Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Some Superhero Tropes

There are several elements of superhero fiction and settings that I appreciate and some that I do not. In some cases, I dislike the underlying message that a particular element delivers and in other cases I simply don’t find the trope makes much sense. These are not entirely consistent likes and dislikes either. A trope I dislike in one instance is one that I feel is entirely appropriate in another instance. However, I’m going to go ahead and discuss some of these below and when I have issues with them and when I don’t.


Secret Identities (Fine)

I do not have any particular problem with secret identities. This is something used by real life law enforcement, military and intelligence operatives. Likewise, vigilantes, terrorists and criminals also usually do what they can to keep their identity a secret from the world at large. Anonymity is a very powerful tool and even basic police officers are given some level of anonymity by the protection of their home addresses among other methods. When your enemies have no idea as to your identity they also have much less idea on how to strike back against you.

I can also understand keeping these things secret from family to a degree. Quite often in a superhero story, people with powers face a fair amount of discrimination. Even in cases where they are well respected, it is a legitimate concern that your family and friends might get into trouble if they know too much about your superhuman activities. Just reference Gwen Stacy's fate in the most recent Spider-Man movie as an example. Had she not known Peter's identity, she would not have been in position to get killed like that.

That said, there are a number of cases where a particular person's life would be much better if he or she told more people about his secret identity. The most successful superheroes have a number of people who know their identity and act as a support structure for the individual. Batman, for example, has Alfred Pennyworth, Lucius Fox, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Barbara Gordon, Dick Grayson and several others besides who know what his secret is and act to run his company, treat his injuries, get intelligence, help him on the street and so on. The Flash and the Arrow in the most recent storylines also each have extensive support structures.

There are also places where loved ones are put in danger because they don't know about the secret identity. Keeping in the dark might prevent them from saying something at the wrong time or being drawn to help and put themselves in danger, but it also means that if someone figures out the hero's identity then their loved ones have no warning should people come after them.

In addition, a number of misunderstandings small and major are exacerbated by the keeping of such secrets. Keeping an identity secret necessitates lying and avoiding direct questions. This will provoke people into either cutting the character off after enough incidents when the character disappointed them or else digging into the characters affairs and getting in over their heads. Meanwhile, sharing the secret identity with someone allows for maintaining alibis, arranging for cover in emergencies and other such things. However, while that makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings, the misunderstandings will still arise.

Hero Names (Fine)

Hero names are another element that make sense especially when characters are cooperating with each other. Team members need a clear why to refer to each other without using their real names. This helps them protect their identities and thus maintain their anonymity. Again, this is a real world thing. From fighter pilot call signs to covert agent code names to hacker identities, there are a wide variety of cases where real world individuals make use of something similar in order to avoid identifying themselves directly.

I do however dislike choosing hero names for the most part. There are a couple of characters where it makes sense that they’d name themselves. For example, Spider-Man started out his career looking to go into professional wrestling, so of course he’d give himself an off-the-wall, grandiose name. In other cases the name might be inherited such as the case with the Phantom or the Flash. Hackers like giving themselves impressive sounding names and there would be superheroes that likewise want the recognition who would also name themselves.

In an organization the characters might be allowed to choose their own code names, fighter pilots are an example, but in other cases they’re unlikely to have that choice. Likewise, real life assigned code names quite deliberately usually have no relation to the person in question or what they are capable of. The X-Men are largely an example of organizational code names chosen by the individuals carrying them. The characters of Darker than Black, on the other hand, more represent characters who were assigned a code name.

Another way of acquiring a hero name is from urban legend and the press. For example, while Batman quite deliberately dresses with a bat motif with the intention of making a statement, it was rumor that started calling him “Batman” and later on down the line he started getting the names “Dark Knight” and “Caped Crusader.” Daredevil in the most recent incarnation on Netflix was referred to largely as “the man in black” or “the man in the mask” until he was framed for terrorism and the press started calling him “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” and finally he was given the name Daredevil.

Costumes (Fine, sort of)

By and large, I do not like superhero costumes. They are flashy and attract a lot of attention which most often counteracts a lot of the benefit that superheroes and the like would get from being anonymous. I like the costumes to have a practical use first and foremost. Armor, concealment, the ability to care equipment and other things like that. Again, however, there several cases where costumes are useful or else fit the concept of the character.

