television

Every Hero Needs a Villain (Not a Supergirl Review)

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Poor Supergirl. She never can seem to settle on a proper supporting cast of her very own. Sure, all comics superheroes go through endless permutations — power changes, costume changes, forgettable one-off villains — but always there is some sort of baseline to come back to. Always there is at least a mentor, or best friend, or love interest that recurs in every incarnation. And always, always a nemesis. A hero that doesn’t manage to establish a proper rogues gallery is bound to falter.

Supergirl, in her capacity as a spin-off hero, has a tendency to inherit Superman’s cast-offs. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, characters can grow and change and develop new roles in the mythology, when discharged from their role as third-tier Superman hangers-on. A few years ago, pre-New 52 when I was still following the ongoing Supergirl title, this was done to moderately good effect with Lana Lang. As an ex-love interest, the Superman comics didn’t really have room for her. Unfortunately, I was never really sold on the connection between them, and why Lana would specifically seek Kara out.

Other characters from that run stuck better, it seems. The Supergirl TV show has a couple of original supporting cast, but is replete with third-tier Superman characters, as well as ambiguous Checkmate-aligned Maxwell Lord. Side note: having Maxwell Lord in Supergirl and then notcrossing over with Legends of Tomorrow would be a crying shame. Still, it seems like the creators of the show are intent on keeping Kara firmly connected to the Superman mythos, while situating her in her own hometown with her own concerns.

I’m glad to see Kara getting a robust TV presence, even if the themes are lightweight and the dialogue is clunky. Granted, my enjoyment of the show — or any contemporary Supergirl comics — will always be capped by my own unnecessarily specific ideas for exactly what Supergirl should be. Of course, that point is largely moot, since the most recent iteration of Kara Zor-El had her ongoing title cancelled some time last spring. Not that I’m terribly worried, DC has the good sense to make sure that they have something on the shelves ready for fans of the show to pick up. Probably.

But the depth-problem is that each new volume (the most recent being the sixth) will have its own set of writers and artists sweeping in to “redefine” the character, without anyone having any idea of what exists at her core. Except me, obviously. All that means is that different iterations will have wildly different approaches. Of course, most comics superheroes go through this, but when Superman starts wearing T-shirts and punching people, everybody and their cryo-frozen cousin has an opinion on whether or not this is the “real” Superman.

The core of the problem, I think, is that very few Supergirl writers seem to have started out as readers. The TV show, curiously, might finally be an exception to this. If I had to guess, I’d say there’s at least one person in that writers’ room that read and enjoyed the Sterling Gates run — my own favorite, incidentally. Despite many flaws. Ultimately, comics continuity and the snarls that come with it are part and parcel of forming a superhero mythos, and they need to be formed out of an amalgam of more than one writer’s ideas about who Kara Zor-El really is.

The core idea behind the TV show, aside from Supergirl’s ongoing efforts to achieve an independent reputation, seems to be that Kara, unlike Clark, actually remembers Krypton. This, I think, is a good start. How it progresses remains to be seen.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

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How to Get Away with Characters Making Terrible Decisions

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The best thing about How to Get Away with Murder is Viola Davis.(1) The second best thing about HTGAWM is that it is a show about smart people making stupid decisions. I might have mentioned this is one of my favorite characterization themes. Annalise is brilliant from the start, shown to be both creative and ruthless in her problem solving abilities. She habitually takes the most difficult cases and prides herself on being able to turn around desperate situations.

In keeping with the traditional characterization, her emotional intelligence is commensurately low. When it comes to her personal life, she consistently makes poor decisions, which are then followed by increasingly messy consequences. The downwards spiral of snap decisions leading to spit-and-bubblegum solutions has defined the first half of the second season… even more than the first season, I think. She is a character designed to respond well in a crisis, and the first season mostly showcased her as such.

Last season, Annalise served as a shadow mentor and protector to her students, and her responses to their actions were alarming, but considered. And ultimately effective. The finale reveal showing Rebecca’s fate was actually the first hint that in this second season, Annalise’s direct, immediate decision-making style would increasingly backfire and lead her (and her students) deeper into trouble.

