What Makes A Great Villain?

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To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.

A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.

In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.

If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.

This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.

THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE

A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.

They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.

zodLet’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?

He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.

But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.

His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.

I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.

Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?

Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.

That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.

kobaOne of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.

Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.

Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.

Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.

Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.

A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY

A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids

The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.

Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination

On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.

And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.

Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.

fiskOne of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.

But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.

Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.

VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE

Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.

The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.

Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.

The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.

cobblepotA great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.

When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.

To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.

Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.

VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT

Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.

baneThere’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.

Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.

A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.

While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.

It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.

But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself

VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT

But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.

Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.

Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.

They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.

But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.

And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.

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Episode 10 – Avengers: Age of Ultron

 Avengers: Age of Ultron is insanely ambitious attempting to outdo itself with action, spectacle, and touching character moments. It should fall apart at the seams but somehow the massive ship manages to stay together until the end, even proving to be lots of fun along the way.

I really enjoyed recording this week’s podcast episode and laying out my thoughts on the movie. Thanks for listening.

 

Podcast #9: Daredevil Season 1

Daredevil

Daredevil is a fascinating twist on the superhero genre, a dark and moody look at a street-level superhero in a corrupt city. Here are my thoughts on the show and why I think its characters work so well. Spoilers ahead.

Listen right here or download the episode on iTunes or Stitcher:

 

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Storytelling with Sentinels of the Multiverse

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A story can be as simple as one person recounting their day to another and it can be as involved as hundreds or thousands of people working for several years on a Hollywood production. Stories take the form of newspaper articles, YouTube videos, graphic novels, and podcasts. But there’s another medium that I would like to begin writing about in more detail that offers a fascinating new angle on what exactly storytelling can be. That medium is the world of tabletop games.

In 2011 I discovered a uniquely fun cooperative card game called Sentinels of the Multiverse. Over the past few years the game has spawned a passionate and devoted fanbase and become a larger vehicle for interactive storytelling. The gameplay is very simple. Each person chooses a deck of cards which represents their superhero and then proceed to plays cards from their hand working together as a team to defeat a self-playing villain deck. The heroes’ goal is to knock out the villain before they get knocked out. Every time you play it’s a different combination of heroes and villains, meanwhile an environment deck throws out hazards that affect both heroes and villains alike.

Although the gameplay itself is enjoyable enough, where Sentinels of the Multiverse really shines is in its ability to use its game mechanics as a backdrop for conveying more longform narrative. This slowly unfurling story contextualizes each of the different hero characters and villains with their own personalities, motives, and histories.

Importantly these larger story elements are not actually present in the game. While the general outline of each character is explained in their bio, the rest is largely inferred from the actual cards which feature tons of comic book-style artwork and flavor quotes. Essentially while you play the game you are temporarily borrowing these pre-established characters to create your own story. This is something which tabletop games already do naturally but the difference is that each character exists in the wider overarching narrative, the fictional comic book world of Sentinel Comics.

While many other board games have attempted to deepen their gameplay through the addition of backstories, a variety thematic elements, and scenario books full of text, none of them have quite managed to do it like Sentinels. Too many games focus on “telling a story” in a way that is almost impossible to follow and don’t really connect with on a deeper level. They ignore one of the most important tools of storytelling: creating and developing relatable characters. Sentinels does exactly that.

Instead of weighing down players with elaborate scenario rules and hours of setup, Sentinels presents simple but interesting characters that by virtue of their unique personalities and game mechanics can easily fit into any story that you happen to want to play that day. If you want to send in a team of female superheroes to fight a robot on an island filled with dinosaurs, you can. And you can do so with some fully fleshed out characters that also happen to grow over time as the game progresses and expands. Despite the subtle approach to storytelling present in the game, the various hero characters and villains do not remain static.

Like all good stories, the overarching story of Sentinels of the Multiverse pays close attention to character development, pacing, foreshadowing, and turning points. The primary way that the story advances is through the release of expansions and promos, all of which not only add new villains and heroes to the mix but also develop the individual stories of some of the main characters. Major events shake things up quite regularly. A formerly defeated nemesis may reappear in a new form. A mysterious character from the future may suddenly enter the fray. A hero may be change or grow in unexpected ways.

