I watched Batman v. Superman because I was on a plane, and I was bored, and I had heard Wonder Woman was in it. (She was.)
Unfortunately, much like the Man of Steel film to which this was a sequel, it was overly dark and gritty. I was basically watching for Wonder Woman and (for most of the film) Lex Luthor.
I admit, I like superheroes. And I’m something of a fan of the old Lois & Clark television show. Superman is a difficult hero to portray, since he’s been around long enough to experience very serious power creep. A large part of the reason why I liked that show was that superpowers were not the solution to every problem – and could, indeed, make it worse. “More brute force” was rarely the answer. I also liked it because while, as is standard for the character, Superman is portrayed as taking the moral high ground, he isn’t absolutely perfect. He makes mistakes, and asks other people for help and advice. (I also liked Lex Luthor in the earlier seasons of the show, but that’s another matter.)
For related reasons, I absolutely hated the next-most-recent film, Superman Returns. Lois never figures out who Clark Kent actually is under the glasses, she had a kid with him out of wedlock just before he decides to fly off to check out the wreckage of Krypton for a few years (and she lies about who the kid’s father is to everyone including her current boyfriend). The constant lies and utter lack of responsibility, along with the absolute absurdity of the plot and the version of Lex Luthor (think Bond villain) completely ruined it for me.
Man of Steel? Well… it’s better than the last film. It deals with the issue of power imbalance by bringing in a bunch of Kryptonians for Clark Kent/Superman/Kal-El to punch. Whee.
Lois Lane Catch Count
I only remember two Lois Lane catches from this film, which, for Superman, is doing pretty good. He also catches a soldier falling out of a helicopter. Still, the constant rescues of Lois Lane bother me (see this link for a discussion of the general phenomenon).
These are always pretty annoying, but at least it wasn’t always Lois playing damsel this time. Of course, all the usual comments about falling damage still apply here.
For bonus points, one of the Lois-catches was from an escape pod coming from the Kryptonian ship. Which was falling to the planet below. Given that this is an escape pod… from a super-advanced ship… was it really necessary to pull Lois out of it before it hit the ground? I would have thought that escape pods should be designed for that sort of contingency. Speaking of problems inherent in the design…
Keeping It Secret
This is just awful. Clark’s (human) dad is… misguided at best. He strongly pushes Clark to keep his developing powers to himself. Keep it secret, keep it safe, kind of a thing. When Clark rescues a bunch of kids when his school bus crashes, his dad is annoyed that he showed off his powers. Clark asks if he should have just let them all die. “Maybe.”
This is utterly repugnant and horrifying.
Then again, he does go through with that view all the way. At one point, there’s a tornado. Clark and his mom get to safety, but his dad goes back to get the dog. The dog gets to safety, but Clark’s dad injures his leg and gets sucked up by the tornado. He waves Clark off, to prevent Clark from having to show off his skills to a bunch of witnesses.
First problem: If you’re in a disaster situation, people outrank pets. You may be sad about losing Fluffy, but it’s worse to lose you.
Second problem: Is keeping your son’s extraordinary gifts secret worth your life and the grief it will case your family? I don’t think so.
I just can’t give this version of Clark’s dad much credit. Ugh.
Super Power Adjustment Period
On the plus side, having the superpowers, X-ray vision and super-hearing come with a need to adjust to using them makes perfect sense. They start to phase in when Clark’s a kid, and he has some entirely reasonable adjustment issues.
When the Kryptonians visit Earth, they have the same kind of issues with the super-senses. I appreciate the consistency. That said…
General Zod and Krypton
There’s so much wrong with the science in the film that I’m not going to bother going into much detail. It’s Superman; science goes bye-bye. But, I do have some thoughts about Krypton and its (former) inhabitants:
What were you people thinking?!
Okay, so you’ve gotten to the point where you no longer have natural childbirth. Cool! Pregnancy, while a normal process, carries significant risks for mother and child. Modern medicine has made matters much better, but growing your kid in a healthy, comfy sphere somewhere safe sounds like a great idea. Oh, you’re doing genetic construction, too? Awesome! No more genetic diseases. I like it.
