When we tell a story we are reaching out our hand to the reader and asking them a question.
Will you come on an adventure with me?
It’s the grand conceit of writing, we want you to switch off certain parts of your brain for a while and come for a ride with us while we try and entertain you.
This is especially true in film, with the written word, you are conjuring images and worlds within the reader’s mind, each 1000 words becoming a picture, but in film the image is right there in front of you. There is no ambiguity about what the protagonist looks like, sounds like, or what they wear, it’s all painted in high definition (nowadays) technicolor.
The threshold for the suspension of disbelief then is far higher in movies than it is books or even in comics.
It irks me then when I constantly see Superheroes and Supervillains in these movies that have world changing inventions and they are never exploited or used in a normal, real world way. It’s mostly a problem with Supervillains, some of them create inventions that would make them more widely renowned than Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined and yet they insist on tossing the invention aside to be able to… engage Dr Evil voice, take over the world!
The problem is my brain screams at me that I’m seeing an amazing thing that is not being used how it would be in the real world and my suspension of disbelief is shattered. I’m not the only one who has noticed this type of issue and it’s not necessarily a huge problem but it is a story telling problem that annoys me.
So let’s get to some examples.
Tony Stark and everything he does
I find Tony Stark to be a real problem, an actual genius creating technology that would improve humanity no end and all he uses it for (at least in the films) is to fight the bad guys. Imagine his suit technology helping the disabled, imagine Jarvis helping scientists, imagine his power technology helping the entire world, goodbye global warming, Tony Stark just solved that problem now that we have infinite energy and flying cars. Every time an Iron Man suit is on screen my brain complains that the technology is not being used in ways that it should. Don’t believe me? Why are there still traffic jams in the Avengers films? Why are people still travelling and living as we do now?
Aldrich Killian’s brain projector in Iron Man 3
The first time I really noticed this problem was in Iron Man 3. In that film scrawny, nerdy underdog Aldrich Killian is shunned by his idol Tony Stark when trying to present some MacGuffin to him. Upset by the rebuff, Aldrich then creates a projection device that can display a real time map of a subject’s brain. This is an insanely wonderful medical imaging device that, if real, would revolutionize medicine and engineering and would propel the human race forward enormously. And yet Killian treats his technological marvel as a mere toy and instead is so hell bent on destroying Stark that he decides that turning people into human torches is the better way to get revenge. Instead of, you know, becoming the most famous man on earth and having so much money you would put Apple to shame.
Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet
I wasn’t over keen on Infinity War (part 1), mostly because no one ever decided to take Thanos to task over his ridiculous plan to wipe out half of the universe’s population as a way to manage resources. There was no scene where someone, Dr Strange or Tony Stark perhaps, tried to reason him out of his idiocy.
No, instead of helping the Universe and creating better and more efficient ways of managing and handling resources Thanos decides that the best way to handle things is to murder trillions of living, thinking beings. The Infinity Gauntlet can literally change reality, you can create more stuff, you can change the laws of physics, you can give people the intelligence to produce more efficient stuff, you can give people the intelligence to use less stuff, the possibilities are endless. But Thanos goes for the take over the world! approach instead of becoming the Universe’s most popular being and actually solving the problem he so passionately believes only he can fix.
Batman and his money
I can’t help but think that Bruce Wayne would have a much easier life if he invested his tech budget into actually helping people instead of breaking their bones. You see virtually nobody wants to be a criminal, nearly no one wants to commit crimes. The tiny fraction of people who do commit crimes and hurt others is reassuring small, if it wasn’t then there wouldn’t be over 7 billion of us on planet earth. So if Bruce Wayne could invest his money in education and poverty programs I’m sure the Supervillains would have a lot harder time recruiting.
The Riddler and his intelligence
Speaking of Batman villains, I find the Riddler to be a particular problem. This is especially true in the video games. He hates Batman and wants to constantly prove he’s smarter, but he is smarter so why doesn’t he just invest some time creating something that would help the world thereby proving he is smarter and better than Batman. And no, the fact that he is supposed to be “insane” isn’t an excuse, he’s smart so he could think of a way to prove he’s smarter.
Wakanda, all that technology and they helped no one but themselves
Wakanda is a particular annoying example to me. I grew up in a very poor part of England, people had very little money and their prospects were not good. But in comparison to most of the rest of the world, let’s say some areas of Africa for example, we lived like royalty so it upsets me when the most technologically advanced nation the world has ever seen has not helped its neighbours and hoards its technology for its own selfish ends.
Even with the most benign dictatorship just letting a tiny fraction of Wakandan technology out into the rest of the world would have helped so many people and propelled the human race forward, imagine Wakanda with a space program! Many people in Africa live in real, abject poverty and the effects of slavery and white domination has had long term social and political effects that are still being felt today, after all South Africa only freed itself from white tyranny in the 1990s. So where the hell was Wakanda? Why did they allow this sort of tyranny, setting aside skin colour, to exist and thrive? Why did Wakanda allow slavery to occur? Why do they allow dictators to run amok and genocides to occur? This is akin to inventing the polio vaccine and then only allowing it to be used in your own country.
So what’s my point?
I could go on with examples but I think these illustrate my point. Superhero movies have flooded their stories with inventions and characters that could revolutionize the human race in ways we can’t even dream of and yet none of that happens. It’s a cognitive disconnect that mars the experience for me. But it is a lesson, when writing a story to always ensure that your hero or villain couldn’t be using their time better, always ask yourself “If I had this MacGuffin what amazing things could I do with it?”