Men of Virtue: Or, Why Is It So Hard To Write A Good Guy?

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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  1. Avatar InMD
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    I want to throw an idea out there that will be controversial in nerd-dom. If you want moral complexity, and interesting good guys, stop looking for them in super hero media. You will never find them in entertainment that is targeted at children. The gazillions of dollars that go into these films are predicated on them appealing to preteens (not to mention getting passed Chinese censors). This is not to criticize fans of the MCU or DCU or whatever but I think a lot of people keep expecting a box of easy mac to have something in it other than easy mac.

    I think the comparisons you use are telling. Farscape was originally targeted to adults (and was quite good right up until they tried to reinvent it to be more family-friendly in the 3rd season). High Noon, while ostensibly a western, is and was intended to be adult fare.

    I’m not anti-genre fiction. I watch a lot of it. If you want some interesting good guys two shows I’ve been following are the Expanse and the Last Kingdom. Neither of them are appropriate for or would appeal to children. It’s really not the writers. It’s that they’re working with aging properties (or at least an iteration of them) created for elementary school aged boys and whose investment and profitability rests on that demographic.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to InMD
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      says:

      While I don’t disagree with the childish treatments of superheroes and also that the writers inherit a mess they then have to deal with, I think the reason why superheroes are popular (same with Westerns, and I think they too started off more as kiddie fare back in the day, as did sci-fi) is that we see the potential within them to tell the types of stories that we feel need to be told. When I read what I would call “literature” and it’s about some aging college professor with a case of ennui or about how stifling Middle America is, and I just cannot relate to those themes. But a person struggling with living up to their own expectations (or not), learning how to use their own “powers” for good, and feeling like no one in society understands what they’re trying to accomplish, I relate to that more. I feel like sometimes genre fiction is talking about things that “literature” (at least modern fiction) doesn’t quite manage to pull off for me. So I always want it to be better than it is. Westerns, for sure, elevated themselves to a pretty elegant art form by the end of their run, and I’d love to see superheroes grow up at some point.

      PS – if you’re ever bored my superhero story I link to in my piece really does tackle some grown up themes.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Kristin Devine
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        I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to read enough modern literature to have much of an opinion on it. The constant reading in my career kind of killed my ability to read for pleasure. I just don’t have it in me in my free time. But when I did my go to was always historical fiction. At heart most of them are adventure yarns. I’m not wedded to any idea of what an adult story ‘should’ be.

        Maybe the super hero stuff can grow up, though I kind of wonder if the economics of what it takes to make them aren’t working against it. The two R rated movies I can think of (Logan and Deadpool) were both very high budget. That’s a lot to make back and I assume at least some level of spectacle will always be an expectation for the films.

        I’ll bookmark the story and give it a try at some point (though no promises on when).Report

  2. Avatar Pinky
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    Really interesting. My personal favorite Superman was on Smallville, where he was still figuring out his powers and was a teenager, which meant he could make bad decisions. Similarly, a lot of anime have a teenage hero who’s still developing his powers. He may have a good heart, but it’s a lot easier to believe in his elf-doubt and lack of foresight. Also, origin stories – they’re a way to have heroes with flaws, and scriptwriters seem to love doing those.

    I’d add one idea to your analysis: that the bad guys often have more unusual powers. I was just watching an anime where the male lead had the power to take over someone’s body for five seconds, and the female lead had the power to be invisible to one person at a time. Interesting stuff, but then the anime only ran for 13 episodes. A hero with a generic power, or a legitimately super power, can go on forever, but there’s less suspense; a hero with a weak or specific power has to always find himself in a situation where someone gets you really angry then dumps a pile of trash on you so you can turn into the Hulk without anyone knowing it was you. Not much variety either way. The variety in the stories comes from Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, and Condiment King.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Pinky
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      says:

      I didn’t have space for this, but you may remember I’ve written in the past about why romantic ingenues are often young (it’s because they’re easier to write, since they don’t have an extended network of friends and family and work responsibilities) and I suspect there may be some of that at play in the superhero origin stories too. Way easier to tell a story about Peter Parker, a guy with very little going on, than say, a 45 year old businessman with all this life history you have to keep straight.

