My computer isn’t powerful enough to run the most modern of games, but I have had the chance to play some demos of games like Batman: Arkham City and do play older, awesome games like the Spider-man game that came out alongside the first movie.
This isn’t really a review blog (for that, I will leave you in the capable hands of Linkara and Spoony), but I will give my impressions of those games because it informs a lot of this article. In a nut shell, I would actually like those games more if I didn’t have to bother with bosses and stuff and just got to use my awesome bat gadgets and spider-powers to do terrible things to random goons.
I’m serious. Whenever I got into a situation where I had to actually fight a real, challenging bad guy, I went at it like a kid who had to eat all of his broccoli because desert was usually a new power to mess up hapless non-powered criminals in the sandbox mode.
That’s not to say that the boss battles were boring or anything; I just got the biggest thrill out of completely letting lose and getting a taste of being ‘super’.
Thus, the value of the unsung treasures of heroic fiction, be it superhero, fantasy or sci-fi: minions.
Yes, be they called minions, mooks, goons, thugs, heavies, foot soldiers or cannon-fodder, the poor chumps who have absolutely no chance against Our Heroes, are a surprisingly valuable element of the sub-genre and one writers and readers would do well to give more thought to.
So what exactly is a ‘minion’?
Well, I think I did a pretty good job explaining it already, theoretical reader I’m using to construct my segues. But to lay out some basic ground rules, a minion is the evil version of a red shirt; an extremely minor character in a work whose main job is to be easily overcome, typically in a physical fashion, often by being knocked out or killed in one panel/scene/sentence. They’re even less likely than red shirts to have a name and if the audience is meant to feel anything for them, it’s usually ‘ha, you deserved that’, or ‘you poor, dumb bastard’.
To put it another way, Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition, introduced a mechanic actually called ‘minions’ that were monsters that were able to do low-to-average damage but had one hit point and were instantly defeated if they were hit at all.
Not to get into an argument over D&D editions (I love 4e and think it had a lot more hits than misses as opposed to the only other edition I’m familiar with, 3e/3.5e), but I feel that minions were one of if not the best mechanic in that system. A lot of people complain about how they aren’t realistic (in a game where my magical elf once used a deck of magical cards to cause a giant castle to appear somewhere in the wilderness) or that one hp, insta-kill monsters were ‘boring’ and I think they don’t get what the point of the mechanic was (or that it was optional).
That point is the heart of why minion type characters are so valuable to heroic fiction: they act as a means of showcasing the hero, their powers and the way they operate.
See, the truth is, most heroes react to villains. Really, this is just common sense: you can’t fight crime that isn’t happening and someone isn’t a villain if they haven’t done anything villainous. A side-effect of this is that the actions and power usage of the hero is partially dictated by the villain and most good villains will have ways to counter-act or mitigate the powers of the hero so as to provide actual drama and conflict. If it really is just a matter of the hero pointing their powers at the villain and clicking, then the story would be pretty boring.
At the same time though, the audience (at least me) still wants to see the characters’ powers portrayed as something, you know, super. If everyone Superman fights is able to instantly match him strength-for-strength or takes his strength and other powers out of the equation entirely every time, then it would be just as boring as if he beat everyone easily.
In fact, if superpowers never actually work well when the hero goes up against someone, you might be forgiven for wondering what the hell point there is to give the character powers or gadgets in the first place.
Enter the noble minion. Well, not-so-noble minion. Whatever.
A minion never dictates the terms of the fight. Even if they ambush the hero, they are so low level that the element of surprise is negligible. This means that when a main character fights minions, they are fighting by their own rules and with their own agency, allowing the audience to see the true fighting style and philosophy said character applies to a fight.
I’ve long said that combat is as much about characterization as anything. Minion battles, in my opinion, are the purest form of this idea. Does the character banter with the mooks trying to shoot them? Do they pull their punches because they know these guys can’t actually take their full power? Hell, do they capture or kill these people? Punisher will happily gun down the same people Spider-man humiliates and leaves hanging and who Superman would hand-deliver to the police.
