As of this month, it’s been over six years since Motorcity was cancelled. For an introduction to the short-lived Titmouse animated series on Disney XD, see my first retrospective post that answers the question “What is Motorcity?” This time, we’ll be diving into the series proper with the first episode.
“Battle for Motorcity” was originally envisioned as a pair of episodes for a two-part premiere, but was condensed to one episode. Despite the shorter runtime, it artfully and naturally packs a ton of worldbuilding, character dynamics, and future plot points into a single high stakes pilot. In a cyberpunk future where the rich deserted Detroit to build a utopia above it, the young Burners fight to protect the old city from the evil corporation KaneCo. Let’s take a Tour of Motorcity and look at not only the fictional universe and characters, but where “Battle for Motorcity” places the story in the genre of science fiction dystopia and the sociology of economic polarization in Detroit.
What We Learn
For a high concept show like Motorcity, there’s a lot to introduce in the pilot from worldbuilding to characters, themes, and tone.
1. In the future, Detroit has stratified into Detroit Deluxe and Motorcity.
“Battle for Motorcity” begins with a voice declaring, “this is Detroit. Well, was Detroit…” and goes on to explain how the engineer Abraham Kane gave up on the decline of Detroit and constructed his elevated utopia Detroit Deluxe, where freedoms such as driving are restricted. As for the rest of the United States or the planet, that’s left a mystery. Although this voice over intro prefaced every episode when the show aired, it only appears in the first episode on the iTunes version. You don’t need a plot explanation when you’re “binging” online rather than catching a random episode on TV, but I miss the iconic “live fast, live free” motto and the visual plunge from Deluxe into Motorcity to bring you where almost all episodes begin.
Deluxe falls under the type of utopia Raymond Williams designates “the willed transformation, in which a new kind of life has been achieved by human effort” (1978: 203). Kane created Deluxe through a company of his own invention, rather than discovering another location or power. Former citizens of Detroit have transformed themselves into Deluxians, relocating into the elevated city and embracing KaneCo. Gregory Claeys would call it “the quintessentially modern utopia–urban or suburban, replete with labor-saving devices, dedicated to maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain” (2011: 154). In Deluxe, former Detroiters live in the lap of luxury.
It’s unclear how the occupants of Deluxe were determined, but the resemblance to suburbanization leads me to believe it was only afforded to affluent Detroiters, whether through exclusive offer or expensive entry. The move to Deluxe is a science fiction spin on suburbanization, in which masses of US citizens left central cities for surrounding suburbs. For Detroit, “The Population Revolution in Detroit” of 1963 by Wayne State University’s Institute for Regional and Urban Studies documented how “productive” citizens with jobs age 25 to 44 left for the suburbs of Wayne, Oaklan, and Macomb county (Maraniss 2015: 89). Suburbanization continued into the 1970s, leaving crumbling industries to the remaining poor and likely racial minority population, as part of increasing economic polarization (evaporation of the middle class into upper or lower) in the US.
People remained in the central city in the world of Motorcity, too. In the story, the “two Detroits” of the struggling industrial city and the prospering metropolitan area are made literal by physically separating them. On top of that, the “upper” class live in the overheard city and the “lower” class underground. After the “this is Detroit” narration, the show opens on the narrator Mike Chilton (named after the Chilton Auto Repair Manuals) and his friend Chuck in the depths of the old city–now known as Motorcity–scavenging for auto parts. We’re introduced to a future Detroit, the birthplace of the automotive industry, where cars have become scarce. By the 1960s in real life, only a third of new motor vehicles in the US were built in Michigan as auto factories spread across the nation (Martelle 2012: 177). As Mike and Chuck narrowly avoid a cavern of highly-charged electrical wires, a nest of mutant rats, and collapsing buildings the differences between Deluxe and Motorcity become clear: luxurious and rundown, stationary and treacherous. You can see it in the city designs themselves with Deluxe in monochrome and identical skyscrapers (a vision of future tract housing?), while Motorcity has a rainbow of color and chaos of shapes.
However, Deluxe doesn’t have all the advantages in differences. Although Deluxe seems to be a safe and secure place to live, it also serves as Williams’ dystopian side of the willed transformation, “in which a new but less happy kind of life has been brought about by social degeneration, by the emergence or re-emergence of harmful kinds of social order, or by the unforeseen yet disastrous consequences of an effort at social improvement” (1978: 204). In Mike’s words, “he never told them it would cost them their freedom.” As the story goes on, Motorcity shows how suburbanites submit to the capitalism of KaneCo that thrives in Deluxe.
