Tag Archives: hero’s journey

The Spider-Man Paradox: Power, Responsibility, And Guilt

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My YouTube channel, Jack’s World, is still very new and still has plenty of room to grow. I really enjoyed making my video on “Dark Phoenix.” That’s not surprising. I enjoy talking about superhero media in general. To that end, I’ve made another video, this time on Spider-Man. I originally intended to make it an article, but I think it works much better as a video. Enjoy!

If you have any suggestions for topics you’d like me to cover in a video, especially the superhero variety, please let me know.

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Filed under Jack's World, Marvel, psychology, Spider-Man, superhero comics, superhero movies, YouTube

Walter White Vs. Saul Goodman: A Tale Of Two Villains

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If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, then the road to villainy has many paths with similar landmarks. Well-developed villains can be every bit as compelling as their heroic counterparts, if not more so. Ever since Heath Ledger’s Joker stole the show and an Oscar in “The Dark Knight,” great villains aren’t just a complement to the heroes. They’re a journey unto themselves.

At the moment, Walter White from “Breaking Bad” is the ultimate embodiment of this journey. His path to villainy made for some of the greatest moments in modern television and Bryan Cranston has the Emmy trophies to prove it. Since then, it seems as though everyone is just struggle to keep up.

However, there’s one journey that comes very close and is remarkably similar. Fittingly enough, it spins right out of the world of “Breaking Bad.” I’m talking, of course, about “Better Call Saul,” the prequel/spin-off that tells the story of how an aspiring lawyer named James McGill became the morally bankrupt legal guru, Saul Goodman.

I’ve been watching this show closely for a while now. I was originally planning to wait until the conclusion of Season 4 to write about it, but after re-watching the Season 3 finale, I feel like there’s too much to work with. After seeing that episode, I feel like I saw a turning point in the ongoing transformation of James McGill to Saul Goodman. I also saw some important parallels with Walter White that are worth discussing.

At its core, “Breaking Bad” is a story about how a law-biding man goes from an underpaid chemistry teacher to a blood-thirsty drug kingpin. Creator Vince Gilligan nicely summed up Walt’s transformation as going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. That journey, and the story behind it, took an initially unassuming character and turned them into someone they never thought they could be.

The essence of “Better Call Saul” is very different. James McGill is not the same as Walter White. From the very first episode, we can see traces of the unscrupulous con man manifesting in a many ways. The show establishes in Season 1 that James McGill is not some clean-cut straight-arrow like Walt was. His soul was tainted before he ever applied to law school.

James “Slipping Jimmy” McGill is someone who always seems inclined to cut corners, break rules, and cheat to get ahead. That’s something his older brother, Charles “Chuck” McGill, constantly points out over the course of the first three seasons. Every time Jimmy had a chance to do the right thing, he compromised. Just doing the right thing wasn’t enough for him.

Walter White’s decision-making process was similar. In the early seasons of “Breaking Bad,” he showed a reluctance to cross certain lines and go too far. He often found himself pushed or tempted, sometimes by forces beyond his control and sometimes by the consequences of actions. At the end of the day, though, he still didn’t get off that path.

That’s a common thread for many villains in their journey. They find themselves on that path and they see opportunities to leave it, but they choose not to. They don’t seek redemption like a hero would. They just keep making excuses, willfully entering a brutal cycle of corruption and compromise.

Whereas Walt succumbed to that cycle, though, James McGill steadily embraces it. Moreover, he isn’t drawn into that path by tragedy or bad luck. He gravitates towards it. He’s even excited by it. James is at his most animated and charismatic when he’s pulling a con, putting on a show, or crafting a lie. It’s not a necessity like it was for Walt. It’s a thrill.

If James is tempted by anything, it’s the lure of walking the honorable path like his older brother. In fact, Chuck might have been the only positive influence that kept Jimmy from becoming something worse than a sleazy con-man. He and a host of other influence, especially Kim Wexler and Howard Hamlin, play the part of a reverse temptress, trying to keep him off that villainous path.