Next, you’re determining what role the kid is going to have in society before birth?
That… well, doesn’t work so well. The creators of this story seemed to be missing out on the massive impact of the nurture side of the nature-vs-nurture argument. Early childhood environment, and everything thereafter, counts for a lot. Assuming Kryptonians are anything like humans, anyway. A significant part of Jor-El’s motivation is “returning the element of chance” – i.e., natural birth, complete with birth-scene for Clark/Kal-El – to allow the kid a choice in what he wants to be.
You know… there’s a happy medium, here. You have awesome super-tech. Why not make sure the kid is healthy, and avoid the pregnancy and childbirth risks, while at the same time not restricting any of the kid’s attributes? And, seriously guys, nurture. Big impact. Huge. The fact that you culturally restrict what kids get to grow up to be is probably a bigger factor than your genetic tweaking.
Meanwhile, you store all the genetic data you use in a single codex? Seriously? I mean, backups, anyone?
Meanwhile, our lead villain General Zod appears to count as a well-intentioned extremist. His only excuse seems to be that he was genetically set up to be a warrior, a defender of Krypton to the end. I don’t know about that… but I would bet that his training combined with his (probably learned) obsession with protecting Krypton at all costs had something to do with it.
Ooh, World Engine. Sounds nifty. What does it do? Well, it increases the gravity and changes the atmosphere to match that of Krypton. It’s like the devices you drop onto planets in the game Spore to speed-terraform a planet. Definitely nifty. Except for the drawback where you kill all life on Earth while you’re terraforming it. Oops.
Given that we’ve already got FTL, let’s not worry about how this works. (Aside to say that changing a planet’s surface gravity requires changing its mass or radius, which this device is clearly not doing.)
Instead, let’s ask the question, what happens after you’re done fixing the gravity and the atmosphere? Earth’s biosphere is actually critical to maintaining its habitability. Even ignoring the fact that everything we eat is something that needs to breathe the air here, killing all the plants that help maintain the oxygen in the atmosphere seems like a really bad idea. I can only assume that there’s a phase two to the World Engine which provides the basis for a stable Kryptonian biosphere.
Then again, these are the people who drained so much energy out of their planet’s core that it exploded. So maybe they’re not so good with the planning. (And about Krypton… I’d expected it to implode a little, if anything. The amount of energy you need to do the exploding of a planet is pretty large.)
Finally, the World Engine essentially has two ends. One is in the ocean somewhere, and the other end is dumped in Metropolis to prove to the humans how pointless fighting is. Or something. Anyway, they are on opposite sides so they can play pong with power going through the Earth’s core. Which means… it should be night-time in at least one location. Or dawn at one and dusk at the other. Maybe there’s something else funny going on, since it looks like daytime for both.
How’s Your Insurance?
So… who insures satellites? Because, seriously man, you just threw General Zod into a fricking satellite. Um. I guess “Superman” must be in there in between war, acts of God, and alien invasions. Holy how, they blew up a lot of stuff.
Zod does at least do a good job of pushing Superman’s buttons. Can’t hurt the hero? Threaten everyone else. It’s a classic, but it’s reasonable. For someone willing to take hostages, anyway.
On the other hand, Superman has some problems with this. There’s a crap ton of collateral damage from all the fighting. I was really, truly hoping to have at least one scene where he tries to draw Zod or the other Kryptonians away from the target-rich environment of Metropolis. But, no. And, at the end, he gets into something like one of those classic moral quandaries – the train with busted brakes that will run over a hundred people if you do nothing, and three people if you switch tracks. When Superman finally gets Zod down, Zod turns on the old eyebeams and starts pointing them at some innocent bystanders. If Superman kills him, the motion will move the eyebeams onto the bystanders before Zod dies.
Zod dies. Ouch. And you didn’t even try to juggle him around so they didn’t have to die? Or maybe poke his eyes out? Maybe Superman thought it was too great a risk, given all the collateral damage that must have come in from their fighting in and around skyscrapers, and Zod’s stated interest in killing everyone on Earth in vengeance for Krypton. Regardless: yikes.
