Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer
Big Ross examines a common trope used in bringing comic book characters to the small screen, and why it should be banished to the Phantom Zone.
Has there been a better time to be a fan of comic books? In addition to continued awesomeness from the big 2 (DC & Marvel), smaller publishers like IDW, Valiant, and especially Image are putting out stellar comics month after month. Marvel Studios continues to fire on all cylinders, and Warner Bros./DC is finally taking off with plans for a Justice League movie (and multiple solo films featuring its roster). Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to be finding its footing, and DC has not one not two but four television shows: Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine. I am enjoying all of these shows to different extents and some (Arrow) more than others (Gotham). But there’s something about how many of these shows are structured that bothers me. There is a trope that gets trotted out again and again, particularly in the first season of these shows, and I think it is well past time this particular horse gets retired.
Let’s call this trope the Well of Bad Guys, at least until we can think of something better. The Well of Bad Guys isn’t merely an undefined pool of villains and adversaries from which to draw and pit against the hero, though it is that. It is also more. It is itself a well-defined, structured thing or event that can be clearly depicted, interacted with, and remembered. It is something that happens or exists on its own. It is one thing to create a hero, like Superman, and have him fight evil and save people. It is another to, as the creators of the show Smallville did, create a Well of Bad Guys for a young Clark Kent to fight. They did this by having Kal-El’s spaceship get accompanied by a meteor shower of kryptonite, and then had that kryptonite (or as the show referred to it, meteor rock) grant people superpowers (and then making those people do bad things with those superpowers).
Arrow did a similar thing when they literally gave Oliver Queen a list of bad guys he needed to bring to justice to save his city. The Flash did it again when they had the particle accelerator release a wave of energy across Central City (and beyond?) that created metahumans (people with superpowers) that Barry Allen (the Flash) would need to defeat. Constantine used this trope when John Constantine’s very brief sidekick Liv Aberdeen used latent magical powers to scry (predict) where bad (demonic) things would happen. At the end of the pilot episode she literally marked a map of the United States (with blood no less) with LOTS of specific locations. In the second episode of the series Constantine used the map to travel to a mining town and ferret out the evil that was transpiring there. In the third episode he used it to travel to Chicago to end a literal deal with the devil. I have no doubt we will be seeing that map again in the future.
But there is a second aspect to the Well of Bad Guys trope in these shows. In all of these shows, the hero’s genesis is intimately linked with the Well, typically through a strong sense of guilt or responsibility.. As I pointed out earlier, in Smallville Clark’s vessel brought the meteor shower, which weighed Clark down with a lot of guilt over all of the bad things brought about by the meteors, including the death of Lana Lang’s parents. It wasn’t enough that Clark had superpowers, and chose to use those to help people, he felt responsible anytime a new meteor-powered baddie showed up in Smallville (which was nearly every freaking week). In Arrow, the list of names given to Ollie by his father, and his father’s admission of guilt, plea for Ollie to right his wrongs, and subsequent suicide was the motivating force that turned Oliver Queen from rich playboy to avenging vigilante. In Constantine, John seems uninterested in fighting the forces of evil, and has voluntarily checked himself into a sanitarium over the guilt of damning an innocent girl’s soul to Hell. It isn’t until an angel comes to him to discuss the rising tide of darkness, the same that Liv Aberdeen highlights on a map, and informs John that his soul may not yet be damned to Hell for his earlier failure; redemption may be his if he chooses to fight the hordes of the Pit. In The Flash, Barry Allen is literally given superpowers by the very same event that creates other metahumans.
Of course, the obvious question that comes to mind is, Why is this a bad thing? It’s certainly a good thing for the producers. There’s a reason there have been so many police procedurals on television. All of the Law & Orders, all of the CSIs, all of the NCISs. Criminal Minds. Bones. Without a Trace. Create a small cast, have them characterized more by their roles than any sort of real personality. Start each episode with a crime, typically a murder. Clues are collected, evidence analyzed, suspects identified, tracked down, questioned. Typically some problem holds up the investigation. This gets resolved, and the murder gets solved before the hour is up and the credits roll. Rinse and repeat.
It definitely makes sense from a financial aspect. They’re easy to market to new audiences, and very accessible to new viewers. They’re ripe for syndication, given that you don’t need to know what’s going on with the characters. You could watch an episode from 10 years ago, one from 5 years ago, and one from last week and it wouldn’t really matter. You know they’re going to solve a murder in each of them. The detectives may change, the prosecutors may change, but you know the plot structure is going to be the same.
I imagine it also has to be easier for the writers. They don’t have to worry about character arcs or season-long storylines or multi-season narratives. Their biggest worry is not repeating themselves (too often, anyway). So again, why is this trope a bad thing?
I can only say that it’s bad because I don’t consider it good storytelling. I would much rather watch a show driven by a strong narrative populated by interesting characters such as Breaking Bad, Lost, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, or Hannibal, just to name a few. This, in a nutshell, is why I’m most worried about Constantine. Admittedly, I’m VERY behind on Arrow. I’ve just starting watching season 2 on Netflix, and it seems the writers are already distancing themselves from the trope. And more to the point, I was surprised at how well the trope was incorporated into the season long narrative they were telling with the list, the undertaking, and Queen’s burgeoning antagonism with Malcolm Merlyn. If there is a right way to handle the Well of Bad Guys, it was employed by Arrow. It’s what gives me confidence that The Flash will also not fall prey to relying on the trope too much. Incidentally, Gotham is doing something completely different, though I worry about it for other reasons.
In the end this trope, this Well of Bad Guys, or any gimmick or formula used (and overused) in television seems more concerned with making a product than telling a story. I don’t want a good product. I want a good story. I hope these adventures of our pulpy heroes are more the latter and not the former.