Tag Archives: Rant

Tropes I Can Do Without: Incompetent Antagonists

So, I’m breaking my rule here just a bit. My goal for this year was to write about those thing I love more than the things I dislike. But today is Halloween, and this one in particular has been weighing on my mind of late. I’m going to talk about a sci-fi/fantasy trope that I would REALLY like to see go away: incompetent antagonists.

FreddyWise

Trick! This post has nothing to do with either of them! Both of them are pretty cool as is. 

See if this sounds familiar…a plucky band of heroes is just so darn good. And clever! The bad guys, by contrast, might have cool tech and uniforms, but they are largely idiots, or exceedingly arrogant (or both). Because the heroes have the ‘heart’ of 100 Rocky Balboas, they are able to snatch victory out of the lazy, slackened jaws of defeat. Hooray! Everyone goes home.

Based on this, I’m proud to introduce Carson’s First Law of Villainy: The level of satisfaction the audience experiences from the heroes’ victory is directly proportional to the competence of their opposition.

Or, in other words, the greater the threat, the greater the payoff.  If it seems nigh-impossible for the heroes to succeed, the more of a “YAAAS” moment you get when the they finally—somehow— pull it off. Villains are key to this. You can have a weak villain and still have a fun, engaging story (Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’m looking at you in most cases), but the writer does his heroes a disservice if the opposition they face is weak or ineffectual.

Let’s look at some examples. Think of a bad guy or set of bad guys. This can be from books, movies, comic books, really anywhere. Why were they memorable? Why were they a threat to the protagonist, and what lengths did the hero or heroes have to go to defeat them? For me, one figure immediately springs to mind.

This guy.

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Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!

Darth Vader.

Not, Anakin Skywalker. No, the Dark Lord of the Sith as he was portrayed in Episodes 4, 5, and 6. He’s powerful, in control, and a dire threat to anyone who get in his way. Every time the heroes cross paths with him, they pay for it. Obi-Wan goes down, he cuts off Luke’s Hand, and Han gets encased in carbonite.

He’s always one step ahead, and going up against him directly seems like a suicide mission. So, when Luke does finally defeat him, it shows how far the character has come. The Luke who whined about going into Tosche Station to pick up power converters couldn’t have faced Vader and lived. It had to be the Luke who wore all black, who single-handedly stormed Jabba’s barge like a boss to do that. In essence, Luke had to grow into Vader’s looming threat. As I’ve said before, it’s the presence of the wolf, not its absence, that makes the deer fast.

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And the winner for Most Improved goes to…

Of course, Grand Moff Tarkin does refuse to evacuate the station out of sheer arrogance, but that’s the difference between the two characters. Tarkin was certainly competent in other ways, but ultimately fell prey to this classic movie trope: His belief in his own superiority sews the seeds of his downfall.  In the end, however, I think the original Star Wars trilogy does a good job of establishing the Empire as a legitimate danger to make its defeat feel like an accomplishment.  (Stormtroopers who can’t hit the broad side of a barn, notwithstanding.)

Let’s look at a really bad example. I must preface this by saying that I’m big fan of this author’s work, and have been so for 20 years or more. But lately, the bad guys are bad at what they do. Really bad. Let’s talk about Shadow of Freedom, by David Webber, a novel in one of the spin-offs of his Honor Harrington universe.

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Despite being front and center on the cover, Honor Harrington never appears directly. 

I posted my review on Goodreads, but here’s the part that pertains to this topic. The bad guys are some of the worst I’ve ever read. There are multiple sets of them, and they are all idiotic, arrogant, AND their tech is way inferior to the good guys. In short, they are cockroaches being run over by a semi. They can’t even really fight back. They either flee or they die, without presenting even the slightest bit of threat or challenge.

If it only happened once in the book, that would be one thing, but it happens over and over again. And this isn’t the only Honor Harrington book where this is the case, I’m sorry to say. I want to see the protagonists struggle to achieve their goal, to really fight for it, sacrifice for it. There’s none of that here, because the bad guys are disposable, stupid, and pose no real danger.