      One of my pet peeves I haven’t written about yet but kind of fits into this is creating drama by putting realistic limitations on your characters. That anime sounds incredible (would love the name if you remember it) for that reason. I think on paper a hero that can get hit again and again and never passes out, or a car in a car chase that crashes 500 times but keeps running for some reason, or Arya being brutally stabbed and then somehow being able to run through a city to escape an assassin that’s already beaten her at fighting several times, in many writers’ heads seems like something exciting, but it’s really kind of boring. I wish they’d do more to let the drama flow from reality rather than things so ridiculous that they are impossible.

      Agree 100% about the interesting villains.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird
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    Maribou and I watch a tv show together during the week as a mini-date. We watched Batman: The Animated Series earlier in the year and are now plowing through Superman: The Animated Series.

    One thing that I keep noticing over and over is that Superman’s powers are on a dial and the dial gets set arbitrarily depending on the needs of the show. Is Superman fighting The Toyman? Turn it to a 3! Is Superman fighting Lobo? Turn it up to a 6! Does Superman need to fight Darkseid? Welp, put it on a 10. Oh, Toyman is back with a robot kangaroo? Turn it back down to 3.

    And so, over and over again, we watch episodes where Superman gets punched through a wall. Who’s the bad guy that can punch Superman through a wall? All of them!

    While the movie Superman Returns was not particularly good (sigh) there was one amazing scene in there that showed us what Superman was capable of and it’s one of my absolute favorite Superman scenes:

    Of course, the writers introduce kryptonite and Superman spends the rest of the movie being punched through walls.

    How in the world can you write a bulletproof character well?

    Well… I’ve got a couple of ideas. Have him be a supporting character. He shouldn’t have to carry his own book. Put him in Justice League, have him show up to talk to Batman from time to time, he can show up in the lesser comic books as a guy who flies over the city and inspires the B-Team.

    And, occasionally, give him a stand-alone story like Superman vs. The Elite and then put him back in a supporting role elsewhere.

    He’s an *AMAZING* character. It’s just that he’s only got but so many amazing stories and asking him to fight against The Toyman every few months? Not even Superman is strong enough to pull that off.Report

    • Avatar Pinky in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      A huge digression, but lately it’s been driving me crazy hearing people talk about how the latest Superman ruined their childhood memories, or that Star Trek has run out of ideas. I understand the financial benefits of maintaining a franchise, but stories have never been expected to be usable forever. If Shakespeare had to write a new Romeo and Juliet movie every year, they would have ended up as wacky “can’t find a condom” sex comedies. Superman started off more like John McClane, and after six movies John McClane has turned into Superman. Create a setting, keep adding death stars to it, then make a deconstruction movie, then shut down the franchise.

      Look at the longest-running franchise of all time. King Arthur started out as a local warlord, then became the beacon of goodness, then became a parody whose best friend was sleeping with his wife. Germ of an idea, expansion, deconstruction. We may retell Arthur’s stories every few decades, but we tend not to write new Arthurian tales.

      Our era’s cynicism is reinforced by the fact that the stories we’re retelling are in the deconstruction phase. It’s made worse because we all know they’re being retold for cynical, financial reasons. Even video game storytelling is starting to crust over.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Pinky
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        Enough time has passed for us to be able to say that, okay, maybe The Sequels could have been done better. In theory. I mean, nothing is *PERFECT* in this imperfect world. But even taking that into account, they could have been done better.

        But The Mandolorian? Heck, yeah! Have a new character wandering around the setting. Not, like, running into Jedi or Empire people, necessarily, but just heading down to Tosche Station to get some power converters.

        You don’t have to tell the story about Romeo and Juliet. Just pick a couple of guys and tell a story about them wandering around in Verona, falling in love.

