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.

68242 tumblr_m7cf7iS5gO1r2xqfro1_1280

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

Rivals, Frenemies, or Just Plain Enemies?

I’ve never seen a college football rivalry as fierce as that between Ohio State University (the Buckeyes) and the University of Michigan (the Wolverines). (For a great article on that rivalry, click here.) Since I traveled with my family to Columbus, Ohio over the Thanksgiving weekend to attend my niece’s baptism, I happened to catch Saturday’s game—a loss for Michigan with a score of 42-41.

         383px-2013_Ohio_State_Buckeyes_logo.svg  Michigan_Wolverines_Block_M

We watched the game at Ohio State’s student union. Let me tell you, there was joy in Columbus when the Buckeyes won. I jumped up and screamed though OSU is not my alma mater. (Speaking of alma maters, the Northwestern Wildcats beat the Fighting Illini on the same day. Hee hee.)

      029 030

After the screams of victory died down, my family and I toured the campus, noting the many M’s taped over on signs—a testament to the fierce rivalry. Even M’s are no-nos.

This rivalry caused me to think about rivals, frenemies, and enemies and the differences between these categories. Yeah, that’s the way my mind works. And I’m going to mention Batman: The Brave and the Bold again though I wrote a post on it before. Call me saucy. In that series, Batman and Green Arrow have a friendly rivalry. They try to outdo one another in crime fighting. I’m also reminded of the way Legolas and Gimili tried to outscore each other in killing the Uruk-hai during the battle at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers. They’re rivals, yet they’re on the same side (anti-orc). (Yes, I plan to see The Hobbit, in case you’re wondering.)


Legolas, who is as cute as a bunny and Gimili, who is . . . um . . . pleasant defines frenemy as “one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy.” Although Catwoman doesn’t exactly fit the definition since she never pretends to be a friend, I can’t think of another word to describe her relationship with Batman. She’s a cat burglar who also tries to steal Batman’s heart. Call that cheesy if you like, but that’s how it goes down, especially in The Brave and the Bold. Batman might be into her sort of, but he’s also into justice. Yet he seldom puts much effort into capturing Catwoman and making sure she heads to prison. Somehow, she always manages to escape. On the rare occasion when they work on the same side to tackle a “worse” criminal, Catwoman is usually poised to betray Batman and get what she wants (money; jewels; rare cats).


They can’t make up their minds.

The Joker, however, seems to be a straight-up enemy. But in The Brave and the Bold, he makes comments like, “Now that’s the Batman I know and love.” And in The Dark Knight, he said, “You . . . you . . . complete me.” A weird symbiosis, since each helps the other to remain on his A-game. Batman takes him down and the Joker winds up at Arkham Asylum (in the animated series) only to escape and start the cycle all over again.


Do enemies need to need each other? Does Jean Valjean need Javert? Does Superman really need Lex Luthor? I’m shrugging as I type this. But I can’t help thinking of a quote from the November 8 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios said

The better you make your villain, the better your hero has to be. . . . We call it the Hans Gruber theory. One reason Die Hard is a great action movie is Gruber never makes a mistake, but he’s still defeated by John McClane. McClane is a great hero because he’s up against such a formidable adversary. (47)

I love that quote, because it reminds me to avoid taking the easy road with my antagonist and hero. You see, I usually like being lazy in my writing. Whatever’s comfortable—that’s the route I take. But a hero or antagonist who wins or loses easily is about as satisfying as eating one potato chip after you’ve starved for three days.

My hero and my antagonist are not friendly rivals or frenemies. They’re enemies plain and simple. But they (hopefully) make each other better. Alas, only one of them will survive that experience.

How does your antagonist bring out the best (i.e., getting him or her to step up his/her game) in your hero and vice versa?

Breznican, Anthony. “A Villain Will Rise.” Entertainment Weekly. 8 November 2013: 46-47. Print.

Catwoman and Batman image from College logos from Wikipedia. Joker from Legolas from Gimli from