We, as a species, are pretty obsessed with form. Appearance is everything to us. We judge people based on uniforms more than actions. We judge animals based on how vaguely their proportions mirror that of our own offspring rather than their ecological role. We are so convinced we can accurately divine an objective reality based on imagined platonic forms that we end up becoming cartoonish. Maybe it is this obsession with these worlds of ideal forms that has led to such consistent themes in how we utilize shapeshifters in fiction.
Fictional cultures and civilizations of shapeshifters are, almost exclusively, villains. In tabletop games dopplegangers, changelings, skulks and their ilk are uniformly described as sociopathic parasites, incapable of creating their own culture or art and instead using their abilities to usurp the positions of the humans (or elves or whatever) that were truly capable of creation and innovation. They steal identities, rather than create their own. The best role these fantasy races could hope for in the official narratives is that of a craven trickster, amoral but not overtly evil by birth. The idea presented here is that if people were free to take any form they wanted, they would be either unwilling or unable to stop. If you could be anyone as needed, why would you ever be anything for longer than it remained the most useful? Why would you slow down and make one form your own if you could just instantly be one more useful? Not putting the time into improving and changing one form, the argument goes, would translate into not putting the time into improving and developing an individual identity. Dopplegangers of D&D steal identities because their powers prevent them from developing a proper identity, and then the creativity to develop their own new forms. Its a pretty dim view of the fantasy of shapeshifting.
There have also been heroic shapeshifters in myth, folklore and pop culture as well, but those of modern culture all tend to be easy to identify even as they change forms. Stretchy super heroes Mr Fantastic, Ms Marvel and Elongated Man can change their body to any shape but it’s always still their body. Plastic Man has a wider range of forms, able to disguise himself as nearly anything, but still is always locked to the same color scheme and rad shades. He may be an end table, but his tell-tale color scheme means he’ll never be mistaken by the audience for an end table that isn’t him. There are exceptions, but they tend to be much more obscure (is anyone outside of a narrow slice of an already narrow slice of comics fandom going to recognize Chameleon Boy the way they might Ms Marvel or Plastic Man?). The one big name, the Martian Manhunter, is unique enough that he merits his own explanation later. As a rule, heroic shapeshifters change their forms, but not their identity. That is what separates the heroic, individual figure and the formless, identity-free masses.
Identity is hardly a static concept, but the idea that it is a single, unchanging form is pretty deeply ingrained in modern culture. Western civilization is not fond of those who don’t . Its even harder on those able or willing to shift between identities, or even just what western civilization has decided “should” be an identity. This is reflected in pop-culture, where cultures of shapeshifting villains are a mainstay of science fiction including the Marvel Skrulls and Star Trek’s Dominion Founders. Both of these space empires posit a formless existence as being the root cause of each culture’s descent into fascism and paranoia.
For the most part, the Skrulls serve primarily as faceless masses of aliens for the Marvel heroes to fight. Sometimes they are vaguely racist caricatures of whatever culture the average American citizen is expected to dislike at the moment. Sometimes they are not-so vaguely caricatures along those lines. Sometimes they’re just a convenient way to show super heroes murdering someone while still saying “see, they’re not human so our heroes aren’t, y’know, murderers for real!” We haven’t seen many specifics of Skrulls history or culture in the comics, and what we have seen tends to be from isolated writers not working together along any single storyline or plan. Yet it is from these isolated stories that interesting themes have emerged about why the Skrulls are who they are.
The Skrulls have the potential to take any form, and yet in their “natural” state they are all identical. Skrulls all wear the same uniform, all have the same basic anatomy, and even tend to have the same (aggressively sociopathic) personalities. Skrulls are also essentially parthenogenic. They have no “natural” gender or sexes, as any Skrull can become “biologically” male or female at will, complete with working reproductive organs. In addition they have been shown able to become any other possible sex present in any other species, complete with functional reproductive organs. Yet despite this, Skrull culture recognizes a very rigid cultural gender binary and is incredibly misogynist. Aside from a few notable Skrull queens, the glimpses of Skrull society we have seen have shown that women are second class citizens at best, barred from most positions of authority and constantly talked down to by aggressive male war leaders. Skrull women are expected to present themselves as possessing large mammalian breasts, despite being reptiles who cannot produce milk, solely for the purposes of differentiating them and of titillating the male skrull population. This weird dichotomy between a biology that explicitly rejects the gender binary and a society obsessed with it is rarely made part of the Skrulls’ appearance in the comics, but has provided several interesting Skrull “facts” in the background of two specific comics: Runaways and The Incredible Hercules.
