Back in 2019, Sonny Bunch wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled “Environmentalists make good movie villains because they want to make your real life worse.” The piece focused on Thanos, the Malthusian villain of the Avengers films, but Bunch provides other examples, and more have emerged in the two and a half years since.
The latest is found in the recent episode of “Rick and Morty,” titled “A Rickconvenient Mort” as the show’s writers self-consciously adopted the same motivations for the superhero “Planetina.” As usual, the show takes the trope to the next level.
Planetina (voiced by Alison Brie) is based heavily on the ‘90s cartoon hero Captain Planet. Summoned into being by an ethnically diverse group of teenagers wearing magic rings, Planetina uses her superpowers to save the Earth from polluters. She also happens to be a hot green chick with whom Morty instantly falls in love.
Like Captain Planet, Planetina is grounded in a form of environmentalism from an earlier time. This is no Greta Thunberg or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lecturing about carbon emissions: Planetina has the green vibe many of us remember from those days: picking up litter, fighting acid rain, recycling, and saving cute animals. It is a throwback to a hopeful environmentalism that was compatible with human life.
Planetina reciprocates Morty’s feelings for her but is limited by her superhero duties and constrained by the public relations image developed for her by her teen creators — who are now middle-aged and cynical.
Rick, meanwhile, once more finds adventuring with Summer to be more appealing than hanging with an earnest, lovesick Morty. Drinking again for the first time since last season, Rick flies with Summer off to three separate planets, all of them facing extinction from some natural phenomenon. Each planet is throwing a party to end all parties before they go, and Rick and Summer plan to join all three for carefree, no-strings-attached, nihilist fun.
Rick is the first to break the rules, falling for an alien named Daphne (voiced by Jennifer Coolidge) on the first planet and sneaking her off-world in his ship. As in the first two episodes, Rick vacillates between hating the confinement of family and love and being compelled to recreate both everywhere he goes. Summer grows weary of the two of them as they continue to travel and suspects Daphne is just using Rick to escape armageddon.
Back on Earth, meanwhile, the planet is not facing destruction, but no thanks to Planetina’s controlling foursome, who have become more interested in merchandising than in any environmental cause. They plan to sell the rings that summon her — and her as well, by implication — to a wealthy sheik when Morty bursts in to rescue her. Seizing the fire ring from its wielder, he fights his way out, killing all and collecting the rings in the process.
Now, at last, Planetina is free to pursue her dream of radical environmentalism, and Morty with her. They turn almost immediately to ecoterrorism. Morty goes along with some arson, but when Planetina kills three hundred miners to stop them from doing their jobs, he realizes it’s all gone too far.
Planetina’s heel turn is a funny twist in the story, but it looks squarely at the kind of corrosive extremism in the fringes of the green movement. As Bunch wrote in 2019, “Environmentalists make a useful villain because their malevolence can be obscured by a patina of reasonableness. Global warming and other manmade problems are going to end the world if we don’t do something — so just about anything is justified! But their villainy resonates with the masses because they actually do want to make life worse for people, for the most part.”
Driving each other to be ever more extreme, the radical fringe loses sight of the goal of environmentalism. Instead of wanting to preserve this planet for all humanity, they start talking as if humanity is the problem. To save the Earth from humanity rather than for it leads necessarily to actions against humans. Really sustainable living requires the contemplation of tradeoffs and side effects. But superheroes — or supervillains — don’t have to think about that stuff.
For the dedicated greenster who does not want to go off the deep end, the result looks more like what Planetina’s creators wanted: a popular, celebrity-fueled movement of vaguely inspiring environmentalism that does absolutely nothing. This is the Hollywood shade of green and, increasingly, the Washington one, too. Big speeches and dramatic statements, followed by private jets, superyachts, and more imports from China.
In the end, only Summer actually saves a planet, neutralizing the asteroid threat to the world she is visiting just to shut down Rick and Daphne’s romance. It works: as soon as she’s not fleeing annihilation, Rick’s soulmate drops him like Planetina dropped those workers down a mine shaft. Morty ends up a little wiser, Summer a little more Rick-like. Rick, in more role-reversal for the fifth season, must face the embarrassment of having engaged in what he would normally consider the greatest error: caring.