Like any good ’90s kid, I vividly recall the Captain Planet animated series and Whoopi Goldberg’s role as the voice of omniscient Gaia, the spirit of Mother Earth. Goldberg was a part of my childhood, specifically her role in The Lion King as Shenzi the hyena. Those three hyenas were my favorite characters in my favorite movie. So, I have a compounded fondness for the Planeteers.
According to Captain Planet, “the power” to enact sweeping environmental change lay in my hands. Pollution? Acid rain? Radioactive frogs with two heads? Don’t worry everyone—us kids have got this under control! As children, we were invincible. We could do anything! And if we couldn’t, Captain Planet would be there to sort it all out in the tidy time-span of approximately thirty minutes (with room for commercials).
Chances are, you too recall or have at least stumbled across this environmentally-charged children’s cartoon. But few remember the series of Captain Planet comic books, which also provided a form of “edutainment” for eco-minded youngsters such as myself. For everything that seems outdated about these comics today, (awful puns like “Heart Attack” on the cover), they also serve to remind us of contemporary environmental concerns. In 2015, with doomsday prophecies surrounding climate change and global warming dominating headlines, the need to “come together to save the planet” is more relevant now than ever before. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and return to a few issues of the comic that withstood the test of time.
Issue #3 of Captain Planet and the Planeteers starts off with the evil Argos Bleak’s commandeering of a toxic-waste filled missile at the McArthur Missile Base. He plans to launch the missile straight to Washington, D.C. for ughhhh … Well, see that’s yet another thing that makes these comics feel a little corny. The polluters rarely have a motivation that makes sense. Whereas real life corporate villains produce pollution as an industrial by-product, the Captain Planet villains pollute … just ‘cause. Meanwhile, back with Gaia on Hope Island, the Planeteers are playing a ball game. When Gaia first assembled the Planeteers, she bequeathed each of them with a magic ring, and therefore, a magic power: Kwame’s was the power of the Earth, Gi’s was water, Wheeler’s was fire, Linka’s was wind, and Ma-Ti’s was heart. When Ma-Ti’s turn comes around and he drops the ball, Wheeler (the indolent child he is) mocks him and his heart power.
However, in this issue, it is ultimately Ma-Ti’s heart that saves the day. Considering himself useless against Argos Bleak’s missiles, he hides until Gaia gives him support. Stating that his heart is “primal in power and boundless in possibilities,” he feels somewhat rejuvenated. Charging in with an army of nearby animals, he works with them to distract Bleak and his no-good henchmen. Ma-Ti then confronts Argos himself, using his heart ring force to look deep into Argos’ evil soul and take him out in the process. By succeeding with the power of pure good intentions and determination, Ma-Ti proves to the other children that courage and compassion can sometimes be stronger than fire or brute force. I was particularly moved by this as a child, because Ma-Ti was always my personal favorite character, and because it goes to show how important compassion and patience are. He was the character that embodied the idea that compassion (and the compulsion to do good) needed be the driving force behind environmentalism.
Issue #8 of the Captain Planet comics series contains the story “Showdown on Hope Island.” The crew of Planeteers have called upon Captain Planet to take out that scoundrel Captain Pollution. However, once the Captain finds that he can’t defeat Pollution on his own, he returns to the Planeteers with his tail between his legs. Combining their efforts with those of Captain Planet, they come together in unison to defeat Captain Pollution. Ma-Ti uses his “heart” powers to determine Captain Pollution’s devastating effects on the planet and ultimately crushes him. How does Ma-Ti harness this “heart power” to save the planet? Somehow, the heart power enables him to read minds and communicate telepathically with animals.
Further along in Issue #8 we come into contact with the evil Dr. Blight. He’s in the middle of torching a DRB Industries building where an eco-friendly car has been on display. Kwame and Gi are able to quell the flames, but some of the fire reaches chemicals also stored in the building. Of course, they ignite and explode, producing poisonous fumes. The final component of the series, entitled “Carbon Copy,” parallels current battles between corporate entities and rogue environmentalist groups, such as the Earth Liberation Front.
Looking back on it now, the Planeteers are clearly a mini-UN, led by the United States (and the fact that the white U.S. kid gets “firepower” is certainly unsurprising). But rising beyond that, the idea of an international strike force against pollution and global warming is still inherently positive. Consumers today, even young ones, should be aware that the steps they take to implement “green” energy solutions and other conservation efforts directly affect the health of our planet. Because, while Captain Planet himself might be an animated (or illustrated) figure, issues surrounding climate change are very real.
When I was a child, I loved Captain Planet for many of the same reasons that I loved She-Ra and TaleSpin—they were high action cartoons with compelling characters. Now, decades later, She-Ra and TaleSpin fail to thrill me in the way they once did. On the other hand, there are elements of the social message behind Captain Planet that I recognize and appreciate now in a way that I simply couldn’t when I was a little girl. Time has ultimately shown that Captain had way more substance than his contemporaries.