Superheroes are fine – just don’t make them invincible

I’ll start this blog with a couple of disclaimers. First, this isn’t about good adaptations as promised. That article will still come but this one has come into focus now. Second, all my references to superheroes on this blog are based on what I’ve seen on TV/film and not their comic book representations.

Right, with that covered I’ll start wrecking my nerd credentials.

The Invincibles

Invincibility has been in my mind recently, prompted by two events. The first was seeing trailers for the Batman vs Superman movie and the second was after watching Daredevil Season 2 where I was shown a trailer for the new series about Luke Cage. Now, I liked both the Christian Bale Batman films and Jessica Jones but neither of these trailers really appeal to me and I think I know the reason why – it’s invincibility.

I can’t be bothered with Superman. I don’t find anything remotely interesting about him. Sure, a large part of that is he is generally quite a dull character but I’m not sure that can really be separated from the nature of his powers; namely that he is invincible.

Superman wins not by any great courage or ingenuity or triumph of character; Superman wins because he is Superman. By virtue of the gifts he is born with no enemy can match him. In the same vein, it’s hard to take any rival to him seriously because you know he’s going to win because he’s Superman.

Other have argued to me before that the real story is about how he has to struggle with his identity and the burden that his powers have more than the jeopardy as such. That might have some traction if his human identity was remotely interesting but it’s not. He’s straight-down-the-line, successful, honest and handsome. If his daytime persona were someone who is reviled,that might be an interesting conflict.

In any case, however successfully or unsuccessfully this side to his story plays out, for me, it doesn’t counterbalance the fact he is never in any real danger himself. It’s a problem and I think the writers of Superman agree with me on this – why else did they invent kryptonite?

You’re entitled to disagree but it got me thinking about my aversion to invincibility and why I hate it as a power for Superheroes. There’s a bit in the new advert for Luke Cage when a bunch of baddies pull guns on him and proceed to open fire. You know full well he’s going to fine (he duly is) and so I start thinking ‘why should I care?’ Again, the absence of any real jeopardy nullifies any stakes that may have been involved.

This got me thinking back to the TV series Heroes. The point where I lost all interest, even after the failings of Season 2, was when Sylar finally got to Claire and (drumroll) he does his thing and she’s completely fine afterwards. What? Not only is this massively anti-climatic at the time once you think about it you realise the whole tagline (and story) of the first series ‘Save the cheerleader and save the world’ becomes totally redundant. She never needed to be saved. In fact, it was impossible to save her because she can’t die.

(Further disclaimer: I’ve no idea how Heroes explained this afterwards as I was done after that).

What about regeneration?

Ok, so invincibility is bad, what about regeneration? Isn’t that a form of invincibility? I would say it depends but largely, no. I’ll take the two examples that come into my head for this. I’ll start with Wolverine. Yes, he can regenerate after almost anything but I don’t think you ever have the sense that he is impossible to kill: just difficult. So far I’ve not seen a Claire-like reveal that he cannot die. Moreover, Wolverine palpably suffers, which provides a measure of jeopardy with which we can still identify. Cut him, does he not bleed?

Next up, Dr Who. The time lord cannot die in one sense (although there is a limit on regenerations) but the fact it means a change of actor and personality means in another sense he dies indeed. It’s a death of a personality, which is something to mourn. Also, knowing as we do that each personality has a time limit, that vital element of jeopardy is always present. Is this week the week we are going to lose this incarnation?

What about invincible Super Villains

I certainly prefer the idea of near-invincible super villains to superheroes, the ‘near’ part being crucial. A villain that is exceedingly hard to kill gives a challenge to our heroes and a villain that is more powerful than any one individual hero gives cause to unite diverse groups and individuals in a common cause.

Even so, overpowering your enemy can cause problems. There should always be a way to overcome them; some feat of courage or cleverness that can bring about that miracle beyond hope. When all efforts prove fruitless, hope is shown to be futile and everything you’ve come to believe in mounts to nothing , you might reasonably question what the hell you’ve been investing in this story for (yes I am looking at you Mass Effect 3 ending – it is still not forgiven!)

One against many

Ultimately, probably the guiding principle of the invincible superhero is the chance for the one to succeed against the many. You know full well that Luke Cage is going to kick the arse or ass, if you prefer (and particularly hate donkeys) of every guy that just took a shot at him. You know that superman will come through whatever Lex Luthor throws at him. In this we have the spectre of the inevitable triumph of good over evil. We all know God will defeat Satan in the end, so we must trust in the fight.

Well, from a writing perspective I think that sucks (thanks for the spoiler Bible). The end fight should always be in the balance until the final moment.

One against many can be brilliant. [Minor spoiler] I doubt I’ll see many things on TV/film this year that compare to Daredevil vs the Dogs of Hell. But here there is jeopardy. Daredevil has limits on his powers and he can be hurt. It takes force of will and strategic use of choke points and the environment for him to get through that alive.

Sure the heroes should win in the end most of the time, but barely and with blood on their teeth and knuckles against a foe who almost had them. That is why jeopardy is so important. If your victory is inevitable (or even easy), you’re basically just backing the winning side. Any coward can do that. True courage would be to fight on in the belief you will probably lose but it’s worth the fight anyway.

 

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