I’m just going to toss them all together today. It’s a superhero gumbo! Or a salad, if you prefer leafy things.

There’s a reason why I’m doing that. Well, two reasons. The one that has nothing to do with laziness is that Arrow, The Flash, and Agents of SHIELD all had a few things in common this week. They all dealt with stakes that have less to do with saving the world, and everything to do with their own humanity.

It’s necessary to up the stakes for a serial story, since if your characters always deal with the same problems then everything is boring. (Or it’s an American soap opera. Or a political election cycle. Or both. Hey, I live just outside DC; you can’t tell me it’s not like a soap based on The Godfather or something.) On the other hand, if you’re constantly upping the external challenges, then your character quickly becomes so powerful that threats start becoming rather ridiculous. That’s even more important if you’re like Superman and you wind up leveling Manhattan in your origin story.

I don't care if you call it "Metropolis." Who thought that an audience would find a climax involving massive buildings collapsing in New York City to be endearing?

I don’t care if you call it “Metropolis.” Who thought that an audience would find a climax involving massive buildings collapsing in New York City to be endearing? I mean, other than Zach Snyder. Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? 

The best way to solve that issue is through exploring human bonds between characters (even if some of them might not be human). As I said yesterday in my post on superhero prose, it’s important to never lose sight of human wants, needs, desires, things that an audience can understand. A massive battle is fun (well, in fiction), but it will never carry the same weight as the betrayal of a loved one. Done right, and the audience can feel a punch in the gut too.

However, from here on out, hic sunt mortiferis. That’s Latin for “If you haven’t seen this week’s superhero shows, you might want to check back later.”

Spoiler Warning


Arrow

This week’s episode, “Al Sah-Him,” feels rushed. There was a lot of information being handed to us, and a lot of feelings meant to be felt. It worked; it could have been a bit tighter, but it worked.

This week really needed some directors from the remake of Battlestar Galactica. There were several scenes that could have benefited from some of those moments where characters don’t say anything, yet speak volumes. When Merlin enters Thea’s apartment and notes that it couldn’t have been easy for her to ask for his help, we’re simply told that. We’re not shown it. We needed some close-ups, to see the surprise in Merlin’s eyes and the determination in Thea’s. The same thing on the rooftop where Sara died — fear for Diggle and Laurel, and a look into Oliver’s dead eyes.

Yet it’s clear they had to rush to complete it, and it’s hard to see where they could have cut. Just about everything shown was needed, right down to the moment in the diner between Laurel and Nyssa, where the latter has a moment of understanding what she’s been missing all her life. That was handled just about perfectly — not a big moment, but a quiet realization on Nyssa’s part that this has been the happiest time of her life.

In fact, this scene was the linchpin of the entire episode, as without it we couldn’t appreciate the rest. We see Nyssa, who had once assumed she would be Heir to the Demon, enjoying the life that Oliver had been forced to give up: a normal life. A life we see has been taken from him in more ways than one.

That ups the stakes far more than any bioweapon threat. When characters that you have grown to love, or even hate, have to go through something excruciating . . . that’s good storytelling.


The Flash

On The Flash (seriously, why is it “The” Flash when Arrow lacks a definite article?), suddenly just about every secret is out in the open. Eobard Thawne is exposed, Iris figures out Barry is the Flash, Barry admits he can time-travel by doing a Delorean run (well, faster than 88 MPH, but still), Eddie Thawne almost got through his proposal to Iris . . . in fact, other than Iris needing to be filled in on a few things, I think every main character is up to speed on everything else except for two questions: why Wells had to create the Flash, and what the effect of changing the timeline means.

Those two questions haven’t been truly affecting character interaction to date, though; they’ve been meta-plot questions mainly for the audience. Everything else is effectively revealed to every character that matters for the show. And yet the tension remains, because hitting a beloved character in the heartstrings is more powerful than any who-knows-what-secret tension.

“The Trap” did a great job of setting up the emotional side of things: the fear in their eyes as they see Dr. Wells/Thawne (eh, let’s keep calling him wells, so we don’t mix him up with Eddie) drop the pretense, the earlier setup where they understood all the good that Wells had done for them, the way that Wells admits to feeling proud of his hated enemy, having watched him grow up, even though he still plans to kill him one day.