Commando-1985

Yeah, pretty much like that. 

That brings me to Carson’s Second Law of Villainy: The audience should, in some way, empathize with the antagonist enough to—almost—wish them to succeed in place of the protagonist.

This is stepping outside the speculative realms, but think about Hans Gruber from the original Die Hard movie, played by the incomparable Alan Rickman. He is a cold-blooded killer, a terrorist, and a worthy adversary of Bruce Willis’ John McClane. Even though we hope McClane is able to triumph over Gruber, the moment that Gruber’s team opens the vault is genuinely exciting. For an instant, you almost feel elated that they have accomplished their goal, even though they’ve done some horrible things to get there. You temporarily suspend your wish for McClane’s victory in favor of Gruber. It’s only for a moment, but it’s there.

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The man himself. 

Even this can be traced to Gruber’s innate competence. He knows what he’s doing. He has it together. He has a thought-out master plan and the will and resolve to see it through. That he is very good at what he does contributes to the menace he represents to McClane. If Gruber and company were a bunch of bumbling idiots, McClane’s triumph wouldn’t have been nearly so resounding.

Another example of this is Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, in my opinion one of the greatest TV villains of all time, and Giancarlo Esposito’s masterwork. (Spoiler Alert) Even though Gus represents deadly peril to our protagonists, Walter and Jesse, it’s pretty satisfying to see him take down the Juarez Cartel. Again, we’ve seen this guy literally slit a guy’s throat in cold blood just to make a point, but in this moment we are glad that Gus has won the day. And he did this through superior planning, a deep knowledge of his targets and their foibles, and a driving determination to avenge his dead friend, Max. Again, competence.

Breaking Bad (Season 4)

Is today the day, Hector? 

It’s these instances of success where we can’t help but cheer, even though we know we shouldn’t. And it’s these moments that lead me to Carson’s Third Law of Villainy: Antagonists should believe and behave as though they are the protagonists in their own story.

Perhaps the most chilling thing about some of the worst people who have ever lived in real life is that they thought they were the good guys. They all thought they were the hero in their own story. A well-rounded antagonist should likewise believe this. They aren’t just there to be a convenient obstacle, to wait around to be defeated or killed, they have goals and dreams like anyone, albeit twisted by our standards. In their view, the hero is the actual villain of the piece.

One of the most unsettling examples of this is the movie Falling Down. I’ve heard it said that you can tell the protagonist of a story by looking for the one in the most pain. Not so with this movie. Even though the story revolves around William Foster (Michael Douglas), he is really the antagonist. We see that he’s in pain, and that he’s fed up with the world, but when Robert Duvall’s Sgt. Prendergast confronts him at the end of the movie, Foster says “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?”

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His glasses aren’t the only thing that’s cracked. 

And, just to throw a curve ball into the mix, let’s talk about the Operative (Chiwetal Ejiofor) in Serenity. He certainly passes the competency test. He’s articulate and extremely dangerous, and also strangely empathic towards his victims.

He passes the first two laws of villainy with flying colors, but not the third. That is perhaps the only failing in an otherwise command performance. The Operative knows that he’s a monster, that what he’s doing is wrong, and yet he does it anyway. That’s the only part of this character that doesn’t ring true to me, especially when Shepherd Book says that men like the Operative  ‘believe hard’ and ‘never ask why.’ The Operative knows he’s a villain, which in my estimation, makes him less of one.

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Perhaps there is nothing left to see. 

Well, there you have it, Carson’s Three Laws of Villainy, and how the use of them can prevent a milquetoast antagonist. Villains fuel the story’s conflict, and what is a good story without conflict?

So if you’re writer of any sort of fiction, do us a favor and make your villain as compelling as your hero. Make your protagonist rise to the challenge. And if you can, have your villain go out with a bit of style or panache.  (That’s more of a personal request, however.)

Truth is, we all deserve better bad guys in our stories. Villains aren’t good, but by the horned helmet of Loki, they should at least be good at it!

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Burdened with glorious purpose, indeed. 