Spider-Man, again, first created his costume with the intention of being a professional wrestler. This makes his bright and colorful costume make a lot of sense in consideration. He just used that when he first started doing the crime-fighter thing and got a better version later on. In addition, his flashy Spider-Man persona actually adds to his anonymity since it is directly counter to the way people think Peter Parker normally behaves.

In Batman’s case, the costume primarily serves as armor and arsenal, in recent years even the cape has been given functional purpose by being made a glider cape. The cowl conceals his identity and the armor protects his body. Various other gadgets embedded in the outfit further support him. The bat ears are a touch of theatrical addition that are designed to heighten the creep factor he uses by juxtaposing his appearance and actions with the idea of a bat. However, Batman’s costume is not designed to seek attention. It is more designed to confuse the issue in those cases where someone catches a glimpse of him. Later, after he and his outfit had become publicly well known, he retained the bat-image to make use of the symbol he’d already built up to that point.

Superman is another case where a character is trying to make a statement. He wants to be a very public figure and to give the people around him something to look up to and aspire towards. Skulking about in the shadows is not the point of his character. However, he still needs to keep his anonymity. It should be noted that in this case the secret identity is the real mask. So this is another matter where flashy costumes make sense. Captain America’s costume is also largely intended to make a statement and thus makes a fair amount of sense in his situation as well.

Daredevil didn’t start out with a costume, per se, so much as just a set of clothes designed to conceal his face, make him hard to see at night and give him freedom of movement. He didn’t adopt a traditional superhero costume until later on when he decided to start taking up the mantle and symbolism that the media and urban legend had been pouring on top of his story. Again, the Daredevil costume is primarily designed to be armor and thus practical, but has the same sort of additions that would cause confusion and fear in someone that just barely catches sight of him before being knocked unconscious.

Costumes such as those worn by the various Lantern Corps, the Sailor Senshi, the Power Rangers, the early X-Men, Agency Zero and other such characters are all largely uniforms. Uniforms serve several purposes. Primarily, they serve to provide the character with all the gear or protection that their organization deems to be necessary. Second, they shift the focus of attention off the person in the uniform and on the organization which thus helps preserve the anonymity of the individual members of the organization. Third, they are recognizable to outsiders and thus come with a predictable impact. You are meant to trust police officers and respect their authority and you are meant to be afraid of groups like Cobra. Fourth, they create a group identity within the individuals producing a framework for solidarity and mutual loyalty.

Uniforms also have their downsides, of course. When members of a group start behaving counter to the intended reputation and purpose of the group as a whole, it starts to color and alter the perceived reputation of the group. In a lot of cases, the created solidarity makes this worse because members of the group will close ranks rather than responsibly investigating misconduct. This is something that is rather infamous among law enforcement organizations around the world. In comics, SHIELD quite regularly gets infiltrated by corrupt forces. In addition, a uniform might be stolen, in which case someone can make use of the expectations of the uniform to take advantage of others. There have been several instances in the real world of individuals impersonating police officers and pulling people over for reasons that are never good, for instance. In some cases, the uniforms have been used to go past fostering a group identity into suppressing an individual one. This is often the case with villainous organizations in comics but any organization has a danger of moving into this extreme.

Costumes worn for the simple fact of wearing a costume generally come up in characters that get into the superhero thing more because they thought it would get them attention, respect or something else. There are indeed characters that would have that attitude. Some of them would be people like Tony Stark who naturally like to make a big display out of everything they do. In other cases it would be something of a trademark, such as how Paladin’s purple armor or Deathstroke’s helmet makes them easily recognizable to potential clients. Then you get the bizarre wackos such as Deadpool who get costumes just because.

There is also the existence of the costume which has its look for no other reason than that it has to look that way. Magical armor or robes crafted of particular materials or embroidered with set runes would be one example. A prototype piece of armor that has an unusual look by the sheer necessity of the way it works would be another such instance. The Ant-Man suit is one such example of a costume with a unique appearance due to necessities of function.

