Convenient Incompetence?

I get on various kicks. These days, I’m really into the Justice League animated series, having seen most of the Justice League animated movies. Though this series is well over ten years old, I’m finally getting around to watching the episodes of season 1 that I missed. Better late than never, I guess.


The Justice League (from left to right) Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Flash, Hawkgirl

Maybe it’s the slo-mo hero walk as the theme music swells that gets to me, but I can’t get enough of the show. Here. Watch the opener for yourself.

Like it? Makes you want to put on a cape, doesn’t it? Or, perhaps it inspires you to find six people and make them walk with you in slow motion. While I love the series, one thing irks me: many times the heroes get a serious beat-down until the last few minutes of the second or third episode. (Episodes have at least two parts in this first season.) I’m not against a hero getting the worst of it in a fight for the sake of building tension. But some aspects are frustrating to me, especially if a character is (allegedly) almost invincible. Take Superman and Wonder Woman.

jl-tradingcard-supes1 Justice-League_450

They have super strength and are bullet proof (Wonder Woman through her bullet-proof bracelets), among other skills. But in many episodes, someone who seems to have less power is able to slip in and sock either of them on the jaw, which sends them flying back. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you can’t even use scissors to cut Superman’s hair (since the scissors would break), I ask myself, Does it make sense that someone could punch him on the jaw or in the ribs without breaking several bones in one’s hand? Same with Wonder Woman. I just watched an episode where a woman raised on Themyscira (home of the Amazons) and given super strength via magic, gets the better of Wonder Woman more than once. But shouldn’t a woman who was born an Amazon have a slight advantage over a woman who is merely given super strength? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m just curious.

And Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onzz), who supposedly is one of the most powerful creatures around with his super strength, regeneration ability, as well as his ability to shape shift and mind read, regularly gets knocked unconscious.

Martian Manhunter

I know I’m quibbling here. May I remind you that I do love the show. But having watched some of the behind-the-scenes features, I learned that other viewers had issues. Some described Superman as “a wimp” (according to producers Bruce Timm and James Tucker). The producers admitted that they pulled back on Superman’s power to make the threats the Justice League faced have more weight.

Okay, I can understand that. If Superman or Wonder Woman could easily defeat certain villains, the stakes would seem pretty low. And with their abilities, watching them take down a villain practically with one hand tied behind their back would seem boring by the third episode. But that’s the issue with seemingly invincible characters, isn’t it? We don’t feel the tension if we know that they will easily defeat an antagonist. (That’s why I’m a huge Batman fan. He lacks super powers, so the stakes are usually high for him.)


But I still feel frustrated when a character’s “incompetence” seems convenient for the sake of the plot. For example, if a villain is able to slip in and attack a character who supposedly has super hearing or psychic ability.

I know, I know. These characters were developed over many decades. So nitpicking comes easily to someone who does not have to write or produce an animated show every week. That’s why I need to carefully assess my own characters. If they seem too powerful (the Mary Sue effect), the threat is neutralized. But if they have certain abilities (like super strength), there needs to be a good reason why an allegedly physically weaker antagonist can get the better of them. A good example of this is Lex Luthor waving a chunk of kryptonite at Superman, knowing that kryptonite is Superman’s weakness.

Lex Kryptonite

That’s why I’m inspired by a Justice League movie—Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths—which seems to hit all the right notes. In that movie, the Justice League are faced with their evil doppelgangers on a parallel earth. I won’t go into the plot. You can find that out here. Suffice it to say that the stakes are high for each character. And that’s what I want to keep in mind—high stakes for hero and antagonist alike.

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Making sure a character lives up to his or her abilities while keeping the tension high is a tightrope walk. But it’s worth the journey!

Maybe you’re not writing a superhero book. But if you have a hero (male or female) and an antagonist in some capacity, what do you do to keep the stakes high while avoiding making your hero seem conveniently incompetent?