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(New)Battlestar Galactica and My Roller-Coaster Fandom

Richard Hatch passed away last week, and it got me to thinking. Most folks probably remember him as Captain Apollo, starring beside Dirk Benedict and Lorne Greene in the original Battlestar Galactica. My favorite role of his was in Galactica, but not in that one. I’m talking about his role in the 2004 reboot as the calculating political operator, Tom Zarek.

Talent Names -

Previously, on Battlestar Galactica…

While lamenting Mr. Hatch’s passing, I found myself revisiting the music of both the original and reimagined series. Of course, I still feel the thrill and majesty of the original main theme. As a connoisseur of space operas, that one is pretty boss. Inevitably, I began listening through the score of the ‘new’ series, which is tonally much darker and angst-ridden (pretty much like the show itself).

For the most part, I don’t look back on New Galactica very fondly, mainly due to the nonsensical third and fourth seasons, and the X-files/LOST kind of ending that was disappointing in the extreme. But then I rediscovered the track “Reuniting the Fleet.” Go ahead, give it a listen. I’ll wait.

The same mix of drums and the uilleann pipes are a direct callback to an earlier piece of music, “A Good Lighter.” Both instantly transported me back to my favorite moments in New Galactica. One is where Adama, played by Edward James Olmos, shared a moment with his son, Apollo, (Jaime Bamber) on the flight deck before an all-important mission. While I take issue with the direction of the show, the peformances remain incredible, and this scene between them – just thinking about it as I write this – gives me a big ol’ lump in my throat.

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I’m not crying. You’re crying!

The same is true for the “Reuniting the Fleet.” Faced with leaving the colonists behind on New Caprica in search of Earth, Adama makes the decision to reunite his people, who were sharply divided down ideological and political lines. I remember watching that scene on TV and being moved by it. Now, it’s downright profound.

With this level of emotion, atmosphere, and acting, how could my immediate impression of the show be negative, now after nearly eight years since it went off the air?

There are so few shows that leave me with such mixed emotions. The aforementioned X-files and LOST are two of them, certainly. These are shows that I absolutely loved at the beginning, but by the end watching an episode was uncomfortable, and largely consumed out of ‘fan duty’ if that makes any sense. And also the hope that it would get better.

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*holding in the existential dread* It’s going to get better…right?

When I first discovered New Galactica, I feel in love. Unlike many old-school Galactica fans I know, I really loved the darker more helpless tone of the new show. It really felt like a great tragedy had befallen the survivors of the Fall of the Twelve Colonies, and this had scarred them all to a lesser or greater extent. Here was military science fiction I could really sink my proverbial teeth into.

The first and second seasons of New Galactica, as well as the first few episodes of season three were not only some of the best sci-fi I’d ever seen on TV, but also one of the best dramas. Full stop. Again, I cannot say enough good things about the performances turned in by Olmos, Callis, Sackhoff and so many others. Bear McCreary’s score put it over the top. The discovery of Kobol and the hint that old gods where not who they seemed, the return of the Pegasus, and the interplay between Adama and Cain…wow. Intense. Like Samuel L. Jackson in the diner with Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction.

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Yeah, pretty much like that.

But once our intrepid heroes blasted their way off of New Caprica, season three took an immediate nosedive. They had gotten the show back on the road, back on the quest for Earth, but it seemed like the writers and showrunners had less of an idea of what to do next. The intro to the show boasted of the Cylons that ‘they have a plan,’ but it became apparent that the showrunners didn’t.

Season three felt like this strange mix of individual character studies that didn’t seem to support what had gone before. Previous to this, each episode had stacked on top of the last, adding layers to the story while adding new developments, new wrinkles. These new episodes, however, felt like you could pull them out of the pile and they wouldn’t be missed. In fact, ‘Hero’ was an episode that I think weakened the series as a whole.

The continuity began to unravel and characters began acting, well, inconsistent to say the least. Adama is willing to stand Cally up against a bulkhead and execute her if Chief Tyrol doesn’t comply to his demands because ‘he can’t have people deciding when to obey orders,’ but does nothing to Helo for disobeying orders when they could have shown Hugh the insidious diagram and destroyed the Borg Collective…er—I mean the Cylons, and saved the human race. And then Helo is promoted to CAG, even after this incident…and he’s not even a pilot.

