TV time. For, one medium of storytelling can say something about another.
Throughout this first season of Flash and third season of Arrow, Flash has been the far superior show.
Or, fun, the antiangst.
See, here’s the thing. There are people in this world who like dark. They like misery. They like certain graphic novels or whatever with goofy pointy-haired art on Wolverine, or whatever. Then, there’s people who like superheroes.
Superheroes are not about dark. The grim, antihero avenger is notable for being different, not for being the norm. Except, TV doesn’t work that way. At least, not anymore.
If there’s one thing that I feel incredibly strongly from shows I watched while growing up and shows from the last decade or two, it’s angst. I realize that telling the same sort of pollyannaesque stories that shows typically did gets old, but not everything needs to be edgy. Sometimes, you can not be depressing. You can avoid angst.
Sure, TV shows from the 60’s and 70’s weren’t as simplistic as I recall when I watched them as a child. There’s an episode of Wonder Woman on this weekend that will have an alien point out the problematic nature of calling the US the good guys in WW2 given the treatment of Japanese in this country. While I didn’t watch that episode as a child, I doubt I would have even noticed. I was much more likely to notice the incredibly awful fight scenes in the show and, depending upon age, how wonderful Lynda Carter was.
I don’t recall Smallville that well, even though I watched most to all episodes and taped a lot of them. But, what I do recall is the constant darkness, not just of the sets but of the tone of the show. I’ve felt that a lot with superhero shows or shows about protagonists that essentially have super powers.
There are some interesting exceptions. Oddly, one of them is part horror – Buffy. Buffy could be dark, but Buffy had fun. Buffy did humor. Why in the world is a superhero show less humorous than a show full of demons?
Charmed was generally much more positive. Now, it was top tier in the cheesiness, to the point where I actually had to turn the channel and watch Sheena. So, I’m hardly going to point to Charmed for being more enjoyable or desirable TV (some parts were obviously desirable).
Arrow was good. In season one. In the first five or so episodes. As soon as the Huntress appeared, I felt like it took a turn for the worse. Now, sure, Thea was incredibly annoying, Laurel was annoying, the soap opera stuff was way overdone, and there were various things to nitpick. I’ll get to nitpicking later.
But, it was different. The superhero straight up murdered a bunch of people. That might be the in thing these days, but I only watch a few shows anymore and my childhood was A-Team level violence for the most part. It was clever. Oliver expecting to get accused was clever, though his way out of it didn’t make a ton of sense. It had fun. Oliver speaking other languages. Oliver being Russian Mob Captain. Oliver parkouring around in broad daylight. Felicity when Felicity was lovable.
Then, angst. Oliver whining, going through a crisis of identity, whatever. Felicity going from flirty girl to true love.
Does Flash suffer from the Barry/Iris relationship? Sure. But, that’s a given. It’s also incredibly weird given the set up that they are de facto siblings, but whatever.
But, Flash has fun. I don’t mean Barry having fun, like embarrassing a mugger, though that’s part of it. I mean the entire show does humorous things. It has characters laugh. It has Eddie hug Barry. It has Iris whack Barry for not telling her that Oliver is a friend of his. We aren’t looking for Batman (60s) camp, even though that show is amazingly awesome for adults. Where that show kind of failed was being a cool action show for kids because I did watch that as a child and I didn’t like it as much then as I do now.
Lots of people say Arrow season 3 is a mess. I’d say season 2 was a slog of ludicrous motivations. Plus, the action scenes were much better in early season 1 episodes than what I can recall of season 2. I don’t just mean fights. Again, Stephen Amell scaling a building in broad daylight is way cooler than some dark, too fast to see what actually happens fight between stunt doubles.
I’ve read that the writers of Arrow moved to Flash. Maybe that’s why Arrow went into decline and Flash has been so good. It really has been good. It feels like a show about a superhero. Arrow went down the path of Smallville of feeling like a show about someone burdened all of the time.