        Sort of like Thieves’ World.Report

      • Avatar InMD in reply to Pinky
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        Isn’t there some truism about there only being like 60 possible plots and all creativity comes in the mixing and matching? Interesting stuff could be done but I think the financial aspects and particularly pressure to work with established successful characters and universes are killer.

        It’s totally anathema to the ‘more, more, MORE!’ mindset about these things but all the best creators knows when to quit. Hollywood execs on the other hand with numbers to make will never see things that way, and as long as people are willing to shell out for the product well… here we will be.Report

      • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Pinky
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        It drives me crazy because it’s so WRONG. They’re limited in the stories only because the people conceiving the projects have so little imagination.

        There are people all over the place writing fan fic for love, not money, who come up with unique things for these beloved characters to do.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      Superman’s “world of cardboard” speech was an excellent companion to this OP.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird
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      My husband’s pet peeve is in the Ang Lee Hulk, the Hulk got bigger and smaller depending on how angry he was. Now, it turned out that was by design, but “It’s just like The Hulk!” has become our shorthand for any hero whose abilities grow and shrink whenever it’s convenient.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kristin Devine
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        Demands for realism in superhero stories is, on its face, silly.

        But verisimilitude isn’t too much to ask… is it?Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to Kristin Devine
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        says:

        Again, I’m not a connoisseur of the super hero genre, but I agree with your husband. I’m not sure I fuly got how he changed sides, but he just seemed so cartoonish. And like Jaybird said, it lacked verisimilitude.

        I really like the Bill Bixby Hulk. Or rather, I like its potential. There was some real potential for introspection. Too bad that most episodes were too formulaic. In the standard episode, uou can almost predict each of the (precisely two) times that Banner turns into the Hulk by looking at how far into the hour you’re at. And in my view, it would have been better if the Hulk actually hurt people, in the “doesn’t know his own strength and now he/Banner regrets it” sort of way. Instead, the Hulk only attacks bad guys, and when he does, he’ll through them onto a pile of hay or something. (Of course, as I 8 year old or whatever, I liked the show because I was 8 years old or whatever.)Report

        • Avatar Reformed Republican in reply to gabriel conroy
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          “And in my view, it would have been better if the Hulk actually hurt people, in the “doesn’t know his own strength and now he/Banner regrets it” sort of way”

          The comic actually addressed this. I think it was some time after World War Hulk. The reason Hulk only hurts bad guys is because, deep down, he still has Bruce Banner’s superintelligence to nudge him in the right direction.Report

          • That makes a certain amount of sense. But even intelligence misfires or miscalculates.Report

            • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Gabriel Conroy
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              In the comic, the Hulk knocks down buildings and gets in city smashing fights with people his equal who don’t care about normals. The Hulk doesn’t have the senses to tell if there are people around, and if he’s angry he wouldn’t care. He mostly doesn’t pull the “let’s drag this fight somewhere else” card. Some of his standard moves look a lot like 9+ Earthquakes and he’s been show to use these in cities.

              And all that is on a good day with everything working for him. On a bad day he’s subject to mind control and temper tantrums. Many characters have talked about the destruction he brings (see also 9+ Earthquakes and knocking down buildings) but weirdly these buildings must always be empty.

              He should be the poster child for “why having supers around is a bad thing” and be leaving lots of corpses around.Report

      • Avatar Pinky in reply to Kristin Devine
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        Incredible timing! Screen Rant just posted a Hulk (2003) pitch meeting on YouTube.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      RE: How in the world can you write a bulletproof character well?

      The problem isn’t the “bulletproof” part. The problem is Superman is omniscient because of his senses and a teleport because of his speed. These things were introduced because of lazy writing and now the character is hard to handle because he doesn’t need to deal with real physics or real people.

      The first Starbrand series has a good take on this. Infinitely strong, but can’t pick up a ship because it’d fall apart. Infinitely fast via flight (but can’t think faster). Infinitely tough. Has a nuke for an energy blast… which is scary not helpful if you’re a good guy who doesn’t want to murder cities.