Early on, there’s a sense that James genuinely wants to be a decent, upstanding lawyer. There are situations where he does the right thing. Some of the causes he takes on, such as a case against an elder care facility that was stealing money from its residents, are objectively noble. In the end, though, doing the right thing isn’t enough for him. The end of Season 1 really cements that.

Walt goes through a similar process early on. Like the “refusal of the call” that heroes experience, Walt attempts to escape the villainous path. However, a combination of circumstances and choices put Walt back on the road towards becoming Heisenberg. By the end of Season 1, there’s a sense that there’s no going back.

Where Walt and James diverge, as villains, it’s how and why they make their choices. Walt becomes Heisenberg because he think he has to, first for his family and later for selfish reasons. James becomes Saul Goodman because he wants to. He tried to be the upstanding lawyer his brother and friends wanted. It just didn’t work for him. Being James McGill just wasn’t enough.

There’s plenty of conflict surrounding those choices. Part of why I love “Better Call Saul” is how it reveals the steady progression from James McGill to Saul Goodman. It doesn’t happen all at once. It doesn’t even happen in a steady, linear narrative. James fluctuates on his journey to becoming Saul. He even hesitates a few times. He still doesn’t avoid it in the end.

That ending, as revealed through the finale of “Breaking Bad” and the flash-forward sequences of “Better Call Saul,” shows one other key distinction between Walt and Jimmy. While both men complete their villainous journey, they both end up in very different places. Walt is dead or at least close to it, as some fan theories predict. However, Saul Goodman’s fate might actually be worse.

In the first minutes of the first episode of “Better Call Saul,” we see what came of James McGill/Saul Goodman after the events of “Breaking Bad.” Gone are the days where he shows up in flashy commercials and hatches elaborate cons on unsuspecting people. Instead, he lives an unexciting, mundane life in Omaha, Nebraska managing a Cinnabon.

Some might argue this is Saul’s personal Hell, trapped in a such a sad and unassuming life. I would say it’s more like his purgatory. In this world, he can’t embrace that villainous persona that gave him so many thrills. Even if he wanted to be that villainous character again, he can’t because it means losing what little he has left.

Just as he frequently did in the early seasons of “Better Call Saul,” James McGill takes the easy way out. Walt tried that too in the last few episodes of “Breaking Bad,” but that didn’t last. He eventually chose to confront the byproduct of his villainous choices. James ran and didn’t look back. The easiest path, in the journey of a villain, is often a coward’s path.

Whether or not James McGill escapes his purgatory or continues wallowing in obscurity remains to be seen. The fact he ends up in this state after undergoing this transformation into Saul Goodman reveals another critical component to the villain’s journey. While the hero ultimately triumphs, the villain eventually loses. It doesn’t always end with them going to jail, but they often endure a less-than-desirable fate.

Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” are both great shows that set a new standard for depicting the evolution of a character into a villain. I won’t claim that “Better Call Saul” is superior to its predecessor, if only because the story isn’t finished. It does, however, accomplish something every bit as remarkable as the story of Walter White.

The process of becoming a villain is a steady, inconsistent journey full of many complications and tough choices. Walter White and James McGill began that journey under different circumstances and ended up in different places. Ultimately, they both crossed lines that sealed their respective fates. It’s tragic in some ways, but it makes for some damn good television.

 

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One-Punch Man: A Hero Forged By Boredom

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When it comes to the crippling power of boredom, it’s easy to see how it can create deranged super-villains like Vandal Savage and hardened anti-heroes like Rick Sanchez from “Rick and Morty.” In the real world, boredom tends to inspire people in all the wrong ways. It can even inspire horrific crimes.

As such, it’s hard to imagine boredom being the driving force behind a superhero. That seems utterly antithetical to what a superhero is. As a noted comic book fan, which I’ve belabored many times on this blog, I know more than most people should about what makes a superhero. Boredom should not be on that list.