Hello Kitty, after assessing her archnemesis Jordie’s skills, has deemed him incompetent, and therefore worthy to attack.

Justice League image from Wonder Woman from Superman from Martian Manhunter from Justice league: Crisis on Two Earths image from Lex Luthor image from

37 thoughts on “Convenient Incompetence?

  1. Loved that show when I was younger and the beatings never worried me. As you said, it’s boring if the hero is untouched and that’s always been a problem with Superman and Wonder Woman. In ‘reality’, they would dominate the team and not let the others do much. Sure, Superman has that magic weakness, but that doesn’t come up often. I always thought one reason the very strong heroes got knocked around was because they held themselves back while the villains went all out. After all, the bad guys are trying to kill while the heroes are trying to contain. It’s why most superheroes with super strength admit to holding back.

    Still, I would suggest doing a YouTube search for ‘Superman Vs Darkseid Justice League’. It’s from a much later episode, so I don’t know if you want to skip. They actually kind of touch on this complaint.

    By the way, I’m starting to really hate Batman. He is just a man in a suit with enough money to buy Poland and peak human physical abilities. Yet people have him defeat nearly everyone because he’s ‘smart’. To me it feels like Batman wins simply by being Batman and there’s never any question about it. It seems that so many things come down to him coming up with a plan and saving the day while his stronger allies are reduced to ‘muscle heads’. Though it could just be that I’m sick of the fanboys swearing that Batman can beat everyone.

    • I think they sometimes hold themselves back–Superman more than Wonder Woman. He’ll use an open-hand slap, rather than a punch. I’ll look for Superman vs. Darkseid. People complained about the Superman vs. Mongul fight in the Justice League animated show–that it was unsatisfying because Superman gets the worst of the fight while Draaga gets to shine more.

      I loved Superman in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. He seemed almost grumpy in that movie. I really liked how stern he could be. He might slap a less powerful person to get him out of the way. But he went all out with Superwoman.

      Are the fanboys reacting to the Doom movie where Batman had that list of ways to off the Justice League if ever they went rogue? I think Batman would have a hard time beating the Marvel characters if DC and Marvel did a crossover. 😀 Tony Stark has just as much money as Bruce Wayne.

      • They did a bunch of episodes where the guest heroes got to do more. I think part of it was to highlight more of the DC Universe. There were always rumors about them looking for other characters to do cartoons for.

        The funny thing about the restraint is that it isn’t even a slap vs punch thing. He kind of pulls the punch back or simply hits at half strength. I think it allows authors to explain why a hero’s strength suddenly rises in some situations. Although I thought Wonder Woman and Superman were extremely close in power if not equal.

        Batman had that list in the comics and it caused a big problem from what I remember. I think it got another hero killed. As far as Marvel Vs DC, it was done in the 90’s. Batman took on Captain America as they were doing 1 on 1 fights. It was designed to be a tie at the end, so they could ‘merge’ the universes and goof off with odd combinations like a Wolverine/Batman and Superman/Captain American combo. Iron Man is another character that has become rather cheesy. One thing I’ve noticed is that Marvel heroes don’t have ‘kryptonites’ like the DC heroes.

      • When I was a kid, I was more of a DC fan while my older brother and a friend with whom I traded comic books were the die-hard Marvel fans. I only read Thor, the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man. Sometimes I’d read Iron Man. But they read everything! So when the movies started, I had to get reacquainted. What’s interesting is that I haven’t really liked the DC live-action movies (with the exception of the first Superman).

        So, I missed the Marvel/DC combo. Captain America should have mopped the floor with Batman. And Wolverine should have massacred Batman, regardless of Batman’s gadgets.

        I’ve heard that Superman held back, even in the fight with Wonder Woman in a Justice League episode. The producers didn’t seem to think Wonder Woman was in Superman’s league.