      Lost a fight with three villains, they get away… and now what? He doesn’t know their names, he has NO WAY to find them again for a rematch. Hears of a villain fight on the radio but can’t get there because navigation is a problem and he’d get fired if he left work. He can’t do the coal into diamonds thing because real physics.

      He doesn’t want to join the authorities because they’d use him and he doesn’t trust them.

      Big picture he either needs to go public and use the authorities resources (getting rich is trivial if you do that which would solve one set of problems at the cost of creating others) or he needs to establish relations with the authorities (a Bat Signal) to they can contact him when a Starbrand level threat shows up in Russia. The odds of that threat showing up in Pittsburg are very low.

      A current book series that handles this pretty well is “Wearing the Cape”. The main heroine is effectively public and always has been. There are a ton of social adaptations to deal with capes being human and everyone else not being dumb.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    My theory is that men and women of virtue tend to come across as kind of square. For Clark Kent/Superman, being kind of square was part of his charm. It isn’t so much for many other people of virtue.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to LeeEsq
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      says:

      This is a mystery to me because I prefer square, nerdish dweebs and would literally never go out with the “bad boys” that all women supposedly want, nor would I go for a “Chad”.

      I also see a fair number of Hollywood sex symbols who fall into the nerdish square category.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kristin Devine
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        says:

        This isn’t about bad boys and girls per se when it comes to romance. This really isn’t about sex or romance at all because a lot of heterosexual men don’t like their male heroes square and a lot heterosexual women don’t like their female heroes square. People want to live vicariously through superheroes. A non-square hero or heroine is a lot more fun for people to imagine themselves then somebody who never has a hedonistic urge. Being Bruce Wayne/Batman is going to be a lot more interesting than stable middle class Clark Kent/Superman.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq
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      Eh, the “Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Superman, Superman is really Clark” triangle is one hell of a story device.

      That was worth a *LOT* of mileage.

      If I had to guess, I’d say that Superman is only really particularly corny in a post-Reagan world.Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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        I always thought that the best interpretation (which I’ve quoted before) was “There is no Superman/Clark Kent distinction, because Superman is just Clark Kent with superpowers.”

        That was what I thought “Man of Steel” was striving towards, was an exploration of that idea; and I think it just didn’t manage to get there because, like a Godzilla movie, it thought that we needed to spend more time with the supporting cast than with the character the movie was supposed to be about. Like, there’s the conversation between Pa and Clark, and Clark says “so, what, all those kids should’ve died?” and I so, so badly wanted Pa to say “no! But…maybe it can’t be Clark Kent who saves them. Because once you’re the person that saves people, you can never not be that person, ever again.”Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck
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          Well, what are we trying to do with the story?

          A will-they-or-won’t-they love story about a nice guy who, secretly, is everything the girl he loves ever wanted?

          And opportunity to show someone flying and punching a fighter jet and knocking it out while the pilot safely parachutes away to be captured by the proper authorities?

          An apologia for God?

          It’s real easy to do those first two. The last one ain’t never gonna satisfy everybody and it’s hard to imagine an anybody who will be satisfied for any given answer for more than a couple of months.Report

  5. Avatar gabriel conroy
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    says:

    I’m only an occasional consumer of superhero fare, so maybe I’m either missing the point or just don’t know enough (both of those are likely), but it seems to me that the first Superman movie*, we do have Superman making a difficult choice. He has to decide whether to honor his word and save Hackensack or save Lois and California. He can’t do both, and in order to undo that decision, he has to violate the rule about not reversing the course of time.

    Of course, the fact that he *can* reverse the course of time strikes me as a little deus ex machina’ish. Also too: The audience, or at least me, didn’t seem to realize that if Superman didn’t have the dilemma, he’d still have to sacrifice someone/someplace (Hackensack) for Lois/California.

    *I think it was the first. I’m referring to the first with Christopher Reeves.

