Can a Superhero Win Without Punching?

Consider the superhero movie: Is there room for a heist ending? Instead of a big fight, the hero out-plans, out-clevers, and out-improvises the villain. Imagine CA: Winter Soldier without the idiot plot coupon third act, focused on the Widow/Fury maneuvers. Add Cap/Bucky and Falcon/Rumlow conflicts, small personal fights, for action, don't blow up the helicarriers.

Spider-Man trapped under a river by heavy machinery
Amazing Spider-Man #33
Ignore whether the studio interference executives would allow it (they wouldn't). Obviously, heist endings can pay off. But does the way they pay off work with superheroes?

I think the answer is yes, but superheroes are to some degree "about" the concretization of metaphor and the externalization of internal conflict. One of the purest examples of this is probably Amazing Spider-Man #33, where Peter Parker is crushed under the weight of his responsibility as himself and as Spider-Man, while he is literally crushed by tons of heavy machinery; his personal conflicts are made very real. From that perspective on what superhero stories do, a heist resolution may be a great story, but is it a superhero story? That is, can a superhero win without punching?

Let's step back to the Cap/Bucky fight in CA:WS. It exists as a small element inside the much larger conflict of the helicarrier fight. That sounds an awful lot like the externalization of internal conflict. Now, it's hard to describe that internal conflict in universal terms; it depends a whole lot on superhero stuff. Cap and Bucky, best friends forever, are both lost outside their own time and place; Cap has made and lost again a new place for himself in this time. Cap has guilt over Bucky's death. Bucky hasn't just lost his time and place, he's lost himself, not by choice. So while this has some resemblance to, say, two best friends, one of whom grew up to be a cop, one of whom grew up to be a mobster, it's clearly not the same. There's some echoes of Lenny from Of Mice and Men to be sure, and that may be a better place to start from.

But even once we understand the internal conflict, externalizing it to the helicarrier fight isn't a tight parallel. The helicarrier fight is about stopping fascism -- it's Captain America, it's about stopping fascism -- and rejecting the authoritarian solution to disorderly thinking. But that doesn't reflect on Cap's relationship to Bucky, it reflects on Cap losing the place he's built in this new time.

Not internal conflict
Can we understand the helicarrier fight as the externalization of the conflict between spymasters? That's an easier get to be sure. But I'm cheating, as I'm sure you've noticed -- I subtly redefined internal conflict to interpersonal conflict by mucking around with the scale. Peter's conflicting responsibilities have become beef between Pierce and Fury. And that is by no means that same thing. In fact, most examples of externalized conflict in superheroes are in fact simple interpersonal conflicts. Most of Spider-Man and Batman's villain fights reflect what's going on inside their heads. The third act helicarrier fight is a second externalization, an inflation. Widow's face turn and Fury's career choices are externalized to the beef with Pierce, which is inflated to the helicarrier fight.

And inflation of conflict isn't a core superhero concept.

Now we've demonstrated that the heist aspects of CA:WS are in fact a proper externalization of internal conflict, we've demonstrated that a heist ending is, ipso facto, not incompatible with superheroes. QED.

But let's count how many superhero movies avoid the big fight ending. I'm not going to hold my breath.
Can a Superhero Win Without Punching? Can a Superhero Win Without Punching? Reviewed by Greg Morrow on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 Rating: 5
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