“Avengers” and the vulnerable superhero

I went to see “The Avengers” again recently. Don’t ask how many times I’ve seen it–I’m not an addict, I can quit any time.  Really.

The film got me thinking about the role of vulnerability in heroes.  Any time you have a sufficiently powerful protagonist, you have a couple of problems, relating to one of the overarching issues of fiction (or film):  how to show and raise the stakes.

In your average thriller or suspense plot, one or more lives are at stake.  You show the stakes by having someone get hurt or killed, you raise the stakes by placing people at increasingly close distance to the reader at risk also:  named characters, the protagonist and his or her family and friends.  For big books, you threaten a place people already know of and thus have reason to care about.

The threat makes the reader worry about what will happen to your protagonist and his world.  Higher threat = greater worry until, ideally, you have the reader on the edge of her seat.

But what happens when your protagonist is literally a superhero?  We already know these guys are better, stronger, faster.  Nearly invulnerable.  And that “nearly” is critical.  One of the things that Joss Whedon excelled at in the Avengers film is showing the vulnerabilities of his cast of supers.  Thor still cares about his brother.  Hulk fears the violence he might cause against others.  Ironman worries about the legacy of the company that bears his (and his father’s) name.  We can see each of these characters striving not only to prevent bodily harm, but to defend his personal stakes, the damage that might be done to values beyond the physical:  to love, to reputation, to self-respect.

Whedon and his collaborators display these vulnerabilities in part by playing them off of each other.  The scenes of supers attacking one another are not only fulfilling the Smackdown urge to see who’d win if Ironman took on Thor, they are allowing the supers to reveal and test each other’s vulnerabilities, to probe the wounds that each hopes the others won’t notice.  The existence of these wounds makes the superhero characters accessible to the viewer, and, more to the point, gives us reasons to be sympathetic–and to be worried. Can Hulk get hurt or killed?  Apparently not–but how would he live with himself if he caused such harm to others?  Ah–now, it gets interesting!

Guess in a PG-13 film, they can’t rag on the fact that Captain America is still a virgin, though. . .

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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11 Responses to “Avengers” and the vulnerable superhero

  1. Hulk is my favorite hero, not for his strength, but for his dynamic nature and lack of control. The power of the superheroes may draw our eye, but it’s their weaknesses that make us care. Thank you for the insightful post.

    • Interesting point about Hulk. That loss of control is one of the ideas I’m playing with in my series, but my advance readers of the current WIP seem to be put off by the idea of the hero losing control of his power. Maybe I need to pay more attention to Hulk. . .

  2. In my books, my superhero is Ki’shto’ba, a giant intelligent termite Warrior who is a stand-in for Hercules. Ki’shto’ba’s vulnerability is caring too much about its twin sibling. This is going to cause much pain and suffering.
    BTW, I would like to nominate you for a Versatile Blogger Award. Let me know if you have any objections. Read about the award at http://versatilebloggeraward.wordpress.com

  3. Lorinda–I’m touched! after reading over the responsibilities, I’m not sure I can take on the responsibility right now–can you nominate me next month? Thanks so much!

    • It’s really just an informal, non-obligatory, and rather silly game! You can wait and respond any time you like! I really do enjoy following your blog, btw, and would like to see lots of people enjoy it. When is that big, dark, historical novel going to be published? And I should say, a vulnerable hero is much more appealing to me than an invincible one.

      • My release date for Elisha Barber is July 2, 2013. Any thoughts about book promotion gladly accepted!

      • termitespeaker says:

        So it’s called Elisha Barber and it’s laid in the 14th century! I’m going to keep your book in mind (I don’t do that with many upcoming books) because it appears that it’s really well researched and thought-out, whatever it’s plot, and also because I cut my teeth on historical novels as a teenager – loved Aexandre Dumas in particular and read of Samuel Shellenbarger. That was before I discovered Tolkien and fantasy in general.
        I presume you’re self-publishing? If I had a good clue as to self-promotion, I would be glad to share it! I tweet a lot and always try to reply to followers with something personal to them, hoping to separate myself from the Twitter stream. I maintain two blogs that I try to attract people to by using Facebook groups, Blog Hops, Google+, my own Facebook, WANATribe, Goodreads (I was just invited to join the Virtual Writers Group there), etc., etc. I try to attract people who I think would be attuned to my kind of writing. I comment on blogs I like. All this is pretty creaky, but I’ve had mild success lately in attracting attention. I’ve begun to review other people’s books, also. It’s a slow haul and takes patience.

      • It’s actually trad–it’ll be coming out with DAW books (hence the release date being so far away. OTOH, the cover sketch they’ve got really rocks!). Most of what I know about book promo is pretty old-school (press releases, anyone?) so I’m trying to glean more ideas about reaching the right readers in the new era of social networks and such.

  4. termitespeaker says:

    Congratulations on actually finding a traditional publisher! Is this your first book, or have I just not run into you before? (When I type E.C. Ambrose in Amazon, all I get is a big list of books by Stephen E. Ambrose. Google gives me a short story in Clarksworld magazine and a reference to this blog and a few other things. I’ve now found out your book is about a barber surgeon.). I’m sure DAW will take care of publicity for you – one of the perks of being traditionally published! Makes it a lot easier!

    • I have a couple of books out under another name, which I’m not at liberty to divulge–sorry! Maybe later? So this is basically like starting from scratch, and also in quite a different market climate.

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