Aeon Flux is adult animation that actually treats the audience like adults

My response to a 2nd season of Netflix’s animated anthology series Love, Death & Robots was preemptive fatigue. I took pleasure in a few of the very first wave of episodes, specifically Albert Mielgo’s “The Witness” and Robert Valley’s “Zima Blue,” however the sales pitch of animation for “mature, messed-up” grownups made me flinch. For a series that declares maturity, most of season 1’s otherwise magnificently animated shorts seemed like workouts in teen hyper-fixation, with just blood, boobs, and gore as a thematic through-line. There was absolutely nothing below their glossy surface areas.

Fortunately, Love, Death & Robots season 2 surpasses the very first, with 8 shorts that reduced the unjustified nudity and violence and are speculative in such a way that’s really fully grown. Adjusting works by J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison, and the addition of Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2), who signs up with series developer Tim Miller (Deadpool) as co-executive manufacturer and directs “Pop Squad,” among this season’s standout installations, all appears to have actually assisted the series to grow.

However there’s still the problem of categorizing Love, Death & Robots as “adult” animation, a description that, nevertheless well suggesting, unintentionally frames the medium as one meant “for kids.” How then do we even set about specifying “adult” animation, not to mention excellent “adult” animation? My meaning originates from one specific series: Peter’s Chung’s progressive sci-fi series Æon Flux. More modern versions of the category (consisting of Love, Death,& Robots) might gain from the precedent that developer Peter Chung and his group set almost thirty years back.

The title card of the 1991 Aeon Flux Pilot

Image: MTV Animation

Premiering on MTV’s speculative animation range reveal Liquid Tv in 1991, Æon Flux follows a dominatrix-assassin as she shoots her method through winding passages of a large and apparently impregnable complex while on an undefined objective. In the beginning glimpse, the very first two-minute sector appears to perpetuate the exact same exhausted conventions of so-called “adult” animation of which I would implicate the very first season of Love, Death & Robots: an overreliance on surface-level violence and scantily attired sexual images in service of the male look. Even the thunderous orchestral rating was, according to series author Drew Neumann, clearly developed to trick the audience by conjuring up John Williams’ Raiders of the Lost Ark style … however “broken.”

Æon Flux’s 2nd sector totally reverses the characteristics. Performing as a grisly counterpoint to the action motion picture heroics of the very first, Chung frames the episode from the viewpoint of among Aeon’s numerous and confidential foes, opening with a passing away male experiencing a Steambot Willie-esque hallucination as he catches his injuries. Surrounding him are other bodies, a lot of to count, depending on a huge swimming pool of blood and loaded into lots of mountains of remains. A group of custodians with mops searches from the sidelines as Aeon marches forward, shooting off-screen with careless desert. It ends up, our heroine may not in reality be a heroine at all. Just what is Aeon intending to achieve here? What did these soldiers do to provoke such an attack? Who precisely are the “good” men and who are the “bad” men in this circumstance?

Whatever about Æon Flux focuses on overturning expectations and motivating the audience to inspect beyond the surface area of an impression. At first pitched as a Spy vs. Spy-like action series, and integrating such remote points of motivation as Franco-Belgian comics, cyberpunk fiction, and Gnosticism, the initial 12-minute pilot and its five-episode 2nd season are almost missing of spoken discussion. Instead, the animator speaks to the audience through designed environments, dynamic camera angles, and elaborate, expressive actions and gestures. “My stories have ambiguity, so I don’t want them to be ambiguous portrayals of an ambiguous event,” Chung said in an interview with Art of the Title back in 2017. “I want them to be as clear a portrayal of an ambiguous event as possible.”

Aeon Flux confronting herself in “A Last Time For Everything”

Image: MTV Animation

This emphasis on artful ambiguity and rhetorical sleight-of-hand remained when Chung made the leap to fully voiced characters and storylines with a final season of half-hour episodes. To maintain the spirit of the show with a newly voiced, and occasionally quite verbose incarnation of Aeon, Æon Flux relied on double, sometimes even triple entendres. Speech was, in the words of voice director Jack Fletcher on the DVD commentary track for the Season 3 episode “Utopia or Deuteranopia?,” “‘[…] a kind of italicized or an underlying way of saying what they were saying with their facial gestures.” Dialogue, then, became a complementary element to the mystery and appeal inherent in each episode. Aeon dies at some point or another in every short, effectively resetting the continuity of its universe and characters, and with it, the viewer’s understanding of that universe, forcing the audience to scrutinize the subtleties of its characters’ interactions in order to discern the greater meaning of the whole from its parts. The very design of Aeon herself feels like an implicit critique of the aestheticization of violence; an attractive, yet grotesque imaging of lethal femininity transmogrified through the power of the male gaze.