Aldous Huxley, the author of the dystopian novel Brave New World, posits that “under a dictatorship the Big Business, made possible by advancing technology and the consequent ruin of Little Business, is controlled by the State” (2010: 251), but in Motorcity Big Business has become the State. The show combines oppressive powers into a single dystopia to address their real similarities and connections. Like the best of science fiction, Motorcity crafts a technological future to comment and speculate on our present.
2. The Burners, our imperfect heroes, fight for freedom against Deluxe.
Freedom has always been a struggle in Detroit, from the escaped slaves detailed in Tiya Miles’ book Dawn of Detroit to its role in the Civil Rights Movement such as the Walk to Freedom. Miles declares the early black and Native slaves who built their own communities and armed forces “in spirit, and surely in flesh for some, […] the ancestors of modern-day Detroit” (2017: 17). Rather than give racial bondage and slavery a new coat of science fiction paint, Motorcity has the Burners carry that spirit in a war against the intertwined force of corporation and dictatorship.
Kane isn’t content with control over Deluxe, and aims to take over the slums of Motorcity to expand his company. As seen in “Battle for Motorcity,” he regularly attacks with armed robots and thus subjugates the people. Presumably, Kane plans to renovate the area and gentrify it by moving in Deluxians. The real life Detroit has undergone many urban renewal projects in attempt to solve its crisis, usually detrimental to the black populace by displacing them in a city with intense racial housing discrimination. Like racist urban renewal in Detroit, Kane has nothing but contempt for “Motorcity scum” and only cares how the land and people benefit him.
Despite the extreme racial segregation and tension in Detroit, the conflict in Motorcity is not along racial lines. We see people of color living in Deluxe like Claire the KaneCo enthusiast, and white Motorcitizens like Chuck the Burner. Claire represents the black population of the suburbs in the US, which doubled from 16% in 1970 to 35% in 1990 (Shannon 2002: 118). The black population of Detroit suburbs Oak Park and Southfield increased from 35% and 30% respectively in 1990 to 57% and 70% in 2010, as black residents moved in and “white flight” followed (Martelle 2012: 232). Economic polarization in the US affects black populations more rapidly (Shannon 2002: 111), which includes those going higher class as well as lower. Besides Detroit Deluxe representing the suburbs with increasing black population, KaneCo also represents companies with diversity initiatives. In the 1980s, brands began incorporating the “lucrative demographic” of marginalized groups in response to accusations of exclusion and misinformation (Klein 2010: 112). For KaneCo, the inclusion of people of color in Deluxe makes them appear “forward-thinking.”
Claire may seem vapid now, but she has a character arc on the way. Although Chuck specifically is originally from Deluxe, the white citizens of Motorcity in general represent poor and immigrant white populations. On a production level the ethnic diversity in Deluxe and Motorcity may be Disney and Titmouse’s own branding strategy, but it can still be analyzed and interpreted within the text. For example, Mike the mixed race hero (whose ethnicity also embodies the racial diversity of his team) versus Kane the white villain still gives the conflict an anti-white supremacy subtext. The tyranny of big business and Kane’s white hegemonic masculinity poses a threat to multiple groups, so they band together with a subtextual anti-segregation vision.
The Burners, armed with their personalized automobiles, defend Motorcity from Kane. In “Battle for Motorcity,” they destroy the robots at the tunnel entrances connecting the cities. In Motorcity, cars symbolize freedom as only Motorcitizens have the right to own and drive cars (though not all do). The car operations process is unclear, with no driver’s licenses in sight, but the show relies on the real life autonomy of travelling by your own car to convey its theme of freedom. Their cars are the Burners’ means of defense, and thus the literal vehicle of their rebellion. Ironically, the advent of the car and the spread of highways contributed to real life suburbanization (Shannon 2002: 16). However, the cars of Motorcity represent ideals of freedom and the historical pride of Detroit more than actual cars.
