Monday, December 13, 2010

From Bond Girl to Bond Villain

Anyone who's paid too much attention to me might have realized that I adore when the children of supervillains become heroes. These characters, whether the sorts who were raised right and later found out the truth (the Maximoffs twins) or those who suffered from a dysfunctional, twisted upbringing (Cass Cain) have a particularly compelling story to them. These characters become heroes when they discovered a reservoir of moral strength that allowed them to make the most difficult decision any person in the world can make and break from their upbringing, their loved ones, and even at times their entire cultural makeup in order to make the right decision. These themes of discovering moral clarity, overcoming the fear of loneliness, and aspiration to be a better person can be repeated in some many different ways for the same character and still represent step-by-step self-improvement and true heroics. The character can be constantly moving forward without being stuck in a cycle. And while every subsequent attempt to make the right decision is just a little easier than that first break (allowing for the occasional slip-up, which lets them go through a moral crisis and find that internal strength again) they continually better themselves, their families and the planet with every step forward. These character exemplify the idea that it doesn't matter what your forebearers did, your life and your destiny is your own. They are paragons of independence, defying both nature and nurture to demonstrate that someone can calibrate their own moral compass and still have it point in the right direction. The children of supervillains can become the truest kind of heroes, agents of virtue and change and hope arising from the darkest of background and defending those ideals against the most ingrained personal interest--belonging to their own family. They have an incredibly inspirational concept.

There's another story pattern that can be incredibly compelling in this same vein, that of Reforming the Evil Love Interest. This one is compelling because not only does it have a person turn their back on their entire world, but they do it for the sake of a single other person. A lot of people love this story, and adore characters trapped in this story cycle because it ties the inspirational aspect of leaving everything you know and love for an ideal with romance because the ideal is love for another person. I find this pretty compelling too... when it's a single story and not a cycle that continually repeats itself. This brings me, of course, to a character think I should love but I very decidedly do not, Talia al Ghul.

As I said before, a lot of people like the Reforming the Evil Love Interest narrative because it's a compelling narrative, and they don't mind reading it over and over and over again. It carries with it the same courage and strength required to be a child of a supervillain who turns on their evil parent, and in many cases--such as with Talia--the two concepts are married and the inspiration to turn their back on their entire world comes from meeting one good person.

Except that Talia doesn't really DO that until what... five or six years ago? And she was created in the 70s? Her typical behavior pattern was that she'd act against her father to save Batman, but afterwards she'd return to the old man. Repeat over and over and over again. He's her father, he loved her, she loved him, and on some level she felt that his actions were to be excused. In fact, for loyalty to her father, she would commit any number of murders, thefts and even betrayals (short of directly causing his death) of her "beloved" Batman. As I've said, I really enjoy when a supervillain's kid turns on them, and it requires a tremendous amount of moral fortitude to do so, and proves to be the ultimate act of independence. But Talia never really turned on her father for the principle of it, she only occasionally got in his or his allies' way to prevent them from getting rid of Bruce. For it to be a true test of courage and strength, it pretty much has to be a one time thing. You go against your parent knowing you can't go back, you can't waiver between two people all the time. You are on your own from that point on, and what you just did is worth being on your own. You don't just save the life of the guy you wanna fuck and then go back to live comfortably with Daddy, performing atrocities in his name when they don't affect someone you personally care about. That doesn't make you a hero, or even an antihero. It just means you're a villain with the hots for the hero.

I don't like Talia. A long time ago (after a while of kind of liking her figuring eventually they'd lay this story cycle to rest) I realized she just wasn't a really admirable person. After I learned that, every time I saw her I knew exactly what the story was going to be and I simply didn't like the al Ghul family league of assassins/eco-terrorism/melodramatic love drama elements enough to sit through the same theme of potential reformation from what was actually a rather self-interested motive (she wanted Bruce, but didn't seem to give a shit about anyone else's life) followed by choosing the safe route of home and family to the unexplored and potentially difficult life of morality that I prefer my heroes adhere to. After so many times watching this, I really grew to hate the character on sight. Eventually she went against him, but not in a way that changed my assessment of her personality. It's telling that it wasn't until after her father tried to match her with a guy she didn't want that she got sick of his shit and tried to be a good guy for a while. Kudos for being her own woman there, but it's not really the heroic selflessness of a principled stand against the head of an organization that destroys lives every day--especially after you've spent years witnessing firsthand the misery he creates but kept bypassing the opportunity to tell him to fuck off and become a real hero. It's more the heroic selfishness of leaving a situation that's simply not good for you personally, having stayed in a situation that hurt other people until things went from comfortable to frightening. I think she's a very selfish person, in matters of love and ethics, and that's not a good thing for a hero or even an antihero.

And yes, I know there are those of you who say that every character can be redeemed, and every character has potential and with Talia... you're absolutely right.

Something happened in the last decade to this character. They killed off her father. The put her in charge of the family business. They introduced her son, and detailed the horrific lengths she went to to continue the family line with the man she'd personally chosen.

They broke the cycle.

They made her an official full villain.

I fucking love it, especially when Grant Morrison writes her because he doesn't mince the melodrama. He doesn't bother with the "I love you, but alas we are on other sides of the law" narrative that bores me to tears. This is a woman from a twisted family with a very twisted sense of what constitutes a family. She considers Batman her husband, and so will act to keep him alive and safe, but she is not a good guy at all. She will protect and nurture her son, and when he leaves her (as she NEVER left her father) she attempts to manipulate him back by threatening to disown and replace him. ("Why can't you just love me for me?" "It's not me" and it wasn't her father either. She's withholding her approval until he proves his loyalty just as he probably did to her and created the behavior pattern where she constantly returns to his side at the end of the story.) She will, in all likelihood, make him very miserable for the next few years trying to get him to return to her side of the family.