Glasses Are A Great Mask
Yup, at the end of the film, it’s glasses time. Good job, Clark, that has got to be one of the worst disguises ever. I mean, if it were at all a good disguise, no one would recognize me when I put my glasses on. Which nobody has an issue with, oddly enough.
One of the reasons I liked Lois & Clark is that prior to when Lois figures it all out, the whole issue is epically lampshaded. It’s hilarious.
This version of Lois sees through the glasses thing entirely. She’d better – she spent a good chunk of the film doing the research to track Clark Kent down! When he finally gets his job as a journalist, she says, “Welcome to the Planet.” Nice touch.
NSA vs Superman
Okay, so it’s not the NSA, but somebody at the army wants to find out where Superman hangs out. So… they send a spy drone after him.
He notices and crashes it. In an empty plain, which is good. When the army guy shows up to complain, he basically says that he’d like to be left alone.
“That was a $12 million piece of hardware!”
Just this once, the property destruction was hilarious.
“What if?” is a very popular question. It’s arguably the basic question for most works of fiction. But here we’ll talk about one variation: “what if something happened differently?”. As we talked about in the first half of this series, time travel jumps up and down the timeline of a story, causing closed loops and paradoxes. But what if the timeline breaks into two or more possibilities? Then you have alternate universes – where something in the past of a story is changed (the “point of divergence”) and everything afterwards is different.
This is popular for resolving time travel paradoxes, sometimes with a handwave misapplying the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But it’s also popular in its own right, spawning long lists of related tropes and whole forums and wikis for discussion. There is both alternate history of reality, and alternate universe fic of other fictional stories. So what problems are there with such stories?
Butterflies & Butterfly Nets
The butterfly effect was originally named from discussions of weather forecasting. The basic idea is that while climate is relatively predictable, daily weather is a boundly-chaotic system. Even the slightest difference in initial conditions, like a butterfly flapping its wings, can dramatically change everything that follows. This is also known as “for want of a nail”.
For alternate universe fic and alternate histories, the butterfly effect is almost always not respected. That’s because it is hard to trace out causality in complex systems, even in retrospect. For example, if Star Trek: Voyager had cast a different actor as Seven-of-Nine, Barack Obama might not currently be president of the USA. The causality for that one goes like this: Jeri Ryan played Seven-of-Nine. She was then married to Jack Ryan. They eventually divorced, in part because of the stresses from frequent travel between Los Angeles and Chicago. Five years later, Jack Ryan was running against Obama for the Illinois seat in the US Senate. Jack Ryan was compelled to release the records of the divorce proceedings during the campaign. Various unflattering things about him in those documents led to him being compelled to resign from the race. Obama went on to win a landslide victory against Alan Keyes, who was brought on by the Republicans as a last-minute replacement.
It is hard to write an appropriately chaotic timeline, especially for something as complex as the history of a planet with more than seven billion people on it. And so authors invoke butterfly nets (or “in spite of a nail”), constraining their timelines to be artificially similar to each other. Thus we have good Spock and evil Spock; several dozen versions of Superman; and going back in time more than a hundred years changes the personality of a dictator but doesn’t erase every person currently in the world and replace them with different people.
The last deserves special mention. Part of the appeal of alternate universe fic (and a lot of alternate history) is “I have this cool character. What would they do in a different situation?” . In TV and film this also saves on casting. So butterfly nets are invoked to get the same set of characters, even when they should have been butterflied away entirely if the point-of-divergence was long before they were born.
One of the most notable offenders here is Star Trek. Despite 200 years or more of divergent history between the main Star Trek universe and the Mirror Universe, almost all of the characters exist in both – same names, same faces, same genomes, although far different personalities. This makes no sense. e.g. Ben Sisko was conceived by the Prophets/wormhole aliens to be their emissary. Since there is no emissary in the Mirror Universe, how is he there? And how did his father and mother and all ancestors back at least 8 generations exist, exchange gametes, and give the exact patterns of genes and environment that produced Sisko? The same argument applies to Spock, who only has the goatee so you can tell which one of him is evil.
