Kids series is a more serious, darker product, and 4Kids Baxter was "always" a villain, without a doubt. Why does he get what he wants, and not the silly Baxter who started out as a normal man who just wanted to sell his inventions?

Well, firstly because modern cartoons are generally better at keeping track of what they set up, and following through with it. The 4Kids series was just generally better about getting things done rather than settling into a status quo, and Stockman's ending proves that right. It's a mark of quality to have a thing, once introduced, actually amount to something. This is another thing that was "done right".

The Fred Wolf series' lack of the same is one reason why Baxter would have never become human. Furthermore, it would have gone against the moral laws of that universe. As I've said before, FW Baxter is not an innocent victim, especially as the series goes on. Because he's part of a universe where the moral lines are clearly drawn and all dilemmas solved in a half hour, of course he's never going to get what he wants.

4Kids Baxter didn't necessarily "earn" his granted wish, since he never actively sought redemption, but it's still no shock that it happened. It was a product of a different writing style, one that has nothing to do with whether a series is serious or comedic, but with finishing what one started and allowing sympathy for both good and evil characters. That is what I prefer, and that is one reason why the 4Kids take on Baxter works better.

Another reason is that while there is potential for both characters to be sympathetic, the 4Kids version is the one that actually wants you to sympathize with Stockman, at least after a point. "Insane in the Membrane" may be in a different galaxy from what the original cartoon was doing, but we're not focusing on the gore here. We're focusing on the creation of sympathy.

Now, showing that a villain used to be a lonely child with a loving mother doesn't make him innocent, but by showing Stockman's childhood, "Insane in the Membrane" demonstrates that the series itself has sympathy for the character, and this makes 4Kids Baxter Stockman more "alive". We can have sympathy for Fred Wolf Baxter, but there's never the sense you're supposed to.

Furthermore, "Insane in the Membrane" has 4Kids Stockman acknowledge what has been in staring him in the face this whole time: that despite his ego and his ambitions, he is a failure. To be reminded of the faith his mother had in him throws his situation into a harsh light, making it disturbing as well as funny, and the character the richer for it.

In contrast, nobody ever acknowledges how horrible a turn FW Baxter's life has taken, that he has lost all chance of normalcy. Perhaps that would have been too dark for the old show, but that sort of acknowledgement could still be made funny. It's not so much that this acknowledgment is darker, but that it exists which is the issue.

4Kids Baxter's first appearance works in his favour, too. Based on what we've gotten, not what we'd like stuff to be, it's better for Baxter Stockman to start as a villain outright (as based on the Mirage comics) since Fred Wolf Baxter starting out as ordinary and un-villainous never means anything. His turn to villainy is never explained and never has any emotional impact, so it's better to start out with him as a villain and simplify things.

Something about the image of Baxter Stockman as a self-destructive failure is more compelling than that of the ordinary villainous scientist he was in the Mirage comics. The 4Kids Stockman develops this idea the most, which makes him the best Baxter we've gotten. I find FW Baxter endearing for some odd reason, but he can't come close to that.

1 comment:

  1. For once, I don't have much more to say than "I agree", and "good insights"--by the way, I agree, and you have good insights--but I just want to mention quickly that I'd never noticed that 4Kids Baxter actually utters a variation of the "none of you will leave here" alive line that is most closely associated with the Shredder. Granted, the line exists because they couldn't say "I'll kill you all", but still: it amuses me.