The Scarlet Witch could have had therapy and it might have just not worked. Xavier could have tried to fix her and been repelled by her reality-warping.
The Illuminati didn’t need to do anything. Something less stupid could have sent Hulk into space, or they could have offered him the chance to be left alone and his rage could have been caused by someone manipulating him on Planet Sakaar.
Someone could have risen up with an actual thought out argument or registration that could be honestly argued and also come up with protections against what happened with Mutant Registration.
Norman Osborn could have orchestrated his rise through some large-scale hypnotic suggestion and then acted evil covertly while putting on a balanced face of reform in public.
The Skrulls could have discovered and subverted attempts to spy on them. Then they could have actually launched a… you know SECRET Invasion instead of sending troop carriers like common Kree.
Look At All Those Idiots
Occasionally, you will sit down and read a book, watch a show, play a game or go to a movie and come out of it wondering how the hell the plot even managed to happen given the reasonable assumption that most humans have basic simian common sense. Looking back at the story, you find that every step of the way, every decision made by almost everyone in the story was the wrong one and not due to poor information or bad luck. When you stop and think about it, the only reason the story even exist is because everyone who mattered in the story was a complete goddamn idiot.
My condolences, my friend, for you have run afoul of the hideous beast known as… the Idiot Plot.
And as promised I’m going to discuss it in my usual format of understanding and then dissecting… but first I feel that we need to define our term. Specifically, we need to talk about what is not an idiot plot. The reason being is that ‘idiot plot’ is a derisive term, and like any derisive term, the internet has commandeered, twisted, and completely missed the point of the actual term so as to easier complain and make fun of things they don’t like.
First, if there’s just the one idiot and the story and characters know they’re an idiot, even if that idiot’s action drive the plot (such as Gillian’s Island), then it is not an idiot plot. By that same token, if everyone being an idiot is the clear point of the story, be it for satire purposes, strawmanning, or just plain comedy, it also doesn’t count. Nor do honest and understandable mistakes, even when they keep happening in a contrived manner.
Second, an idiot plot has nothing to do with a story’s concept. No matter how dumb ‘a camera crew follows unlikable idiots who pretend they’re not mugging for the camera and playing up the drama in their lives’ is, that doesn’t make it an idiot plot (No, not even Duck Dynasty—lookit me, I’m topical! But seriously screw… whichever one of the duck sex simulator making dwarves on that show said all that bullshit.).
No, an idiot plot is about the story depending on no characters whose actions matter to the plot’s progression consistently displaying intelligence or logic and/or knowledge that they are shown to be in possession of when a reasonable person would expect they would.
For illustrative purposes, I’m going to be using the greatest, longest running idiot plot in all of superhero comics: the Marvel Universe’s meta arc stretching from the publication of Avengers Disassembled and ending roughly at the end of the storyline The Siege. By and large, I’m going to ignore things like continuity, LOL Deaths, tired political commentary, and things that just plain pissed me off to focus on just how every step of this arc progressed by way of everyone in the entire universe being complete gibbering morons.
Sound like fun? Well let’s get down to it and talk about the reasons Idiot Plots happen in the first place.
One – Plot Before Characters
Sometimes, a writer has a story in his or her head before they actually come up with, choose or get assigned characters. At other times, they might have characters in mind already and then for one reason or other, have to forgo those characters.
I’ve done that before. The character Traceren Ridsekes from Ridsekes was originally a supporting character to Pele in Rune Breaker. When the RL Pele finally convinced me to write rune Breaker, I had already used Trace for his own stories and thus created Kaiel Arunsteadeles to replace him. However, I changed the story to accommodate Kaiel. Some writers… don’t. Or if they do, they quickly sweep them aside or bend them to fit the roles they have n the story.
In venues like movies and books, this is rarely an issue as there’s little continuity or the character were created for the story in the first place (and idiot plots happen for other reasons), but in TV shows, games and comics, you have multiple creators, some of whom don’t really know more about the character than having Wikipedia open in another tab while you’re on Facebook would allow, and long strings of continuity and characterization to sort through. It’s inevitable that something is going to slip through where a character misses something they should have caught or fails to know something they should have…
…Or the writer willfully ignores these things because ‘damn it, this character knowing things is going to mess with my perfect precious rainbow of a plot!’.
