Thursday, August 02, 2012

Heroically Motivated

Tim O'Neil, author of the excellent "The Hurting" blog has a new essay up wherein he examines the whys-and-wherefores of different superheroes' doing what they do, with a special focus on Batman and Spider-Man, both of whom happen to have movies now in theaters. The crux of his argument is that hero origins risk becoming cluttered and unwieldy when saddled with too much expository baggage. Too much "because." From the piece:
"Batman hates crime" is perhaps the simplest, most accessible, least complicated motivation in all fiction. He hates crime in all its incarnation, in all its many sizes and shapes - he hates murderers and drug dealers and extortionists and rapists and thieves and white-collar criminals and international terrorists. If it falls under the umbrella of "crime," Batman hates it. If you wanted to be more precise, however, you could add a second clause, turn the motivation into something like:
Batman hates crime because his parents were killed in a mugging when he was a child. 
That is as "correct" a statement as the first version, but it also introduces possible complications. The second clause posits the condition under which his previously-stated motivation occurs. Once this condition is introduced the possibility exists that, if the condition is complicated, the motivation can be as well. If Batman hates crime only because his parents were murdered, what happens when he catches the murderer?
He elaborates on this point by bringing up how Tim Burton turning the Joker into the mugger who killed Bruce Wayne's parents in the 1989 Batman flick complicates this question even further (which is something that, just by happenstance, I also mentioned and discussed with the Mr. Boy crew in the first ep of the all-new MovieFilm podcast I posted this past Monday).

A little further along in his post, he also makes pretty much the same point I made in my review of The Amazing Spider-Man last month about the mechanics of how the character's origin is portrayed in the film, which I said, "robs us of that singular 'Daaaaaamn!' moment where we see the tumblers lock into place for Peter how great power and great responsibility go together." Says Tim:
...the idea that Spider-Man doesn't catch the burglar is terrible and changes the character is unforeseen ways. The new movie's assertion that Spider-Man's earliest exploits were him searching specifically for the thief who shot Ben Parker is a terrible idea, because it makes Spider-Man's earliest heroic motivation revenge.
Yep, couldn't agree more. And for as much as I liked The Amazing Spider-Man (and my opinion of it actually rose upon a second viewing), this is still a very obvious, very noticeable narrative flaw that the filmmakers just tossed into the mix like a time bomb without really giving due consideration to its implications. Putting a button this point, a few paragraphs later:
The advantages of giving a character as open-ended a motivation as possible is that the more open-ended the motivation, the more flexible the character can be. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are flexible enough that each character can be ported into an almost infinite variety of stories.
Okay, I need to stop now, otherwise I'll just end up quoting the whole damn thing instead of sending you to the original post. Needless to say, there's much more at the link, and I recommend giving it all a look if this stuff even remotely interests you (and, c'mon, how could it not, amiright?).


Abdul-Halim V. said...

I don't think I really appreciated Spiderman until I saw him "wake-up" from the House of M reality. He's really had alot of crap and disappointment to deal with.

Abdul-Halim V. said...


I'm don't know if you've seen it yourself, but in House of M, various superheroes are placed in a pocket universe where mutants and others get their deepest wishes fulfilled. In Spider-Man's case, he is married to Gwen Stacy and Uncle Ben is alive. And then after being happy, he wakes up and is slammed with all the tragedies in his life all at once.

Also, in terms of Batman, I'm not sure if I'd call this the exception that proves the rule but I never really thought deeply about how in Red Son and in Holy Terror (not the racist Frank Miller one, but the theocratic Elseworlds one) Bruce Wayne's parents were killed by government agents and so Batman is more of an Anarchist than a pro- law-and-order hero.