      • I collected comics in high school and most of them were Spider-Man and X-Men. I tended to get into a specific character and then gather a bunch of back issues on that character. Bargain bins were my friends in those days.

        DC has been hit and miss with their live-action movies. I think my favorite out of all of them is the first Batman (Keaton) movie. Although Superman 2 comes in a close second and probably takes the lead depending on my mood.

        Batman won because they were fighting in a sewer and he got a water main to knocked Cap out. It was a set of 10 fights between ‘champions’. So Wolverine fought Lobo in an off-screen fight that he won. I heard Lobo referenced it again by saying he fell asleep during the fight.

        I guess it depends on the writers. Some have Wonder Woman at his level and others have her weaker. I prefer the equal level thing.

      • I forgot about Batman (1989). That was decent, especially with Jack Nicholson. I didn’t like the second one, though. Though many people dislike the Val Kilmer Batman, I preferred that one to the second Batman with the Penguin and Catwoman. I didn’t like the fourth one at all.

        I’m usually not drawn to “special” Batman stories. I don’t think I could suspend my disbelief. (I couldn’t bear to watch the Batman vs. Dracula. I’m willing to give it a shot is someone can convince me that I’m missing something good.)

        I wouldn’t mind another movie starring Wolverine. 😀 I loved Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine.

      • Penguin was tough to get behind, but I’ve found that I got to like it later on. First one will always be my favorite though. I did see the Batman vs. Dracula one and have no memory of what it was like. So it definitely wasn’t memorable.

        As for Origins: Wolverine . . . No . . . No no no. Please no. I own it, but mostly to save someone else from owning it. Deadpool was an atrocity against comics, the adamantium bullets were ridiculous, and Gambit was so shoehorned in that I felt like somebody added him while I was getting popcorn. Don’t even get me started on the continuity issues that thing caused. The only thing I liked was Sabertooth.

      • I didn’t like what they did with Deadpool or Gambit, true. But who can look at either when Hugh Jackman is on the screen??? But I can’t say I hated the film. And yes, I own it. *hangs head* The Wolverine is my favorite of the two.

      • *raises hand* I was already done with the Wolverine show by the time that movie showed up, so I was looking for story. The Wolverine was definitely better since it was more coherent. Honestly, I can barely remember the overall storyline of Origins beyond ‘he was a mercenary, he found a life, he got adamantium, he went on a rampage, and adamantium is not as rare as everyone says it is’. 😛

      • They recently killed him off, so we’ll see if he’s even in there. Pretty sure he will be. Seems Marvel is trying to mess with the characters that they don’t have the movie rights to.

  2. I’ve never seen the series…I’m embarrassed to say. I remember watching Wonder Woman and Six Million Dollar man, both weren’t animated. I think I was too consumed with the Flintstones. 🙂 Stay warm, L. Marie! It’s freezing down here, so I know it’s worse up your way.

    • I remember both shows!
      I’m trying, Jill. It’s pretty cold. And now more snow is falling. But I have cocoa and warm soup. 😀
      The kids are out of school and glad of it!

  3. My husband and I watched this series again recently, and we thought the exact same thing! Not to mention they were terrible at working together. They could have easily pounded the antagonist if they were better coordinated. The second season was a lot better at avoiding this problem. 🙂

  4. Not a Superhero as such, and a bit of a random comment, but do you think Chewbacca has Tourette’s? He is the only non-English speaking alien in Star Wars that doesn’t get subtitles. Oh, the droid R2 doesn’t either. But I don’t think programmed droids could get Tourette’s. Could they?

  5. I haven’t watched this show either, though like Jill I used to watch Wonder Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man. I agree with you about convenient incompetence though. Like you I struggle to find the balance with my own characters.

  6. You make such good points as usual, Linda! You are so right about those not so subtle details that make the reader or watcher skeptical about the plot and the actions leading up to the plot. This scrutiny and awareness will continue to help you in writing the best book ever! I admire you for that, my friend. 🙂

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