This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 31 Episode 14
The Simpsons season 31, episode 14, “Bart The Bad Guy” strikes at the very heart of all of comic book culture. The eldest child of the Simpsons family is the reason we have spoiler alerts at the beginning of these reviews. The superpowers he exhibits in this episode make him the pinnacle supervillian of the theatrical experience. Bart is the phantom of the Springfield Googleplex. He has seen the future and we don’t want to know.
The episode opens in the Marble Universe, a stand-in for the esteemed and exponentially lucrative Marvel Studios creation. The Vindicators, a conglomerate of superheroes with dubious and lackluster superpowers are trying to stop the bad guys from setting off a doomsday app which will reboot the planet as a utopia. A utopia for killing, as it is revealed in the funny-but-not-too-funny banter of Magnesium Man, mocking the very core of our beliefs in such heroic icons, the funny rejoinder. The do-gooders are taken out of the equation like a broken vase, shattering the audience with a cliffhanging Infinity Gauntlet of a semi-conclusion.
A year is a million years in the minds of Springfield’s comic book movie fanatics and the episode captures the anticipation fairly well. We’ve seen the great lengths studios go to in order to ensure no leaks make their way to the public. HBO considered having their Game of Thrones footage delivered by actual dragons, and protected by the Unsullied. Avengers: Endgame had as much at stake in keeping its heroes’ deaths secrets as the Avengers did in procuring the Soul Stone. Loose lips sink openings.
The episode then flashes forward 11 months where Principal Skinner is attempting to stop the kids from learning about a dangerous new trend. He does this by projecting the most exciting video reaction by the super-popular video influencer, the Reactor, onto the school’s auditorium’s screen. He makes the “flag yourself challenge” sound more fun than Skinner ever could. The Simpsons immediately flashes forward to five minutes later when Bart is, of course, recording his own reaction video. The flashforwards are in themselves setups, and work as a short running gag. We sense the punchlines going in, and they are used strictly for comic timing.
We knew someone was going to try the trending prank just like we know someone is going to get hurt for it. The usual suspect, Millhouse, takes the brunt of the stunt as it goes inevitably bad. He is dragged downhill, a la Homer at Springfield Gorge in season 2’s classic episode “Bart the Daredevil,” by the Springfield Elementary School cannon. Thus begins Bart’s slide into supervillainy.
The sign on the front of Springfield’s Hospital reads “recycle use bandages here,” which is probably a comment on where health care is going. But this is where El Barto is rebranded The Spoiler. Franchise star Glenn Tangier is there to talk to sick kids, a celebrity act he loathes performing, but does “for the buggers.” The Australian actor plays Air Shot, whose special power is apparently breathing. He happens to be Bart’s favorite Vindicator.
Bart impersonates the ailing Millhouse, and convinces the reluctant actor he is a kid who is filled to the brim with Adelaide spunk. Then Bart proves it by waiting for the actor to fall into a drunken stupor and watch a preview copy of “The Vindicators 2,” something which is reserved for terminal cases, where the children won’t live to see the sequel. Because who can die without knowing? Sweet boomerang Jesus, Bart finally finds a real use for knowledge. With one swipe of an inebriated thumb, he becomes the most powerful kid in the world.
Given the choice between using his powers for good or evil, Bart picks blackmail. He is us. He’s had his eye on the new “Dr. 3 a.m.” graphic novel but it is guarded by Comic Book Guy, who turns out to be a tower of ethical strength, if not decisive fortitude. The comic book store owner could make social media life miserable all over the internet, but ultimately renegs on the devilish deal, preferring to be surprised by the film itself. A noble endeavor. So Bart turns it around, holding the outcome of his favorite character, Black Poodle, the champion of the French quarter. Once he gets a taste for it, he’s hooked. Bart can’t blackmail his sister, Lisa, so he co-opts her. She learns to love exploitation. Her superpower is stealing hearts and celebrity selfies.
Bart gets too high on his own supply. He knows the film’s release means the endgame for his wicked streak and demands his last payoff humiliate the community as much as it enriches him. He wants his own treehouse built in old Susie, Springfield’s most beloved shrub. It’s enough to put the squeeze on the short and curlies of the most cynical caped crusader. To ensure the townspeople cave in to his demands, Bart declares the loudest man in town, Homer, will be on every street corner yelling the ending. Even Thanos, the son of Eternals A’lars and Sui-San, has never been that insidious.
It takes Millhouse to make Bart look in the mirror and recognize he is truly the super villain in this story. Bart never dreamed spoilers could hurt people, but learns spoilers kill. The Simpsons has an ethical center and never truly passes the edge in the final count.
The final solution to a spoiler-free future is truly unexpected. Bart is tossed into the alternative universe in a virtual reality, where he is given the choice to doom the Vindicators with his prescient acuity or save his soul by keeping his mouth shut. The gambit put on by the studios is truly insidious, even after most of the special effects which secured the illusion are exposed. First, we see the dangerous powers the Hollywood elite truly possess, and then they further darken their intent by allowing the witnesses to survive, for now.
No one’s ever been hurt by gaslighting, they promise and say the deceit can be written off as an immersive fan experience. The risks are worth it because if the studio experiences anything short of a 55 hold on the second weekend it will cause worldwide financial collapse. Marge is less worried about the merchandise and Halloween costumes than Bart’s soul which is at stake. He is truly tempted to embrace his destiny as a villain because it comes with real powers, rather than short term extortion. But he turns it down, proving Homer’s deepest fear, that his son is still so, so stupid.
The episode also takes on, very subtly, the arguments which comic book film spurred last year. The Martin Scorsese stand-in in this episode is not played by Fat Tony, who is perfectly willing to slit the boy’s throat to ensure a pristine cinematic experience. Homer has the same superpower the director of The Irishmanhas: He doesn’t care what happens in comic book movies. They’re not really films to him. He’d rather go to a theme park where they have hotdogs. It’s not a Boomer thing. It’s a cloaking device from a completely different federation. You can’t spoil a movie for someone who doesn’t care what happens. Like Scorsese, Homer already knows the good guys win. They always do. It’s the same story over and over again. But, like Scorsese’s most mobbed up characters, Bart’s sinister tone, and the fortunes they promise, intrigue him.
The Simpsons remain current with this episode while subtly referencing and satirizing the comic book conspiracies. The series gets to bite the hand they feed in taking on the Disney property which will always pull in larger returns for the hungry mouse. The song “When You Wish Upon a Star” has rarely been as frighteningly used as it is here to remind us Disney is always watching. Having Kevin Feige Spoiler and the Russo brothers appear as guests makes it seem like good-natured ribbing, and the suits at Disney will take it that way, for now. Oh and one final spoiler alert: “Bart the Bad Guy” ends at the end of the episode. There is no post-credit sequence.
“Bart the Bad Guy” was written by Dan Vebber and directed by Jennifer Moeller..
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Krusty the Clown and Groundskeeper Willie, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Comic Book Guy, Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Pamela Hayden voices multiple parts. Guest voices: Kevin Feige as Chinnos, Tal Fishman as Reaction Guy, Taran Killam as Glen Tangier/Airshot, Joe Mantegna as Fat Tony, Joe and Anthony Russo as film executives, and Cobie Smulders as Hydrangea.
The Simpsonsepisode “Bart The Bad Guy” aired Sunday, March 1, on Fox.