O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
I read our other Greg’s piece about the myriad implausible things in The Dark Knight Rises with great interest, and also the comments where everyone — yes, me too, I admit it– jumped in to add their own “And ANOTHER thing!”
A day or two later, though, it occurred to me that the single most glaring implausibility in the plot was the one that none of us thought to bring up– which is saying something considering that particular piece of Greg’s was at 114 comments the last time I looked, and we were all over the place there, too.
But not one of us thought to mention this, and it’s easily the craziest thing in the whole movie.
The premise is that Bane, the masked terrorist, has amassed an army, blown up the bridges to Gotham City, and established his own little kingdom there. Fortunately, the forces of good have billionaire Bruce Wayne and all his high-tech resources on their side.
And Bruce decides the best, most effective contribution he can make to the rescue of these thousands of innocent Gotham citizens is to dress up like a giant bat and engage a murderous terrorist army (an ARMY! With GUNS!!) in hand-to-hand combat, one or two at a time.
But we all bought that part. That wasn’t a problem.
Once I started thinking about that, all sorts of other things started bothering me too. Why in the world would Bruce Wayne think that Batman’s mask would work as a disguise, especially with the people who’ve actually met him? Has he never been to a Halloween party? Show of hands, anyone who’s gone in costume to a party with only half their face covered and actually fooled any of their friends? What’s more, how stupid is Commissioner Gordon? He’d have to know Batman is a young guy with a huge bankroll and access to state-of-the-art technology, and that guy would be highly motivated. That’s a short list of possible suspects just by itself, but Gordon also met Bruce Wayne the night Bruce’s parents were murdered. Why couldn’t he figure out Bruce Wayne was Batman the first week of Batman’s career, let alone having to wait until Batman himself reminded him of that night? (Although I think Mr. Burgas did mention that one.)
And another thing… why the hell does Bruce Wayne just string a few lights in the Batcave and set up all his computers and lab equipment there, without even putting up a couple of walls…. or a ceiling? The cave that’s wet all the time from the waterfall, and full of bats for Chrissake? If the water doesn’t ruin all those expensive electronics, the bat guano will.
“Well of course we were okay with that stuff, Greg,” a bunch of you are saying. “That’s all canonical Batman lore, the cave, the mask, Commissioner Gordon. You’re missing the point. You can’t have a Batman movie without Batman in it.”
And that’s true. But it leads me to wonder why, then, people are getting annoyed about the lack of realism in other areas of the movie. Or, for that matter, in any superhero story. Because, really, you don’t want to go there. It ruins everything.
For example, have any of us given any thought to the incredible precision machining it would take to create Peter Parker’s web-shooters? Or to the sheer pressure it would take for a stream of viscous, instantly-solidifying web fluid to shoot across a New York City street, from skyscraper to skyscraper? And Peter figured out how to make that work with a modular, wrist-mounted cartridge that’s less than three inches long. At seventeen. With his high-school science know-how. Using his nerd-hobby equipment in his aunt’s basement.
Once you start thinking about this kind of thing you can’t stop. Where does the extra mass come from when Bruce Banner changes to the Hulk? “Transformed in times of stress into seven feet, one thousand pounds of unfettered fury!” So say Bruce is– let’s be charitable– let’s say this “98-pound weakling” is really around, oh, a hundred and sixty pounds. So the extra eight hundred and forty pounds– another five Bruce Banners’ worth of flesh and bone-- just mutates out from what he’s already packing, like an out-of-control tumor?
Okay, that’s crazy enough… but then when the Hulk changes back to Bruce, where does all that extra flesh go? It doesn’t shed like a snakeskin, it doesn’t melt off into a puddle, it disappears. Where to?
Speaking of body mass, why doesn’t Reed Richards get pencil-wide and paper-thin when he stretches, and how the hell does he support any weight at all when he does it? We see him not just supporting his own weight and moving around freely, but catching and carrying other people! More than any normal graying-temples middle-aged man should be able to, really; most guys Reed’s age get winded carrying a bag of groceries after a few blocks. And for that matter, if he’s still flesh and blood, when he catches people falling off a building by turning into a trampoline why don’t they just punch a hole through him?
Have you ever had anyone fall on you from just four or five feet, let alone hundreds? It hurts.
And Superman. Dear God, the physics of Superman… if you give them any thought at all–
–Bullets bounce off his chest. You can’t cut his hair. His fingernails are diamond-hard. He never perspires. How does Lois or Jimmy or, especially, Perry White, not notice these things about Clark Kent after working side-by-side with him for years? When Clark’s only disguise is a pair of horn-rimmed glasses?
With flesh and nails and hair that hard– “invulnerable” is the word everyone routinely uses– the implied density is worse than the Hulk’s one thousand pounds. How the hell is Clark Kent not leaving footprints half an inch deep all over the Daily Planet building?
As for any possibly romantic interludes with Lois Lane, well, Larry Niven covered the impossible biology of that, here.
The point isn’t how easy it is to snark off at a superhero story. Because, really, you can snark off at Great Literature just as easily.
…Why the hell doesn’t Dorothy just stay in Oz and rule it when she’s offered? The witches are dead and the wizard’s gone. No, go back to Kansas where everbody hates you and they’re going to gas your dog. That makes more sense.