Runaways (created by Brian K Vaughn and Adrian Alphona) is the story of a group of kids who, upon discovering that their parents are really a gang of horrible cross-genre super villains, run away in hopes of finding their own non-evil path. While their parents are quickly removed from the board, the legacy of their villainous ancestry continues to hang over them. One of the Runaways, a girl named Karolina Dean who discovers she is actually a rainbow-colored alien, ends up having to deal with her parents’ legacy of war and betrayal in a shocking way. A skrull named Xavin arrives claiming to be her fiance, and that their union is the only thing politically that can end a war her parents engineered that is destined to destroy two worlds. While at first she agrees only to halt the destruction of two people, Karolina and Xavin eventually grow to genuinely care for each other and remain involved even after the arranged marriage becomes unnecessary. Karolina is a lesbian, and Xavin originally presents as male. Despite Xavin’s insistence that skrulls can “change gender” at will, it still uncomfortably seems like a story of a male character tricking a gay woman into a romantic relationship. As we learn more about Xavin, this problem does get dealt with. Xavin was raised in the most mysoginist part of Skrull society, and learned to present as whatever would get them less abuse. In Skrull society this means male, and among the mostly-girl team of the Runaways looking out for their teammate and not trusting a space-bro this means presenting as female. As Xavin learns that on Earth they can present as whatever they want, they admit that they do not actually see themselves as either male or female as either humans or skrulls define it. It is not actually the story of a deviant shapeshifter using their power to trick women, but the story of a character learning to come out as non-binary due to love and friendship.
But while Xavin’s story shows us insight into an individual Skrull, it still doesn’t answer the question of why Skrull civilization is so fascistically uniform despite the potential of its power. For that, we have to look at the second comic I mentioned, The Incredible Hercules (by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente) and its tie-in to the 2008 “major event” Secret Invasion. Secret Invasion was, overall, a pretty dumb crossover event that mostly existed to do a comic about superheroes murdering vaguely Muslim foreigners without getting in trouble. So now the Skrulls were all religious fanatics for the first time in comic history, and in the main series this religion was as thinly-veiled a reference to how the average American viewed Islam as could be. The one actually good comic to come out of the boring alien splat-fest was the Hercules tie-in, where the various gods of Earth put together a squad of divine superheroes to fight the Skrull gods. Ironically, the one comic that actually dealt with the Skrull religion was the one to NOT stick to the lazy stereotypes of Islam. Instead, it created a new mythology that finally sought to explain the dichotomy of the Skrulls. When ancient Skrulls purged the non-shapeshifting members of their species, the last “Skrull Eternal” argued he must be left alive to serve as the template for all skrulldom. Without him, he argued, they would have no form to return to and be left without identity. The “default” Skrull form we see in all Marvel comics is an attempt to emulate this iconic Skrull eternal. His followers argue that through their devotion to him, they remain Skrull even when they take on the myriad other forms of the universe. Through their adoption of his presented gender, they remain male even when they take on the myriad other sexes of the universe. Ironically, Skrull fascism is based on the same obsession of idealizing form that makes Skrull shapeshfiting and rejection of form so terrifying to Earth culture.
Interestingly, the Skrulls debuted around the same time as another Marvel alien, the Kree, and the two became mortal enemies. The famous Kree-Skrull War storyline of the Avengers (1971–72 by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema) told the story of the two space empires, locked in an interstellar cold war, who were more than happy to use our planet as a tool for proxy battles. The most advanced species in the galaxy were essentially barbaric, un-knowable, nationalist despots who cared not a whit if we lived or died other than as a tool for the embarrassment of their political enemies. Its a great old comic that brilliantly satirized the Cold War-era “nation building” our own country took part in. Both the Kree and Skrull were acting like Americans and Russians, though neither species could be pointed to as “oh THESE are us, the others our enemies.” The Kree were introduced as just as evil as the Skrulls, and arguably their history in the Marvel universe has been even more damaging to Earth. The Kree are genocidal, ultra-conservative space-racists who have repeatedly tried to wipe out our species to cover up their genetic tests on our ancestors. But while the Skrull remain perennial Avengers punching bags, the Kree became all but celebrated allies. The only difference between the two is that while the Skrull are deviant shapeshifters, the Kree are essentially humans, only sometimes they are blue. Marvel’s humanity would rather ally with a species that gloriously revels in fascism, so long that they appear attractive and consistent in form.
The Founders of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 are also ironically obsessed with form for a species without any of their own. The natural state of these beings is an orange goo that naturally takes the form of whatever it is in and effortlessly blends with any others it comes in contact with. The Founders only have identities when they are away from the “Great Link” they all congeal in. The Founders are also head of a far-reaching fascist empire, and see beings of other species, the “solids”, as barely sapient and unworthy of consideration other than how they can potentially harm real, amorphous people. The reason for this is once again tied to their shapeshifting’s effect on their culture and psychology. In the Founder philosophy, to take on a subject’s form is to truly know it. You take the form of a square, you ARE the square and you understand its square-ness in a way no being of another form could. To the Founders, humanity (and Klingons, Bajorans, Cardassians, etc) is no different than any other shape. There is nothing to know about other beings than their shape, and it is inconceivable to the Founders that anything could exist in one of the solids other than what their physical form reveals. Despite being a species without form, they have become sociopaths unable to see the world through any other lens. Like the Skrulls, it is only by teaching one of their outcasts, Constable Odo, that they can learn how our culture can liberate them from their myopic view and allow them to become individuals. Also like the Skrulls, their battle with Earth takes the form of sabotage and infiltration and leads to mass panic and paranoia.
