5 Incompetent Characters Who Make Superhero Plots Possible
The fantasy driving every comic book movie is simple: You could fix a whole lot of things if only you had superpowers. But it turns out the real world has quite a few boring safeguards fixing things just fine, and superhero stories only function if the people doing those jobs absolutely do not give a crap. For example ...
Banks Are Super Lax About Billions Of Dollars Changing Hands
If you've ever tried to withdraw over a billion dollars from a bank, you were probably surprised by how many hoops you had to jump through. If you want cash, you'll find that they tend to only keep a couple hundred thousand on hand, and if you suddenly demand all of it, they'll assume some kind of crime is being committed (like maybe you're being extorted or whatever) and call the cops. In fact, even if you don't demand cash but withdraw more than ten grand in any format, the bank reports it to the feds, just in case. So you know we're about to talk about the Joker here.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker in question stacks all the mob's money in a pyramid, ties their accountant Lau on top, and sets the whole pile ablaze in the name of chaos, even though he could have spent that money accomplishing even greater chaos, but whatever. This was money Lau had moved to Hong Kong before the Joker kidnapped him. But the movie skips over what had to happen for this money to go from China to Joker's warehouse. Let's say Lau transfers it to an account of Joker's choosing. What then?
There's some $6 billion in hundreds in that mountain, according to this estimate, or a billion in 20s. But in the otherwise fairly realistic Dark Knight financial world, with DAs investigating money laundering and the major crimes unit marking bills, a crazy person handed a teller a withdrawal slip, and their response was, "So did you bring a flatbed truck to haul this away, or do you need to rent ours? Also, do you want to sit down for three or four years and count it?"
I suppose Lau could have split the money into a hundred accounts or a thousand, but really, that only means even more tellers had to not give a crap about these incredibly shady bastards taking out literal tons of money in the middle of a citywide crackdown on organized crime. We shouldn't have even been surprised when thieves manage to bankrupt Wayne one movie later through the least sneaky fraud ever.
Over in the Marvel universe, Ultron's plan involves instantly sending Ulysses Klaue billions in exchange for his vibranium. It's a bizarre scene because Ultron could have just stolen the vibranium, and he indeed acts like he's going to (he throws Klaue through a glass window and ends up cutting off the guy's arm), but the point is that Ultron's power comes not from magic, but from his control of the internet. He's a less robotic Mark Zuckerberg.
If this has you terrified about real hackers suddenly moving billions and bringing down whole economies, you may be relieved to learn that banks are much more worried about it than you are. That's why it always takes an actual human to approve those transactions, which is why when hackers got all the internet power they needed to siphon off a billion dollars a few years back, they only made away with a sliver of that before people noticed something fishy was going on. Or when other hackers steal millions, they can only do so by spacing it over a long time. That's right, the Office Space heist plan was real.
Now check out how fiscally irresponsible the bank in Spider-Man 2 is. Not only do they cast Joel McHale as a loan officer instead of as Marvel's next wisecracking hero, but they also salt away a large portion of their money in giant sacks of gold.
Gold may be all very well for nations to keep as reserves, but banks are supposed to keep funds in some form they can, you know, do something with. So they can lend it to businesses and people, which is how they make more money. This bank failed to do that. And now you know why they couldn't approve that loan for dear old Aunt May.
City Planners Are Asleep At The Wheel
In The Dark Knight Rises, John Blake pokes around construction sites and learns that Daggett Industries has baked explosives into underground projects all over the city. Unfortunately, he discovers this mere moments before Bane detonates said explosives. But it's pretty impressive that he figures it out at all, given that, as he says when Gordon makes him investigate, "I don't know anything about civil engineering."
It's almost enough to make you wish Gotham had people who did know about civil engineering looking into such things as a matter of course. For example, civil engineers, ones under the city's employ. Especially with the city having such a remarkable history of terrorist attacks and having otherwise totally turned itself around, now ruthlessly clamping down on criminal threats of all kinds.