….Wouldn’t it be more helpful for Sherlock Holmes to actually TELL Dr. Watson who the bad guy is in advance once in a while, since Watson’s usually the one that’s ARMED? “Hey, Watson, by the way, the murderer is the brother-in-law, and he’s crazy enough to try and take a hostage. Make sure you’re standing behind him in case he makes a break for it.” No, he never says something sensible like that, it’s always, “All in good time, Watson.”
…Why doesn’t Dracula just go ahead and break Van Helsing’s neck the way he did Renfield’s? For that matter, why is Dracula so evil towards Jonathan Harker in the first place, instead of just bribing him the way he did with the gypsies? Harker was probably bribable– he was a LAWYER, and not a rich one– and since it was Dracula’s treatment of Harker that blew the whole deal, you’d think he could have restrained himself.
…Why do Romeo and Juliet have to fake their deaths before running away, if they’re running away anyway? Was there some sort of Verona version of Dog the Bounty Hunter coming after them? Does anyone outside the city limits really give a damn about the Capulet-Montague thing? Why not just leave town and change their names? People manage to disappear today using that tactic and we have the internet and CSI and satellite photography. I bet Romeo and Juliet could have pulled it off in medieval Italy, especially since their only real crime was being horny teenagers.
And so on. Really, once you’re in that particular headspace, you can pick at any piece of fiction until it unravels, from Shakespeare to Gilligan’s Island. (That one bothered me even when I was a kid… my generation wondered for years why in God’s name the Professor could make a bicycle-powered washer and dryer out of bamboo but he couldn’t patch the hole in the damn boat.)
What I got to wondering about is why we don’t pick at superhero stories most of the time… and what the trigger is when we do. I know there have been times when I’ve been reading a story about the Justice League, or the X-Men, or the Flash, or whoever, and suddenly sat up and said, “No way. I don’t buy it.” I was okay with the guy with the recoil-less force beams coming out of his eyes, the girl who can deflect machine-gun fire with her bracelets, even the guy who flies by flapping his giant wings. But then… something snapped me out of it. Why was that particular plot point impossible to swallow?
Thinking back, for me the common factors are always, “That’s too much,” and “Out of context.”
For example, I can totally buy Batman vs. Darkseid in a Justice League story. I can even buy that of the League, Batman is the guy that ends up actually beating Darkseid and pulling out the win.
But in a solo Batman story, in Gotham City… it feels wrong. I can’t suspend my disbelief. Hell, I have a hard time with guys like Azrael when it’s a regular Bat-story set in Gotham. Because of context.
The world-building in a superhero story– more so than even in a science-fiction story or a high-fantasy story– is an incredibly fragile thing. You have to get people to believe not just one impossible thing, but a whole bunch of them, and you generally have to do it in a contemporary urban setting where your audience actually lives and knows things. Most people couldn’t tell you a thing about the economic workings of Middle-Earth or what it would take to put together an expedition to Altair VII; we have to assume the exposition we’re given in those stories is the truth.
But we do know generally what it would take to remodel a cave into a secret headquarters, or how much trouble the hero would be in if the police caught him beating the crap out of a bunch of muggers while he’s in his mask and costume. There has to be some sort of cover for that, even if it’s just doubletalk… and you can’t use too much doubletalk, either, or the audience will get irritated. If you aren’t careful, you can shatter the whole illusion.
The good news is that the audience wants to play along. Really, we do. We will agree never to bring up the Hulk’s extra mass or WayneCorp’s horrible financial records or even Clark Kent’s utterly inadequate disguise. It’s much more fun to “just go with it.”
Especially if we believe in the emotional reality of the characters. We go along with the idea of Batman because we all get why Bruce Wayne would want to be Batman.
Honestly? I think the reason I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight Rises as much as I did The Dark Knight, and I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight as much as I did Batman Begins…. It had nothing to do with the story being ridiculously unrealistic, because they ALL had that problem.
No, for me it boiled down to this– if you want me to just go with it for your Batman story, well, it better have Batman in it. One I recognize. Even in Bat-stories that I thought had giant, gaping flaws in them, like No Man’s Land or Knightfall– I was still okay with them, because Batman was recognizably Batman. I could go along.
And when you get right down to it, well, that’s my yardstick for the movies, too. Adam West is recognizably the sixties Batman, he’s in context, that works for me. Michael Keaton… well, he was okay, moderately close. Kilmer and Clooney, no.
But Christian Bale sold me from the get-go in his first outing. That’s why I like Batman Begins the best. His Batman in that movie was absolutely ‘my’ Batman, and he was in a recognizably Batman story. The Batman in The Dark Knight was… well, he was close enough, at least up to the end. But the Batman in Rises… I didn’t believe in that guy. A Bruce Wayne who quits, who holes up in his mansion like Howard Hughes, who doesn’t bother to vet the woman he’s handing a giant piece of weapons technology…. no. I don’t buy it. That wasn’t Batman.
For us genre fans, when we can’t “just go with it,” that’s usually what it is. Whether it’s James Bond or Tarzan or Wolverine, if you give us the guy we came to see, we can take almost anything. Mess with that internal logic, screw with the character, and suddenly everything becomes unforgivable.
No matter how critically-acclaimed you might be, when you are doing a genre piece, the story’s the star and as a rule the fans will know it better than you do. If you’re not on board with that idea, and you get all caught up in your own ‘vision,’ you’re probably going to flop.
If you have no sense of what makes a superhero story so much fun that people want to ‘just go with it,’ maybe you should skip doing a genre piece in the first place. Stay on the art-house circuit. We’ll all be better off.
See you next week.
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