In terms of total number of offending doppelgangers, comic books probably win. Consider the Crisis on Infinite Earths line, which was an attempt to clean up the various DC properties and all of the different alt universe versions of them – well over 100. And a bunch of new ones have been written since then. The Marvel comics have their own multiverse, with dozens of alternate universes in it. Comic book canon is very messy.
Economics of Parallel Worlds
Characters and butterfly nets aside, let’s consider the economics of alternate universes. First, there must be some way of getting from one world to another – be it a special communications device, a broken transporter, magic powers, or vaguely-described biological technology. As with time machines, the convention is usually to arrive at the same spot that you left from in a geocentric reference frame. This ignores length-of-day variations and perturbations to Earth’s orbit. Or you do some navigation and portal yourself anywhere you want. You may go “cross-time”, from one alternate universe to another, or also forward and backward in time.
I’ve written before about what you would want to do if alternate universes actually existed and were accessible. But this is rarely done. Charlie Stross’ Merchant Princes series is an example. In a European-Middle-Ages-like alternate North America, an extended family clan develops around carriers of a mutation that lets them walk themselves and a person-load of cargo between worlds a couple of times a day. This started in the 1800’s, and they established a credit base in our world by securely transporting bullion and on their side by rapid transit and limited technology imports. But the clan is not properly using their skills. Rather than going public and getting a load of money and bringing teachers and tech from our side to their side, they barely break even making money as cocaine mules. This holds even after some of them have been schooled in business, engineering, or medicine on our side. After a while, the whole plot kind of unravels. Rachel and I have considered a somewhat similar setting, based around the concept of world-walkers but done correctly. Things change very dramatically very quickly, as the walkers tie together a network of thousands of worlds by hauling petabytes of data back and forth until technology replicates their skill.
If there is time-travel as well as cross-time travel, you can engineer branches in the timeline (or you will can have). Subject to the limits of chaos and history before the point-of-divergence, you can build alternate universes to-order. Consider the ethics of that.
The idea goes back to A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, although Twain was writing satire. In some sense, it is the goal in the Terminator series: Skynet wants to engineer a timeline without humans, the humans want to engineer one without Skynet. But the most extreme case I know is a series by John Barnes, The Timeline Wars. Two large alliances of timelines are playing a massive game of Achron against each other, going back and creating alternate universes that support them (including some of the timelines that will provide the resources of the teams that went back in time to create those timelines). Their agents try to subvert the timelines that the other side has split off, either to ensure that the future turns out as it was going to or to split the line again and give an equal balance. The rival sides build massive generators to have sent agents further back in time, to gain an edge. Things end when a timeline that was spawned by agents going back to the Roman Republic and teching it up finally reveals itself and its Sufficiently Advanced Technology. The problem with this of course is the same as that with regular time travel: infinitely long time along one set of world-lines, looping through the time portal, leading to the heat death of the universe.
Good thing time travel is impossible.
Time travel is a popular theme in all three of our main categories here, so this will be a cross-category post. This time, we’re only discussing time travel that preserves a single timeline; the many-worlds interpretation version will be discussed in a later post.
In all currently-verified models of physics, backwards time travel is impossible. There are many reasons why this is true. Thanks to relativity, traveling backwards in time in any reference frame is equivalent to going faster than the speed of light, which is impossible for any particle with positive or zero mass. The laws of physics are also not time symmetric (although they are charge-parity-time symmetric). Time has a direction. And statistical mechanics lets us derive the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the overall entropy of the universe must increase monotonically with time in all reference frames.
That last point is important. If backwards time travel occurs at any point, then there are a set of world-lines that have infinite duration – closed loops looping back through the time travel device. But overall entropy has to increase monotonically with time along those paths, which is a contradiction since they are closed curves. The only way for this to work is for the universe to have already reached a state of maximum possible entropy. That’s called heat death – which means the universe has run down to thermodynamic equilibrium and time has lost all meaning because nothing can change, which means nobody exists to build time machines.
