It's really easy (and fun, too!) to look at a bad movie or book or TV show and talk about how much better it could have been, because technically everything bad could be better in really obvious ways. Live Free or Die Hard wasn't great, and could have been improved if it were more like the original Die Hard. Maid in Manhattan was bad, and could have been improved if it were more like the original Die Hard.
But Maid in Manhattan is a waste of time, and I'm not talking about wasted time -- I'm talking about wasted potential. Movies, shows and comics that, at one point, started out with amazing premises. They had all of the ingredients for greatness; they were impressive seeds that could have grown into trees of perfection, instead of shrubs of rotting poop.
This article is about seeds that grew into poop.
I've mentioned my feelings about The Walking Dead before. In short, it's the only show that I watch every single week specifically for how good it isn't. I watch it with the belief that it might be a great show one day, based solely on the concept and the amazing, incredible pilot.
I still think about that pilot today. It was well-paced, well-acted, tense and uncomfortable at all the right times, and it introduced you to characters who were real humans dealing with a real zombie problem. Rick, the injured sheriff who wakes up disoriented in a world gone to shit, is just trying desperately to find his family. He meets Morgan and his son, two of the few survivors left. Morgan is emotional but realistic. Rick is confused but optimistic, and determined. They swap stories, bond, try to make a plan together and then go their separate ways, both having changed a little bit. Two complex, interesting characters, and on either side of their brief meeting, we're treated to the best zombie action ever seen on television.
"What if zombies ... but cowboys ... and helicopters ... EXPLOSIONS!"
After the pilot, the pacing went to hell (40 minutes of slow nothing followed by four minutes of HOLY SHIT SOMETHING BIG AND CRAZY JUST HAPPENED), and every character became a stereotype. The hothead. The wise old guy. The black guy, who is such a stereotypical throwback that his name has "dawg" in it, even though it's 2012. The Southern, racist redneck. The other Southern, racist redneck. The Southern, racist redneck's brother, himself a Southern redneck with racist tendencies. Even Rick transformed into Good Ole Rick, the Good Guy Sheriff. Every character was one note, but it didn't really matter, because this show would get rid of half of its cast every other episode. "Here, let's briefly introduce you to these 12 characters but -- OH, never mind, they decided to go in a new direction, they're gone now. Let's have you get to know this blonde girl a little better, she's sticking around -- OH, never mind, she's a zombie now. How about you meet this guy, he's -- OH, zombie."
I think I have a new favorite character and -- ah, shit.
The show is just a series of underdeveloped characters yelling at each other and occasionally shooting zombies. I don't care if any of the characters die, because I can barely remember their names.
But What if Instead ...
What if this show were about a group of strangers making a new life together after the world ends? I've watched 12 episodes now, and all everyone does is complain and walk, complain and walk. The show would be much more interesting if it explored what real people would do if all of our laws and everything in society suddenly just broke down due to zombie-related complications. What would people do if they suddenly didn't have to follow the law? That's what I'm curious about. I want to see society break down. I want to see what people would do if they could rebuild the world however they wanted. I want anarchy. I want Lord of the Flies but with zombies.
"Fuck your ass-mar, Piggy!"
Instead, we've got a bunch of flat characters who still do everything that a sheriff tells them to do. A sheriff! His badge is only as good as his skin is resistant to zombie bites, which is to say, not at all.
Civil War was one of the best things to happen to mainstream Marvel comics in decades, because its story line focused on answering a single question: What would happen if Congress passed a law demanding that every superhero (and superpowered human) register their identity with the United States government? (Yes, it's not a new idea in comics, but I still maintain that Civil War did it the best.) Would anyone sign it? Should anyone sign it? With power and responsibility, should accountability also follow?
It was fun, well-written and relevant to a post-9/11 America that was evenly split between its desire to have the government protect us at all costs and its paranoia that the government wants to know way too much about us. We were scared of terrorists, we were scared of illegal phone-tapping and the Patriot Act and we didn't know if we could trust our government. Civil War spoke to all of that. For the first time in years, we were given a title-spanning Marvel story that wasn't just about Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. It was about privacy. It was about government intervention. It was about freedom. Captain America wasn't jumping out of planes to punch some clown with a red face, he was fighting Iron Man about how forcing heroes to hand their privacy over to the government was a violation of civil liberties. The book featured long speeches about freedom versus security, and what the role of government really should be, and amid all that, we got to watch superheroes fight each other!
Part of the fun was finding out which heroes were going to join the pro-registration camp (Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic) and which would join the anti-registration camp (Captain America, Luke Cage, The Punisher). One of the most controversial things to come out of Civil War was Spider-Man joining the pro camp and revealing his secret identity on national television. You may even remember certain news shows covering this event back in 2007. That's how big of a deal it was.
For the first time, everyone knew who Spider-Man was. Every schoolteacher who scolded Parker for falling asleep in class, every employer who fired him when he was late, every friend who thought he was lazy and unreliable -- they all had a new perspective on Parker. And we, as readers, had a new comic to read. We'd never read a comic featuring an "out" Spider-Man; this was so exciting! After reading 40 years of comics about a shy, down-on-his-luck guy with a big secret, we finally get to read what happens when that secret gets out!
But, after Civil War, Spider-Man ran into a magical demon who retconned everything. For non-comics fans, "retcon" means "retroactive continuity," and it refers to a device whereby previously established facts are altered or undermined. It's like ending a season of television with a character waking up and saying, "Oh wow, it turns out everything that happened was just a long, elaborate dream." In the case of Spider-Man post-Civil War, a powerful demon shows up and clicks "undo" on the part where Spider-Man revealed his identity. He undid the reveal, he undid Parker's marriage to Mary Jane and he undid Harry Osborn's death. Three of the biggest things to ever happen to Spider-Man were completely thrown out the window, as if they'd never happened.
But What if Instead ...
What if instead, absolutely anything else happened? Spider-Man fans were thrilled that they were finally seeing a brand new Spider-Man comic. The Amazing Spider-Man is great, but you can only read about a guy who screws up as Peter Parker and fights crime as Spider-Man so many times, and I would know, because I have read that exact thing many, many times.
That's why fans found it so frustrating when, instead of exploring what a post-reveal life would be like for Spider-Man, the ASM writers basically started from scratch. "Let's make Spider-Man's identity secret again. And let's make him single again. And let's give him all of his old friends again." Why not put him in high school again, you stupid jerks?
Obviously I have some issues to work out.
The unexplored aftermath of Civil War will always, to me, be one of the biggest missed opportunities in fiction. What would Parker's friends say? What would J. Jonah Jameson say, now that he knows that his trusted photographer was his biggest nemesis for years? How would Spider-Man's enemies react, and how would it impact Mary Jane? What about the people of the city? Would they all try to sue Spider-Man for all of the damage he's caused over the years?
We'll never know, because no one bothered to answer those questions.