Instead of making cold, calculated choices and paying a personal price for them, she makes dubious gut-directed choices which are doomed to fail. A ruthless choice is coming up with a plan to frame her lover for her husband’s murder. It threw her personal life into chaos, but achieved its intended purpose — diverting suspicion from the people actually responsible for his death. Season two Annalise skips over the ruthless to the outrageously stupid, as the mid-season finale shows her instructing her student to shoot her.

There’s no question that Annalise Keating is meant to be seen as a smart character. She’s a highly successful lawyer and law professor. She has an impressive education and an illustrious career. Within the confines of the show’s sensationalistic reality, she is shown to dominate the courts she argues in and continually sways people to her opinion, even against their better judgment. Her force of personality inspires intense loyalty from her subordinates. Now, midway through the second season, all her strengths have turned to weaknesses, until even that inspired devotion can be turned into equally intense hate.

It’s painful but fascinating to watch. Annalise is a living, breathing trainwreck of a woman. Watching her life fall apart around her, in consequence of her own increasingly erratic actions, it’s hard to know whether to root for or against her. Or just sit back and watch the disaster unfold.

(1) I may have teared up just a little when I found out she would be playing the incomparable Amanda Waller for DC’s Suicide Squad movie.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

On “The 100” and the Characterization of Cold Women

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I have been thinking lately on why I have such a great fondness for cold women. When I say cold women, I mean of course fictional characters. Like most people, I’m fascinated by a great many types of characters whom I would never tolerate in reality. By cold women, I mean both women who are socially chilly and reserved, as well as women who operate based on cold numbers logic, and consequently make a lot of ethically questionable choices.

The initial impetus for this was The 100. Part of the reason I love the show so dearly is exactly this. It is a show that deals with characters trapped in impossible situations and constrained by violent power dynamics, repeatedly pushing them into morally untenable situations. Unlike a lot of other “morally grey” narratives, it allows women to, on multiple occasions, occupy the role of the decision-maker. The leader, the one who makes the call that no one else could make. The one that historians will debate about for years to come.

Traditionally, women are seen as warm. In Western mass-media, and in a lot of other contexts as well. In another show with a similar premise, a bright-eyed girl would occupy a help-meet role as a moral foil to the male leader. A personal moral anchor, or a political rival who fervently — emotionally — argues for a position of interpersonal ethics, as opposed to global ethics. Because women are emotional and men are logical. That one, that’s also a repeating canard.

You get a little bit of that in The 100, too. Arguably, though, Abby serves more as a Bones to Kane’s Spock, with Chancellor Jaha caught in the middle. But the dynamics between Clarke and Bellamy are quite different. Early on there’s a contrast between them, but the main axis of disagreement centers around adherence to the old social order. Questions of cruelty and compassion, when they surface, are argued based on the merits of the way things are done versus the possibility of building a new society from the ground up.

Clarke isn’t a typical cold, calculating, tough-decision-making character. Part of the impetus behind her character growth is the struggle of being thrust into a reality where the rules she learned to follow — the rules that protected her — no longer apply. In contrast, Bellamy is habitually lawless because the rules never protected him or his family, and the society he lived in taught him that it was built for people like Clarke.

Lexa, I suppose, is a more traditional cold character. She is a leader born and bred, after all. She has the kind of skills and, more importantly, charisma that allow her to give orders to warriors twice her age and have them followed, and she was raised in the same harsh environment that Clarke and the Arc people are struggling to adapt to. Her position as a warrior gives her practice in making killing choices, even when she is face to face with her enemy. As a leader, she has also developed the kind of social aloofness and emotional containment that Clarke lacks.

I often find myself trying to write the kind of cold women characters I so enjoy in the media that I consume. It’s a constant balancing game, trying to keep them on-point while at the same time giving the reader an opening to sympathize with them, or at least comprehend their motives. Writing a character like Clarke, who takes on the role though she lacks the corresponding temperament, is a challenge that I believe is still beyond me. Still, I keep looking to media to see what new and fantastic ways I can discover to expand this particular archetype.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth