Captain Planet and the Planeteers was one of the most uniquely bizarre children shows to come out of the mind of Ted Turner—or any person for that matter. On one hand you had a surprisingly legit superhero action show about normal kids with magical rings who could summon a godlike creature to fight for them whenever the world needed saving. On the other hand you have a preachy, feel-good educational show that was absolutely filled to the brim with 90s optimism and positive environmental messages.
As kids, we weren’t in it for the lectures on recycling and conservation—we were just waiting around for the last five minutes when Captain Planet would show up and kick the shit out of some eco-terrorists. Meanwhile the Planeteers were more interested in getting up on their soapboxes than using their fantastic sorcerer rings of elemental magic, making the wait until Captain Planet showed up almost unbearable.
In that regard, Ma-Ti represented everything that was wrong with the show in the eyes of a 7-year-old boy. Everyone else had the powers of one of the four elements — Earth, Fire, Wind and Water — but Ma-Ti was saddled with the made-up power of “Heart.” His abilities were both non-offensive and nonsensical, making him the poster boy for the show’s do-good themes.
The power of Heart let Ma-Ti communicate telepathically, sway people’s emotions and talk to animals, but we never saw him get his Professor X on and he never went full-out Beastmaster either. He just whined for help and hung out with a monkey. Heart is an awesome power, but only if you use it.
Ma-Ti is not the type of character that a 7-year-old boy can appreciate, because his role on the team is subtle. He provides a useful tactical role by being the team’s relay man, helping to coordinate plans and keep the Planeteers in contact with the base. But there’s another role that Ma-Ti plays for the team, a role that is never talked about but remains the most crucial aspect of their entire operation.
Ma-Ti is the one who prevents Captain Planet from up and killing the entire human race.
After all, these kids got their powers from some random Pagan goddess whose life force is tied directly to that of the planet’s environmental state. Captain Planet is the culmination of all of her powers — an immune system that has the ability to bring the wrath of nature down on the enemies of the ecosystem. When you get right down to it, he’s a soulless construct programmed to do whatever the owners of the rings want him to do. In essence, an elemental Terminator.
That makes Ma-Ti the fucking John Connor of the Captain Planet universe. He’s the innocent boy who provides him with a conscience and a soul. Without Ma-Ti, the good Captain would go completely Skynet on the entire world, taking out the biggest and most obvious threat to the ecosystem — mankind.
Instead, he just uses his powers to clean up pollution, slap bad guys on the wrist and give patronizing speeches to the viewer about how they’re killing all the ducks with their uncut 6-pack rings. He’s the superhero equivalent of a guy who does school assemblies on the importance of recycling, and Ma-Ti is the one responsible for that. Ma-Ti’s do-gooder, teacher’s pet tendencies manifest themselves as the core personality of Captain Planet.
Only Ma-Ti could play this role for the team — no other Planeteer could handle the responsibility. Could you imagine if smartass Wheeler or ice-bitch Linka were responsible for Captain Planet’s moral fiber? We’d have a hot-headed sarcastic diva or a stone cold Soviet killer instead of the jovial, Peter Pan-like entity we’ve come to know and love.
Ma-Ti’s parents were killed in a forest fire when he was a young child, which explains why he’s the perfect choice for the role. He understands the power of nature when it’s disrespected and, having gone through such a tragedy, would never want the same to happen to someone else.
So the tradeoff is, we get a Captain Planet that keeps the violence strictly TV-Y7 and always delivers his attacks alongside some pithy remark about cleaning up your local parks. That’s because deep down, Ma-Ti hopes that by educating the world about the environment, there will come a day when he will no longer need to let loose the unbridled fury of nature upon the heads of his enemies.
In the end though, you have to feel a little bad for Captain Planet because Ma-Ti essentially neuters him. Why do you think that he always calls out “The Power is Yours!” before jumping back into the Planteer’s rings? It’s a subtle cry for help to remind the Planeteers that he can only really clean up the world if they let him off the leash. Too bad Ma-Ti is having none of it.
Picture by Buuya on DeviantArt