    ETA: By the way, I like your idea of the superhero having to know and balance when not to use their powers. It would be interesting to see that conflict in, say, the context of a war or some other horrible event.Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to gabriel conroy
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      It would be interesting to see that conflict in, say, the context of a war or some other horrible event.

      IIRC this is (sort of) the plot of the Watchmen.Report

      • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to InMD
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        says:

        I’ve never seen it. Do you recommend it?Report

        • Avatar InMD in reply to gabriel conroy
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          says:

          If you feel like turning your brain off and enjoying the light show it is as good as anything of its type. Bonus points for lots of Malin Akerman sexiness but it won’t give you a new perspective on life or anything. For context this is probably the best super hero film endorsement I could muster for any of them other than maybe the Tim Burton Batman movies.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to gabriel conroy
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          I would recommend the movie only if you say something like “I’m not inclined to read the book.”

          The book is amazing. It explores themes with parallel stories and the written word has subtleties that the movie turns into either sledgehammers or excises completely.

          But if you say “Yeah, I ain’t gonna read the book”, the movie is a noble failure and it’s got some pretty decent moments in it.

          (If you read the book, you’ll find yourself asking “how in the hell did they make this into a movie?!?!?” and then you’ll watch it and say “oh” in a mildly disappointed voice.)

          Warning: The movie is a hard R. It’s not a kiddie book that they made into a movie. Graphic violence, nudity, sex, tobacco use… it’s got it all.Report

          • Avatar InMD in reply to Jaybird
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            says:

            That’s a good point, definitely not one to watch with the kids.Report

          • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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            The thing that is tough about the book is that it asks questions which are very much of their time, and they’ve kind of been answered by the progression of history since then.

            Like, it’s really important that the book has Nixon still President in the 1980s, that’s not just a throwaway gag but an exploration of the idea that Carter was a weird blip in America’s long evolution into a hard-right plutocracy. It’s similarly important that we almost never see a military deployment in the book; with Dr. Manhattan running around, who needs an army?

            And the whole theme is kind of that; “with every state possessing nuclear weapons and the hard-right winning America, what’s the point of fighting for truth and justice, what’s the use of struggling for a better world? What do “bad guys” and “good guys” even mean?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck
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              Yeah, The Comedian makes sense if you see the CIA/FBI as a Dark Force.

              If you see the CIA/FBI as part of the Deep State standing in opposition to Drumpf, how would you have The Comedian respond to a question about supporting the government?Report

              • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird
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                says:

                I think that the Comedian is a character who wouldn’t exist today, because the way the 1990s and 2000s turned out, Ozymandias *won*, and the world we’re living in is the one where the Squid Ending happened. For us, that was 9/11.)

                And you might say “wait, 9/11 only united us for about five minutes before it all fell apart, and the war it started didn’t solve a damn thing”, and the thing is, Alan Moore didn’t think that the Squid Ending was good. That’s why the comic ends with the weirdo-zine guys getting Rohrshach’s journal in the mail, because it’s showing that Ozymandias’s plan is merely going to kick the status-quo along for another couple of decades. (And Dr Manhattan leaving the planet was a metaphor for how nuclear weapons were powerful but had been around for so long that everyone had got used to them and they lost the terrible symbolic meaning that they’d once possessed, making them ultimately irrelevant.)Report

        • Avatar gabriel conroy in reply to gabriel conroy
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          Thanks for all your advice.Report

        • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to gabriel conroy
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          says:

          Watch the Directors Cut, which is very long but worth it. Better yet, read the book, you won’t be sorry.

          (edited to add, should have read everyone’s comments first!)Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to gabriel conroy
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      The first Superman (and the second for that matter) I think get it pretty close to what exists inside my head as “the right” way to do it.