General and special relativity produce interesting effects on how fast time advances in difference reference frames, but there is no way to make time go backwards. But that hasn’t stopped people at various times from writing time-travel stories.
Closed Time Loops
Although they are already breaking the laws of physics, a lot of time travel stories make an effort to ensure that the time travel that does occur does not produce/has not produced/is not producing a causal paradox (yes, there will be tense trouble – I direct you to Streetmentioner’s book). This gets invoked to make prophecy work. In Babylon 5, the Minbari leadership know that the Babylon 4 station will be was their main starbase 1000 years ago, and so are the only ones unsurprised when it vanishes – with a momentary pause a few years in the future to drop off the human crew. It is sent back in time with one person, Jeffrey Sinclair, who received a letter he had will have written to himself 1000 years ago explaining everything that was going to have happen.
The problem is that it is very hard to make a closed loop consistent in terms of the characters. In Babylon 5, it takes a planet-sized machine several days of output to send a few-kilometer-long space station back 1000 years. But why couldn’t the Great Machine also have been used to send back equal or smaller masses back shorter times and win the Shadow War before it started or stop EarthGov from going sideways, or be used in the future for the same purpose? The in-universe answer is “nobody did that back then, so nobody can do that now”, but that doesn’t really make sense. The real reason is that closed-loop time travel makes some plots impossible to do consisently.
For another example: in Harry Potter, Hermione is given a Time Turner so that she can attend more classes than there are hours in the day (and be chronically sleep-deprived, subtracting from her expected subjective and external lifespan, and perpetually running into her past/future self). That is a relatively trivial use of a time machine, so they must be fairly common in the wizarding world and we see a vault full of them at the Ministry of Magic. But the Ministry isn’t using them for anything useful. Fans of the Potterverse have already dissected this from every possible angle, so I will just copy this photo:
When authors do think through all of the possibilities for closed-loop time travel, things get strange. Heinlein wrote a story called By His Bootstraps, where a 20th-century college student transports himself into a 20,000-year-or-so distant future. He is abducted by his subjective-future self, who sends him through the time machine’s portal to his subjective-further-future self. Further-future guy sends the guy back to pick up now-past guy and various other 20th century items. When he gets back from shopping, he tries to double-cross further-future guy by taking control of the time machine and sending himself back from 20,000 years in the future to 19,990 years in the future. But that only means that he spends ten years in the future until he becomes further-future guy.
Setting Right What Once Went Wrong
Since closed loops are hard to set up correctly, and pose annoying questions about freedom of action and if random events are truly random, many authors have the past be malleable and just conveniently ignore the paradoxes that that would imply.
Terminator starts out with an apparent closed loop, but in the second and later movies the future is specifically malleable. And even in the first movie, Skynet is trying to change the past by sending back its assassin (although it does not succeed). In the original Superman movie, Superman acquires new powers as the plot demands and flies faster than the speed of light, sending himself back in time to save Lois Lane. The Back to the Future movies took this sort of plot further, with multiple changes to the timeline from 1885 to 2015.
But there a lot of problems with this sort of plot. The first is the causal paradox again. Marty McFly goes back in time by accident, and spends a lot of time in 1955 ensuring that his parents actually do get together. Until he fixes it, he sees his siblings and himself slowly vanishing from a picture he brought back from 1985. But that doesn’t make sense – if the timeline had already been changed when the picture was taken, why does it take subjective time for it to change?
A second problem is ethics. In Schlock Mercenary, Kevyn Andreyasn goes back in time to save the entire Milky Way from being completely destroyed. Ethically, that’s pretty good. But consider Superman. He goes back in time and saves Lois Lane. But couldn’t he have gone back in time a little further and prevented the whole two-missiles-can’t-catch-them-both dilemma in the first place? And if he can go that fast, why didn’t he just do that in the first place and avoid the missile hitting New York at all? Back to the Future is even worse in that respect – all Marty changes is making his parents happier and more successful in life, making Biff less successful, and saving Doc Brown from getting shot. But there are more important things that could be changed. Even if Marty was unable to get things right on his first trip, he could go back again and relieve a huge amount of human suffering.
