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.

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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.

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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.)

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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?

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

Justice League image from supermantv.net. Wonder Woman from halloweencostumes.com. Superman from supermanhomepage.com. Martian Manhunter from dcmovies.wikia.com. Justice league: Crisis on Two Earths image from murrue02.tumblr.com. Lex Luthor image from listofcomicbooks.com.

Girl Power? Grrrrrrr!

Green-Lantern-The-Animated-SeriesThe other day, as I watched an episode of Green Lantern: The Animated Series (developed by Bruce Timm, Giancarlo Volpe, and Jim Krieg for Cartoon Network), I wondered whether or not the producers, animators, and writers of animated superhero shows really want more female viewers. The point is moot in regard to this show, however, since it was canceled after one season. But the catalyst for my musings is the look of the females in it. Many have the look of swimsuit models with Barbie-like measurements. Even a starship’s AI (artificial intelligence), after deciding to take on human form to travel and converse with three male comrades, chose to be a female wearing a midriff-baring shirt and tiny briefs.

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Aya the computer turned Green Lantern warrior

In the illustration below, note the amount of clothing of males like Hal Jordan, one of the Green Lanterns, in comparison with females like the Star Sapphires—a group of women wielding pink power rings. The woman in the suit is Hal’s boss and girlfriend, Carol Ferris. Her Star Sapphire outfit (long story) is at her right.

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When referring to the Star Sapphires, Hal Jordan calls them “hot girls” (not women or smart, powerful women). How’s that for empowerment? Fine. I get the fact that to him, they’re “hot girls.” They’re supposed to be powerful, but do you think of power when you look at the illustration above? (Makes me long for Katara and Toph of Avatar.)

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Katara and Toph

Look, I grew up reading comic books and loving superheroes. But some things irritate me. I realize that writers and animators have the right to do what they want with these characters. I’m speaking as a woman who watches them, but sometimes is ready to throw in the towel. If the power of women is really to be emphasized, let’s start with the basics, namely wardrobe. If I’m blasting people with my power ring while ducking their energy blasts, a bikini and six-inch high boot heels don’t add up to a smart wardrobe. Ever try to run in six-inch heels without turning an ankle? Also, anyone who has ridden a roller coaster high up in the air knows how cool the air can be. Who in their right mind would fly around half naked in cool air? Who would expose that much skin to an energy blast that could singe you?

Okay, I realize I’m in the minority with this. And I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed many of the Green Lantern episodes I’ve seen. I gave the show a shot by watching 14 episodes. But I can’t help seeing a pattern here which also was obvious in other series. Women might have powerful abilities, but that power is deemphasized when design choices for the characters are made to appeal to only one demographic. My thought is this: why not try to appeal to a wider market?

I searched the Internet to see if I could find anyone who had a comment on this issue. I found a different take on the subject. Writer/director/actor/producer Kevin Smith and famed writer of Batman/Superman animated series, Paul Dini, discuss the issue of female viewers and canceled animated superhero shows on this SModcast. Warning: if you’re sensitive to language, avoid listening at all costs. I listened, because I’ve seen many of Paul Dini’s scripted episodes in various Batman animated series. I wanted to hear what he had to say. Part of the conversation was transcribed here. This part especially jumped out at me:

DINI: “They’re [Network executives] all for boys ‘we do not want the girls’, I mean, I’ve heard executives say this, you know, not [where I am] but at other places, saying like, ‘We do not want girls watching this show.”

SMITH: “WHY? That’s 51% of the population.”
DINI: “They. Do. Not. Buy. Toys. The girls buy different toys.” (Emphasis and punctuation as per the transcript.)

Well, my blood boiled after that exchange. Adults buy the toys—not boys. I’ve bought many toys for the kids in my life. And I’ve seen many girls playing with action figures long after the boys have given up and turned to Hot Wheels or Thomas trains.

I like Kevin Smith’s solution to those who claim they can’t market to girls toys related to animated superhero shows: “Get better at your job.” In other words, find something else you can sell, rather than write off a significant group of viewers. Irate listeners agreed with Smith and totally disagreed with the notion that girls weren’t interested in the licensed products. The problem, says the parents whose children watched some of these series, is the lack of toys for girls.

Honestly, based on the decisions made about female characters in some series, I wouldn’t want to hand a little girl an action figure of those characters, where the depiction of women leaves a lot to be desired. I’d rather give a girl the X-Men action figures (particularly Rogue and Storm). Or, better still, I’d rather just say, “You’re beautiful and special just as you are.”

Toph and Katara from fanpop. Green Lantern logo from Wikipedia. Aya, Green Lantern, and other characters from Cartoon Network.