And so many people say they despise Morrison's version of the character, that she's not even a character but I don't see that at all. She's not one-dimensional, she's just as complex especially when it comes to her interpersonal relationships--she's just free of all the bullshit that makes me hate her. He's completely broken the cycle on this character, and she's gone from Bond Girl to full-fledged Bond Villain. I'm actually happy for her, it's quite a promotion.

As for the real thorn in fandom's side, Batman's statement that he was drugged when Damien was conceived? In a genre where 95% of female characters but just maybe 2% of male characters have been sexually harassed, threatened or assaulted... the biggest macho fanboy fantasy character in history has a sexual assault in his backstory and it hasn't hurt his standing in the slightest. It's still the male hero way, like Starman and Green Arrow, without the same lurid graphic depiction of sexualized violence that accompanies flashbacks of female characters. I think the imbalance there makes this far less offensive to me than if we'd had Oracle drop this memory. Don't get me wrong, Batman's wistful reaction is beyond fucked up and one of the things that Morrison annoyed me with, but I don't feel Talia is the character who suffers from this. She's a Bad Guy, after all, and I've never found her someone to sympathize with. I understand it really pisses off those of you who feel she should be a sympathetic hero, but I don't feel this character works as a hero or even a protagonist. Her heroism works on whether one person (or two, now that Damian's around) is in direct danger or not. If he is, she'll be a good guy, if not she's just her father's daughter. I do love her as a cold, corrupt villainess, though. Like I said, she strikes me as a very selfish person and that's a good thing for a villain.

My feelings on Talia are particularly worrisome for two reasons, though:

1) She is a character type I can only think of seeing in women. She's the chief henchwoman who falls for the hero character type, most often associated with spy thrillers like James Bond. It's a bit hard to untangle such a judgment from innate feelings about gender, and I'm having trouble thinking of a male character who boils down to the same concept for the "gender swap test" of prejudiced attitudes.

2) She is one of very few Middle Eastern women in comics, and the family politics and her position as a good guy or a bad guy are tied up with how the Western World views Arabic women. (Man, it does not help that her father was a terrorist but he's not religiously motivated at least.) It may be better that she stayed to run the family business and didn't just leave being an accessory to her father to try and become an accessory to Batman, or it may simply be another example of the Dragon Lady of the East archetype, particularly with her villainy so wrapped up in her family. I'm not really sure on this part. Though please don't try to defend the character based on cultural pressure to stay loyal to her father and family, because cultural pressure is something that makes a moral decision to value life more difficult, and therefore makes choosing to save lives so heroic.

Anyway, here's the rundown:

Talia al Ghul
Also Known As: The Cause of Shirtless Batman Fighting
First Encountered (By Me): Batman: the Animated Series
Franchise: Batman
Core Concept: Evil Love Interest
Writer Responsible For My Distaste: Every writer that has ever tried to pass her off as "not really a villain, but a tragic woman torn between loyalties"
Character I Want To Read That She's Attached To: Batman (and I don't really like to see her Dad pop up either when I'm reading Batman)

Best Character Trait: Brave
Worst Character Trait: Selfish

Similar Characters That I Like: Like I said, I adore the children of supervillains who break away from their parents Cassandra Cain in particular showed a moral strength and an empathy for the rest of mankind that's unheard of in her life up to that point when she ran away from her father after her first kill. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are recurring favorites of mine because of their constant struggle against their father--especially in the face of prejudice from the rest of the world. Damian Wayne is stuck-up little jerk, but he chose his father's more difficult path over the easy villainy of his mother and grandfather. But the thing is, these characters took the high road as soon as the exit presented itself, they didn't continue along Bad Guy Highway past exit after exit until they could actually SEE the dead end. These are characters marked early on to be heroes, and their family ties make them more compelling as a result.

Catwoman may be my favorite example of the "Reform the Evil Love Interest" thing, but it may be because she's not particularly evil or even selfish. She just doesn't feel confined to society's rules, whereas Talia's lawbreaking comes from conforming to her family.
I do recall another similarity, though, back in Devin Grayson's Catwoman run. Selina is approached during the story by a teenaged boy and an adult man. She spends much of the story thinking about family, and ends up arranging for both the man and the boy to be sent to prison (I forget which one she framed, or if it was both) and declaring that she wants a family, but on her terms. The issue ends with her peeking in on her new family in their prison cell. It was dark and humorous (and there was something in both the man and the boy's behavior that makes you side with Selina, but I forget exactly what it was), and it does remind me of Talia's possessiveness of both Bruce and Damian. She wants the family on her terms, so she's basically decided that Bruce is her husband.

Could I ever like Talia? Not as a good guy. She's aces as a psychopath, though.

2 comments:

  1. I think Talia is an example of a character who has experienced great character growth for all of the reasons you described. I don't know if it was the creator's intent to make her an antihero of sorts in her early days, but it certainly had an adverse effect in giving her that weird "villain w/ hots for hero" characteristic. With the way Grant Morrison is writing her now, it not only takes all of her past actions into consideration, but it also evolves the character to the next logical step, including a bizarre parent/child relationship where the roles are reversed.

    She was always an interesting character, to me.

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  2. Who does not like Talia,is an idiot who only sees Catwoman.

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