There is a countering ethical consideration, of course: history is complex and chaotic. Go back in time and step on a butterfly, and humanity may not exist anymore. You just killed everyone. Oops. But you can go back and fix it again, as long as there is any possible solution. If there isn’t, you go back and reset everything and it all reverts back to the prior timeline.
We’ll talk more about the complex nature of history in the next post. But for now, be grateful that backwards time travel is impossible.
“Bond. James Bond.”
“My name is Jason Bourne.”
“The next time, Jack, put it in a goddamn memo…”
You may wonder what those three have in common. If you recognized the last one as being Jack Ryan in The Hunt for Red October, you’ll get the theme: these are all from spy action series. You may now wonder why I’m lumping them in with the superheroes.
While the worlds of fictional spies may bear superficially more resemblance to reality than those of comic books, they share a number of similar impossibilities. There are also some common conventions to both genres, although some authors do try to avert them. So here we go.
This overlaps with a lot of other action movies. The hero, who is usually a man, despite some notable exceptions, is portrayed as a one-person killing machine. Jack Ryan is a relatively subdued example, but still manages to outsmart and defeat a car-full of heavily armed assassins. Bond shoots people. Bourne kills anyone with anything.
There are times when a single person can kill tens or even hundreds of armed opponents. But those situations are limited. They require the person of mass destruction to stack everything in their favor, and are short on drama (although high on suspense). The enemy is hunting you? Stay in the forested mountains you’ve lived in for 30 years, where you know every trail and hiding spot. They have rifles? Have a longer-range rifle. They look to shoot anyone they see? Hide under the snow. They look for flashes of light off a telescopic gun-sight? Don’t use one. The enemy has camped for the night? Stay in the dark and shoot them as they thaw out next to their fire. Those are all examples of the tactics of Simo Häyhä, a Finnish sniper who killed several hundred Russian soldiers during the Russians’ attempted invasion of Finland during the winter of 1939/1940. But the Russians reacted – they sent in counter-snipers and artillery. Häyhä was eventually shot in the jaw and put into a coma for a week. Modern counter-sniper tactics are more effective, rapidly locating the shooters and minimizing the potential for a large number of causalities.
And notice something else. Häyhä spent his early life farming and hunting, and 14 years as a marksman in the Finnish militia and military before he went around killing every enemy he came across. He very carefully and patiently developed a very particular set of skills – how to use a rifle to put bullets exactly where and when he wanted them, and how to navigate a familiar landscape without being seen. That’s not what spies are trained to do.
In reality, spies – like any other diverse profession – specialize. Some are experts in languages. Others are trained as journalists. Both are good professions for getting information, and for justifying certain amounts of foreign travel. Some are trained as scientists or engineers or, more recently, computer programmers – necessary to understand whatever device or information they should pass back to their handlers. When an espionage agent finds something that requires large-scale violence to resolve, they don’t do the job themselves in a massive rampage of gunfire. They either call for backup, or try to figure out something more subtle to avoid the need to shoot everyone. This gets to our next point.
Jason Bourne is a former US military officer who speaks at least four languages without an accent (the films have him at nine), has implausible fighting skills, blends seamlessly into every culture in Europe, and can drive just about any vehicle. Jack Ryan is a self-made multimillionaire who graduated from the US Navy Academy, recovered from breaking his back in a helicopter accident, becomes a highly-respected historian and CIA analyst, and can still take angry Irish terrorists in a fight. James Bond speaks whatever languages are necessary for the plot; and can fly British helicopters, American airplanes, and Russian fighter jets; drive tanks; pilot submarines; do high-altitude paradrops; and is immediately proficient with whatever gadgets his bosses give him.
Where and more importantly when did they learn how to do all of these things? Sometimes it is not something that anyone could plausibly know. What’s the wiring like on a custom-built Chinese nuke?
It’s just as fantastic and wish-fulfilling as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark or Reed Richards. It is possible to know a bit about everything. But it is impossible or at least incredibly implausible for someone to be as much of an expert about as many different things as super-spy characters are.