Heroes are supposed to be champions of all that is good and virtuous. They’re supposed to embody our highest ideals as a people. They raise the bar and set an example for others to follow. Their hearts, souls, and eyes are supposed to radiate hope, love, and everything else we associate with puppies and kittens.

However, it’s because I’m a die-hard comic book fan that I would know about a hero inspired by boredom if he or she even existed. Well, thanks to my love of comics and the extra free time that I enjoy between football season, I have discovered such a hero.

He’s not Superman. He’s not Captain America. He’s not even Wolverine, Deadpool, or Squirrel Girl. He’s not a product of Marvel, DC Comics, or any major comic book company from the past century. He’s in a category of his own, although not for reasons you might not expect. His real name is Saitama, but most know him as “One-Punch Man.”

Unlike most heroes, One-Punch Man is exactly what he sounds like. His story isn’t as convoluted as Wolverine’s or as generic as Superman’s. His powers are nothing fancy. As his name indicates, he has the power to defeat any foe with a single punch. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a giant, mountain-sized titan or some monster from outer space. No matter how big or powerful they are, Saitama beats them with just one punch.

If that sounds bland to you, then congratulations. You’re seeing exactly what the writer, who goes by the pseudonym, One, intended for you to see. Unlike other attempts to create iconic superheroes, most of which fail spectacularly, “One-Punch Man” didn’t set out to create an interesting, compelling hero. It was crafted as a parody, of sorts, to modern superheroes.

In the same tradition of Weird Al Yankovic, “One-Punch Man” took an established narrative and turned it into a joke, of sorts. It went out of its way to do all the things that traditional superhero comics avoid. It actually tried to create a hero who was bland, overpowered, and un-iconic. Whether by design or by accident, it worked.

It was created in 2009, but by 2012 the Japanese comic sold over 7.9 million issues in Japan and was later exported to the United States, where it was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2015. For those of you who don’t know, Eisner Awards are the comic book equivalent of the Oscars. For any comic, let alone one that started off as a joke, to be nominated is a pretty big deal.

Parody or not, “One-Punch Man” struck a chord. It might be due to the saturation of superhero movies or the ongoing frustration of comic book fans about how their favorite characters are treated, but a hero who basically spits all over the standard superhero narrative has a unique appeal. Given the success of Weird Al, maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised.

In utterly lampooning modern superhero stories, “One-Punch Man” makes boredom the primary catalyst. In a sense, it channels the power of boredom to create a character who breaks every possible rule for making a compelling superhero and it does it with the blankest of stares.

His backstory is not that compelling. He’s not some alien from a dead planet. He’s not an exiled god or a genetic freak. He’s not even gifted in any way. In fact, the first episode of the anime cartoon shows him as just some generic unemployed office worker who randomly encounters a monster. He defeats the monster, albeit not with one punch, and on the spot he decides to be a superhero.

If you’re hoping for a more compelling story than that, then save yourself the trouble and throw that hope away along with the leftovers and dog shit. That’s as compelling as Saitama’s origin story gets. The way he becomes so powerful is even less compelling than that, if you can believe that.

Saitama didn’t get strong through a genetic mutation, a crazy lab experiment, advanced technology, or even a radioactive bug. Saitama gained his immense power over the course of three short years and he did it through a very simple, very bland workout routine. In his own words, this is how he became the most powerful hero in the world.

100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats, and a 10-kilometer run! And I do it every single day!

Again, it’s every bit as bland as it sounds. The mere fact that everything in Saitama’s workout is nothing more than a set of basic exercises that almost anyone can do is so inane and generic. It’s so generic that people in the real world are even trying this regiment. Given the extent and utter unfeasibility of Batman’s training, it’s basically a joke.