I'm thinking that the rule in superhero universes is if something's not physically in view, there is absolutely no one overseeing it. That's why the sewers are a place where anything goes in The Dark Knight Rises or The Amazing Spider-Man. And in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we learn the late Richard Parker somehow built a secret lab in a subway station that opens like an Indiana Jones temple. How he managed this boggles the mind; he didn't even have a team of goons helping him.
In our world, maybe you can spray paint a dick on a subway wall without getting caught, but eventually somebody is going to come paint over the dick. They kind of get paid to do that. But in these movies, you can do major, noisy, illegal construction for years, and nobody will notice as long as it's underground.
Over in a different and better Spider-Man 2, we have Doc Ock performing extraordinarily dangerous work in a lab built right in his Manhattan home. Now, I'm not questioning the wisdom of a scientist strapping robot tentacles to his spine or creating his own sun. We have an explanation for that: He is a mad scientist. Nor am I questioning the wisdom of Oscorp pursuing dangerous passion projects without regard for caution or morality. We have an explanation for that too: Its CEO is James Franco. But I am somewhat questioning why the NYC Department of City Planning thought it was appropriate to permit nuclear experiments in an East Village loft.
Let's face it, life is just more fun without zoning regulations. You get massive excavation and a tumbler carport below Wayne Manor, and you get steel corridors and psychokinetic domes below Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. You also get more explosions. But you would think decades of experience with that kind of thing would make bureaucrats more cautious, not less.
Medical Professionals Are Remarkably Incurious
Spider-Man 2 features Peter Parker struggling because he is unable to perform on command. Completing the metaphor, he goes to a doctor for medical advice, only to be told his problem is psychological.
We see only the end of the visit, but it's clear Peter got a medical checkup. Peter Parker, who has sworn to keep his identity as Spider-Man secret even though this means his life falling apart, willingly submitted to an examination by a medical professional. So ... the doctor didn't react to seeing anything weird about this spider-gened superhuman? Even after checking his heart and pulse, his eyes and reflexes?
Or, if we say all that stuff was down to normal human levels thanks to Peter's recent issues, what about the more permanent stuff -- all those sticky hairs on his fingers, or those plainly visible holes in his wrists where webs may or may not shoot out? The doctor didn't note these anomalies at all? Apparently not.
This scene answers the longstanding dilemma of what a secret superhero would do if they desperately needed a doctor. It turns out they don't need to worry -- the doctors are even more oblivious than the bankers. How did young Clark Kent ever get by when Kansas requires all schoolkids to be vaccinated (such requirements are old and used to be stricter than today)? Guess the Kents did call in the occasional doctor, who'd just lie for them and shut up about any weirdness. Fast-forward to adult life working in Metropolis, and you'd think Clark's company-mandated checkup would expose his secret. Instead, I guess a doctor tries a blood test, shatters one syringe after another, and then shrugs, saying, "Whatever. Above my pay grade."
Some superheroes take special pains to keep their medical treatments on the down low (for example, Rosario Dawson plays the part of a personal nurse to superheroes in 14 separate shows on Netflix). But even this requires a sort of willful negligence on the part of hospitals, letting their supplies vanish and be used without explanation. When an injured Doctor Strange teleports from Nepal to a hospital, the nurse who sees him doesn't inform anyone of the wounded man who bypassed reception. And then it turns out the building keeps some operating rooms vacant and ready so maverick surgeons can singlehandedly operate on superheroes in secret without having to account for the used supplies or their own time. Meanwhile, there are office workers reading this who can't get a stack of Post-Its from the supply closet without having to fill out a report.
The Most Important Armies Are The Least Equipped
A lot of times, of course, the military is nowhere to be seen in superhero movies, because if they swept in and stole the hero's thunder, we'd have no story. But thanks to large-scale fights in recent films, we now see some armies in action and are supposed to root for them ... until you take in the sad state of affairs that is their equipment.
