Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mindless Violence? The Role of Action in Modern Super-hero Stories

Back in the 1980s, Comics Buyer’s Guide ran a cartoon depicting two stalwart Marvel heroes, Daredevil and Nightcrawler, in a wrestling match. The caption read, “Mindless violence as you like it!”

The cartoon poked fun at the tendency of some fans to prefer violence over any kind of plot, character development, or theme—the elements most of us think of as “story,” and which writers love to write.

The irony is that, in the three decades or so since that cartoon ran, mindless violence has escalated in comics, films and TV, and especially video games. One recent book goes so far as to pin the blame for the horrific trend of mass shootings on the rapes, murders, and carnage our children are exposed to in modern video games.

This is not the place to argue the pros and cons of that debate. However, for many fans of super-heroes, violence—or, to use a less inflammatory term, “action”—is a significant part of the genre’s appeal. 

Think of any Spider-Man, Avengers, or Batman film, or even non-super-hero blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible and The Matrix. What’s the first scene that comes to your mind? Chances are, it involves some kind of violence or action.

(For me, the first scene in Marvel’s The Avengers which springs to mind involves the Hulk—the green-skinned epitome of mindless violence—and his famous “Puny god!” line. Mindless violence?  Perhaps. But funny as all get out.)

Cut to the (Car) Chase?

A conversation with two friends today got me thinking about the role of action in super-hero stories.  One friend in his early 50s said he watches super-hero films and reads comics solely for the action. He has no interest in story lines. He wants car chases and explosions.

(This friend, by the way, has never to my knowledge gone on a mass shooting spree. He’s a devoted family man who recently won the employee of the year award at his job and who spends his free time teaching kids how to draw.) 

The other friend, same age, likes a balance between story and action. He took the Transformers movie to task because, once the characters transformed and started fighting each other, he couldn’t tell who was who.

Then there’s me. I’ve largely moved on from comics these days, though I still love a good super-hero story.  (Avengers was one of the truest comics-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen and an enjoyable movie in its own right.) However, if given a choice, I’ll prefer story to action every time.   

My most recent favorite TV series, Downton Abbey, is about as far removed from super-hero action as you can get.

Without a good story, action does not satisfy me.
Heroes and the High Cost of Violence

Our conversation, in turn, got me thinking about the role of action in my own super-hero stories, especially the two available through the links at the top of this blog: the comic book GOLD DUST and the novel THE POWER CLUB.

If you’re looking for slam-bang, wall-to-wall action, pass on both of these. That isn’t to say there’s no action in either—there is—but the action supports the other elements I described above (plot, character, and theme); it does not take their place.

By keeping action to a minimum and using it only when necessary, I sought to achieve a particular effect: to make violence more significant, memorable, and (in a few cases) horrifying.

GOLD DUST, for example, is about a hero seeking redemption. Mangold, in a flashback sequence, seeks revenge for the murder of his teammate by trying to kill a super-villain. He misses and kills a bystander instead. 

From that moment on, Mangold tries to reclaim what he has lost: the sense of being a hero, of making a positive impact on the world, and to win back the trust of the people he protects.

The present-day action in GOLD DUST largely figures in two scenes, one involving a mugging and the other a burning building. Both end with our hero behaving in a somewhat less-than-heroic fashion.

My purpose was to show that the world is no longer as cut-and-dried as Mangold wants it to be and that sometimes even heroes need help.

My larger goal was to get readers to question the nature of heroism and to recognize that, while heroes are flawed, they remain heroes because they keep trying.  

If I had to sacrifice a car chase or a punch-‘em-out with a super-villain to achieve that effect, so be it.

Was I successful? I don’t know. However, no one has ever complained to me that the story needs more action.

Action Does Not Equal Conflict

Besides, physical action is not as fun to read, in my opinion, as interpersonal or internal conflict.  Mangold butts heads with his surviving teammates, who have also had to pay a heavy price for his mistake. He also wages war with his own demons while trying to come to terms with what he has done.

Do these ideas resonate with readers today, or should I have had Mangold and crew gang up on a group of super-villains instead?  What do you think?

(In a future blog post, I’ll discuss the action in THE POWER CLUB.)

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