However as a game first and foremost, Sentinels does rely on some level of abstraction to stay useful. It is not a roleplaying game by any stretch of the imagination. There are no preset scenarios or mandatory battles that must take place when you play the game, but there are canonical events that do will occur and will ultimately affect the storyline. So while each game can play out with whatever combination of heroes, villains, or environment you like, the characters you are playing are never just generic superhero avatars.

The heroes of the Multiverse are storied individuals fleshed out through a dynamic mix of interpersonal relationships, unique mechanics, plentiful art illustrations, and quippy sayings. No two heroes play alike, each demonstrating a variety of strategies and powerful combinations at their disposal. Furthermore as a purely cooperative game, each hero must work together, help each other out, and come up with a plan for combating the current threat at hand. The superhero theme pervades the mechanics of the game and utilizes individual character abilities in a way that makes sense.

Let’s look at a specific example to see what I mean.

The entry point into understanding the world of Sentinel Comics is a hero team called theLegacy Freedom Five. Think of them as a mini-Justice League or mini-Avengers. They are top-level government-approved heroes in town dedicated to fighting evil and preserving justice. And standing at the head of the Freedom Five is their preeminent leader, a hero who also happens to be the single most important character in the entire game.

His name is Legacy.

At first glance Legacy appears to be a knockoff of Superman with perhaps a few kernels of Captain America thrown in for good measure. He’s super strong, nearly unkillable, able to fly, and spouts patriotic lessons in battle without a trace of irony. On the surface he seems like a harmless pastiche designed to pay homage to the better known heroes of pop culture. Yet Legacy is a much deeper character than he might seem. Our first clue is right there in his name.

Paul Parsons, aka Legacy, comes from a long line of super-powered individuals dating back topic1111944 the American Revolution. Each of his ancestors fought for justice and went by the name of Legacy. As a character, Legacy is deeply rooted in his family history and this carries through to his daughter Pauline who will one day take his place as the next Legacy. (In fact one of the first promos cards for the game is his daughter, Young Legacy, who can replace Legacy’s character card and use his deck.)

In the actual game however Legacy is no Superman. He can’t punch people through walls with nigh invulnerability. Consistent with his character bio, Legacy’s combat abilities are primarily defined by how he interacts with those around him. As both leader and founder of the Freedom Five, he plays pretty much like a support character. That can be quite a shock to new players expecting to see their hero fight like somebody out of the latest Captain America or Man of Steel film. He boosts other heroes’ damage every turn, sacrifices himself for others, heals his teammates a bit, and only occasionally gives his enemies a beatdown. Legacy is no brawler, but he sure can help his teammates.

At his core Legacy believes in justice and liberty, puts himself in harms way to thwart evildoers, and works alongside other heroes with the same goals. But how he goes about doing that differentiates himself from his better known counterparts across other mediums. He is the ultimate team player and his gameplay reflects that to a tee.

His story doesn’t end there either.

Another way that Sentinels of the Multiverse furthers its narrative is by pairing each hero with a nemesis. Every villain that you will encounter in the game has a particular grudge toward one of the heroes who has wronged them in the past. Even if many of the specific details about these individual nemesis relationships are unknown, these pairings add texture to the game’s narrative. When a hero is up against their nemesis, it feels personal every time. We don’t necessarily need to know all the reasons that the mad scientist Baron Blade hates Legacy and exactly how they first met, but it does help to know that they have a bitter rivalry every time they face off.

In perhaps the game’s finest storytelling moment to date, the conflict between Legacy and Baron Blade escalates into something strange and unpredictable, a wonderful development for players and a pretty terrible situation for the Freedom Five. As indicated by the title of the game, Sentinels of the Multiverse takes place in a multiverse comprised of a myriad of parallel timelines and futures, each of which has a possibility of existing but none of which are guaranteed to actually happen. Although it sounds more complicated than it is, really what this boils down to is that there are occasional visitors from other timelines who wander into the main timeline from time to time as well as rare rifts in time that transport characters to distant points in the past or future. These visitors tend to disrupt things and provide some of the juiciest story moments in Sentinel Comics.

One of the most significant of these involves a future version of Legacy himself. In one possible timeline, the nefarious Baron Blade comes up with the ultimate plan to finish off Legacy by planning an elaborate trap on Wagner Mars Base. In the “normal” timeline Legacy and his daughter Young Legacy arrive there and Legacy is mortally wounded leaving his daughter to become the next Legacy. However in an alternate timeline it is Young Legacy who dies and her father that survives.

photo-mainThis event in the alternate timeline puts an end to the long line of Legacies that stretches back for centuries. With no descendants left to carry on his mantle, a hardened Legacy decides that it is up to him to establish a lasting and permanent justice during his lifetime. He outright kills Baron Blade and use his great power to become a world dictator in which anyone who stands in his way is harshly punished.