Oh, and the revelation that Iris thought she’d never have gone out with Eddie if Barry hadn’t been in a coma, because Barry keeps her from doing stupid things. That was a good moment, even though I have no clue what Barry sees in her. (Now, Linda Park . . . that I could see. Curses upon plot necessity! Though, you know, they did change things with Felicity and Oliver over on Arrow, so maybe there’s hope. But they put a lot of investment in this horrible unrequited puppy-dog love plot, and I don’t see them giving that up.)

We’ve got three episodes left, and this story just keeps getting better. The main interest isn’t the character’s speed; like with Arrow, it’s the ensemble cast interacting with each other. Now the tension is up to 11, and I’m looking forward to more.


Agents of SHIELD

I’ll just come right out and say it: this episode was exactly what I wanted for the show from the moment it was first announced.

I also want to take a moment to single out Cloe Bennet. Part of it is because I spent so long hating both her character and her performance. Part of it is just that any time I see an actor doing his or her own fight scenes rather than use a stunt double, I am impressed. Seeing a single actor go from being walking scenery last year to making me believe she’s her character, and topping it with a single-take round-the-room, 360-camera-scan fight sequence where Skye does a pretty good impression of being a younger Agent May? That’s a “pause, rewind, watch again” moment.

Maybe it’s just that I miss my days in martial arts, before I was handicapped; sparring was the highlight for me, and there are days where I just want to stand up and match myself against a friend and leave each other bruised before breaking for beer (or some other drink). I don’t know. I just get miffed when I see actors clearly not doing their own fight sequences. Watching Bennet do a 35-second fight sequence in one take is impressive. It might not sound like like much, but that’s the sort of thing American studios stay away from and is normally found only in East Asian martial arts films. It requires everyone to get the timing exactly right, including the camera guy (even with a second crew member steering him or her around obstacles, which is standard procedure). Excellent stuff.

On to the characters, though. Once again, we have a demonstration of upping the stakes by using character interaction. Jemma, who previously has been backsliding into “Hermione Granger if she joined SHIELD instead of Hogwarts” territory, wound up showing a level of steel and determination that rather changed my view of her character. It will change even more if Bakshi’s death doesn’t weigh on her in future episodes. The Inhumans are showing a certain cold-blooded calculus, and Raina’s influence is something to watch — a poisoned apple in paradise, far beyond any disruption that Cal might bring.

We also saw Ward give a frank assessment of himself, which I didn’t expect in the same episode where he was still trying to push all the blame for his actions off on others. He might not think it’s his fault, but he knows he’s not a good person, and he has to leave Kara (Agent 33) with SHIELD to help her recover. Left unspoken was that he was doing it even though it risks Kara never wanting anything to do with him if/when she recovers what she lost.

Once again, he only shows character growth after the out-of-the-blue revelation of being Hydra.

There was also another moment in the episode that was worth a closer look: Ward’s observation that, at least for one mission, the original team was back together. (Though the writers missed a perfect “We got the band back together” line. Just a couple switched words and that was what Ward actually said.) And yet none of it seemed at all forced, as each member of the team was there for a plot- or character-specific reason.

The biggest human punch moment, though, was to a character that wasn’t human at all. In fact, one could argue it wasn’t a character. The bus is gone. SHIELD-616, blown out of the sky. I found myself reacting in horror — a punch to the heart, expertly done, and completely unexpected. Not every emotional plot twist needs to be targeted at a specific character, as long as the audience feels it.

The Age of Ultron tie-in was rather forced, though. Also, rather annoying, since Coulson is supposed to still be dead for the films. My objections to this still stand, even if not all of my predictions came true. It seems Theta Protocol might actually be part of Ultron.

The idea of Marvel Studios insisting that the movies can’t reference Agents of SHIELD while also insisting on a TV show tie-in feels ridiculous. Do they really think that anyone who saw the original Avengers somehow doesn’t know that Coulson’s alive on TV? It was the primary thrust of the show’s initial advertising, for crying out loud! And yet not everyone who watches Agents of SHIELD can go watch Avengers before the next episode.

I, for one, will do just that, as will many others. Not tonight, though. Pssh. No, I’m planning on going in the morning, due to a bunch of different circumstances, some of them job-related. We’ll see if I can squeeze in a review tomorrow afternoon. If not, then expect one on Saturday.