Friday, January 31, 2014


"I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I've seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself."
-Steve Rogers

I'm probably late to the party on this but it occurred to me yesterday that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is live action Scooby Doo.  They even have the goofy lovable dog (werewolf) and shaggy (Zander).  The original concept was to be a preppy upper class girl turned into a tough vampire slayer as a total fish out of water, but the whole "exclusive rich girl in a private school girl" concept went out the window for the TV show.
But mostly I was thinking about how Joss Whedon writes.  I like his stuff okay, but at the same time I don't, and I couldn't really put a finger on it for a while.  Its funny and often clever, and he's good at making things have a twist that was unexpected.  He turns stereotypes and expected patterns on their head well without being contrived or PC.  There was always just something that bothered me.
Its not just that he's pretty poor at making his characters distinct; they all get the same sort of snarky laugh lines and one liners.  They all use the same sort of humor, and if it weren't for their names and appearance, it would be tough to tell them apart, that's not terribly rare in movies and TV.
No, its about ethics, which is odd because Whedon's work is usually very heroic and plainly good vs evil.  His good guys are usually very noble and selfless and try to do right in the face of all opposition and personal cost.
The problem is there aren't really any bad guys in his work.  Sure, there are a lot of evil minions.  You get the faceless, easily disposed types like the Chitauri in The Avengers or an endless array of meaningless vampires turned into ash in Buffy or the mercenary that gets kicked into the ship's engine intake, but they aren't really characters so much as targets.
Every bad guy that gets any character or writing in the story ends up being so sympathetic, so nuanced, and so backstoried that they end up being not so bad after all.  They only do bad out of some earnest need or good cause.  They turned out that way out of a noble intent or because terrible things happened to them when they were young.  Some tragedy, or curse, or nasty thing happened to turn them that way.
Even Loki is that way, although Thor pretty much set the stage for it by turning the story into a family squabble where Loki is the put-upon younger brother who is frustrated by being overshadowed and ignored by daddy.
Nobody is really evil, nobody is truly bad from within.  Its all nurture, never nature.  And their innate nature is so basically good that it peeks out constantly once you get to know them better.  I guess this is supposed to make them more fleshed out and complete as characters, but you know what?  Some people are just bad.  Some people are evil, because they are evil, and not because mommy refused to buy them that pony.
There's a lot of that out there in all sorts of fiction, though.  And even bad guys in real life are rewritten with history to make it seem like it never really was their fault, or even if it was, well you can see why they turned out that way, and if only people would follow certain policies or ideas, it wouldn't ever happen.
The only people who ever are shown to be really evil deep down are big businessmen and religious types (non-Muslim) who are horribly corrupt from inside and need no depth or explanation.  Gordon Gecko wasn't that way because he was mistreated, he's just greedy and evil.
In the end, if you don't have a truly interesting and bad bad guy, the good guys end up not looking as good and noble.   Because people don't really understand good either, and they push so hard at making the good guys nuanced by making them bad deep down too. 
Think back over The Avengers.  Of them all, only Captain America was truly selfless and noble, deep down.  The rest seemed to have selfishness, brutality, meanness, or some other thing wrong with them.  Black Widow was a heartless murderer.  Iron Man was a selfish hedonist.  Hulk just didn't care about anyone or anything except being angry.  Thor was just along to have fun and didn't care about anyone.  Hawkeye is just a guy doing a job with regrets only for killing his buddies. They all ended up being not especially good except Captain America who was the least explored character there and had the least growth.
He didn't get used to the new world, didn't have a problem with adapting, didn't learn anything, he was just... there.  Like Whedon wasn't sure what to do with him except be the old fashioned voice of conscience for Iron Man.  Of course Iron Man was the only guy that really grew or was affected, since all the marvel movies from Paramount are Iron Man movies, ultimately.  But that's another pet peeve.
The thing is, if there's no real good guys and no real bad guys, that contrast is never really there, its all so gray you can't feel a real triumph.  Lacking an ability to see good or evil really, all we get is incredible destruction which is a proxy for bad.  We can't figure out evil so... lets destroy Manhattan and its spectacular!  Being a good guy is about stopping the destruction!
I haven't seen it, but as I understand it Man of Steel is pretty much the same thing, but more so.  Superman isn't innately noble, heroic, and good, he's a terrifying alien who fights other terrifying aliens while flattening New York City and murdering people.
Whedon is better than most at this, at least he seems to understand good and heroism better.  The problem is, he is so focused on flawing his heroes that they end up too shadowy and gray in the end.  I'm surprised Captain America didn't have a tearful session where he revealed how he was molested by his uncle or something.
Its sort of frustrating, because this kind of writing is a proxy for character depth.  It doesn't reveal good or evil, it just shows you can throw baggage at characters and then use psychological constructs to program them into certain reactions.  It seems like there should be more to it than that.

1 comment:

Aquinas Dad said...

Yeah, you nailed it. I watched Buffy once or twice and never returned - it was about snark and drama, not good and evil. Of course anyone can turn evil, they weren't very good! Of course a vampire can be good, he's just conflicted by his desires!
The lukewarm shall be spit out.