The surviving members of the Freedom Five and a few new members (now the Freedom Six) turn against the newly named Iron Legacy and become fugitives. However due a rift in time, this Legacy somehow ends up back in the normal timeline. Thus in the game Legacy and the Freedom Five must fight against this alternate despotic version now known as Iron Legacy.

During this battle with his future self, Legacy and his daughter are both wounded. While they are recovering, other heroes head to Wagner Mars Base to fight Baron Blade and a result, neither Legacy or his daughter die in the trap. The original timeline has now shifted, allowing both Legacy and his daughter to survive and preventing the rise of Iron Legacy in the first place.

In Sentinel Tactics (a new tactical game in the Sentinel Comics universe that continues after the main storyline of Sentinels of the Multiverse), Legacy’s daughter ultimately decides to become her own hero under the mantle of Beacon until the day that she is called upon to take up her father’s mantle.

Woosh. That’s a lot of story to get through just to explain the character of Legacy. And all this narrative unfolds in piecemeal fashion over the course of several promos and expansions released over several years. And there are many other interesting stories present in the world of Sentinel Comics with many more on the way. This marriage of thematic gameplay with a sustained storytelling effort is nothing less than a tremendous creative achievement.

To me this explains the success of Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s a character-driven narrative told through the guise of a fun cooperative game. Instead of trying to tell an abstract scenario-based tale, it’s always about the growth and development of relatable characters. This storytelling approach works across mediums as diverse as television, fiction, and comic books and it also can work in a tabletop game.

I’ll continue next time with a further look at the some of the other heroes and villains of Sentinel Comics.

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The Questionable Ethics of Superheroes

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We’re living in the age of superheroes, a cultural phenomenon approaching its zenith in the next few years with a grand culmination of team up films and interconnected television shows. Superheroes appear to be universally beloved despite the reality that their actions are intrinsically unethical and anti-social in nature. How can we as morally responsible viewers condone the violent anarchic behavior of these few individuals whose unchecked power threatens to tear apart the very societies they claim to protect?

When you view a superhero film or television show, you’ll notice right away that superheroes operate within a wildly different world than we do. Our world is imperfect, but still we implicitly trust that the police, the government, and our other social structures will work at least some of the time. They still may fail, sometimes spectacularly, but we have reasonable expectations that the authorities can and should ensure both our welfare and the common good. In other words, we don’t think that an untrained militia of armed citizens would be much improvement over what we have now. Our system, flawed though it is, works most of the time for most people.

Superheroes do not exist in that kind of world. Either through expert training or an unusual set of powers, heroes apprehend criminals and don’t hesitate to interfere with the work of police, firefighters, rescue workers, and military personnel. They exercise their power unilaterally and operate far outside the boundaries of a courtroom or the Geneva Convention. Who gave them permission? No one. They simply willed their personal sense of justice into existence and took matters of life and death into their own hands.

Of course, superheroes are driven by a sense of moral responsibility to protect the populace. However their actions are legally indistinguishable from the very criminals they seek to prevent.  Heroes are ethically quite problematic.

We excuse their behavior for several reasons and not just because they have cool powers. There are plenty of anti-heroes, gunslingers, secret agents, and assassins just doing their job who make no claim to moral superiority. But heroes almost by definition ask for our permission. And we give it to them by our veneration and respect for them. We wear their t-shirts, watch their films, and buy their toys because we support them. Somehow we agree with their fictional actions and condone them.

How do they receive such widespread pardon for their technically illegal acts? Why do we applaud them and hold them up as role models for young children? In order for this ethical puzzle to work, there is one big difference: superheroes must inhabit a broken world, not a functioning world. There are two types of broken worlds in which superheroes may arise.

The first is the Helpless World. In this set up, the police and the city officials and the government are still doing their jobs, but they are hopelessly outmatched. The villains have better weapons, greater resources, and more ruthless schemes. A few bad guys even have superpowers of their own. In the Helpless World, the governing authorities are desperately outgunned and deeply demoralized. From the perspective of the populace, violent crime seems unstoppable and the current structures in place have utterly failed.

