Thursday, August 02, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about motivation lately. Motivation works funny in superhero comics. Whereas motivation in fiction and drama is encouraged to be as complex and intricate as possible, superhero fiction is one genre where protagonists actually work better in direct proportion to the simplicity of their motivation.

This is a basic observation that really shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who has been reading superhero comics for longer than five minutes. The most successful and long-lived superhero characters are those with simple, portable motivations that allow them to plug into any number of modular situations:

Batman hates crime.

Superman needs to help people.

Spider-Man wants to prevent people from being hurt.  

Captain America wants to inspire people.

Notice I didn't say "because." Every superhero - every character - has a "because," and while for most of us the "because" is, or should be, very important, with superheroes the "because" should never be emphasized. The reason for this is that as soon as you add a second clause to these motivations, you introduce conditions, and as soon as you make a superhero's motivation conditional, you risk jeopardizing the purity - and the portability - of their original motivation.

"Batman hates crime" is perhaps the simplest, most accessible, least complicated motivation in all fiction. He hates crime in all its incarnation, in all its many sizes and shapes - he hates murderers and drug dealers and extortionists and rapists and thieves and white-collar criminals and international terrorists. If it falls under the umbrella of "crime," Batman hates it. If you wanted to be more precise, however, you could add a second clause, turn the motivation into something like:

Batman hates crime because his parents were killed in a mugging when he was a child.

That is as "correct" a statement as the first version, but it also introduces possible complications. The second clause posits the condition under which his previously-stated motivation occurs. Once this condition is introduced the possibility exists that, if the condition is complicated, the motivation can be as well. If Batman hates crime only because his parents were murdered, what happens when he catches the murderer?

Now, of course, we know the answer to that question because we've all read Batman #47 and we know who Joe Chill is and what exactly Batman does once he discovers the person who killed his parents. We know he doesn't declare justice served, hang up his cowl, get married and live happily ever after. But the revelation of Joe Chill is a secondary attribute - or even tertiary, depending on which iteration of the character you're referencing, and whether or not Joe Chill is even in canon this week. I don't think there are very many good stories that can be told from poking at this particularly element of Batman's origin because messing with the characters motivation - adding a second clause to such a brilliantly simple and infinitely flexible motivation - risks obscuring and complicating an otherwise delightfully streamlined genesis. The first Tim Burton Batman film got this disastrously wrong by positing that the Joker killed Batman's parents: by making the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne into such an important character, and by killing him definitively at the end of the film, it made Batman's motivation contingent on something that no longer existed. What if the movie Batman had hung up his cowl after the Joker died? We know that doesn't happen because Batman doesn't quit, but just inviting the audience to pose that question muddies the waters to an unnecessary degree.

Similarly, the idea that "Superman needs to help people" is perfect in its open-ended simplicity. You can always add something to the effect that:

Superman needs to help people because he was raised by salt-of-the-Earth Kansas farmers who raised him to honor and cherish all life.

That is also a "correct" statement, but as with the second version of Batman's motivation, it also introduces a number of complicating factors. Every element of this motivation is true, but poking at it means potentially complicating the character - certainly, there have been many good and valid Superman stories that have done exactly that, but in the long run the simplest version is and should be the version that carries forward. Every subsequent development should be constructed with an eye towards not obscuring these most basic and simple principles.

One of the things that got me thinking about the way motivation works in superhero comics was The Amazing Spider-Man. Not a bad film but certainly not a very good film. (I'm on record as not being the biggest fan of the Sam Raimi films but after recently rewatching the earlier Spider-Man films for the first time since seeing them in the theater I found to my great surprise that they held up a lot better than I expected. I can still quibble in regards to a few liberties they took with the character and his presentation, but they were legitimately good movies. It is odd how memory works in this regard - I remembered disliking the Green Goblin in the first film, but DeFoe's Goblin was actually a much better villain than I remember [once you get past the plastic mask], and acted pretty much exactly the way the Goblin acts in the comics. They screwed up Doctor Octopus pretty badly, but the action in the second film was still better than the first.) In any event, one of the serious problems with the presentation of the character in The Amazing Spider-Man was just how badly they mutilated the details of Spider-Man's origin.