Vigilantism (Annoying when it is considered a default or preferable to official law enforcement)

There is a very narrow range of circumstance within which vigilantism is preferable to governmental law enforcement. However, the default circumstance in most superhero settings is the premise that the characters are concerned citizens operating as vigilantes. Vigilantes generally only provide more benefit than trouble in chaotic situations where the government is incapable or unwilling to provide the protection or law enforcement services that it should. In the long run, vigilantism has invariably resulted in creating more offenses against the common man than it does in stopping them.

In the most common circumstances, the police are well-meaning but overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with super-villains. This makes sense to a degree if super-humans are a new development. However, the longer super-humans have been around, the more unrealistic this scenario gets. Comic book police departments seem to be singularly unwilling to hire superhumans of any sort. There are some exceptions such as the main character of Savage Dragon who is a police officer, but, by and large most titles prefer to keep the police officers as normals who valiantly try to do their job but eventually have to turn to superheroes to settle things.

Another common situation in superhero comics is when the police are corrupt and the hero has arrisen because the cops aren't doing their job. This presents another small window during which vigilantism is acceptable. In fact with rampant corruption in the police force, it is only a matter of time before some sort of vigilantism happens. The Yakuza, Mafia, Triads, Tongs, many street gangs and a large number of other criminal organizations have their origins in vigilante movements that grew up in response to oppressive or neglectful governments and then devolving as they turned to criminal measures in order to fund themselves.

The federal government is no better in most of these stories. Almost invariably, federal funded superhuman law enforcement are plagued by alphabet soup style secrets and conspiracies. A lot of them end up being involved in some sort of unethical experiments with the main characters having to go rogue to expose them. In cases where the main characters' agency isn't directly touched, then they are often underfunded, treated like a publicity project and generally under-utilized, once again resulting in characters needing to go rogue to look into a situation they stumble across and get told to leave alone.

One of the advantages that governmental law enforcement has is that it is impersonal when done correctly. A police officer or federal agent is a representative of the law of the land. They are ideally supposed to enforce the laws of the land regardless of their personal feelings on a matter. This is one of the reasons that cops who have a personal stake in a case are called off of it. When a case gets personal, a police officer is a little more tempted to bend the laws he is supposed to enforce either to protect an acquaintance who “couldn't possibly be guilty” or to arrest someone that he or she is certain is behind it all. When police officers step beyond this line then they've gone past the limits of their authority and are now acting on their own desires which makes the matter personal. Personal arguments are how feuds come to be.

Vigilantes from the very start are acting on their own desires and this makes their activities inherently personal. Even if they claim to be acting in the name of justice or some other abstract authority, or if they are part of an unofficial organization, they don't have an authority that others would regard as being legitimate. As such they criminals they target will feel no hesitance to treat them the way they treat any other rival criminal organization. This results in an escalation of conflicts which long term puts more people in danger than it protects.

Unfortunately, people being people, the ideal operation never occurs and police departments and federal agencies have as much risk as falling into what is essentially vigilantism as anybody else. When this happens there are systems in place to enforce the accountability of such agencies. When the police departments overstep their bounds then there are people to complain to in order to get the matter handled. Of course, these systems are no more immune to corruption or radicalization than the police force itself, but they exist.

Vigilantes have no accountability except to themselves or their allies. If a vigilante makes a mistake and beats up the wrong person then there are only two ways to handle this. You can go to the police and hope that they find and stop the vigilante, which they usually have a good chance to do in real life but which is unlikely to be feasible in most superhero settings. The second option is to turn vigilante yourself and try to get revenge or justice or whatever yourself.

A successful vigilante also encourages the rise of other vigilantes, some as successful and some less so. Even if the original vigilante remains in control of himself and takes special care to never assault an innocent person, the more vigilantes around the more likely that you get half-assed extremists, glory hounds or thrill-seekers. Those sorts of people are likely to cause all manner of things to go wrong.

As a people, we've been very slowly trying to eliminate vigilantism as a method of getting justice. It leads to long-term feuds, wars and innocents killed for crimes that they didn't commit. The long history of mediators, chieftains, kings, magistrates, priests and so on has been our various attempts to keep people from taking matters into their own hands and keep revenge out of the search for justice.