In this way, Marvel was able to push through the Civil War event, where despite the company’s entire line having taught generations of readers that even seemingly benign efforts to identify potentially dangerous superhumans is already on the razor’s edge of racism and ethnic cleansing via giant robots, half of the heroes who had learned this lesson again and again forgot it completely just because the X-men were busy with some other bullshit (like having their home turned into an internment camp).
It’s also the impetus of the entire Dark Reign arc, where everyone in the entire United States forgot that Norman Osborn was a psychotic murderer and let him set his cronies up as the US’s superhuman defense force and gave him a list of all registered secret identities.
No character should be that stupid, but the writers wanted the plot to go that way, so down go the IQ points.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to why idiot plots exist. Another is…
Two – ‘If The Audience isn’t Looking At It, the Character’s Don’t Have To’
As the old saying goes ‘out of sight, out of mind’. In fiction, this is kind of true: if something happens off screen, we need to be told about it or else it literally didn’t happen. Naturally, sometimes it’s easier to say something happened off camera than to show it. And that’s fine. The problem occurs when the writer uses the fact that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on to pretend that the characters shouldn’t either.
So if, say, Bad Guy McEvilson goes to jail, the audience stops thinking about him. But then it turns out that Bad Guy Escaped months ago and is not gunning for the hero! ZOMG! But how come the hero is just hearing about the escape now? Wouldn’t someone warn him that the dude he sent to jail escaped? Hell, wouldn’t someone that evil escaping jail be on the freaking news?
No. Because then the fact that Bad Guy has used those months to amass a criminal empire and gain Hero-Slaying powers wouldn’t be a surprise, you see. And it’s more important to preserve that little bit of drama than to show the hero, the authorities or the media having even the basic shreds of competence.
The same goes for if a character has some sort of problems; an addiction, a recurring illness, etc. No one seems to check on them to make sure they’re doing okay and they never seem to consider having regular check-ups with some sort of doctor. Nope. Once one bout passes, it’s safe to ignore it forever!
Hence how Marvel’s train wreck got started. In a convoluted series of stories, Scarlet Witch married the robot Vision and had children with him (!). Only they weren’t children, but illusions covering the soul fragments of one of Marvel’s many, many Satans (Mephisto in this case). She goes through a hard time emotionally but recovers… and then no one ever mentions the children or checks to see how she’s holding up again… until she suffers a psychotic break and goes murder crazy on her friends.
By the way, even after this, seeing how a psychotic break in the mind of a reality warper might be a bad thing, Professor Xavier, the most powerful psychic on Earth doesn’t even consider using his powers to give her therapy as he’s done for Wolverine… or even bringing in an actual therapist.
Later, in Secret Invasion, we learn that the homeworld of the shapeshifting race, the Skrulls, has fallen into civil and religious disarray, resulting in a plot by them to kill Earth’s gods to… I’m not really sure. But they infiltrate Earth with no trouble, failing only when they mount a clumsy, poorly planned invasion by brute force (despite having sleeper agents everywhere).
Why is this part of this section? Because it’s not like the Skrulls haven’t attacked Earth before. They’re an enemy who have sent champions and armadas and crap against us many times before. We apparently don’t have a telescope pointed at their homeworld to notice a giant armada massing in Skrull-space to come kill out ass.
And then there’s Reed Richards. In a story that even I, who never really like the Fantastic Four knows, Reed famously screwed over hundred of people because he defeated a Skrull invasion by hypnotizing them into turning into cows… then ignoring them. The completely unattended alien cows were then butchers and eaten—transforming an entire town into chaotic monsters. Reed is also the primary target of all the murderous Super Skrulls sent to Earth. He should have learned to actually pay attention to the Skrulls a long time ago and yet… nope. No one was watching the Skrull homeworld. No one was on the lookout for a race of enemy shapeshifting aliens or tried to spy on their science facilities just in case they decided to make Even-more-super Skrulls.
Because the reader wasn’t looking, so why should the guy who accidentally murdered a bunch of folks by failing to do just that?
