Why I Don’t Like David Xanatos
6 September 2014 3 Comments
When it was first suggested that I write a “Why I Like…” post about David Xanatos, I decided to punt, for two reasons. First, I was not certain that I had anything interesting or new to say about the character. Second, I was, and currently am, undergoing a process of reevaluating whether or not I actually like him. So I’m doing something a bit different here and allowing some criticism to spill into my thoughts.
David Xanatos is in many ways the breakout star of Gargoyles, and possibly the one single element that caused the most impact on subsequent works. He shouldn’t be—that distinction, in a righteous world, would have gone to Elisa Maza—but there’s no denying that he’s become far bigger than the show that spawned him. And its not hard to see why: although not, technically speaking, the first of his kind—the Lex Luthor seen in season 1 of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman has a crapload of similarities, and had his heyday a year before Gargoyles debuted—he nevertheless opened up the world of western animation, by showing a new type of villain the medium hadn’t really seen before. While he hasn’t been replicated, big bads in general have become more like him, and the character itself has become synonymous with cultured, manipulative, clever villainy.
So it’s kind of impossible not to appreciate David Xanatos. He is a wonderfully conceived character, and one who is not only fun and entertaining, but is actually incredibly forward thinking. Although immoral business tycoons are also not new, Xanatos managed to be different due to the writers’ willingness to give him various positive qualities not usually given to villains. He is self-aware. He is, by nature, unflappable, meaning he is not given to the usual teeth-gnashing that follows failure in other villains. He can be incredibly loyal to those he feels deserve his loyalty. He is attractive and charming.
In short, David Xanatos fits the profile of the sort of antagonist fans love and shows eventually try to paint as heroic, or at least unobjectionable enough to regularly hang out with the good guys. This is more or less is what happens in Gargoyles, in a series of plot developments that culminate in “Hunter’s Moon”. There, after the Manhattan Clan’s lair gets destroyed and the gargoyles are forced on the run by an unfriendly public, they are offered shelter by Xanatos (who has come to see himself as being in the gargoyles’ debt) which Goliath accepts.
What we don’t get is a redemption arc, as the story quickly shows how little Xanatos has changed: he is still the person who kicked the gargoyles out of their home, hired assassins to kill them, cloned Goliath without his consent, and ended Derek Maza’s life just to fuck with Elisa. He is still an accessory to the murder of all the people Demona killed in “City of Stone”. And this is just the things we know he’s done: as a member of the one percent and a person with a moral compass often pointing to “amoral / immoral”, it is more than likely that he has had a hand in the suffering of thousands of people we’ll never get to meet.
And yet, the gargoyles are now in his home, and their livelihood is now tied to, and dependent on, his wellbeing. For them, Xanatos has now become Too Big To Fail, making Gargoyles, in 1996, the perfect example of How Things Now Work in the real world, as seen since 2008 or perhaps always. Much like the banks who gambled away billions in other people’s money were punished by being given the opportunity to make more money for themselves, the sum total of comeuppance Xanatos has received for his actions is getting the bodyguards he’s wanted since the beginning of the series. He even gets his own bailout, in the form of the gargoyles’ assistance in preventing his son from being taken, in “The Gathering”.
This isn’t criticism: rather, it’s an observation about the sort of story that Gargoyles ended up being: one where the character with the most privilege is allowed to be horrible and still win, and where the good guys are sort of okay with that. Even if we assume that he is slowly, thanks to the gargoyles’ influence, becoming a better person, it’s essential to know that he is being allowed to do so in perfect comfort while undergoing no punitive measures after his initial jail sentence, a boon not granted many others with far less red on their ledgers. It irks, not only because it’s far too realistic for my tastes, but because it at times feels like the writers have forgotten to be critical of the character, or have let the awesome parts of the character overshadow the horrible parts.
Now, Xanatos’ ability to continuously escape retribution is perfectly in line with the rest of the series, where good people don’t always win and bad people don’t always lose. What’s more, it’s perfectly realistic to show people with good intentions overlook immoral behavior by someone because of the benefits that person brings—this, in fact, has largely been U.S. policy regarding the financial sector. The problem isn’t in the set-up, which is a fertile ground for a thousand possible awesome conversations and stories, but the fact that those conversations and stories are ones we do not actually get. Characters should have a lot to say about the possibility that staying with Xanatos will corrupt them; instead they’re talking about how good the library at the castle is. Any concerns presented center on the idea that Xanatos may present a danger to the gargoyles, as if that were the totality of the issue. That Elisa has remained silent on the matter of her clan shacking up with the person who ruined her brother’s life is quite telling.
And it is part of a larger pattern. As Gargoyles progresses and Xanatos’ relationship with Goliath becomes warmer, the series simultaneously begins downplaying the things he has done and is still willing to do. His role in Demona’s “City of Stone” murders is never brought up. “The Price” presents Xanatos’ claims as quasi-benign, even when it’s impossible for him to be telling the truth. Talon’s very legitimate anger at the billionaire is delegitimized when the writers tie it to his desire to blame him for something he obviously did not do. The show frowns upon extra-legal ways of extracting reparation, ignoring the obvious fact that in several cases, no legal way of obtaining justice exists. Meanwhile, the legal avenues that exist are never attempted or even discussed—Xanatos’ brand of wrongdoing is, apparently, the sort one does nothing about.
Now, one could argue that Xanatos is by no means the only character so protected by the show–no legal action appears to have ever been taken against Sevarius, for one, and the gargoyles are rarely seen taking action against a bad guy unless they happen to fall on their laps. One could also argue that this inaction is an inherent, arguably essential part of superhero narratives, which are dedicated to maintaining the status quo no matter how shitty that status quo may be. While both things are true, there remains a stark difference between inaction and inaction one benefits from. Superman gains nothing from Lex Luthor’s misdeeds; the same cannot be said about the gargoyles.
Part of the reason why Xanatos feels so forward thinking is because he feels like a predecessor to anti-heroes like Al Swearengen (Deadwood) or Don Draper (Mad Men), which became popular after The Sopranos first discovered that there was an audience thirsting for stories of white men behaving badly. Yet, even if one believes that these show glorified their protagonists, one can’t argue that they presented their protagonists’ lives as being all kittens and grandmas. Tony Soprano sees many of his family members and friends gunned down, and frequently finds himself under siege. Don Draper, as of season 6 of Mad Men (I haven’t seen season 7, so no spoilers, please), is an alcoholic with a failed marriage, a second marriage that’s going the same way, a daughter that wants nothing to do with him, and a job he is increasingly less suited for and is increasingly less satisfying. Al Swearengen…actually, he turns out, more or less all right, give or take a missing finger, kidney stones, and the unstoppable approach of forces he cannot stop into the no-longer-a-camp he used to control. The message is clear: you might occasionally root for these rogues, but you wouldn’t want to be them. In contrast, being Xanatos begins seeming like a better deal the more the series goes on—by the time “Clan-Building” ends, he is a billionaire with a wife and son that he loves, who gets to do whatever he wants without consequence. Why wouldn’t one choose his path? Gargoyles can’t answer this question, and it imbalances the show.
I don’t dislike David Xanatos. I just dislike how he was eventually used.