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Baltar isn’t so sure about that. Baltar is not alone.

There were some bright spots along the way, to be sure. I’m a huge fan of Jan Espenson, and so the middle of the season got a bump with “The Passage” and “The Eye of Jupiter.” But then the ‘All Along The Watchtower’ moment happens at the end of season three that really looked like the show had gone off the rails, and I wasn’t sure it was coming back.

It took more than a year, but come back it did. There was a little improvement, but that’s when the ‘Final Five’ story arc came into play, and for me…the worst thing about the show, not counting the ending. I was this close to just calling it and watching something else. It takes a lot for this fanboy to want to pack up and go home, but I was done.

Then we got to the mutiny arc and, by Grapthar’s Hammer, we were back, baby! The excitement, the drama, the everything…I wanted to shout at the producers: “This is what I’m talking about! Every episode should be like this!

But after that, the show went back to floundering. They found ‘Earth’ only it wasn’t Earth, and we got a pretty weak explanation of how the Twelve Models came to be, even though it didn’t make much sense AND seemed to contradict what we knew about them already. Again, I must stress, Final Five = Worst Part of the Show. Somebody should have really gamed this out ahead of time. I understand writing yourself into a corner, but come on.

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Submitted for your approval…

By this time we all knew that Season Four would be New Galactica’s last. You couldn’t tell it by the way the story plodded on, however. The episode “Someone to Watch Over Me” did not feel like a series with only a few episodes left, but rather a series that still had three or four seasons still to come.

And the ending? Well, let’s just say that it would take the god-awful ending of LOST to eclipse New Galactica on my ‘Worst Ever’ list. It still remains in a solid #2 spot, however. From eschewing technology for no good reason, to Kara’s unexplained departure, and even Adama deciding to live alone for the rest of his life rather than with his son, there are so many horrid things here that a recounting of them all would be a blog post unto itself. It had some interesting action sequences, and *something* of a resolution to the ‘All Along the Watchtower’ craziness of before, but…well, yuck. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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Yeah, Brah, I don’t what to make of that either.

So why do I bring this up? Is it just to bash a long-time fanboy disappointment? A bit, yeah. But really it’s to show the extreme ends of the pendulum here, and the lasting impression it made on me both coming and going.

Understand that I still use Bear McCreary’s music when I write. (If you ever need to write an epic combat scene, put “Prelude to War” on your playlist, trust me.) I follow the projects of cast members of this show as much as I do for Firefly, or Babylon 5, or Star Trek. I love to see cosplay of these characters, and enjoy fan theories on the connections between the original series and the new.

That’s still with me.

This show meant something to me. It still does to some degree. I only wish that more care and energy had been put into the latter half of the series to match the first. To me, New Galactica serves as both a shining example and a cautionary tale of what to do/not do in modern science fiction.

Like with people, you have to take the good with the bad here. And in that sense, boy howdy is New Galactica like the contradictory nature of the deeply flawed people it portrayed in the show.

Can I get a “So Say We All”?

 

 


Brian’s Comic Contemplations II — The Miles Morales Syndrome

[Brian is a HUGE Spider-man fan. In all my travels, I have never encountered a bigger fan of the wall-crawler. Here are some of his thoughts and opinions on the State of the Spidey.]

Now that my first rant about Deadpool is ancient history, I thought I’d offer Matt another break from the blogging grind with another guest submission before he changes his mind. So here are a couple of similar issues that leave me bewildered when it comes to the comic book world.

Watch out, here comes the Spider-Man...

Just your friendly neighborhood…yeah, you know the rest.

At a point several years ago, Marvel decided they needed a new, more modern Spider-Man. One that reflected the cultural realities in the U.S. population. So, they introduced a new Spidey. A boy named Miles Morales. They then “killed” the character Peter Parker.

