You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Strong

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


I’ve been thinking lately about the role weakness plays in getting me to like a character.

This came up because I was discussing Man of Steel with Mike Underwood. Now, there are any number of criticisms you can make of that film, starting with the wanton destruction of the ending and proceeding backward through the plot from there. But one point where Mike and I disagreed was on the wisdom of characterizing Clark as alienated from the world, and having to learn how to fit in and deal with humanity.

To some people, this is just an example of our current obsession with “gritty” and “dark” approaches to stories. Can’t have Superman being the big blue Boy Scout; you have to grim him up. But to me, it wasn’t about grimness or anything like that. It was about giving him a weakness.

I’ve never really been a fan of Superman as a character. He’s all right in a team, where he’s only one part of the story, but on his own? Eh. Down in the comments on that post, Mike and I started debating what types of stories one can tell with Superman, and he proposed that the way to make the character interesting is to approach it as “an Individual with Power,” and to tell a story about him “[struggling] with how and when to use his power because he is so much more powerful than others.” To which I said, that would be great — but it still doesn’t work for me, because there’s no weakness to counterbalance it. In the absence of Kryptonite or something even more ridiculously over-the-top than him, Superman is always operating from a position of comprehensive strength.

The only part of Superman Returns that has stayed in my memory at all is the part where he gets stabbed with Kryptonite and falls from the sky. The trailers for the new Wolverine movie got my attention because it looks like it’ll be about some or all of his regenerative ability being taken away, leaving him vulnerable. Iron Man is definitely an Individual With Power — money, technology, social connections — but that’s paired with a boatload of psychological issues, for which his strengths operate as compensation/defense mechanisms/etc.

It isn’t strength that makes me like a character, though the complete absence of it isn’t very appealing. What I attach to is weakness. Those places, be they physical, mental, or emotional, where the character can be hurt. I regretted the fact that The Bourne Legacy didn’t make more than a passing nod to the fact that Aaron Cross would degenerate without the drugs used to make him amazing. I wished Avatar (the one about the blue aliens, not the one about airbending) had dug further into the way Jake Sully was using his surrogate Na’vi body to escape his disability — and the shame he, as a soldier, might feel when a member of this towering warrior culture saw how small and damaged his real body was. (Whether the film handled that issue at all well, I’m not in a position to judge. But the issue clearly is there, and could have been explored more.)

Superman doesn’t have a weakness, other than Kryptonite. His physical strength is paired with a strong moral code and a sense of his place in the world. To make me interested in him, you have to break that somehow. Kryptonite works, but I prefer internal approaches to the green (or red or gold or blue) macguffin: take away some of his supports, make him question the things he believes in.

Because it’s only when a character is weak that I feel they can be truly strong. If being punched in the face doesn’t hurt you, then continuing to fight after being punched is meaningless. If you have no fear, then charging into danger isn’t an achievement. If you never doubt your companion’s loyalty, then trusting them in a moment of crisis is merely business as usual.

But play strength and weakness off one another well, and I am sold. Those are the characters I will remember for the rest of my life.