Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Whedon's Villains

Though I can't find the exact post to link to it, I think I remember Viscount Eric posting on his own blog (which you should be reading, because it's awesome) that he has largely absented himself from discussions on rpg.net. I may follow his lead. It's generally a good place to discuss geek culture, but the adoration of Whedon is even more in evidence in that corner of the Internet than it is elsewhere. Someone will praise Whedon, someone else will build on that until the whole thread is just a self-reinforcing circle jerk that bears no resemblance to either the original statement or reality.  I'll sometimes call out egregious claims, but as I have little desire to be shouted down by dozens of butthurt Whedonistas, I usually just keep my trap shut.

I was playing Super Hero Squad with my daughter the other day. There are four zones and each one has a character you can chase for a small reward. That character in Asgard is Loki. He's cleverly disguised himself...as a statue of himself. My five-year-old pointed out that, all things considered, that was kind of a foolhardy disguise.

But I know that if Whedon put something like that in the Avengers movie, there would be threads upon threads about how Joss (It's always "Joss" over there) is subverting tropes and cleverly undermining our expectations. I sincerely believe there is nothing that Joss Whedon can do that they will not defend.

So, while I think he is capable of producing good material, he has also spawned legions of apologists who retaliate to even the most tepid criticism with toxic vitriol, so, if I'm a little harsh when talking about Whedon, know that my reactions were not forged in a vacuum.

I'm replying to CFC's comment here. I decided to spin it out into its own post. His lines are those in bold.

Josh, I still think you're being blatantly unfair. You compare "vampires" -- the nameless mooks of Buffy -- to Spiderman's name villains like Rhino and Venom. I mentioned "armed criminals" in my last comment for a reason -- the random street crime we periodically see Spiderman (or any other superhero) stopping is equivalent to Buffy's vampire slaying scenes.

I think Spider-man's name villains are more comparable to the villains of the week, like the praying mantis teacher or Darla or Luke.

I see the point you were trying to make, but I don't agree with it. I probably low-balled the number. It's a rare episode indeed that she doesn't get a few dustings in before the opening credits. (I thought the BTVS RPG had a great mechanic for this, by the way. Vamps take, I think, five times normal damage if staked through the heart, but only if that damage would be enough to kill them. If it won't bring them below 0 hit points, then it only does regular damage. I think that's a great way to emulate the way Buffy usually slaps the vampires around for a little bit before staking them.) A random superhero arresting bank robbers on his way to someplace else is simply not as common an occurrence as Buffy staking vamps.

The other difference is tone. When Spider-man gets the bank robbers, he does it in a couple panels, he webs them up and goes on his way. When Buffy stakes the vamps there is an element of triumphalism to it. They were murdered and transformed against their will into these monsters, and she dusts 'em, cracks wise and moves on. And it is to some extent a comedy show, so I can forgive this being played for laughs. I think that I would not be making these complaints if the show had stopped after Season 3. Buffy was a great character in the beginning. Smart, brave, funny, nuanced, human. I was a lot less critical of that Buffy because I liked her.

Faulker wrote "Kill your darlings" and this is advice Joss Whedon would have been well advised to take. Buffy the character and Buffy the show kept getting worse and worse, and her friends were little more than yes men at the end, with their worth determined by how much they agreed with her views. It was like Ayn Rand, the Vampire Slayer.

But at first, it was a great show, and if nothing else, the arguments you've put forth reminded me why I loved it.

But if you want to talk name villains, let's talk name villains. The first one was the Master. He killed Buffy. Literally killed her. No challenge? Bullshit.

I liked the Master. Mark Metcalf looks like he's having so much fun with the role, and he's got that distinctive speech impediment because he's always wearing the prosthetic fangs. He looks perpetually on the verge of bursting into song.

And yup, he killed Buffy, but as they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, she got better. (Or, if you want to go with the Princess Bride, she was only "Mostly Dead".)

I think a better way to describe it would to say that he defeated her in such a way that triggered the succession clause and left her for dead. I guess his actions stopped her breathing or disrupted the regular beating of her heart, one of which was enough to put her in such a state that the mantle passed to Kendra. But she was returned to a functional state when Xander administered CPR, so if she was "dead", it was only in a technical and very narrowly defined fashion. As Xander said, under different circumstances, "'walking around drinking beer with your buddies'-dead is a lot different from 'being blown up and swept up by a janitor'-dead."