Three – To Make The Villain Seem Smarter
Villains, as we’ve discussed before, are often the coolest character in the story. This is often by necessity due to the villain often being the driving force of the plot to which the heroes must react. However, sometimes the villain isn’t as naturally cool as Darth Vader or Agent Smith (in the first movie anyway) and the writer tries to give them a little help by making their plots super-effective… at the cost of everyone else looking like simps.
The Marvel Debacle didn’t really have that many villains at the heart of them, preferring to make the heroes fight each other while sidelining the actual villains. During Dark Reign, however, Normal Osborn (AKA, the Green Goblin, well known murderer and terrorist) was made Director of the SHIELD-like organization HAMMER and everything that happened leading up to and after it is due to everyone else being dullards.
First, Osborn gets this job because he shot one alien in the head. That’s it. Everyone hails him as a hero because he shot someone in the face. I don’t care if it was the leader of the Skrull invasion, it was still just shooting someone and considering her plan was to conquer the entire planet, I’m pretty sure anyone without an aversion to killing would have done the same thing. But Osborn does it and instantly becomes hailed as a hero and handed control of the most powerful organization on Earth.
The implication here is that anyone who killed her would have gotten the same treatment. So if Mac Gargan (then Venom) had eaten her, then HE would have become king of monkey mountain. Or hell, if Dr. Doom had shown up to pop a cap in her ass, the US would have handed the keys to SHEILD and the secret identities of every single registered hero over to him instead.
Osborn clearly knew that he was benefiting form an idiot plot, as he instantly set out to, among other things, send the Thunderbolts to cripple or kill unregistered heroes in full view of the public, openly attack, capture and torture mutants (the X-men had moved to and had a good relationship with San Francisco at the time), and assemble and obviously evil cabal who met openly and was made up mostly of villains and enemies of the United States (you know, the country he was working for).
This is all presented as a study in how awesomely evil Osborn was and how good he was at playing the system, but… no. If anyone n the US government took their head out of their ass for even a second, they would have noticed that this was a man who has murdered multiple people and who is continuously suffering from the side effects of a neurotoxin. No one would have put him into that position and no one would have let him act so openly and so brazenly without at least pretending to try and stop him. Everything about Osborn’s reign is rooted in idiocy.
Oh and as it turns out? Osborn only got the intel that let him shoot said alien (And yeah, I’ve forgotten her name even though I read Secret invasion because that’s how unimportant she was) because Nick Fury hired Deadpool to find t out. At which point, Nick Fury, famous for being highly security conscious and paranoid—failed to properly encrypt the connection the file was being shared on, allowing Osborn to steal it. Yup.
But sometimes, there’s not even that much thought put into it. For example, sometimes and idiot plot gets rolling because…
Four – ‘We Don’t Have Time To Explain It.’
This is related to plot over characters, but instead of simply not planning with the characters in mind, the writer isn’t planning at all. The characters are at point A and the plot happens at point B, and nothing is going to stop them from getting there, not even common sense.
Planter Hulk was (until the ending) actually a very good story and even with the craptastic ending, I highly recommend it. The problem was that in order for it to happen at all, Hulk needed to get onto another planet. I don’t know how much you folks know about Hulk, but he is not known for his ownership of interstellar transportation or his keen piloting skills. Something had to get him to the titular planet and strand him there. Something very, very stupid.
Enter the Illuminati, a cabal of Marvel’s most powerful and/or intelligent heroes who will, for the purposes of the Marvel Debacle, have all been twisted into morons and assholes (amusingly, one member, Charles Xavier, who had been turned into a retroactive asshole earlier by Ed Brubaker. Would get better as part of Christos Gage’s excellent tie-in miniseres: World War Hulk: X-men.) These brain trusts decide that after a villain sparked off a rampage by the Hulk, this mean that Hulk (and not the villain) was too dangerous to live on Earth. So they were going to launch his green ass into space, aiming for a world where he could live, but with absolute isolation.
But first, they appealed to his better nature to trick him into the space ship.
Okay, if you know nothing else about the Hulk, I bet you know two things: All Hulk wants is to be left alone and the angrier Hulk becomes, the stronger Hulk becomes. So given the choice, Hulk would gladly go to another planet to chill, but if he felt betrayed (say by being tricked into a space ship and launched into the void without permission), he would be a much, much larger threat than he would have been otherwise. This is something even the most casual observer knows about Hulk, but something Iron Man who worked with him for years completely forgot.
