Lowering The Stakes on Superheroes

The death of Captain America.

I agree with most of Ned Resnikoff’s post on what the DC Comics reboot means for the miserable, tortured lives of superheroes. There’s something odd about the fact that we like seeing superpowered people suffer dreadfully ad infinitum (though as a side note, I’d love to see Bane cripple Batman so we could have major tentpole picture engage with disability — that’s a possibility in a First Class sequel, too, but it looks like they might gloss over it a bit). But I think it actually illustrates a larger problem with our superhero stories: the stakes have gotten too high.

Y’all will probably get sick of me mentioning the Superhuman Law She-Hulk arc, for which I apologize in advance. But it gets a ton of milage out of fairly low-level conflicts. How do you handle a new superhero’s workman’s comp claim? What happens if Spider-Man sues J. Jonah Jameson for libel? What’s it like to go to bed with a guy as a green goddess and wake up a nerdy lawyer? In a world that’s actually nudging up against apocalypse fatigue, those stories feel creative and fresh. Similarly, one of the things I dug about The Unusuals, an extremely short-lived ABC cop show starring Jeremy Renner and Amber Tamblyn, was the fact that while the squad did investigate murders (often in strange comic circumstances), they also dealt with smaller-bore violations of the law, whether they were jewelry-store robberies or reports of a zombie that turn out to be an Alzheimer’s patient. These stories are interesting too, even if no one ends up dead, and they require different investigative techniques, result in different dynamics. Investigating cannibalistic method-acting fake cabbies for hotel bludgeoning deaths is not actually the bar you have to clear to snag an audience’s attention.

I think on television, we’re getting better explorations of the real dilemmas of superheroism, with things like the adaptations of Powers and SyFy‘s Alphas, of which I got screeners in the mail this week. But it would be good to step back from the assumption that angst and agony are the most powerful reader emotions to engage when we’re telling superhero stories, and on a larger scale, procedural stories. There’s more to life, and to making the world a better place.