Robert Rushing, University of Illinois
2014 was a big year for the peplum: a long-awaited sequel to 300 (2007) came out (300: Rise of an Empire), along with not one, but two Hercules films (Hercules and The Legend of Hercules) and Pompeii, complete with bare-chested gladiatorial combat. Schwarzenegger’s long-awaited return to the role of Conan, now in limbo, was getting a lot of news at the time, and the extremely successful television series Spartacus had just concluded, and this was also the year that I was finishing up this article and the larger book project that it comes from. Not much peplum material has filled up that vacuum since then (a tepid version of Ben-Hur is so far the year’s biggest flop), but Fox is currently revisiting the genre with some peplum nostalgia (principally the 1980s animated children’s series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, but also recent films like 300) with the partially animated, partially live-action series Son of Zorn.
The series addresses the disparity between contemporary masculinity and the melodramatic and epic masculinity depicted in the peplum genre, focusing on the comic mismatches between the cultural expectations of the mighty, massive and muscled warrior Zorn, Defender of the island of Zephyria (a reference to He-Man’s land of Eternia), and his ex-wife and son who live in modern-day suburban southern California. The series mostly goes for low-hanging fruit (the seven-foot tall beefy giant, clad only in a loincloth, squeezed into the middle seat of a commuter airline flight; the barbarian lout applying for a modern office job—“I managed an entire team of mutilators,” he brags to the woman who interviews him), but fundamentally, every comic mismatch is fundamentally textural—that is, haptic—in nature, because Zorn is animated, while the world of contemporary Orange County is live action.
The two worlds have incommensurable textures in a doubled way. The animated world of Zorn is simplistic, brightly colored, and generally smooth (that is, the objects in it, from his muscled chest to his leather straps or his sword, have little or no surface character), and the overall effect is a kind of textural-visual nostalgia for the childhood animation of the 1980s and 1990s, especially He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. At the same time, the texture of Zorn and his life is incommensurable in a different way, too, culturally and socially simplistic and reductive: his unsophisticated and unreformed masculinity are a poor match for the contemporary world, and he constantly rubs people the wrong way. The animated texture serves as a marker of nostalgia for a time gone by, but also for a lost time of crude and barbaric masculinity: Zorn calls a waitress “food whore,” and hacks the conference table at work in half with his sword. Every interaction between these two regimes, then, is a kind of doubled textural “catch” in which the animated texture is a marker of something that does not texturally match, simultaneously a social irritant and a visual nostalgia.
The result is rather complex, in that the animation appears as an infantile pleasure—Jason Sudeikis, the actor who voices Zorn, strives for the same kind of louche and narcissistic man-baby that H. Jon Benjamin created in Archer. Zorn hasn’t grown up, hasn’t moved past the excesses of his youth the way Edie, his former wife, has (she is now engaged to a sedate professor of psychology), and while the audience can appreciate his intentions in making overtures to his estranged son, Alangulon (a sensitive, bracelet-wearing vegetarian who goes by Alan), Zorn initially comes off as an awkward jerk, unable to appreciate his child and the world he now finds himself in. The childhood nostalgia is also heavily ironized, and held at arm’s length: in the opening scene, we see Zorn fighting the forces of evil with his comrades, including Head-Butt Man and Skunk Man. Skunk Man is a typical character from shows that were designed to appeal to children like He-Man, Thundarr the Barbarian, or Conan the Adventurer: a faithful anthropomorphic animal sidekick. Skunk Man is charming: with a cute, high-pitched and somewhat child-like voice, he eagerly expresses his desire to one day meet Zorn’s family. But in the next moment, one of their enemies crushes his head, spraying bright fuchsia blood over Zorn’s face. This defacement of childhood innocence is, of course, a literal defacement of the main character, but is also a sign of the gap between the animated peplum and modern fare like 300 or Spartacus: Blood and Sand—the elaborate spatter of blood was, for both, the signature visual mark (indeed, when Head-Butt Man sees his son killed by their enemies right in front of him, it is a clear reference to a famous scene in 300 when the young Spartan warrior Astinos is decapitated as his father, Captain Artemis, watches). If the show was designed to appeal to viewers who watched He-Man when they were children, it does so by offering a complex nostalgia that is never allowed to be innocent, and it defaces that memory throughout.
The mixture of animation and live action has always produced a curious effect: from “The Enchanted Drawing” (1900) to Mary Poppins (1964) or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), the two registers have almost always been used to demarcate a world of wish-fulfillment fantasies (the animated world) and humdrum reality (live action); the special thrill or frisson—we might even say, in a haptic sense, the particular texture—is precisely the interaction of the two. That is, the viewer’s imagination is captured precisely and even exclusively by the haptic in this genre: the possibility of touching the animated world, which seems to hold out infinite promise of magical whimsy (Mary Poppins) or erotic satisfaction (Cool World (1992)). Son of Zorn is not a lavish production, so it generally avoids difficult scenes in which Zorn directly interacts with the live action world—the show generally withholds this “magical” interaction from the viewer. The inability to negotiate the double textures of the peplum world (barbarians take what they want and behave how they like, living a violent life of real men) and the real world (masculine behavior is constrained at all times) does take a specific visual-textural form when the two world cross, however: the stain. But because these two textural registers are incompatible, objects from the real world leave animated stains on the animated world (as when Zorn sprays mustard on himself from a recalcitrant package on the airplane, brusquely dismissing the live-action baby wipe offered to him by his seat mate), and objects from the animated world leave live-action stains on the live world (as when Zorn hurls a cup of coffee at a parked car in order to scare Edie and Alan). This haptic incommensurability, of course, parallels the episode’s emotional arc: the apparent textural-social-emotional incompatibility of Zorn and Alan.