There’s also the contrast between how the character deals with minions and actual threats that says a lot about them. A show-off will try all sorts of fancy moves on guys who could easily be dispatched by a punch, and a pragmatist might actually be rather boring fighting minions when they become far more creative against actual threats.
Let’s take Batman as an example here (I know I’m using a lot of superheros in my examples, but mooks show up in any genre with a heroic archetype. Bear with me). Bats is a very different creature when fighting minions and thugs vs fighting big bads. The Arkham games are great at giving you a taste of this and why it works this way.
With the rank and file criminals (a cowardly and superstitious lot), Batman is a terror that stalks them from the darkest corners. That’s why he famously choose to ‘become a bat’ in the first place.
He screws with them. That’s the nicest way I can put it. Playing through Arkham Asylum, you really start to feel like a sociopath as you make these big, bad goons soil their shorts by picking them off one by one like they were sexy teenagers and you were a hockey mask wearing revenant. Swift, quiet takedowns mix with randomly making noises and messing with their environment into a carnival of cruelty that ends with a swift trip to jail and a lifetime of nightmares.
You’ll notice that he doesn’t try this with his main rogues. I think he used it against the likes of Rupert Thorne a few times in the Animated Series, but Joker, Ivy, Two-Face? Not so much. For one, these people are too bat-shit (heh) crazy to be afraid of something like pants-wetting fear. For another (and this is just personal interpretation), there’s some familiarity between Bruce and his rogues. He knows them and they him; there’s no point in trying to wow them with theatricality and on some level, he respects them too much to try. So he either matches wits with them or goes head-to-head to lock horns with them.
Either way, we wouldn’t understand how Batman has such an effect on crime in Gotham if it wasn’t for his mook battles because it wouldn’t make sense for him to pull that stuff on super-criminals. Hooray for goons!
So we know what a minion is and why they’re good for a certain genre of story, but what makes a good minion?
That’s a tricky question. By definition, a minion-type character isn’t that kind of character one writes much about. The second you start to delve very deeply into a history or motivation, they stop really being a minion or other type of cannon fodder. With that said, they can be written poorly.
For example, most fodder creatures Power Rangers are pretty bad, as are a lot of the mooks that Walker, Texas Ranger faces. The problem is, they’re too bland and they fight in such a boring way.
Putties, from the original Power Rangers series always—ALWAYS–just charged in an squared off against Our Heroes, swinging clumsily and without any sort of coordination until they got punched or kicked away. The bad guys from W,TR are arguably worse than putties; they just formed a circle around Our Heroes and ran at them one at a time, usually finding themselves dispatched before even getting a single swing in.
They were boring and that’s the one thing minions should never be.
In this, I think we find the key to good minion characters. Yes, they are going to lose. Yes, they are not meant to have depth or character development, or backstories. That does not mean that they are not characters and as such, still need to be interesting.
One series I feel illustrates this point rather well is Halo. Apologies to all you more serious gamers and/or fans of the non-game Halo media, but I’ve only really played through the story of the first game, Halo: Combat Evolved, and I’m not really up on the lore, but this is all just for illustrative purposes. Feel free to correct me in the comments.
At the start of Halo, you are fighting the Covenant, a loose confederation of aliens who just happen to fall into easily distinguishable videogame enemy roles. Now, most videogame enemies are basically minions, but the most miniony of the Covenant are these short little dudes I think are called Grunts.
Grunts are pretty fun from both a gameplay and a narrative standpoint. They use varied weapons, tend to cower behind shields, and more wonderful of all, the talk to one another. The player is often treated to Grunts screaming in terror that ‘they’re everywhere!’ as you and your space marines swarm over them, or laughing as they think they’re setting up an ambush.
It’s awesome and I totally understand why there would be scenes with them in Halo comics and books.
And then there are the Flood. The Flood are zombies. Yeah, there’s lore about them that explains them way, way better than zombies are ever explained, but they’re just these mindless, shambling things that really just come at you forever, mke noises like walruses having sex and sometimes explode into tiny annoying things that waste your ammo.
From a game standpoint, they change the dynamic of the gameplay, which is good, I guess. It goes from a slightly strategic shooter ro a desperation blasting spree in ever Flood-base area.