That said, there are some instances where vigilantism is either a necessary evil or an expected side-effect. When the police are incapable of carrying out their task, for example in the early point of an eruption of superhuman abilities it is likely that the average police officer has nothing like the training or equipment capable of taking on most superheroes. Until the government starts adapting to the existence of superhuman abilities, for example by hiring superhumans, it would fall to concerned citizens with powers to stop the criminals with powers.

It is also a fact that the law is about order not morality. In addition, laws are static and are written to deal with circumstances that have happened in the past. They can't cover every possible situation that happens in life. It is entirely possible for something immoral to occur for which there is no law to address it. This happens quite frequently in fact there are numerous unethical lawyers and businessman that have great ability at finding those loopholes. Some of these situations may necessitate going past the law in order to protect one's self or someone else.

A corrupt or radicalized police force also presents a situation where people have to protect themselves rather than trust to the official government, at least until someone or something brings the local police force to heel and cleans it out. Because at that point, whatever they call themselves, they are not acting as agents of the law and might as well just be another criminal gang.

Regardless, the longer vigilantism is a regular occurrence the less stable a society becomes. All you have to do is look at the rogues galleries of various superheroes for examples. First time encounters with villains usually are a result of a criminal enterprise of sort and the encounter is more less something of chance. Overtime, however, villains will more often be engaging in various plans for the specific purpose of getting back at the heroes and gaining revenge.

Technological Stasis (Annoying)

Despite the existence of super-scientists in most superhero settings, the state of technology is rarely much if any different from that of the real world. Part of this is because superhero stories are supposed to be set in basically our own world but with superhumans. Allowing the logical impact of super-scientists on the world would advance the world well into a setting which most people would consider standard science fiction rather than a superhero story. The other part is that there is a trend of anti-intellectualism in a lot of comics.

Quite often, whenever a scientist introduces some sort of super bit of tech, the writers come up with some reason why it can't be reproduced, or they give it a terrible side-effect that creates more trouble than benefit. Lots of new advances come with clear dangers. Genetic engineering creates monsters. Nuclear power comes with more or less guaranteed meltdowns. Immunology research creates super plagues. So on and so forth. If the sort of things that happen in comic books were as guaranteed horrible in real life, the world would have ended years ago.

They have to keep the origins of different superhumans so that they cannot be reproduced. If they can be reproduced it is almost certain that villains will get a hold of the method and create a sort of evil twin or some inferior copies. Anybody else who gets upgraded will likely be some sort of crazy villain, possibly marking the hero as the only one who comes through with his or her personality intact. Even if the upgrade or origin has no impact on the moral or ethical nature of the individual, you can be certain that the method of repeating the origin will be destroyed for the good of mankind.

Similarly, any time some group starts researching weapons that would allow a normal person to compete with a superhuman this will be a result of some evil secret organization seeking to purify the human race or dominate the world; the research will be destroyed and for some reason the prototypes won't be reproducible and you'll get a new superhero but that's it; someone would get a hold of the weapon and do something evil with it and you get a new villain; but what you won't get is a new mass produced weapon that causes a change in the balance of power.

This is unfortunate for the powered population because it means that the only people that can handle a powered criminal is a powered person. The expectation would be that anybody with powers would step up to the responsibility of using those powers to prevent others from misusing theirs. When there is a mass production of genetic mods or gadgets allowing people to become or match with naturally powered people; or when more people are born powered, then you have a situation where being born with a power was rather like being born tall: a slight advantage but there's plenty of ways to match it. This does sound like the end goal of Syndrome from the Incredibles and it is, but with much less in the way of a spiteful motive.

When supers become common or safe to create, then the natural born supers would gradually see less prejudice and would certainly face much less pressure to take on the dangerous occupation of being a crime-fighter. By making sure that the logical progression of super-soldier to common place genetic modification; prototype power armor to seeing the latest model flight suit being advertised on TV; or so on never happen, the writers insure that superhumans remain rare, unique and obligated to step up as heroes or else be hunted to be exploited, regardless of whether the only thing they want to do is be a singer.

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