Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thinking Out Loud: The View from the Trenches

Something that keeps popping into my mind from time to time is the idea of what it must be like to be "on the ground" during a superhero fight and how that can be replicated on the tabletop, be it with miniatures or in a storytelling game. Some recent superhero films have tried to capture this, noticeably Dawn of Justice, The Avengers and Chronicle, with civilian death-tolls reaching Emmerich levels in a genre previously reserved for children's entertainment. A line from Ultimates 2 keeps popping into my head; "Super-people break normal people's bones", Hank Pym retorts to Loki as the collateral damage ramps up. Just take a look at Man of Steel, the bodies pile up quickly in the Supes/Zod fight, but it's not until Dawn of Justice that the weight of rubble and death is laid out in the unvarnished light of day. If we're to elevate superheroes out of the sub-genre ghetto and tell truly adult stories with these characters, shouldn't the human cost of battling evil be truly examined? And I don't mean a The Boys style look at human foibles played to superhuman levels, I mean an honest look at what a world populated with heroes and villains looks like for the ordinary people just trying to get by without having a car thrown at them. 

The (almost blindingly) obvious suggestion that springs to mind is Marvels, the Marvel limited series showing the Gold and Silver ages of their comics through the eye of Phil Sheldon, freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle and war correspondent. The iconic image of Giant Man stepping over a New York boulevard that Phil shoots really captures the scale and power of the heroes that stalk Manhattan. Also worth noting is that Phil loses an eye early on in the piece as a result of the major Human Torch/Namor fight that forms the climax of Issue #1, yet Phil is not made bitter or resentful by his experience, he, in fact is resolved to be the greatest proponent that the "Marvels" have in the press. Although having a civilian in the MU actually like heroes is somewhat unique, I get the feeling that it still doesn't capture the whole story. What is it like to be meters away from a man just hanging in the air, or a woman crushing a car with her mind, or an alien fading from view? I'm not certain that my Aquaman Underoos would survive intact, know what I mean? Is there anything out there that can covey those feelings of powerlessness and fear yet still be engaging as a narrative beyond personal horror? 

If you get the chance, check out the opening hour of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; it features an amnesiac Big Boss fleeing a hospital as a team of mercenaries and two superhumans chase him. For the first time, I experienced the kind of fear that I always imagined shot through the poor bastards that just got splattered with brains as the Green Goblin lobs pumpkin bombs into the crowd to distract Spider-man. Scrabbling around, unarmed and outmatched as a flaming monster in the shape of a man shrugs off bullets and punches through brick walls, it doesn't matter how strong, fit or deadly the Big Boss is, he is but an ant next to someone with that much power. Is that what Snyder was trying to capture in his grim-yet-bland DCU films? Now I want to go back to Marvels and other sources and see what else I can find that builds on this idea. How scared would the average person be in the presence of Green Lantern, let alone Thor, Invincible or Stardust the Superwizard? Most importantly, how can I capture this on the tabletop? Plenty more consideration of this to come. 

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