      There are other examples – the first X-Men is quite good with the exception of the canned ending, the first 2/3 of Captain America, heck, even the first Michael Keaton Batman hints at it. It’s mostly the recent incarnations that have me feeling things are headed in the wrong direction.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to gabriel conroy
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      says:

      Re: hero knowing when to use and not to use his powers…

      see also: the episode of Futurama where Bender becomes God of his own tiny colonyReport

  6. Avatar Michael Cain
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    I gave up on Superman when I was about ten for the same reasons that I gave up on religion. Super strong, super senses, super science — he could build robots that had similar powers — so why are there still nuclear weapons? Why didn’t he just send a couple of the robots out every Thursday at 3:30 in the afternoon to collect the bombs and toss them into the sun? Why are we still burning coal for electricity instead of using whatever power source the robots have? No vaccine for the common cold this month again?

    Certainly there was a time when I would have said, if asked, “You know, Superman is a really sh*tty person: so much that is unequivocally good that he could do, but he doesn’t. Instead he mopes around in disguise trying to impress Lois Lane and writing (presumably bad, because he never got assigned any of the good stories) prose for a newspaper.Report

    • Avatar Oscar Gordon in reply to Michael Cain
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      says:

      IIRC, Watchman touched on that with Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, in that they, at the start, tried to advance human society through science, but eventually became jaded and detached.

      Or maybe I’m remembering it wrong and need to read the book again.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Michael Cain
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      Your second paragraph here is exactly the thing I would explore if I ever got a crack at the Man of Steel. That’s the key to it.Report

    • Avatar Dark Matter in reply to Michael Cain
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      says:

      The issue is less that it’s impossible to have good stories with Superman as it is that Superman, correctly done with his known personality, would change things so their world wouldn’t be a mirror of our own.

      For example in the Watcher’s Universe, the US won the Vietnam War because the President asked Dr. Manhattan to win the war. After that you don’t have things like Gulf War 1 & 2 because the US can and will play the “Dr. Manhattan wins” card and everyone knows it.

      This leads to it’s own set of problems which are arguably worse, i.e. a good story.

      Trying to make a story about Dr. Manhattan both stepping in to save things and not stepping in to save things and you have a mess.Report

  7. Avatar Reformed Republican
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    says:

    Astro City had an interesting take on the Superman-type character. He is superpowerful, but there are only 24 hours in a day, so he has to figure out how to best allocate his time to do the most good, knowing he cannot save everybody. He also has to maintain his newspaper job. I think there was only one issue that was dedicated to the character, and in other issues he just appeared as a supporting character (sound familiar @jaybird?).Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Reformed Republican
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      Yes! And in that one issue dedicated to him, it covered that he still needed to do stuff like “sleep every night” and, when he slept, he dreamed of flying.

      Because he *LOVES* flying.

      But he only gets to fly when he’s going from Point A to Point B between obligations and crises. A day when he spends 6 minutes in the air, total, is a good day flying.Report

  8. Avatar DensityDuck
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    says:

    Why is it so hard to write a good guy?

    Well. The secret is that everybody in the story is a good guy. You know that old joke about “Thug Number Three, standing in the back corner, has no lines? That guy thinks he’s the main character”, well, same goes for being the good guy (or at least the righteous moral protagonist who deserves to win.)

    Just like every decision is rational, nobody thinks they’re the bad guy. They just think that there are different ways of being “good”, is all.

    Which is why it seems so hard to write a good guy. Because nobody wants to see a wish-fulfillment story about the thing they figure they do every day. “oh look, here’s this guy making the right choices and being justly rewarded, where’s the fun in that?” The whole point of fantasy is to revel in the idea that you might not be a good guy, that you might not make the morally-correct choice, and that you might not be punished if you do that.Report

  9. Avatar Andrew R.
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    says:

    This piece explained a lot better than I could why you can tell an incredibly rich story with a Lawfool Good character. Want to make a good story with a Paladin? Have the Paladin forced to choose between rescuing the civilians or letting the orc warboss (who will go on to wreck more carnage) escape. Or have the Paladin eventually come to grips with the fact that something he did several months ago in game time actually had bad effects. Or have him forced to deal with the forces of public order being the good guys but making a bad choice and stymying him.

    (Hmm… This comment turned into me praising my favorite DM ever. But so it goes.)Report

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