In Man of Steel, Superman comes out of hiding to face a threat that mankind cannot deal with on its own, General Zod. This is a helpless world. When Nick Fury calls together a band of unlikely heroes in The Avengers, it is precisely the same reason: the people of Earth do not have the resources to deal with Loki and the Chitauri on their own. In the show The Flash, the police are undeniably good but still mostly defenseless against the superpowered metahumans roaming the streets. Superheroes fighting crime in a Helpless World supplement a benign system of law and order in need of extra firepower.

The second natural home of superheroes is that of the Corrupt World. Heroes that emerge in this setting discover a system that is too broken to ever be fixed on its own. The top political figures are either themselves corrupt or simply too afraid to do anything about the problem. For those able to resist corruption, the cost of standing up against injustice is too high: lack of departmental support, demotion, threats of violence, and harm to loved ones. The real source of power is usually not “the people in charge” but crime families, unscrupulous corporations, and hyper intelligent psychopaths. In a Corrupt World, there is no hope for political reform nor any hint that things can ever get better.

A superhero in this kind of world cannot work directly with the existing authorities, although they may be able to find trusted individuals within the system to work with covertly. In this scenario, heroes function as a shock to the whole system. The powers that be are dealt a special brand of vigilante justice since the current laws have failed to do anything. The hero becomes a beacon of hope for the beleaguered masses who have lost trust in their politicians and law enforcement to protect them. By rooting out the underlying causes of social dysfunction, the hero attempts to clear the way for good governance to be restored.

In the show Gotham, the whole system is so corrupt that cops happily work with known murderers without giving it a second thought. It is the perfect example of a Corrupt World. The same is true of the first season of Arrow where Starling City is under the thumb of a long list of powerful moguls with little value for human life. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we similarly see the deep corruption of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s operations to the point that the whole organization must be dismantled in spectacular fashion.

Superheroes enter these two worlds as reluctant saviors. They do not come to upend the social order but are accepted as a last resort to preserve lives and restore the balance of justice. Using a clever sort of moral gymnastics, we grant these heroes something akin to temporary wartime powers. This extralegal power is given to them to apprehend criminals, infiltrate their operations, and capture top level leaders by any force necessary. When things go south, we accept the resulting human casualties and property damage incurred as the price of doing business in desperate times. It is unpleasant work, but sometimes a villain will get thrown off the top of a building.

So why do we accept the inherent immorality of fictional superheroes who work outside the law, employ violent force, and are accountable to no one, all actions which would never be condoned in real life? If real people began engaging in such vigilantism, they would be swifted punished to the full extent of the law. Despite the billion dollar box office grosses and impressive Nielsen ratings, we would neither accept nor want heroes in the real world.

Superheroes do not answer to any authority other than themselves. Consider. Even wartime soldiers authorized to kill have to answer to someone. No one is so perfect and good that they do not benefit from moral accountability to a larger body. Even when our institutions and authority figures fail, we still trust in them to ward off the worst forms of evil, injustice, and anarchy.

Humans, especially empowered entitled vigilantes operating on their own, are easily susceptible to hubris and misuse of power. Just rewatch Iron Man 2 and you’ll get a realistic picture of this eventuality. We don’t trust any one person, even the President, to have our best interests in mind. In America we trust in a complex set of checks and balances, executive, legislative, and judicial power, democratic process and republican representation, and a mix of municipal, state, and federal authority. The point is not that our modern form of government is so wonderful, but that there are good reasons we should hesitate before handing over our fate to the whims of a lone individual with an axe to grind and a propensity for doing things their own way.

The real reason we champion our fictional superheroes is because we intrinsically believe they are incorruptible. They may make mistakes, but somehow we have faith that their hearts are pure. We know them to be sacrificial and brave, serving the greater good. Unlike Caesar we know that they will lay down their extraordinary extrajudicial powers once the threat has passed. They are a temporary solution and once the last villain is locked away, they will step back and get out of the way. They can never become evil. And in the end, they will always win.

They may go outside the system to pursue justice. They may on occasion kill a bad guy by accident. But we never doubt that they are necessary for the particular world in which they inhabit. Superheroes embody the best that humanity has to offer, not the worst, and that is why we put our trust in them.

We don’t need real life superheroes nor do we want them. However we do want fictional ones. In whatever small way, they inspire us by their example of dedication. They demonstrate the importance of self-sacrifice. They are an extreme measure needed in extreme times.

