Sunday, April 06, 2008

Plot Devices that need to go Away #1

Hi and welcome to what I hope will be a new semi-Regular Feature at the MPM (Provided Reader feedback is positive) that is dedicated to comic Plot Devices have become overused in modern times, and should probably be retired for a while.

So, Plot Devices that need to go Away #1:


Also known as: The Techno-Prophet, The Futurist, The Ultimate Predictor, Etc.

What is it?: Many consider this the Sci-Fi version of The Prophet or Mystic; through mechanical means, or just being really, really smart, the character is able to accurately calculate the future, and thus, is able to make plots that move like clockwork.

Why do writers use it?: This particular device is usually used for one of two reasons
  1. It's an easy way to show how intelligent the character is by allowing the reader to go Holy Crap! This guy predicted the future! With Maths!
  2. It's an easy way to write your character out of a jam

Recent Offenders include but are not limited to: Iron Man, Darkseid, Reed Richards, Amadeus Cho, Black Panther (Christopher Priest Era-only), Dr. T.O. Morrow, Dr. Gregory House (House), Linderman (Heroes), Batman, Layla Miller, At least one character in every Mark Millar-penned comic.

Patient Zero: Ozymandias from Watchmen. While some would suggest that you could use the concept of psycho-history from Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, I would argue that in most comic stories, most writers use Ozy here as the base case for what they are trying to achieve.

Why it has to go Away: Generally, having a main character who can accurately model the future at every turn doesn't work out very well for serialized fiction because it either makes him look like a God or an idiot, and usually nothing in the middle. Tony Stark here is probably the worst offender of the current batch here, and he shows aspects of both failings. Civil War? He comes off as a god, and a petty one at that, that can't be bothered to explain the rationale for his actions. It doesn't help that "Math told me this would happen!" isn't exactly the best reasoning under the sun when it comes to predicting human behavior. Given the constant sniping back and forth in the real world about Global Warming, something that has a lot of like, hard science behind it, it's a little insane to say that you can concretely prove human behavior with math. Hell, even in the Foundation series, the existence of a an x-factor (The Mule) was shown to throw off the entire concept of psychohistory and it's predictions. Saying that you can predict the actions of an entire species undercuts the belief that the individual matters in the grand scheme of things, and that's kind of a dour prospect in superhero fiction.

The other downside is that because of the nature of serialized fiction, the hero cannot always be right, otherwise there is no drama. When a "Futurist" fails, it generally makes him look like an idiot for not foreseeing this eventuality, like Tony in World War Hulk here:

Angles for Redemption of the Plot Device:

Actually, it's probably for the best to retire this one for a while, as it's showing a hell of a lot of wear and tear. But if you are bound and determined to use it, just keep in mind that individual characters matter, that they can always do something that the futurist won't predict. Gregory House is a great example: While he understands what people will do, and how they will lie and cheat and contradict themselves, he also shows a remarkable inability to expect people to try and rise above their failings.


Ezanee said...

Smartasses in comics are touch and go for me. I like them sometimes when it comes time for them to band together and work towards a common goal, for example, in the Onslaught saga. Hank Pym, Tony Stark, Reed Richards etc working as a team, right?

I just can't stand storylines where they are portrayed, as you said, in Ozymandias-like ways. In the end, they just come off as enormous douchebags, Reed Richards and Tony Stark as the worst offenders. I dunno, the whole pompous prick attitude coming off these two guys sort of rubs me the wrong way, which is probably why I don't read much Fantastic 4.

I feel the only amenable case of hero smartass is Batman. Why do I say this? Because in the DC Universe, he is one of the few non-superpowered superheroes, and his intellect is his strongest asset. It's pretty awesome the way he acts vis-a-vis the other JLA members when it comes to crises. Identity Crisis, he was working behind the scenes, piecing things together. Whenever he teams up with Superman, he ends up being the levelheaded one.

So, for me, the only smartass I like is Batman, and even he makes mistakes when judging characters and predicting events. As in the recent Gotham Civil War. But, yeah, give me Batman over Iron Man or Mr. Fantastic.

Even Ozymandias was extremely annoying in Watchmen, because of his detachment, and his coldblooded ruthlessness. But that was integral to the finite story. These other smartasses just keep on keepin' on...

MrCynical said...

Smart asses are ok. Guys so smart they are for all intents and purposes all-knowing? Not so keen.

Alex said...

I'm not a comic expert by any means, but I've come to have some certain expectations about certain characters by their descriptions and such.

In any case, you'd think that characters like Richards and Stark would traditionally be more team players while still keeping their independence. Even more important, you'd expect that several stories about how their predictions DON'T come to play would lead such men of genius to realize that they're not always right, particularly about people. Heck, especially Stark, who is supposed to play off as a playboy.

With Batman, this arrogance it's far more understandable. The guy's a lone wolf who doesn't trust anyone.

And personally, I hate House. Wouldn't you think that a medical genius would be capable of figuring out the problems of patients right from the start after performing certain tests rather than having the guess throughout the entire show? The way the show works out, House is better as a show about research scientists than something about doctors.

Christine said...

Reed Richard's big Civil War equation annoyed the heck out of me. You can't predict human behavior like that! It's completely unrealistic. Yes, even looking at realism in a fictional superhero context (which I amused myself with HERE, btw).

I just read Plot Devices that need to go away #2 as well, by the way, and I'm completely in agreement with that one too.