That’s entirely the point, though. Saitama isn’t supposed to be the kind of underdog hero who defies all odds, pushes his limits, and overcome immense obstacles. He is the embodiment of a classic “Deus Ex Machina,” the proverbial god machine that so many stories utilize to resolve a conflict.

In nearly every writing class you take, and I’ve taken more than a few, you’re taught to avoid using the deus ex machina trope as much as possible. It’s not easy, even for erotica romance writers. I like to think I’ve avoided it for the most part in my novels, but I don’t deny the challenge is there. Even comic books struggle with this. Just look up something called the Cosmic Cube for proof of that.

However, whereas most writers avoid a deus ex machine, “One-Punch Man” doubles down on it. It even embraces it to some extent. It doesn’t craft classic superhero stories about how Saitama faces overwhelming odds, powerful enemies, and insane obstacles. He’s so strong that nothing really threatens him anymore. Every threat or enemy he faces is easily defeated with a single punch.

Instead, the narrative of “One-Punch Man” explores Saitama’s struggle with the sheer boredom of being such a powerful hero. He rarely raises his voice. He rarely gets excited. He’s never afraid, threatened, or agitated in any way. He often yawns in the middle of epic battles, much to the annoyance of his enemies and even his fellow heroes.

There’s no getting around it. Saitama is bored out of his mind. Beyond just being powerful, his reasons for being a hero aren’t that deep. He doesn’t have a deep sense of duty like Superman. He didn’t suffer a terrible tragedy like Spider-Man or Batman either. He’s just a hero for the fun of it. That’s the only reason he ever gives. Again, that annoys the hell out of his enemies, but that’s the point.

If you were to put Saitama on the traditional hero’s journey, it would be the shortest journey ever. Everything about Saitama’s backstory, powers, and motivations are bland. They’re intended to be bland because he’s supposed to be a parody of modern hero tropes, a walking joke of how every epic superhero struggle can be reduced to one proverbial punch.

While “One-Punch Man” does an admirable job mocking superhero traditions, sometimes too well, it also reflects the sheer impact of boredom. When someone becomes so powerful and so competent at resolving any conflict, it tends to get boring. Saitama is the perfect embodiment of this.

He might also be a warning sign, of sorts. I’ve talked a lot about the potential for human enhancement in the future, from smart blood to brain implants. While these advancements will do a lot to improve our lives and our bodies, it might also put us in the same position as Saitama.

What happens when it becomes overly easy to master a skill, overcome an obstacle, or achieve a goal? When you’ve got a body that can download knowledge, shape-shift, and make love to an army of sex robots, what else is there? How can you not get bored by all that?

Saitama lives in a world where nothing is a threat to him and nothing challenges him in any way. As such, he’s bored out of his mind. He’s only a hero because he still gets some fun out of it. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. For someone as powerful as him, he’ll take it in any way he can. It might not be the most noble reason for being a hero, but it is understandable.

Parody or not, “One-Punch Man” is a unique exploration of a superhero narrative. It purposefully breaks and mocks all the rules of a heroic narrative, but does so in a way that’s entertaining and quirky. You could argue that Saitama is the only hero forged and driven by boredom.

However, if superheroes are supposed to represent our ideals and hopes, then what kind of message does “One-Punch Man” tell us? If becoming so powerful and so competent leads to boredom, then what does that mean for our own efforts? In a sense, our limits keep us from doing so much, but they also keep us from getting bored. In the end, it’s hard to say whether that’s much of an ideal.

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Rick Sanchez: An Anti-Hero Forged By Boredom?

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Greetings, and wubalubadubdub! If you have no idea what I just said and worry that I’ve suffered some kind of traumatic head injury, then calm down. It’s nothing like that. If you happen to know what that word means, then congratulations. Your life is inherently richer because you’ve watched a show called “Rick and Morty.”