In the show Arrow, Oliver Queen makes a decision not to kill any longer in his pursuit of justice after an entire season of indiscriminately killing bad guys. He realizes that he has become his own sort of villain. A murderer. In season two in order to honor the memory of a lost loved one, Oliver vows to only kill as a last defense. He chooses to keep criminals alive. In a symbolic gesture, his name is changed from the Vigilante to the Arrow. Although this new policy is heavily tested and not always with positive results, the plausibility of maintaining this evolving sort of ethic can only exist in Corrupt and Helpless Worlds. In the real world, not killing anyone should be considered a very low bar to jump over, not the cornerstone of our ethics.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Why It’s Okay to Praise Marvel Movies

gotg tweet

Zach (aka Evil Genius) over at Stand By For Mind Control posted his thoughts today about Guardians of the Galaxy in response to a tweet by Kumail Nanjiani that I had retweeted. Specifically he questions the sonorous acclaim that has accompanied Marvel’s latest film. While recognizing GOTG’s entertainment value, he adds, “But it is in no way good enough to even shine the shoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the most satisfying adventure films ever made.”

I take his main point to be, how does an absolute classic and wholly satisfying experience like Raiders of the Lost Ark (95% Rotten Tomatoes) suddenly end up hanging out at the same party with a factory-made and purposely silly superhero adaptation like GOTG (92% Rotten Tomatoes)?

After all, he comments, “it is a film about really, really, really stupid things.”

It’s true. I’m not a huge fan Marvel’s films for exactly that reason. The franchise’s mythology is impossibly vague and consistently shallow, strewn together by as-yet-to-be-explained infinity stones and an as-yet-to-be-fully-introduced purple titan. But while the series sports its share of flaws, it is fast approaching the honor of becoming the most financially successful string of movies of all time (currently trailing only the Harry Potter series).

It’s not the great plots that earn a film like GOTG a host of defenders and worshippers. (No one liked The Avengers because the Tesseract was such a great MacGuffin.) It’s not the cookie cutter villains and tired plot devices. It’s assuredly not the inner machinations of H.Y.D.R.A. nor the Middle-Earth-with-lasers vibe of the nine realms.

The reason we are all over the moon for GOTG and Marvel stuff in general is much simpler. Marvel’s real strength lies less in creating Spielbergian inertia or knitting together Nolanesque intricacies than in simply hunkering down and setting up a deep bench of unlikely but inherently likeable characters.

Time and again, Marvel gives us characters we can root for.

We as a planet collectively shell out billions of dollars because we have a fairly consequential attachment to a narcissistic inventor, an old fashioned supersoldier, a brash deity, and a host of comic book ancillaries. We keep liking these characters and stay invested in their stories.

And in GOTG’s case, it introduces five of them. Five new reasons to watch, enjoy, and rewatch these movies.

No one cared about this team before but upon leaving the theater, a lot of people in a lot of places around the world now recognize these characters, feel for them, perhaps love them, and will most definitely arrive at conventions dressed as them.

Movies don’t have be high art and be directed by the master of their craft for them to matter. As wonderful as Indiana Jones is as both a character and a franchise, many kids today will know him better as a ride at Disneyland than a swashbuckling tomb-raiding adventurer on a movie screen. But many kids today (or perhaps teenagers) are going to remember their first experience with Rocket and Groot. They will remember laughing with an irreverent raccoon and his unflinchingly loyal tree companion.

Just because GOTG is not super deep doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless. It’s a pretty good parable of friendship. It achieves the difficult narrative goal of banding together a group of misfits and gives each character a serious emotional stake in their common struggle against Ronin the Blue Face. It anchors us of in a relatable story where 80’s pop music is the closest thing to feeling like the world makes sense again.

Movies don’t have to be perfect to make things a little brighter. The theater I attended was full of laughter, applause, and maybe even a little delight. If 30 years fron now I don’t remember the set pieces or the plot details, at least I know the hard work of director James Gunn and his crew meant something to the hundreds of people in that dark room one midnight on August 1.

Evaluating the Summer Blockbuster: The Wolverine

jean grey

The Wolverine (2013)

Summary

1) Nagasaki
2) Funeral Attack & Yashida’s Estate
3) Silver Samurai
4) Is there anything worth fighting for once you’ve lost the people that matter most?

