The Perils of Should
I was listening to the most recent Entertainment Geekly podcast, in which Darren Franich and Jeff Jensen attempted to wrap their minds around Man of Steel. (I’m not gonna tell you who came down on what side, you can listen for yourself.)
The part of the discussion that I found most fascinating was when Franich (and I can call him Franich because I both know him and like to imagine he’s a Detroit beat cop of the 1970s) said that he felt a movie that trades so excessively on the Superman imagery should have a main character who behaves a certain way. And Jensen (the beat cop’s partner) almost lost his shit, saying that the minute you use the word “should” you’re not taking the movie for what it is. Invoking “should” invalidates the criticism that follows it. This version of Superman should act only according to the tenets of the character we see in Man of Steel, nothing more.
To thine own self be true.
It got me thinking: What responsibility do storytellers have to characters that exist in the shared pop-cultural space? And, as much as I love Jeff Jensen, for me, should is absolutely on the table.
We have, in our collective minds, a perception of characters like Superman, Captain Kirk or James Bond. Some of us are intimately familiar with their backstories, their flaws and strengths; others have a general appreciation of who they are and what they do. There have been plenty of variations on the Bond theme — is this Bond silky or sullen; is M a man or a Margaret? — but the audience generally has a sense of what to expect.
And that expectation is wholly reasonable. To deny it is foolish. Moreover, it’s a storyteller’s job to be cognizant of that expectation. Now, you can subvert it, deviate from it, but you do so at your peril. You are gambling when you decide that, say, Spock and Uhura are dating, or Bond doesn’t have any gadgets, or Spider-Man’s webshooters are organic and not artificial. And it’s a gamble that storytellers absolutely have to take in order to surprise us and you have to hope that those changes are ones of addition, not subtraction.
But you can’t also deny that the audience wants what it wants, especially when dealing with a character as pervasive as the Big Blue School Boy. We want him to care about humans as much as he cares about humanity. We want him to do what is right, not what is easy. And we want him to feel.
"Should" is a reasonable demand. And in the absence of meeting that demand, the storyteller has to fill that void with something else.