One thing that some spy stories do address is the problems associated with that choice of employment on your family life. Jack Ryan is married, and has a daughter and a son. And when a terrorist figures out who his family are and decides to take things personally, bad things happen. But, like with superheros, spy authors like to ramp up the angst factor by making their character’s back stories incredibly tragic. James Bond’s and Jack Ryan’s parents all died in accidents. Jason Bourne’s first wife and their children were murdered. Bond gets married once, and his wife is immediately assassinated. Just like Peter Parker and Uncle Ben, these are often used as a way to justify the character taking on or continuing a high-risk high-stress job. But why doesn’t anyone have somewhat less trauma in their backstory?
Made of Iron
This one bothers me too. Bond gets beaten up and tortured repeatedly, and doesn’t have the debilitating side effects you’d expect from that. Ryan recovers nearly completely from serious injuries to his spine. Jason Bourne is an interesting variation. He’s shot and nearly dies, but after he’s had some horribly inadequate medical care his remaining disability is entirely mental and with effectively zero cognitive impairment beyond very precisely restricted amnesia. Notice the similarities to what we’ve described before for comic book and movie superheroes?
But these are just some of the simplest and most obvious impossibilities with the super-spies. There are worse ones. I’m going to touch on just two of them.
Complicated Problem 1: Ethics
The real-life ethics of espionage are already complicated enough. You’re considering lying, cheating, stealing, blackmail, extortion, torture, sabotage, assassination, enabling mass murder, and a long list of other things that would otherwise be considered crimes. You’d better be thinking that what you’re doing is justified in the service of a greater goal, and that it is the least-bad way to achieve that goal, and that that goal is in fact a good one. In real life, we can and should carefully consider the ethics of both individual acts of espionage and of the political decisions that codify those acts as acceptable. But in super-spy stories, the ethics get just as bad as for comic-book superheroes.
Bourne wakes up with no memory, a bank access code, and a compulsion to stay off the grid until he understands what has happened to him. In the process, he beats up several innocent bystanders, steals guns, steals cars, wrecks cars, defrauds businesses and individuals, blows up a house, and kidnaps a woman (the last in the books, it’s “not-quite-kidnaps” in the film). How is that any better than anyone else going on a rampage? His bosses aren’t any better than he is: if an agent appears to go rogue, the indicated procedure is not to immediately send assassins to shoot them. It is to contact them as best you can and bring them in quietly. Cuts down on both the body count and the exposure.
Bond is worse, because he blows up more stuff. Tanks running around the streets of Moscow. When that happened in the US, the guy was chased by the cops and eventually shot. Exploding airplanes. Setting hotels on fire. Blowing up elaborate underground bases and all of the goons inside. Wanton destruction may look cool, but it equals lots of property damages and potentially many deaths for otherwise uninvolved civilians. How is that heroic?
Complicated Problem 2: Misogyny
This one is a bit complicated because not all super-spy series or super-hero series are equally misogynistic or are misogynistic in the same way. But there are some distinct patterns.
Remember how I said that the super-spy character is usually male? Notice how most of the iconic superhero characters are also male? There have been female spy characters, just like there have been female superhero characters. Some were deliberately designed to counter the male-hero stereotype. But many of those are portrayed in implausible ways – deliberately impractical costumes, with even more of a focus on their appearance than for male characters. And far more common are female characters that exist solely for the male hero to assert a form of masculinity based on the women needing to be rescued and then being seduced by the hero.
This shows up in comic books – Superman, Tony Stark, and others. But the Bond series is the worst offender for this one. There is at least one such character, and sometimes as many as six, in each book and each film. This is pretty absurd, and quite misogynistic. And in addition to the misogyny, there are other unfortunate implications.
I could also talk about about impossible plots. A small part of a single keiretsu out-performing the US and Russian space programs put together, the wreckage of one submarine being mistaken for that of another, a billionaire somehow hiding a space station in orbit and six space shuttles in the Amazon jungle, and on and on. But I think this is enough to make the point that there are lots of problems with the super-spy genre. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy watching Jason Bourne do parkour across Europe. But we should think about the implications of the story.