While they are often used as a science-fictiony way of talking about cultural witch hunts, the truth is that races of identical shapeshifters do not tend to make very effective ones when we look at them too deeply. Sure, it is shocking that Star Fleet so quickly begins tossing aside its hard-won utopian ethics and establishes martial law to combat the threat of shapeshifters infiltrating Earth, but… There really WERE shapeshifters infiltrating Earth in that story. Witchhunts from Salem to McCarthyism are terrifying because there is NO real enemy to hunt. As soon as you introduce actual evil shapeshifters into the mix, especially genocidal fanatic ones, you create an actual justification for the witchhunt. It might be more “morally ambiguous” to give space McCarthy an actual space communist threat to fight, but real witchhunts aren’t ambiguous. McCarthy was wrong, and he destroyed lives. None of the women in Salem were brides of Satan, they were simply murdered. The moments where both the Kree-Skrull War and the Dominion War are most effective is when they focus on the sinister shapeshifters not using their power to actually infiltrate and debase society, but instead provoke the already paranoid, racist, murderous humans into doing the job for them.
The only big-name shapeshifting people that stray from the “lack of true form leads to sociopathy” template are DC’s martians. Usually, J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter is the only surviving member of his species, but even when he’s not we rarely see any glimpses of his society. Whenever we see flashbacks to J’onn’s family and the destruction of his people, it always presents the same picture. Martians are all naked, identical and live in unremarkable, unadorned simple dwellings with no obvious art or aesthetics of any kind. They are pacifists who invariably get wiped out, either by natural disaster or alien invasion or their own evil twins depending on the story. J’onn always looks like every other identical martian until he comes to Earth and has to define a new form for himself. Is the best a “good” shapeshifting people can hope for a doomed life without individuality, art or even personality? Is J’onn allowed to be a hero without form because he’s so aggressively non-threatening and the last of his people?
The martians are not simply shapeshifters, but are also telepathic and have every power Superman possesses minus the heat vision. The reason they all walk around naked and identical is because they give no thought whatsoever to physical form. Like the villainous species described above, they simply adapt whatever streamlined form is best for the moment, and so most of the time on boring, empty Mars they all have the same form. Their skin is tough enough to not worry about sandstorms and they cam fly without wings, so a bland biped shape is fine. At the same time, they all possess incredible, worldwide telepathy, and so all their individual expression is mental. We create art of all kinds to try and convey ideas or feelings that are otherwise impossible yo express, but martians can’t even conceive of that problem. Why bother expressing yourself through physical fashion, art or speech when you can be understood so much easier and more intimately through telepathy? At the same time, the fact that everyone’s minds are open means its impossible to lie to anyone. The concept of deception and private thoughts are as alien to them as pants. Not that there would even be reason to lie, as you feel what everyone else is feeling and wouldn’t want to feel any hurt you caused by your deception. Nor would you worry about what other people think, because it would always be open to you. Shame as we know it doesn’t exist on Mars. It couldn’t if society could even exist in that telepathic environment.
Its easy to then write the last martian in Earth as a calm, paternal figure. One who sees our fear of our own weakness even as they see the strength we won’t acknowledge. Often J’onn ends up the bland “dad” of the Justice League, and this may be why J’onn is so often an important supporting character in team books, but has struggled to carry his own title. Its harder, but potentially more rewarding, to write the culture shock. The most interesting J’onn stories focus on just how frustrating the adjustment is. He can’t understand why we lie all the time. Even the little lies we tell each other that he can’t help but overhear drive him nuts and make us look immoral and petty. He could communicate with any martian more easily than he can with the people on Earth he’s grown closest too. In that interpretation he appears stoic not because he’s a wise, zen sage but because he is still learning how to communicate physically and verbally with people who are put off by “invasive” contact between open minds.
This dichotomy helps other martian characters than just J’onn, fleshing them out as interesting, unique characters in their own right rather than just a tragic backstory. One of the ongoing themes in DC martian stories is that martians LOVE trash Earth TV. Why? Because its impossible to read the mind of a recorded image, and the irrational and goofy behavior of badly written characters is pretty much the only art form that can surprise a martian. Teenage Miss Martian flees to Earth because its the only place she can lie about herself, but the allure of human deception is as dangerous and leading to sociopathic behavior in as humans imagine shapeshifting to be. Like the other sci-fi shapeshifters, they’re in a culture where they’re able to express themselves through form in a way he never could before, but unlike the others it isn’t a liberating experience. The awkwardness of a form-based identity for a being who intimately knows how that mindset is contrary to peoples’ true thoughts allows martians a chance to fear and distrust humans just as those humans project the normal shapeshifter fears onto them.