This is something that really chaps my Boo Berries. Look, I realize that comic book and movie companies are influenced by marketing departments. And I know we live in a politically-correct, inclusive society. Hey, I welcome that. Not complaining. But why slough-off the development of multicultural characters?

Why take the cheap route? Once again, indolence, I assert.

All this back and forth with the Spider-Man identity prompted some good things in the comic world. Notably, the Spiderverse storyline and, by some extension, The Superior Spider-Man tales. But it also spurred on the dubious debate as to which Spider-man would be introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With the huge success of the Iron Man Franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers, Marvel had its mouth watering to reclaim the legendary web slinger and (perhaps correctly) add him to the already impressive MCU roster.

He's got radioactive blood...

As it should be.

Of course, this is all after Sony pictures launched and failed two cinematic iterations of the character. (Tobey McGuire and Andrew Garfield). Regardless of what you think of those movies, Marvel thinks they can do better. And their current box office track record may make for a compelling argument. At last look, Marvel’s Cinematic Universe had grossed an astonishing $7.787 billion at the worldwide box office. (And that was before Ant Man.)

But then the debate started as to which Spidey they would add to their upcoming Captain America: Civil War film – as an introduction back into the MCU.

What?

The “debate” has long since been settled with Marvel finally deciding that our old buddy Peter Parker would get another kick at the can instead of Miles Morales.

Don’t get me started about the casting. (Tom Holland, Asa Butterfield, etc.) I have no idea what the logic was there, but suffice to say, this wall-crawler, for better or worse, will be more akin to a Spiderboy than a Spiderman. Going back to the era when Spidey/Peter Parker was a high-school teen is a decision that may or may not work. I started reading Spiderman comics at about Amazing Spiderman #40 with the late, great John Romita Sr. back in the late ‘60s, and by then, he was becoming a Spider-MAN, but I won’t quibble with the youth-movement approach to the MCU story, because I DO understand the tactic. And it does bear continuity with the early stories. So, fair enough.

Take a look...overhead...

Spider…um, man?

But a while back, I read a blog by an, evidently, selfish individual who submitted that there was no place for a white Spider-man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – clamoring, “Enough Peter Parker!”  Well, Sir, THAT is YOUR opinion. Yes, I’m sure there are others who may share your view. Lord knows, I’d certainly hate for you to have to take into account the opinion of someone who has been rooting for ‘ol Petey since I was old enough to read.

Despite being the white-bread character he was originally conceived, Mr. Parker became, arguably, the most popular Marvel superhero, and has remained so for over 50 years. That’s focus group testing you can’t ignore.

Go change the identity of Batman or Superman… leave Spidey alone! (No, I don’t want that either, but you get the point, right?)

You want more ethnic /socially representative characters? By all means! Have at it! But do me a small favor, get up off your cognitive arses and use your imagination!

Here’s a novel idea: Create! Make up a new character – See Female character rant below. Don’t just “mail it in” with a convenient reiteration. Do the work. EARN your way to popularity. The way that Stan Leiber and his little science nerd did back in 1962.

Spins a web...any size...

So, what do you REALLY think, Brian?

Stop ripping off other people’s ideas. And YES, I’m looking at characters like you, John Stewart!

There’s already fantastic, ethnic characters represented in comics: Black Panther, Falcon, Spawn, Vibe, Luke Cage, Firestorm, Cyborg, etc. – It CAN be done!

BONUS CONTEMPLATION:

Female Versions of Almost Every Character – Why do comic book companies feel compelled, or perhaps obligated, to create a female version of a popular character? It comes off as SOOO contrived… and repetitive – and uncreative. It’s not that I don’t like female heroes. They’re great. But it’s like saying, “Let’s market a pink keyboard.” It takes character creation to a mass-production mentality. I.E; Nice shirt does it come in plaid? Marvel and DC already wallow in a sea of sameness with heroes, why take the easy way out with female characters? Comic writing should be a creative art form. Not a flippin’ mimeograph.

Rant over. Attack at will. 🙂

[Do you agree with Brian about Spider-Man? Yes? No? Let us know in the comments!]