How are the sensitive and politically correct young men of today to establish a relationship with the epic tales of yesteryear’s masculinity? Well, through feeling, of course. In particular, Zorn must learn to think about other people and other people’s feelings—a lesson he learns from his supervisor at work, Linda, who teaches him the meaning of the word “consideration.” Zorn realizes that his son, a typical 17 year-old in Southern California, is embarrassed about taking the school bus every day rather than driving, and so he gets “a sweet ride” for him. Unfortunately for all and sundry, the “sweet ride” is a gigantic, deadly (and animated) Death Hawk from Zephyria, and even though things go about as badly as they could, Alan realizes at this moment that his father is not only trying to connect with him, but is starting to have some insight into his desires and feelings. In the episode’s closing scene, there is something of a reversal. Alan’s mother does not realize that he has been touched by his father’s gesture—but this immediately raises the question: how could he be touched by his father at all, since they live in entirely non-contiguous regimes of reality? In a quite literal sense, how could he touch his father’s gift, and in a metaphoric sense, how could it touch him?
Edie sums up this total incompatibility when she says to her son through the bathroom door as he’s getting ready for bed: “He’s just having a hard time realizing we’re nothing like him. You’re not like him at all.” Alan replies, “Oh, yeah, you’re right. I’m nothing like him,” but his delivery is flat, scripted and artificial, making it clear to the viewer that he is beginning to see how he might be something like his father. And indeed, the last shot of the episode shows us that the two textures, animated nostalgia for the epic and lost age of masculinity and the contemporary world of sensitive, vegetarian guys may not be so incommensurable after all. The last sequence of the episode is of the milquetoast Alan, brushing his teeth and getting ready for bed in a pair of boxers and a plain white t-shirt—but a sudden cut to a medium shot reveals that he is literally (which in this series means texturally) like his father: the lower half of his body, concealed up until now by the pants he wears) is animated.
Let’s unpack that image a little. As the camera pulls back to reveal more and more of Alan’s legs, we might notice the lack of Barker’s musculature—not only are Alan’s legs just normally muscled for a 17 year-old boy, but in order to avoid spoiling the shot, he has to hold his body rigidly still from the waist down, and camera movement is limited to a straight pullback in order to avoid problems of perspective. The goal here is surely to connect the layer of skin (in Barker’s sense of surface texture) to a deeper, and not fully conscious kind of feeling, more akin to Barker’s viscera. Their apparent match in surface texture indicates a possible sympathy deep within as well. Indeed, Alan’s chimerical skin (half live-action, half-animated) suggests that in some way, the epic barbarian is the lower half and man’s lower register, subordinated (one hopes) to the more mature reasoning of civilized and modern masculinity, suggesting in particular that masculinity may, at its root, be “barbarian” after all—particularly since Alan is at pains in later episodes to conceal this form of socially unacceptable difference.
As I argued about 300, the use of the haptic in order to create a sense of fellow feeling is not always or automatically ethically positive. Certainly, a father and his estranged son re-connecting after years apart on the basis of their shared “skin” seems relatively unproblematic. More troublingly, however, the shared skin through which father and son recognize their mutuality in this episode is implicitly racialized. The peplum from the 1990s on frequently presents its own version of “post-racial” thinking by offering the viewer a “pre-racial” universe in which the characters do not seem to be aware of racial differences (see The Scorpion King for a typical example, or the television series BeastMaster). And indeed, while Zorn is hyper-sensitive to gender, he seems completely unaware of race. So, while he challenges Edie’s fiancé in terms of masculinity, he doesn’t seem at all aware the Craig is African American, or that his son’s love interest is Asian American. And yet, the show depends on the viewer understanding such differences; in particular, the subtle feeling that Zorn, avatar of heroic white masculinity, does not quite fit in this world, always a textural rough patch, as in the image above, where he is sandwiched between—again—the African-American man and the Asian-American woman. But we should not ignore that when he goes to seek a job, his interviewer and future boss is also a woman of color, and that his résumé has been marked (and we should note the two contrasting textures, the cool, official Helvetica of the résumé against the scrawled, double underline, double exclamation point handwriting) as a “diversity hire.” Because he is perceived as mentally challenged? Because he is a cartoon-American? Or because lurking in the background, the feeling more than the idea that no one is more of an oppressed minority in need of protection than the white man, especially in his heroic and epic dimension?