Not only are the Burners able to move quickly and actively by car, they customize theirs as extensions of themselves. Mike and Chuck share Mutt, a 1970s muscle car with additional engines and dog-themed decorations. The blasters and skulls obviously reflect Mike, but the high tech dashboard and ejectable passenger’s seat show this is Chuck’s car too. Julie drives Nine Lives, a 21st century police cruiser painted over with cat emblems. She defiantly reclaims a symbol of the State for herself, like she allies with Motorcity despite her ties to Deluxe. Texas has Stronghorn, a six-wheel hybrid of 20th century Italian sports cars. Not only does it come loaded with weapons, musclehead Texas activates them by punching his dashboard. Dutch designed Whiptail, a sleek scorpion-esque hotrod. It has built-in speakers for sound-based attacks, as well as a dock for Dutch’s robot friend R.O.T.H. The Burners fight for the same cause but have their differences, and the specialties of their cars reflect that.
In a speech for the Great March on Detroit (the precursor to the “I Have a Dream” speech) in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. employed the imagery of the car: “‘Well,’ they’re saying, ‘you need to put on brakes.’ The only answer that we can give to that is that the motor’s now cranked up and we’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality, and we can’t afford to stop now because our nation has a date with destiny.” In response to calls for more gradual social change than the methods of the Civil Rights Movement, King double downed: freedom can’t wait, so full speed ahead. The Burners would agree.
Besides the symbolism of cars as freedom, journalist David Maraniss argues that “it could be said that to a significant degree Detroit and its autoworkers were the [Civil Rights] movement’s bank” in that the United Automobile Workers and its president Walter Reuther economically funded scholarships, civil rights organizations, legal action, and organization of marches and protests (2015: 140). It’s fitting then that Motorcity, the remaining Detroit that embraces its automotive culture and history, houses the car-driving rebels for the freedom of its people.
However, in this first episode we catch glimpses of how the Burners are not perfect. Dutch says he came to Motorcity to get away from Kane, and he’s not the only one in the core cast originally from Deluxe. The Burners didn’t rise from the ground as fully formed woke rebels, they were once part of the oppressive class and gave it up to reconnect and fight for them.
Our leader Mike, celebrated by Motorcitizens when he saves them, has a history with Kane that wasn’t always antagonistic. A menacing hologram of Kane taunts Mike with their backstory, referring to him as “Cadet Chilton” and warning Motorcitizens he will abandon them like he did Kane. Mike, so far nothing but calm and collected in the face of danger, is shaken by Kane’s words. It’s not clear yet what exactly happened between them beyond a holographic recording of Mike in a KaneCo uniform storming off from a mapped “Motorcity plan of attack,” but they clearly feel equally betrayed by the other. However, Kane has unequal power over Mike–an army of robots, a city of followers, copious resources, the element of surprise–symbolized in his towering holograms that increase in size throughout the episode.
That betrayal makes Kane irredeemable in Mike’s mind, unlike Julie who proposes KaneCo technology could be used for good. Even within the Burners, they have different perceptions and approaches to their enemy. Julie is quickly revealed to be the team’s “KaneCo connection” who moves freely between cities and changes her clothing via hologram. (Are all clothes in this universe holograms? Can holograms alter the appearance of clothes? Just roll with it.) A lingering connection to KaneCo would be enough to sufficiently characterize her sympathy to Deluxe, but Motorcity has another card up its sleeve. In a brilliant scene, Kane barges into Julie’s pod and lifts her into the air. While a dark score plays and Julie is silhouetted against her captured friends out the window, it seems Kane has his next target cornered… until he pulls her into a hug and she exclaims “Dad, let go!”
Kane may be happy to see his daughter, but the tense music remains. Just like Julie suggests using Kane’s robots for good to Mike, she pleads with her father that he’s hurting innocent people. Neither listens to her, and it becomes apparent that the Burners and Kane are unaware of her connection to the other. Considering how much they hate each other, of course she keeps it secret. When Mike tells her “you don’t know him like I do” at the end of the episode, I wince with Julie. She complicates the divided conflict between Deluxe and Motorcity, making her arguably the most complex character. Even among a group of Deluxe expat rebels, some with personal ties to Kane, hers is so deep she cannot sever it completely. Still, she rejects her family for what she believes in like Juliet Capulet of Romeo and Juliet and has a secret life outside the State like Julia of 1984. With the audience aware of her secret and the other characters not, there’s a lot at stake for the rest of the series.