For those of you who think “South Park” is too polite, “Rick and Morty” is right up your alley. It’s crude, lewd, callous, crass, vulgar, obscene, and pretty much every other word you would use to upset a typical PTA meeting. It’s also one of the most hilarious, insightful, smart, and wildly entertaining shows on TV right now. Unless you find shows like “Family Guy” too harsh, a show like “Rick and Morty” will appeal to you.

Why do I bring this show up? I usually don’t do post just to lavishly praise a particular TV show or movie without making a larger point. While I may make exceptions to movies like “Wonder Woman,” I usually try to tie it into a larger discussion. This time is no different. At some point, I was going to use “Rick and Morty” in a discussion. It was only ever a matter of time and topic.

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In this case, the topic is both relevant and revealing. It once again ties into my ongoing exploration of boredom, an inescapable facet of modern life and a potential plague of the future. I cited DC Comics character Vandal Savage as a super-villain who is defined by boredom. He’s even said outright that boredom is what motivates him.

As compelling as Savage’s case might be, Rick Sanchez would probably still roll his eyes and call it stupid. He would also probably find a way to kill Savage, spit on his corpse, and do it all while exceedingly drunk. That’s the kind of man he is. He’s not a hero by even the greatest stretch. He’s also not a villain either, although he has been known to carry himself like a sociopath at times. He is, at his core, an anti-hero.

I’ve talked about anti-heroes before and how they’re neither heroes nor villains. They exist on a different spectrum of sorts, from tragic characters like the Incredible Hulk to truly brutal souls like the Punisher. In respect to this spectrum, Rick Sanchez exists on a nebulous, yet extreme end.

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He rarely goes out of his way to save the world or do good. He also regularly traumatizes his friends, family, and his cohort, Morty Smith. His dimension-hopping, universe-spanning exploits often put everyone around him in danger. He’ll also show little reservation about participating in various acts of debauchery, violence, and general douche-baggery.

There’s no such thing as a typical episode of “Rick and Morty” in the sense that it follows a formula. In a sense, it defines itself by essentially taking the formula of traditional adult animation and shitting all over it.

As a general rule, though, an episode of “Rick and Morty” usually revolves around Rick getting his side-kick/grandson, Morty, caught up in something crazy. Morty, being young and innocent, tries to help him out and do the right thing. More often than not, though, Morty’s idealism gets crushed and/or backfires horribly. Rick, being a genius inventor, usually finds a way to fix everything and he does it while rarely being sober.

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Why he does what he does, getting Morty caught up in his antics in the first place, is what makes him relevant to the discussion about boredom. Throughout the first two seasons of the show, there are various teases about what truly motivates Rick Sanchez. At times, it seems like he really loves his family. At other times, though, he gives the impression that they’re just a means to an end.

At every turn of his antics, regardless of context or motivation, Rick and the plot of nearly every episode tends to trivialize everything. Think of any cherished tradition, be it family, religion, culture, love, or friendship. To Rick Sanchez, it’s all pointless crap. It’s only important because people make stupid excuses to justify it. These are some of his soul-crushing quotes, which he often says in the presence of loved ones, no less.

“What people call love is just a chemical reaction that compels people to breed.”

“Listen, I’m not the nicest guy in the universe, because I’m the smartest, and being nice is something stupid people do to hedge their bets.”

“Don’t break an arm jerking yourself off.”

This is where the boredom aspect comes in. In addition to being a high-functioning drunk who has a very crass view of the world, he’s extremely smart. He’s a genius who is at or above the likes of Vandal Savage.

He creates portals to other dimensions with the same ease of changing the channel on a TV. He creates inter-stellar spaceships in a garage, complete with a super-intelligent AI that will obey orders in disturbingly literal ways. He’s so smart that he actually outsmarted an entire army of alternate-reality versions of himself. It’s even more messed up than it sounds.

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Keep in mind, he does all of this while often being intoxicated. He almost always has a metal flask of hard liquor in his pocket. He’ll gladly gorge on harder drugs, even if it inspires his own dance. The fact he can do so much of this while being such a drunk is a testament to the sheer breadth of his genius.