The problem is that after Uncle Ben's murder, Spider-Man doesn't immediately catch the thief who kills him. Think about this for a minute: the original Spider-Man origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15 has Spider-Man catching the thief right after the murder, and so does Raimi's film. You can't have the burglar escape because the circumstances of the burglar's capture are completely immaterial to establishing Spider-Man's motivation - but the idea that Spider-Man doesn't catch the burglar is terrible and changes the character is unforeseen ways. The new movie's assertion that Spider-Man's earliest exploits were him searching specifically for the thief who shot Ben Parker is a terrible idea, because it makes Spider-Man's earliest heroic motivation revenge. Sure, the movie shows him moving past that idea and embracing the more selfless ideal of heroism that we recognizing as being characteristically Spider-Man. But that's a needless complication. Spider-Man becomes selfless - pathologically, determinedly selfless - the moment he catches the burglar and realizes his own selfishness resulted in his uncle's death. He doesn't become selfless through trial-and-error in the process of working out his anger issues on the underworld. And having Ben's murderer remain unresolved introduces a note of unnecessary suspense into Spider-Man's origin that risk's complicating what should otherwise be a perfectly streamlined motivation. It simply isn't important to Spider-Man who killed his uncle: it was some nameless skell who represents the negative consequence of not living up to your potential for good. Similarly, it just doesn't matter who killed Batman's parents, whether it was Joe Chill or another murderer who was never caught. For the young Bruce Wayne, the person who killed his parents was simply Crime with a capital-C.

Now, obviously, most characters - even superhero characters - have more complicated motivations than this. You could even argue that only the most iconic characters can afford to have such simple and iconic motivations. There are lots of great, popular, and enduring characters with complicated and changeable motivations who persist in the public eye (Iron Man is a great example of this). There are also lots of characters with muddy and inconsistent motivations who also manage to remain popular despite a lack of coherent motivation - perhaps the best example is Wolverine, whose actual motivation is so buried in years of complex and contradictory continuity that it's best just to state plainly "he's a good guy with issues" and leave it at that. But it's usually a good idea to keep superhero motivations as simple as possible, because the unpleasant alternative is that complicated motivations can eventually mutate to become convoluted and even counter-productive. What happens when your heroes' motivations have changed so radically that they barely even resemble heroes?

The advantages of giving a character as open-ended a motivation as possible is that the more open-ended the motivation, the more flexible the character can be. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are flexible enough that each character can be ported into an almost infinite variety of stories: sure, you can make an argument that each character might work "better" in certain circumstances than others, but there are plenty of good examples of Batman fighting crime in space and Superman fighting mobsters in the inner city (for instance). Characters with less open-ended motivations are less portable and, as a result of this, less flexible.

At the far end of the spectrum from those three characters you would probably have to put Spawn. Now, Spawn has been a terrible comic almost from the moment of its inception, but at its core on paper there is nothing intrinsically bad about Spawn as a character. Faust is a perfectly fine model for a superhero origin story (it works fine for the Silver Surfer), and the idea of a man who sells his soul to the devil but doesn't get what he bargains for is as old as the hills. But in practice Spawn is always terrible. There is one major reason for this: Spawn never actually receives a motivation to do anything. Spawn has been in continual publication for twenty years (!!!) and in all that time, to the best of my knowledge (and I haven't read every issue of Spawn, but I've read many) he still hasn't moved past trying to get the bastards that screwed him over and killed him. The problem was so pronounced that Al Simmons recently killed himself because he openly acknowledged his story was going nowhere, leaving the Spawn powers and costume to another person. Imagine a Batman who spent twenty years trying to get Joe Chill and dealing almost exclusively with the consequences of a massive conspiracy created by Joe Chill with the express purpose of destroying the Wayne family - sure, you could tell that story if you wanted, but you wouldn't have anywhere near as interesting or flexible a character as the Batman we know today. You'd have a character who had one story with a definite beginning as well as an ending - less the Bruce Wayne Batman and more the Paul Kirk Manhunter.

Some characters are sufficiently open-ended that they can continue more or less in perpetuity, whereas some characters - because of their origins and motivations - do have built in endings. The problem with a character like Spawn is that, as written, his story has a definite ending. But because Spawn is an ongoing series that end will never arrive, and as a result the character and his stories are left to become more and more attenuated and useless. This is one of the problems - to return to The Amazing Spider-Man - with making Peter's parents a part of the experiments that result in him getting his powers. (This is also a problem with Ultimate Spider-Man.) Leaving those kinds of threads dangling from a character's origin ultimately (pun intended) limits the kinds of stories you can tell with that character. Spider-Man's story worked because it was clean and uncluttered - even the part about Peter's parents being secret agents who fought the Red Skull was, if superfluous, of little consequence, because even after Peter learned that fact it had little impact on his day-to-day life as Spider-Man. But having Peter's dad be the scientist who designed the process that gave him spider-powers just introduces an unnecessary complication that risks permanent damage to what is otherwise a graceful and clean origin sequence.

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