Monday, October 08, 2007

We Are All Villains

I've been slowly catching up on Smallville (meaning I've seen around twenty episodes total from the first six seasons). Laura's a huge Smallville fan, but I've always had a problem with the show's central conflict: the relationship between Clark Kent and Lana Lang. It's a six-season-long trauma created by the characters' inability to actually have a sincere conversation with each other, and it gets old in a hurry. But the show is otherwise interesting, and I like what the series does with some familiar characters from the DC universe.

I've also been noticing one of the unspoken metaphorical premises of the show. It usually follows the familiar monster-of-the-week format, with the twist that most of the bad guys are just normal people who've been "infected" with kryptonite and acquire some sort of supernatural ability. These normal folk then invariably turn into murderers and thieves and proceed to wreak havoc on the innocents around them. I don't know if the producers of the show do this consciously, or if it's just a convenient plot device. But they seem to base their theory of bad guys around the maxim that Power Corrupts: any normal person, given a bit of power, will use it for personal gain. Further, any ordinary person who acquires a bit of power tends to lose touch with basic morality. People would be expected to feel no guilt about resorting to thievery and murder, when removed from the threat of being caught and punished.

My first instinct is to defend humanity-at-large from this insult, but the more I think about it, I suspect people are generally somewhat corruptible. We've got a running cultural joke that says that the first thing a guy would do if he could turn invisible would be to visit the ladies locker room at the local gym, and I suspect there's at least a little truth to this. But I'd like to think that our hypothetical invisible guy would confine himself to light voyeurism and wouldn't resort to killing and raping on a whim.

I think the Smallville folks have another reason for showcasing the fallibility of mankind. It's another of the central theses of the show that one guy -- Clark -- is truly incorruptible; he's got the power to do pretty much whatever he wants, but he chooses to help people and lead a relatively selfless life. And the corruptibility of everyone around him makes a dramatic counterpoint to the main character's central nature.

I also have to observe that a fair number of the supernatural powers acquired by the Meteor Freaks in Smallville are of no practical use other than the Sowing of Doom and Chaos. Sure, some people end up with teleportation, or with telekinesis, or the ability to walk through walls, or the ability to heal people, or the power of persuasion. These powers can go either way. But if your newfound ability is that every living thing you touch instantly turns to ash, you're pretty much relegated to the status of Evil Villain, Third Class (with an upgrade to Evil Villain, Second Class if you fire off one-liners every time you ash someone, or a shift to Tragic Buffoon if you keep doing it accidentally).

On a somewhat related note, I saw a guy in season one with a power I'd like to have. He could separate himself into two identical people, and the two could later merge back into one person. Imagine: I'd get up in the morning, and the two of me would go our separate ways. One of us would work, the other would spend the day reading. I'd get a lot of writing done, and I could also pick up a second job and get some bills paid off. The only real Evil Villain use of this ability would be the power of Instant Alibi....

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