While it’s problematic to have Arrow maintain a murderer as its hero, it can recapture what made it exciting from early season 1. How do I know? Because Oliver visiting Barry was a really good episode. Because Arrow still has moments, sparse as they are. Laurel and Thea aren’t hatable anymore, which is amazing progress. It shows that things can be improved. The big problem is that Oliver went from lovable to hatable (Felicity too). He went from supersmart to incredibly stupid. I don’t like stupid characters. Felicity still has fun … when she guests on Flash.
I get tired of the nitpicking of the two shows because I think nitpicking just misses the fundamental features of the shows. Yes, Flash should just win in no time against anyone. That’s a flaw with the character that can’t be escaped, much like how ridiculous Superman villains are, with their endless supplies of Kryptonite.
Nor is it the soap opera romances that I find worth dwelling upon. Sure, they suck. But, so much of them is to be expected. Iris doesn’t actually bother me. Enough *fun* stuff is going on that I don’t have to obsess over their awful relationship. Plus, Eddie can be really funny when he’s not being jealous.
Arrow needs to recover or develop a sense of humor. Or, it’s going to continue to wallow in its angst.
So, what does this mean for gaming?
Gaming is supposed to be fun. While some folks might want to play Vampire: The Masquerade as it seemed to be intended or play Call of Cthulhu in a noncampy way or whatever, I don’t. Nor do I see much in the way of others getting into an angst ridden lifestyle. Because, you know what, we get that in our real lives.
Superheroes are appealing because of their superpowers. No, really. They aren’t terribly different in story form from numerous other types of characters. Well, yes, there is a bit of old school upbeat sentimentality in their tales that other genres may or may not use. But, the reason I read comic books wasn’t to dwell on failed romances and crippling psychological trauma but to see gods fight each other with lightning or to have some blue guy wrestle an angel on the moon.
While making fun of a genre detracts from it, to where I see it being challenging to play a superhero RPG a la comics, having humor be involved in play is fun. Gallows humor can be fun, but it doesn’t need to be that all of the time, either. I played a Conan adventure where my greatest enjoyment was picturing my character trying to hook up with a noblewoman’s daughters in her mansion, without it being obvious to everyone. Offering to help another PC with a more puritanical bent get in with the older daughter was memorable.
But, it’s not just the funny that produces the fun. It’s also just fast pacing. Flash moves. Arrow stalls. I get really tired of planning in games, as I do enough of that in my life. I want to do things. Even high risk, low reward things are better than sitting around talking about what could be done. Use abilities. If Knowledge: Hilly Watersheds isn’t getting use, make up a reason to roll it. Cut from one scene to another. Don’t dwell on the logistics of travel or having the right equipment, or whatever (I know, some people, like Brad, like this sort of thing). Keep things happening. Give scenes that excite people, like pretty much any seen with HG Wells (except his Gideon scenes) – he is the best thing about Flash.
Where Flash focuses on using superhero abilities, Arrow seems to have them just be part of the background. Focusing on the cool things that PCs can do rather than brushing aside the Whirlwind Death Cyclone Kick should matter. If abilities aren’t cool, can make them cool. RPGs are flexible that way. Maybe you don’t want to change mechanics, but a GM can create enemies highly vulnerable to a mechanic that doesn’t play as cool as it sounds.
Try to make PCs feel competent. Interestingly enough, Oliver griefs Barry on his poor use of his abilities, but, actually, the way the series go, Barry feels like the more competent superhero. Oliver is way too tortured to enjoy any success. Successes should be fun. Of course, it’s great when failures are fun, too. I think players get too used to succeeding and to the story being mechanical rather than thematic that the value of failures is overlooked. I don’t think failure should be common, as that’s antiheroic and amazingly antifun. I don’t think certain types of failure are fun – “Oh, you needed a 25 to swim to the other side of the lake to continue the chase. I guess you drown and die.” But, having setbacks that only emphasize successes later or by others is key to creating drama.
It doesn’t bother me that things go wrong for The Arrow and The Flash. What bothers me is when it feels like the show is mostly about failure (Arrow) and the inability to enjoy anything (Arrow). The pattern I see being preferable is one of mostly success with some interesting failures, not dark, dark, dark, dawn, dark, dark, dark, dark, dawn.