The machines are on top of you, you’re hopelessly outmatched and outnumbered. Faced with overwhelming odds, how do you continue to fight? How do you win?
Conventional storytelling seems to promote the idea that you shoot the person who’s responsible for your plight, or you somehow disable the mothership, thus magically turning off all the machines. But I’m going to take this opportunity to argue that perhaps there is a more interesting way to wrap up your story.
Last year I attended a reading by author Ursula K Le Guin. During the Q&A, a fan challenged her view that violence is a poor means to resolve conflict in both the real world and in fiction. He proceeded to explain his position in ‘Star Wars’.
He said that because the Galactic Empire had used the Death Star to destroy an entire planet, the Rebels didn’t have the option of sitting Darth Vader down for a cup of coffee to discuss peace options.
The fan wasn’t exactly wrong, however, Le Guin’s answer was equally right. She simply stated that violence was the answer because that was the way the story was written, but it didn’t need to be, and it doesn’t need to be.
We’re coming up on a semi-repeat of the 2014 summer blockbuster season. Two years ago we saw ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ pitted up against ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, and before those two franchises butt heads again, I’d like to look at the two different ways the aforementioned movies resolved their conflicts.
The main plot of ‘Days’ involves a post-apocalyptic future where giant, unstoppable mutant hunting robots known as Sentinels rule over what’s left of humanity. It’s a familiar set up, but one that predates even the ‘Terminator’ films by a few years. In the story, the situation is so dire that the only hope for our heroes is to travel back in time and undue the mistakes of the past, namely stopping an assassination.
I heard criticism when the movie was first released that Chuck and the gang should have just sent Wolverine back in time to kill Bolivar Trask, creator of the sentinel robots, in a manner befitting that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. As a long time X-Men fan, I was actually mildly offended by the prospect. To me it betrays what the X-men is ultimately about. The mutants don’t just face day-to-day threats, their prime villain is bigotry and violence against bigots tends to only throw gasoline on the bonfire.
The entire point of sending Kitty Pryde back in the comics, or sending Wolverine back in the film adaptation, was to show the creators of the sentinels what becomes of their hate and their efforts to protect themselves through violence. By the end of the story, in which we’ve seen the deaths of almost all of our heroes, the dark future is averted through a peaceful solution.
Now, in real life, people often point to examples where violence is the only way to stop a threat – most commonly and notably in the case of World War Two. Having studied that period of human history quite extensively, I can’t argue the conclusion that options were severely limited, and I don’t have any intention of calling into question the decisions made by our grandparents and great-grandparents. The topic is also understandably far too massive and complicated to do little more than touch on in this post.
I do find it interesting, however, that in the case of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, when it is revealed that a continuation of Hydra (otherwise known as super-science loving Nazis) are at the center of the security crisis in America, they apparently HAVE to be dealt with by putting bullets in them. Fiction likes Nazis because it’s a rare point in our history where most people agree that a call to arms and extensive bombing campaigns was the best and only course of action.
Granted, when discussing violence, particularly in superhero fiction, the line is somewhat blurred. Daredevil doesn’t kill like Punisher does, but he still sends people to the hospital, and Batman’s code of ethics has been called in to question from time to time. It’s also true that the X-men and Mystique still used violence to stop Magneto, going so far as to shoot him in the neck. But clearly death wasn’t the answer, nor ever intended to be. And it wasn’t simply because the writers wanted to keep the character around.
There is a reason why Batman insists he doesn’t ‘kill’ people, and fans get upset when he does. It’s because we do in fact want our heroes to be better than that. The fact that the central, emotional conflict for Steve Rogers in ‘Winter Soldier’ ends up being far more complicated than simply shooting a villain in the chest only reinforces how lazy this trope can be.
After all, Captain America’s relationship with Bucky AKA The Winter Soldier is so rich enough to fuel an entire followup. Which gives reason for me to believe that death isn’t always the answer. Offing the villain, particularly with a gun, just isn’t compelling enough to do it as often as it’s done.
I’m curious to see how both ‘Captain America: Civil War’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ end. How will our heroes win and how will they choose to win?
How do you think ‘Civil War’ or ‘Apocalypse’ will end? Will Cap meet his comic book fate, will the Dark Phoenix rise again? Let me know in the comments.
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