1) A Killer Opening

The film opens with a flashback to Logan imprisoned in WW2 Japan. Alarms go off and it turns out that this is Nagasaki seconds before the bomb goes off. Wolverine survives and saves the life of Yashida. While it doesn’t really qualify as a massive set piece, the scene provides a sense that something important is happening and makes for a decent set up for the rest of the film.

2) Two Major Set Pieces in the Middle

The big extended action sequence is the funeral attack and the high speed train battle right afterward. It’s big, exciting, and full of great Wolverine moments.  There is a lot of confusion during the funeral section but it is more intriguing than off-putting. Instantly you want to know who is attacking, who is defending Mariko, and why. Also here we find out that Logan is not healing normally, he is vulnerable.

There are two other action segments in between here and the climax – the fight with Shingen at Yashida Estate and the ninja snow attack in the village – but neither of them are quite as large in scale. Shingen is a little too crazy for poorly explained reasons and the ninja battle culminates into a standard animal capture.

3) A Killer Climax

This is the sequence that disappointed fans the most. After the unique Japanese setting and unconventionally weak Logan, expectations were raised. However when Wolverine finally meets the Silver Samurai in his tower, the ensuing battle is middling. Yukio also confront Viper who just amps up the weirdness of an already weird situation.

Although the Silver Samurai’s identity is supposed to be this amazing surprise twist, the reveal doesn’t quite land on its feet. Yashida is simply not very interesting as a giant death machine. The ending abandons the quieter introspection of the rest of the film and gives us the chaotic fighting it thinks we deserve.

4) A Concise Statement of Theme

Is there anything worth fighting for once you’ve lost the people that matter most?

Conclusion

The Wolverine abandons the formula in exchange for some quieter moments of reflection supplemented by one really good fight sequence in the middle. However it really falls short in the end by over-relying on an unnecessary and uninteresting battle against a CGI cyborg with unbelievable abilities. A smaller scale, more heartfelt, more thematic, and tonally congruent ending would have benefited this story immensely.

Instead of basing Logan’s decisive moment to rejoin the X-Men in the story, the film instead inserts it into a dreamlike vision. It’s a nice sentiment, but that is not the place where people learn to overcome their greatest fears, sorry.

The Story Punch

Logan begins the film as a grizzled vagrant in exile. Since Jean’s death he has abandoned his life as a hero and confined himself to the wilderness where he won’t be able to hurt people anymore. He is an immortal unkillable soul who has experienced more trauma and death than any soldier in the history of war. He has lost everyone and everything he cares about along the way. As Yashida points out, he has lost the will to live but cannot find death.

By the end of the film that has changed. He is willing to fight again for those he cares about, beginning with Mariko. Confronting the Silver Samurai, Logan loses his adamantium claws but ultimately defeats and kills him. Passing out, he reaches his moment of true change: in a vision he tells Jean that he has to let her go, he has to move on, that he is sorry for killing her. Logan has been haunted by this tragedy for so long that he has lost his way, but now he is finally ready to begin again.

Series Wrap Up

Are blockbusters formulaic? I hope that through this series I have highlighted the many different approaches that recent big budget films have taken. Though not always successful and certainly still bound by the need to deliver huge spectacle, these films represent a continuing tradition to innovate and push boundaries in film. Although often quite lucrative, these films still represent real stories and a class of under appreciated art.

Some of these films are completely immersive experiences, not just for the audience, but for the many hands who toiled away for months and years to produce something that people across the world would want to watch. It’s not enough the say that a movie is bad or that it merely follows the conventional pattern. We should dig deeper.

Blockbusters may not be high art, but they are appreciable and valuable art nonetheless. The score, cinematography, acting, direction, writing, editing, and art direction are the result of human effort and ingenuity. The stories contained inside them continue to resonate with people year after year. And while sitting down and watching a blockbuster may not exactly change your life it does takes thought and care to appreciate a summer blockbuster, perhaps the same thought and care that life-changing things often require. Whether it’s unique pacing, characterization, structure, or bending of expectations, we should notice these things when they happen and give them their due credit.

Stories are valuable. We have use for them yet. And so I think it reasonable that grand stories that involve so much human labor, so many resources, and so much technical skill to bring to life should rightfully merit our attention from time to time. Blockbusters may not be necessary, but we can work to grasp something meaningful in them while we still have them.