The writing in Æon Flux is a balancing act between giddy throwbacks to action and sci-fi serials, while deliberately prompting the audience to question the arbitrary moral justifications for the violence for which they’re witnessing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second season short, succinctly titled “War,” which follows two opposing factions locked in a brutal and uncompromising battle. The short opens on Aeon, who is promptly killed along with one of her allies. Then Chung switches to the perspective of her killer, who himself is killed by a sword-wielding martial artist, and so on, with no spoken dialogue whatsoever. “War” foregrounds the arbitrariness of right and wrong, revealing through nuanced beats and animation the personality and drives of each protagonist in less than five minutes. The impetus and goal of the battle itself is never shown nor even implied; war exists as an example of supposedly “mindless” action spectacle that explicates the human dimension and mortal loss of those who participate in it. Æon Flux speaks to its audience not by excoriating the pleasure of watching a ton of dudes getting gunned down by mortar fire and machine guns, but making the thematic interrogation of that pleasure a central part of the experience.

Thanks to a biopunk, star-crossed romance set between the fault lines of a never-ending conflict between an Orwellian nation of technocrats and an anarchistic city-state of libertine saboteurs, Chung had the freedom in Æon Flux to dabble in every kind of genre and mythology. The half-hour episode titled “The Demiurge” asks big questions with open-ended answers, with a premise which the animator describes in the DVD director’s commentary as the ultimate Aeon Flux mission. In the episode, Aeon is on a mission to kill God, literally. At the crux of the episode is a philosophical struggle between two characters: Aeon herself and Trevor Goodchild, her nemesis-lover and the leader of Bregna. Although her mission is presumably just another battle in the ongoing feud between the two nations, Aeon’s quest to kill the Demiurge is a personal one. “Because of the possibility of the existence of a deity, one that has a perfect moral authority, the existence of that makes Aeon uncomfortable,” says Chung. “She’s not prepared to deal with the guilt of what she does with her life, which is leading a life of violence.”

Aeon Flux races through a corridor as countless bullet-ridden bodies rain down in her wake.

Image: MTV Animation

Meanwhile, Trevor’s desire to manifest the Demiurge into the material world is motivated by his own selfish desire to maintain complete control over Bregna and assume even more power, while at the same time freeing himself from the burden of responsibility inherent to his role as the country’s dictator and his conquest to obtain more power. The episode leaves it to the audience to interpret whether the motivations of either character are justifiable or not, implicating them in the larger existential and theological argument at the story’s heart.

The half-hour episode “A Last Time For Everything” stands out as one of the series’ most affecting and memorable. In the episode, we see the complicated romantic dynamic between Aeon and Trevor on full display when the latter surreptitiously clones the former, only for the initial Aeon and her clone to switch places in a plot to emotionally destroy him. It’s only later that the audience learns the truth: that Aeon does in fact love Trevor, despite herself, and that Trevor’s ploy presented her with the perfect opportunity to pursue a life with him without compromising her individualistic drive for freedom and havoc. When we see Aeon confronting her clone during the episode’s climax, we’re watching a character confront a truth about herself that she would otherwise never fully admit were she not talking to herself, and even then, a copy whose own motivations and feelings have begun to diverge from hers. To admit her love for Trevor would be to relinquish an aspect of herself just as essential and undeniable as that love, one which would ultimately represent the “death” of Aeon as both we the audience and herself “know” her to be.

The ambiguity of Æon Flux’s characters and universe, along with its distinctive art style, are essential to its enduring legacy as a touchstone of artistic adult animation. It’s a series that, despite its surface appearance, is among the few non-comedy adult animated shows that both relished in the surface level gratifications of sex and violence while simultaneously provoking the audience to interrogate those very gratifications. Æon Flux is a series that, in its own way, respected its audience enough to treat them like adults. When Love, Death, and Robots learns to do the exact same, the series will be all the much better for it.

Æon Flux is offered to stream on Paramount Plus and MTV.com

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.