The whole succession struck me as a bit of a cheat anyway. I had read something almost identical in a book called Crown of Shadows, the conclusion to C. S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy. Spoilers if you haven't read it, but one of the main characters owes his soul to a demon, and near the end, he dies and is resuscitated, but the brief period of "death" was enough to void the contract. In that book and the Buffyverse, the soul is an actual, demonstrable part of the cosmology, and I would think that criteria for death in such a case would involve the soul leaving the body, rather than the temporary and reversible cessation of certain bodily functions.

That does nothing to change the fact that the Master did in fact defeat her, and could have made her dead-for-real had he so chosen.

Second one was Spike, who, to date, Buffy has never successfully slain. She might win most of their fights, but it's always presented as a difficult battle and he gets away in the end.

Spike was a fun character, but not a very effective villain. Joyce hurts him the first time Buffy meets him, and that's at the height of his awesomeness. He gradually undergoes decay until he's a literal punchline. (In the season six episode where Riley returns, someone suggests Spike might might have a plan that works and everyone breaks out laughing.)

Third we have Angel, who I think we can all agree was the best villain she ever faced from a story standpoint, and like Spike, is very nearly her equal in combat.

I agree with you on this 100%. Angelus was a great villain. You can quote me on that and put it in your signature line.

Somewhere in there -- I can't recall if he came before or after Angel turned just now -- was the Judge. Buffy was incapable of harming him. When she eventually defeated him, it required the assistance of a bazooka.

It was right after Angel turned evil. That's the big, blue smurf, right? He showed up at the mall and gestured impotently for a little bit before Buffy blew him up mid-monologue. He talked a big game and was made out to be a huge threat before being disposed of perfunctorily.

Then we have Faith, who *knows* Buffy, if less intimately than Angel. She has the role of Buffy's dark double, and again, no fight between them is ever easy -- physically or emotionally.

The Mayor may be human, but his resources make him virtually untouchable throughout most of the season. And in the end, Buffy has to recruit a small army and a few tons of explosives to defeat him.

I look at the Mayor and Faith as a team, and I think they're a great team. Faith alone is like Buffy-lite. Buffy surpasses her in every area. But with the Mayor by her side, the pair of them might even be better than Angelus.

Then Adam, who repeatedly kicks Buffy's ass until she uses a special ritual with nasty repercussions;

I just can't take Adam seriously. He's a ridiculous demon-robo-Frankenstein monster with a minigun for an arm who kills the Liberal Arts professor who built him and brings her back as a zombie in a bustle. Yeah, I guess he was tough, but Jesus.

then Glory, ditto (I'm not saying the later seasons were particularly original);

 Powerful, yeah, but really, really dumb. Though Giles is my hero forever for getting rid of Ben.

then the Trio, who... well... were the worst villains of the entire series, and the less said of them the better. I'll give you that one. I won't even get into the First (who literally can't be destroyed), because 1) I think I've made my point, 2) my dinner's getting cold and 3) I'm sure you're still going to disagree with me anyway, so why bother?

If I had to rank the Seasons from best to worst, I would go 2,3,1,7,4,5,6. I thought Season 7 was actually pretty decent. Not a return to the glory days of the show, but the First was solid as far as villains went. The First was good (I remember thinking the first time we saw it back in Season 3 that it deserved better than simply a one-off appearance) but the potentials were awful and the resolution was terrible. The entire theme leading up to this point was that magic has its price and then you solve your problems by giving all of the potentials full Slayer powers? The fuck?!

Sorry if these couple posts seem a bit rabid, but as I mentioned on another post, I usually find your criticisms of Buffy legitimate; even though it's one of my favorite shows, I agree it had its share of flaws. But this one bugs me a little, because I just find it a really unfair accusation.

It's not like my tone was the most measured and reasonable either.  I would react the same way.

Also, since I have the bigger megaphone here, if you would rather reply to this by making a post here, the offer of being an author on the blog is still open.

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