Thursday, 4 May 2017

5 Less-Helpful Things I Learned From Superhero Stories

I love superhero stories in movies, TV, books, comics... wherever.  And I think they have good messages like: standing up for what's right, protecting others, and holding to a moral code.  But there are some other inadvertent messages that creep in.  Like...

1) Ordinary people who try to help end up dying/getting hurt.

The audience needs to see that the bad guy is, well, bad.  Which means we need to see them doing something horrible.  But not so horrible that it prompts the audience to stop watching.  For many writers, this sweet spot is having the bad guy hurt someone who is trying to help them.

We've all seen it.  "Hey, are you okay?" the Samaritan-victim asks as they get closer and closer.  Then the monster/bad guy leaps out as soon as they get close enough.  Then cut to the good guys finding out what the bad guys have done.

I'm fine.  Thanks for asking.  I really appreciate your concern.
Although I'm logically aware that I'm probably not going to encounter a vampire or a supervillain, I've seen the trope play out so many times that it's left an alarm bell in my brain.  The not-so-subtle message here is that helping others is best left to the costumed (or at least titled) professionals.  Which leads to the next point.

2) The authorities can't help or aren't prepared.

Again this comes from a logical narrative necessity.  If the only challenges are ones that should be directed to the cops and that they could easily handle, why would superheroes be necessary?  A larger-than-life hero demands larger-than-life villains.  

The downside of this is that after watching Gotham and the Batman movies, I'm pretty sure that the Gotham Police are the last people you would ever want to call if there was a problem.  They probably handle traffic tickets okay, but anything more than that and they are inevitably corrupt or about to be corpses.  One of the key plot points in Dark Knight Rises is that the entire force gets locked underground, having been tricked into it by the bad guys.

In The Avengers, the New York police show up and desperately try to help, but are severely outmatched by the alien invasion already in progress.  The Avengers use them as crowd control, sending them and the other potential collateral damage victims out of harm's way.

You say that the 6 of you can handle the incoming horde?  Okay then.
The flip side of this is that superheroes also tend to be more efficient than real life police work.  Someone threatening you?  A hero will punch them until they agree to leave you alone.  Police expect things like documentation, and will issue a warning.  Or possibly get the legal system involved.  None of which is fast or emotionally satisfying.  But they have to do that, because the cops can't assume all their targets are bad guys.  It's actually kind of a big deal in the real world.

3) Experiments always go wrong.

Quick.  Take a minute to think of every lab you've ever seen in a superhero story.  Now ask yourself if things ended up going well for the people inside.  Fantastic 4: mutated by a cosmic storm while trying to take measurements.  Hulk: created by gamma rays while trying to experiment in regeneration or supersoldiers.  Joker fell into a vat of chemicals, Ultron was created in Tony Stark's lab while trying to create a less-hurtable version of the avengers.

There's even an obvious bias in most of the character names.  "Doctors" tend to be evil while the good guys are "Mister" even if they have a Ph.D.

If only Doc Ock had gone into marketing like his mother wanted...
"Experiment gone wrong" makes a convenient short-hand for how someone becomes a murdering psychopath or gets supernatural powers or both.  Actually having to delve into the psyche of how someone became a hero or a villain takes away valuable fight-scene time.  But the frequency of the trope does tend to make people automatically leery about any kind of innovation or experimentation, which is bad because that's how we find out about things or make beneficial changes.

4) Romances are doomed to fail.

This is one that particularly irks me.  If we see a superhero happy and in a committed relationship, it is a virtual guarantee that the partner will be dead/kidnapped within 10 minutes or 3 pages.

Happy Wolverine = Boring Wolverine
The happy part is supposed to come at the end of the story.  It's something that the characters earn.  But the problem is that, like soap operas, superhero stories never really end.  Spider-man doesn't get a happily ever after because there's always new bad guys or escaped old bad guys to fight.  And in the interest of always drawing in new readers, there are efforts to make sure that it's easy to join the series at any point and still figure out what's going on.  Which means that character arcs reset with depressing frequency.

Now he can get back to kicking ass.  And now it will be personal.  No one's ever thought of that before.
It's an interesting tug of war between two opposing principals.  On the one hand, being attracted and falling in love with someone is a universal human experience.  It immediately creates a connection between the audience and the character.  On the other hand, these characters have to stay roughly the same so that they can continue having adventures.  No one wants Captain America to call a halt halfway through a battle because it's time for date night or to pick up the kids from daycare.

There's another variant of this: the Old Friend trope.  

Hero: "Hello, Old-Friend-Whom-I've-Never-Mentioned-Before.  It's great to see you."  This is the moment when you know that some pain is about to happen.  Either we will discover that the Old Friend is actually the bad guy that the hero has been searching for or is otherwise mixed up in the plot.  Or the Old Friend is about to be killed by the bad guys so that the audience can feel bad for the hero and want him/her to win even more badly.

Audiences respond better to their heroes being in pain, which means...

5) Being happy means bad things will happen.

There's an old joke that writers spend their time thinking of ways to ruin other people's happiness.  And, to a point, it's true.  Happiness in stories almost always signals that something is about to go wrong, unless it's at the end.  And then that happiness will almost certainly be taken away by the sequel.

I was chatting recently with a friend and commented that when anything starts to go well, I find myself constantly worrying about the other shoe dropping, which tends to spoil the happiness.  My friend said she felt the same.  We speculated that maybe it's because happiness tends to be trap or a ruse in superhero and other speculative fiction stories.

Like in Astonishing X-men, when a psychic held all the world's heroes in a trance where they thought they were saving the world but were actually standing there drooling.

Don't worry.  She hit him back off-panel.
Or happiness is given specifically so that it can be taken away.  Either way, it's not going to last and it signals a major problem about to occur.  So the message to take away is: be glad we don't live in a superhero world.

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