Friday, July 13, 2012

No One Feels Bad About Decapitating A Robot

The next X-villains are ones that almost everybody of my generation is familiar with. In the animated X-Men series of the early nineties, they were the antagonists of the two part series premiere. I give you the elite  robotic mutant hunting force of the world, the Sentinels.

Art by Buster Moody

Certain aspects of the sentinels as a concept make them ideal for villains in an early nineties Saturday morning cartoon. They have relatively little individual personality (most of the time) which allows more space to establish the individual X-Men and women's personalities, they let you introduce the idea of non-powered humans hating and fearing mutants in a way that has substantial metaphorical weight, and ,best of all, they are robots. That means you can have Wolverine do whatever you want to them and it's a-okay. Decapitations and eviscerations aplenty are perfectly acceptable, as long as it's happening to a big dumb robot. The title of this debut episode is Night of the Sentinels, a riff on Remero's classic debut that launched a thousand apocalypses. Sentinels tend to be used like the zombie as a creature our heroes can abuse almost anyway they like without moral reservation. Our heroes can't murder the human scientists and politicians and average people on the street who react poorly to their fear of being rendered obsolete by quirks of genetics, but they can abuse the robotic manifestations of that hate and fear all they like. It's a role they play well, but as with the other X-folks I've looked at here, I wonder if the narrow role of a robotic anti-mutant gestapo is really the best that can be done with these guys.

Both this Alex Ross art and the art above by Buster Moody emphasize the aspect of Sentinels that has been played with the most over the decades. The creepy otherness of their collective uniformity. Like zombies or Klansmen, the Sentinels defy individuation becoming a mass of same over and over again in an eerie presentation of uniformity. As such they become a mechanical stand in for any hate group or oppressive apparatus you like.

As with the other characters I've profiled, I think this simple comparison sells the Sentinels a bit short.

The Sentinels may have been devised by small minded  men afraid of the future mutants represented, but they quickly evolved beyond their initial programming. In the story that introduces them, the Sentinels almost immediately decide that the best way to follow their mission to safeguard humanity was to take complete control of the planet. In some stories after the first the Sentinels would retain their autonomy and in others they would be controlled to various anti-mutant individuals and concerns. In the dystopic possible future of the Days of Future Past storyline, the Sentinels, in the style of Skynet, had successfully purged the world of every mutant except Wolverine and Kitty Pryde. Like the fascists that inspried their creation, the Sentinels offer protection through domination.

Like Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the Sentinels reflect certain aspects of the X-Men themselves. Both groups are uniform in appearance, though the Sentinels take this to the point of interchangeability. There's also the contrast of the biological with the technological. The Sentinels are feats of engineering and computer science, while the X-Men owe their powers to the flukes of genetic mutation. The Sentinels were built with a purpose, but quickly ran out of control, where the X-Men started untrained, but learned discipline.

This points to some interesting takes on the concept.One could introduce the idea that although they seem completely uniform, the Sentinels do indeed have subtle variations of personality from unit to unit. This is actually suggested by some of the interactions between individual Sentinels in their original appearance. Given the X-Men's casual use of the most cathartic violence against what seem to be mindless automatons, it could come as a real shock to find Sentinels who have a culture that includes grotesque stories of the cruelties that mutantkind has inflicted upon Sentinels. Perhaps some Sentinels take pride in their fellows heroic sacrifices. Perhaps some swear undying vengeance.

The Sentinels also make a convenient proxy for mankind's general ambivalence about it's own inventions. With atomic power one can both power and level cities. Perhaps Sentinels could take new innovative forms. Nimrod was a Sentinel from the future and he doesn't look too far away from the iWhatever aesthetic. Maybe the Sentinels could try crippling Cerebra with denial of service attacks. They could integrate themselves into the technological infrastructure so discreetly and covertly becoming so helpful that it's easy to overlook their goal of world domination. I like the idea that to non mutants the Sentinels really do want to be as helpful as they can within the parameters of their "eliminate mutants, protect humans" programming Despite Magneto's desires to the contrary, mutants prove to be quite human at every turn. (In fact, I believe this is why the earthbound soap opera character subplots are so resonant in X-Men. They reiterate the characters' basic humanity in the face of their powers.) Anyone familiar with classic Star Trek shouldn't be surprised that these somewhat paradoxical instructions send the Sentinels a bit mad.

That's when these big tin cans are at their best. On the outside they're all mechanical precision and uniformity, inside they're all nonsensical genocidal plots and plans for romantic mutant free utopia. The Sentinel should be the beat cop gone a bit barmy and mad with power. The Sentinel should represent absurd power structures and hierarchies of all kinds. They should have convoluted ranking systems and leadership struggles. This isn't some state funded secret police force, this is an ill equipped ragtag militia who would never stand a chance if they weren't big hulking robots. They should be, for the X-Men, a good solid lesson about how a superteam trying to save the world is better run as a character building after school program, and not as some wacky-ass paramilitary force.

Next: When Howls the Wolf Man

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