Like Vandal Savage, though, genius does come at a cost. Having such a high intelligence means you tend to get bored easily and are constantly in need of new challenges. Rick Sanchez is so smart that there’s pretty much nothing he can’t do.

With his gadgets, he could become the world’s richest man. With his understanding of reality, he could win every Nobel Prize and get every major university to name a building after him. He could do all of this without breaking a sweat, but therein lies the problem.

Rick could do all these things, but it wouldn’t be a challenge. It would be too easy and provide a fleeting distraction at best. It would also get bureaucratic and tedious too, which only bores Rick even more. It’s why he can outsmart the devil himself, get bored, and burn down a building all in the same episode. I swear there’s no part of that last sentence that’s made up.

In trivializing anything and everything that other people hold dear, Rick Sanchez often brings up boredom. He even looks bored, as well as drunk, when talking about it. Whenever Morty asks him about some terrible, traumatic, morally reprehensible issue, be it doing business with a hitman or the purge, his response is always dispassionate and crass.

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Like Vandal Savage, Rick is often frustrated by how easy things come. He’s so smart, even while drunk, that nobody can really challenge him. No matter what he does, his gadgets and his utter lack of regard for ethical considerations ensure he wins easily. He rarely experiences the thrill of overcoming a challenge, which is part of why he’s so dispassionate and crass.

Unlike Vandal Savage, though, Rick’s exploits also have him traveling across the universe and into different dimensions. This does more than highlight just how smart and resourceful Rick is. It effectively affirms just how trivial his actions and existence is in the grand scheme of things.

In one particular episode, his exploits with Morty lead to the complete and utter destruction of the world. Rick’s solution is as crass as it is anti-heroic. He just takes Morty to another universe where they both died and take their place. He even digs his own grave. He does all of this and then goes back to drinking beer and watching TV while Morty is horrifically traumatized.

In a sense, this understanding that nothing he does matters makes the boredom even worse. It means that even if Rick finds something meaningful to do, it really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things because there are literally infinite universes where the same thing was done in any number of ways. Whether he succeeds or fails doesn’t matter. Nothing he does matters.

Despite all this, Rick doesn’t become a full-fledged villain like Vandal Savage. He probably could conquer the world if he wanted. He already defeated an intergalactic empire of insect humanoids with relative ease. Again, not a word of that last sentence is made up. Unlike Savage, though, he doesn’t do that. He’d get bored with that too and understand that it doesn’t matter in the long run.

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That doesn’t stop him from protecting Morty and the rest of his family. When they’re in trouble, he usually goes out of his way to help them. At times, he seems to do it out of sheer boredom, but he still does it. It’s not very heroic, but it’s not at all villainous.

It would be a stretch to say that Rick Sanchez is entirely driven by crippling boredom. The show is somewhat erratic in the things that drive rick. The first episode of the third season indicated that Rick is almost entirely driven by his love of a discontinued promotional dipping sauce from the late 90s. I swear I’m not making any of that up. I know I keep saying that, but it really is worth saying.

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On paper, Rick Sanchez and Vandal Savage don’t have much in common. However, one trait they do share is that they are distinctly human. They have human weaknesses and human drives. They are very much at the mercy of human limits, both mentally and physically. That’s why boredom effects them so profoundly.

That’s also why they are both cautionary tales about the power of boredom. Rick Sanchez, through both boredom and extreme nihilism, is plagued and frustrated by boredom. It keeps him from using his genius to achieve a meaningful good. It also keeps him drunk, miserable, and constantly in trouble with killer insect people.

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While Rick Sanchez is by no means a role model, he still manages to do a lot with his brilliance and he can do it while drunk. He may be a callous, dispassionate anti-hero, but he gets the job done and he does it in a way that’s wonderfully entertaining. For that, he deserves respect, although he’d probably say respect is an idiot thing.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Jack Fisher's Insights