Narratively though, they’re zombies. And there is a reason why zombie movies resort tot he old ‘humans are the real monster’ saw and zombie games desperately scrabble to make a more disgusting ‘mutant’ zombie. The standard moaning heap just isn’t interesting and completely lacks personality. (also, technically, the swarm of zombies isn’t a minion, it’s a force of nature).
A minion doesn’t need a lot of personality, just enough to make the encounter worth paying attention to. Yes, the thug who watches Spawn light his friend on fire and decides that he can totally take someone who can and does do something like that with a broken beer bottle is an idiot… but he’s an entertaining idiot.
Same goes for the standard thugs in an alley about to mug someone. They’re assholes. That’s all we need, but it informs us just enough that we enjoy watching whatever passing superhero is in the neighborhood to force-feed them their teeth.
That’s why putties never worked for me. They’re just… there. Hell, they don’t even seem to feel pain, so watching them get dispatched feels pointless in the end. In the case of the guys that try and fight Walker, it’s the fact that they all just run at him with maybe a weapon in hand. The fight is completely monotonous and a fight scene is the one thing you have to work hard at to make boring.
On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to go too far the other way. Let’s talk about Batman Returns. For the most part, I enjoy the film for all its goofiness, but the whole sequence with the circus freak bad guys? Ugh.
Yeah, they’re unique and all have their unique little shtick and all, but they’re so damn distracting. No matter how many times I watch that damn movie, I can never actually follow that fight because my eyes are drawn in five hundred directions. Anything cool Bats does is steamroller over by all these colorful characters just… kind of doing stuff while waiting their turn to be knocked out by a programmable batarang.
They’re just a wall of jackasses all jockeying for my attention when my attention should be on Batman, who, despite being a man in a bat costume, is the least striking and unusual person on screen. Remember, the purpose of a minion type character is to help define and highlight the hero—and these bastards fail utterly at that!
So be interesting, but not too interesting. It’s really a fine line to walk. I think that’s why there exist so many characters of this type that fall into a handful of archetypes: the cultist who is a true believer to the end, the aggressive thug, the professional soldier, the clearly in it for the paycheck goon, etc. I think the idea here is that no one is even really supposed to think much about these characters (ha!), so why not phone it in?
Well obviously, there is a formula, so I say why not make the best minions possible and use them to create good scenes?
There’s a story behind how I got on this kick about talking ‘minion’ like this, but I normally don’t use the kind of strong language the discussion of this evoked in me. It started with an observation that you don’t see many female minion types (and acknowledging some of the unfortunate implications of such a character) and quickly turned into cries of -4STR! (Google it. I’m not linking to 4-chan), which apparently applies to guns and magic, arguments that women don’t commit violent crime, and accusations of using minions to fill some kind of quota on female characters.
Now granted, I can’t one hundred percent guarantee that everyone reading this is actually even passingly familiar with my work. You, gentle reader, might have gotten here via an unlucky ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ click from Google or something. And I also know that it’s out of date, but here is the cast page for The Descendants. Does it look like I need to give some random gangster an extra ‘X’ chromosome to artificially inflate my gender numbers? If anything, I really ought to elevate a dude or two to the main cast.
And no, this isn’t some PC crusade. If it was, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be in favor of showing some female characters getting their asses handed to them. It’s a stylistic choice because I can’t really think of an actually good reason not to mix some women into these criminal groups and it kind of makes me want to belch hellfire to be called out for not calling all women everywhere docile weaklings.
On the other hand, the whole thing is kind of amusing, hearing about all this knowing who originally played the eponymous girl from A Girl and Her Monster, and having watched the same woman stab a can of evaporated milk open with a zweihander.
No, I am not kidding. We were hanging out before Katsucon one year and I bought one of those ‘make your own fudge’ kits, only to discover that former Ledgermain artist and occasional poster on the forums, Pele didn’t have a can opener. Pele pointed out that she did, however have a big ass sword (because we are nerds. I have more cutlery in my own house than the Cordon Bleu).
The milk was defeated, fudge was had, and Pele got 5XP for defeating the can.
She then promptly used the soup aisle at Giant to grind to level 40.
So yeah, my best friend is basically Lady Deadpool.
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