In Black Panther, the armies of Wakanda and its multiple tribes go to war for control over the nation. This is the most technologically advanced country in the world, and we're told it has weapons powerful enough to take over the entire globe. Yet the actual fighters are armed with nothing but spears -- high-tech spears, but spears nonetheless. While that's admittedly badass, it also means that even the weakest modern military could take on these guys. Most police forces could take them. A moderately well-armed farm could take them.
Then comes Infinity War, set after their country has opened up. Aliens arrive outside their domed border, and if Wakanda still hasn't invested in any kind of ranged weaponry, maybe neighboring Ethiopia, the country right outside that dome, could offer some assistance in the form of fighter jets. But no, the battle comes down once more to a whole lot of hand-to-hand. This fight features a non-super military of thousands, but we're apparently not allowed to root for them if they're armed with anything but spears.
We have a similar situation with the Amazons in Wonder Woman. I get why machine guns wouldn't suit the setting, but this is another case in which we're allowed to root for a hyper-competent army of deathbringers only if they wield tools invented 10,000 years ago. These same Amazons in Justice League fail at the one thing they've trained to do because bows aren't that powerful after all. Maybe Diana should have thought twice before killing the guy responsible for inspiring humanity's weapons development.
The Courts Aren't Defending Anyone's Rights
Thanks to Batman v. Superman and Civil War's grim retrospectives on past movies' destruction, it might seem like the citizens in these worlds are finally holding superheroes accountable. And yet they're generally held accountable for just one thing: collateral damage killing people. Death seems to be the only fear anyone has, even though there are plenty of other bad things powerful people can do. In our world, we have legal protections against those abuses. In superhero worlds, not so much.
When the Avengers first assemble and are trying to find Loki's crew and the Tesseract, Coulson says, "We're sweeping every wirelessly accessible camera on the planet. Cellphones, laptops. If it's connected to a satellite, it's eyes and ears for us." Banner suggests a narrower, more effective tracking strategy, and in the end, they find Loki easily because he wasn't exactly hiding. But the surveillance system was set up before Loki, and presumably continues afterward. No one questions its existence, not even the Avengers who got super angry about S.H.I.E.L.D. secretly making weapons.
That sort of limitless mass surveillance is bad, right? We know it is, if only because when the same system appeared in The Dark Knight, they practically broke the fourth wall to speak against breaking the Fourth Amendment. But unless the system's creator is considerate enough to blow up the computers himself, it'll continue, because the superhero world has no check on that sort of thing. Does the Constitution not apply to S.H.I.E.L.D.? If a citizen discovered what they were doing, what would their legal recourse even be? S.H.I.E.L.D. is in fact brought down a couple of films later, but it's only because its own employees testify about the agency trying to actively kill millions of people. Again, people dying is the only danger superhero law wants to protect against.
You might think potential legal oversight would be irrelevant to a lot of superheroes, since they explicitly operate outside the law. And yet law enforcement work with the heroes, whether or not they admit it. The very police forces that condemn Batman, Spider-Man, or Daredevil as vigilantes dutifully arrest the people these heroes string up. That's madness. In our world, the judge would toss out the case even before the defense got the chance to point out that no matter how guilty the defendant is, procedure and rules of evidence weren't followed.
Originally, this was part of the fantasy. Superheroes can heroically bypass due process because they're right about everything. But the more superhero movies we get, the more they're willing to show the heroes being wrong. The very first crime-fighting montage we have of the latest Spider-Man shows him mistakenly webbing a guy for breaking into his own car. And then we have all the recent movies in which heroes meet for the first time and then attack each other over what turns out to be a wacky misunderstanding.
In general, it's a weird fantasy to cling to. It's like looking at police in America and saying, "You know what would help guys like this do their jobs? If they weren't accountable for their actions or methods at all."
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