Meanwhile, another Illuminati member, Reed Richards has extensive knowledge of the Cosmic side of the Marvel Universe and knows that all sorts of insane anomalies are out there that can warp you all over space, transform you into a rock monster, or slam dunk you into a dimension made of infinite sadness. He doesn’t even do a cursory scan for any of these before lighting that candle.
So of course they shoot Hulk directly into one of those anomalies, he lands on a world where he kicks everyone’s asses and becomes king, then some other idiots ruin everything, causing Hulk to return to Earth more angry than he’s ever been before. Good job, guys!
Speaking of morons not noticing when something is a villain’s fault just so a plot can get under way, this is also how Civil War started. The villain Nitro is hopped up on a power-enhancing drug and, to escape capture by the New Warriors, blows himself up (he can survive his own explosions), killing a bunch of people including kids.
So naturally the entire Marvel Universe turns on every single superhero, demanding superhuman registration. No one even looks for Nitro or mentions him at all except Wolverine, who goes and kicks his as—but never tells anyone but Robbie Baldwin, who punished him but never exposes what he’s done. Because if anyone put the blame rightfully on Nitro in the first place, or bought it to light later, nothing that happened at the start of Civil War would have happened and we so very much needed that ‘wonderful’ storyline.
But of course, the real demon behind all of this is…
Five – Just Plain Laziness
Here comes the dissection.
In the end, it all comes down to a writer who is unwilling to sit down and put in the time and effort to craft their plot and make it work logically. Instead, they just fudge things, ignore things, and twist characters into idiots to make the plot move the way they want it to.
All of the examples I cite could have been changed to get the desired effect without resorting to idiot plots. I’m not saying they would have been good (because the core ideas were still bad), but they would have still been logically consistent.
Some of these stories could have even been saved by this. Secret Invasion had a ton of potential before it turned into a war story. Planet Hulk was great, but tainted but idiot plots at the start and end. Dark Reign would have been amazing if it wasn’t predicated on everyone just not caring that Norman Osborn was who he was.
Would the Decimation event that led to this very website’s creation still have been stupid, unnecessary and show a shocking ignorance of what ‘minority’ and ‘endangered species’ mean? Would Civil War have still been all about Mark Millar calling Americans fascists? Would everything about The Sentry still have been a sad waste of a good, comic book premise (seriously, removed The Void from the equation and imagine of The Sentry was really a superhero who fought his way back from being retconned out of existence.)? Well yes.
The thing is, and maybe it only counts for something with me, but they would have been more honest failures. By that I mean, they never got a chance to fail on their own merits as story concepts because they were already doomed because of shoddy execution. While it is completely correct to critique a work as a whole and find it lacking or even horrible thanks to the creator’s failure to properly implement the story, I feel a little sad when a story falls down largely because the writer couldn’t be assed to sit down and think about what they were doing.
There was no way Civil War was not going to suck. But in my opinion, it takes away from the lessons that might be learned from it (i.e. Mark Millar should have stopped writing after Superman: Red Son) when we’re all so occupied spotting the obvious, gaping flaws in logic.
And I’m not immune to that. You’ve all heard me rail against Man of Steel for Superman being an idiot and basically destroying a city because he a) punched a guy into a highly populated area and then b) let many people die because he forgot he was nearly invincible. But there is a whole universe of things wrong with that damn movie from the narrative direction and up, but besides the awful morality and the idiot plot, I and most people generally don’t talk about anything else.
I usually finish these blog entries with a plea for my dear readers to try writing and to keep things like this in mind when they do. This time around, I’m hoping instead that I’ve made you more conscious of the how and why of idiot plots so that you can identify these shallow flaws and looked deeper to get more out of the stories you read, watch and play.
Next week…I have no idea. Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments or forum.
You know who doesn’t do idiot plots? My writing buddy, Arianne “Tex” Thompson, whose book One Night In Sixes is now taking pre-orders. Give it a look, Tex is all kinds of awesome. Plus her existence allows me to say I know someone nicknamed ‘Tex’, which as we all know, is of vital importance.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
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