3. This series is packed with action and heart.
Motorcity wears its influence from 1980s action cinema on its sleeve, from bombastic explosions to split-screen shots. It particularly draws from films like Escape from New York, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Akira in their dystopic settings, social commentary, and of course motorized action. Although Motorcity draws from the history of real world Detroit, the action and technology are anything but realistic. The future setting can only account for so much of the technology (elaborate holograms, ridiculous speeds, etc). Gadgets change shape and size with no regard for conservation of mass, characters stand atop moving cars without flying off, and there’s no concern about how much gas they have in the tank. Instead, Motorcity operates on “the rule of cool” that let the imagination of the crew soar. It’s more fun this way!
Mike embodies the spirit of “live fast, live free” in his approach to danger. He loves to drive high speeds in Mutt (he reaches 177 miles per hour in the opening theme alone), but he’s so daring he’ll leap out of the car to take down robots himself too. Such vigor is just what he needs in the fight against Kane. However, “Battle for Motorcity” doesn’t let Mike’s recklessness go unchecked. Jacob, the elder of the Burners and former associate of Kane, warns that “the best leaders know when to retreat and when to fight.” The audience can see a mile away how Mike’s eagerness to ambush Kane will play right into his hands, but it works because this is more about Mike’s upcoming character arc than a plot twist.
The moral lesson may be cheesy, but that balance of action and patience is what Motorcity is all about. Jacob’s guidance almost feels like how Disney had to reign in Titmouse’s wilder ideas, which in the end created the show’s identity. It has off the rails fight and chase scenes, but quiet moments of tension between Julie and her father or reassurance between Mike and Chuck too. Mike is kind and brave, but has a lot to learn in being responsible for a team of friends and an entire city.
Tour of Motorcity will look at Motorcity episode-by-episode, but as a retrospective will occasionally allude to upcoming episodes or link to supplementary materials. In terms of spoilers, they will be kept to a minimum in these references for anyone watching along for the first time. However, as a retrospective on a cancelled and thus unfinished work of fiction, I’m including a section for “missed connections” between the aired episodes and season two potential or the development process. They’re “spoilers” only in that you’re informed a story element will not come to pass or be expanded on, or in the case of this episode never existed at all.
In the case of “Battle for Motorcity,” one story element removed between the unaired pilot (warning to newcomers: as odd as it sounds, it contains a huge spoiler for the series finale!) and the final product was Jacob being Mike’s grandfather. The design of Jacob’s face was changed to not resemble Mike’s, which meant retiring an elaborate Facinator model. Now he looks more like Goat, a character based on a real artist who appears frequently in Titmouse cartoons, than ever. Jacob as a mentor works well, but Mike reconnecting with his family after being taken under Kane’s wing would have been powerful.
As it is Mike and Jacob represent different generations of Kane defectors rebelling together and how they can learn from the other. Sadly, Mike and Jacob’s relationship isn’t given much focus after this episode. Chris Prynoski has said “a really deep backstory” was written for them, including Kane sending Mike to capture Jacob, but they didn’t get to it. They could only fit so much in 20 episodes, and watching it unfold over seasons would have been rewarding. The season two writer’s wall proposes that Mike starts to see Jacob like a father. The last time Mike had a father figure he was manipulated and betrayed, so he may have been conflicted between love for Jacob and fear of trust. This is only the beginning of the Motorcity‘s potential squandered by cancellation.
Yes, a bibliography. This retrospective may as well be a thesis, so expect citations. They come in American Sociological Association style, due to the sociological nature of my analysis and in honor of my love for Motorcity leading me to study sociology in college. These posts will probably be edited with new information as I continue to research for this project.
Claeys, Gregory. 2011. Searching for Utopia: The History of an Idea. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Limited.
Huxley, Aldous. 2010. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Klein, Naomi. 2009. No Logo. New York, NY: Picador.
Maraniss, David. 2015. Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Martelle, Scott. 2012. Detroit: A Biography. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.
Miles, Tiya. 2017. Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. New York, NY: The New Press.
Shannon, Thomas R., Nancy Kleniewski, and William M. Cross. 2002. Urban Problems in Sociological Perspective. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Williams, Raymond. 1978. “Utopia and Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 1(3):203-214.
The first three episodes are the same, whether Disney or Titmouse order. Next comes “Power Trip,” where a fugitive from Deluxe and an unstable warhead put the friendship between action “buddies” Mike and Chuck to the test. We’ll look at Motorcity‘s take on those who walk away from dystopia and turn into The Mike and Chuck Shipping Manifesto Part One along the way.
If you enjoyed this article, you can support me with a tip by buying me a coffee. Thank you!