The Super Heroes of the 21st Century

1. This Isn’t Even My Final Form

My life is dedicated to the constructive use of our imaginations as we face a more and more complex world.

Stories that are about people working together are dear to my heart.

Growing up, the narrative was very different.

Television shows were on at a specific time of day, and you watched what was available. Growing up there were about three options on tv at any given time (and about 50 channels with stuff we didn’t care about).

Would I have watched Dragon Ball Z growing up, if there had been shows on-demand? It’s hard to say.

Certainly it matched my need for a hero.

Dragon Ball Z was an anime about aliens invading earth, and then we’d fight them off, hand to hand, and with energy blasts.

Often, the characters would need to change form in order to achieve their highest power level.

That felt right to me.

I felt like there was a stronger version of me that was lying dormant, and I had to find a way to make it appear.

I wasn’t weak, I just wasn’t at my final form yet.

Looking back on the stories that raised me, it was common for the main character to be some guy who was not remarkably skilled at anything, but because he was “the chosen one” he would gain super powers and ascend.

Technically the main character of Dragon Ball Z got his powers not from being any chosen one, but because he liked to train.

At the end of every arc, everyone else would go back to their lives, and Goku would go off and train. He wasn’t training to be the best, he just loved training.

When I was in my twenties I attended a Magic the Gathering card tournament, as a spectator.

In the breakroom between matches, I ran into one of the judges.

Somehow the conversation wound its way to him telling me something that would stick with me forever.

He said you’d think that the people who win these things were cutthroat, want to win, want to be the best.

But that’s not the case.

The people who make it to the top are just the people who love the game that much that they keep playing. They stick with the game longer than others do because it’s no hardship for them to keep playing, and in so doing they gain further experience than anyone else.

He said there were times in the final match, that one of the players would offer a do-over to the other player. 

“You didn’t really mean to do that did you?”

“I mean… no.”

“Go ahead and take it back.”

They weren’t there to win, they were there to play. The game was that beloved to them that they would allow their opponent to fix a blunder. Not out of sportsmanship, but out of a genuine desire to play the game.

Goku of Dragon Ball Z wanted to keep training, and he did, and that’s why each season of the show he was the one who would eventually fight off the badguy.

At the time, I missed that he liked training.

I was driven to be the best, I was driven to win, to make my opponents lose; I didn’t understand the concept of finding a path to walk.

The word discipline comes from disciple, or one who loves walking a particular path, Paul Scheele said in one of his recordings.

Discipline isn’t about forcing yourself to accumulate butt-kicking power, discipline is about having found your path, the path that you don’t have to coerce yourself to walk.

As I grew up, I still gravitated toward heroes who loved the path that they walked on, but no longer ensorceled by the need to vanquish my enemies once I matured, the heroes I liked had a much more obvious love of what they did.

2. I am so Leslie Knope

Liz Lemon doesn’t really love her work.

The main character of 30 Rock, Liz has a dysfunctional relationship with her work; she doesn’t really want to be there, but when she’s forced to leave, she gets pulled back in by her addiction to the stress of the job.

A lot of people I crossed paths with identified with her.

I loved and rewatched 30 Rock probably close to a dozen times.

But I’m not Liz Lemon.

Airing around the same time, the show and character that “got me” was Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope.

Parks and Rec was written to be the comedy version of the West Wing, a show about governance that shaped my life.

The comedy element is instead of being about the people who make the decisions at the highest level of government, it’s a show about the people who make the decisions at the lowest level of government.

In this story, we watched someone who had big, humongous dreams of how she could help make the world a better place, and she had drive and passion, but she was also circumstantially nearly as powerless to do anything about it as I was; it’s hard to change the world from a parks department.

Throughout the series, Leslie does manage to accrue more influence and options to herself, but by and large the comedy of the show comes from the distance between her actual options and what she thinks her options ought to be.

She wants to help. She wants a seat at the table.

At one point she whips out her phone and says out loud as she’s typing, “Dear Congress, It’s Leslie again.”

It is my favorite line that she has ever said, because it sums up for me the mistake that is at the core of her character’s follies.

The “again” means that she writes to Congress on a frequent basis, and/or that she has written to Congress recently.

“It’s Leslie,” says that she thinks that all of Congress is on a first name basis with her, and that she can speak casually with them.

“Dear Congress,” is a ridiculous concept to me, since you can’t just write to a governing body, you have to reach out to the individuals who make up the governing body. If she forged actual relationships to individual members of Congress, she might actually make a difference, but she addresses them as an abstract whole.

Leslie does not force herself to train.

She loves the path that she is on.

The difference is that instead of a power-fantasy aimed to match immature fantasies of how easy life should be, it’s a realistic path. The immaturity is not in the audience but in the main character.

The more time I spent on the planet, the more it became important to me that characters have journeys that are about the actual amount of work it takes to change anything that matters to us.

3. Looting Dungeons & Slaying Dragons

You can learn a lot about yourself by which characters you make and which strategies you employ when you play games.

My D&D characters were overpowered defensive bulwarks, and my Magic the Gathering decks were unassailable fortresses.

I wanted protection; I wanted to feel safe.

Eventually, I got good enough at becoming powerful enough in these games, that I got very bored.

When you kill the final badguy, what is your character supposed to do with his life?

Years later, after a decade long hiatus from playing D&D seriously, I got a chance to play a character who was a retired barrister, whose species start to fade into non-existence if they don’t have a path to walk.

The idea was he had reached the end of the usefulness of his law career, and was going to take up an entry level position as a harold in this new land which needed ambassadors.

The character was based entirely around communication.

He could talk to plants, he could talk to animals, he spoke seven different languages, and he had a magical goat who could commune with the dead.

His job was to go out and become friends with everyone in the new region and quell the conflicts.

My life’s point of view had shifted, and the characters I wanted to play were different to match.

4. Alvin

When I set out to create Alvin McAllister my space marshal character, he was originally tasked to be a Bruce Willis-like action comedy star.

But what I quickly realized was that I did not actually want him to shoot anybody.

When I started working on his super powers, the number one skill I was sure he was going to have was the ability to make a shield that would prevent harm.

Jedi lightsabres are meant to be a defensive weapon, but in reality, the best defensive power I’ve seen is in Black Panther, where they have energy shields they can conjure at will.

He also was able to walk on any surface, regardless of gravity, and breathe without oxygen. This was I think so he could walk around on the outsides of space ships.

Why did he need that?

I think it was left-over from my upbringing of spectacle stories.

Alvin walking on the outside of a spaceship would be good television I guess.

All of those abilities eventually fell away (though I kept the walking on walls for comedic effect) and were replaced with the one ability I needed him to have in order to illustrate the point of him to the audience.

It wasn’t even his ability.

He was going to have a magical training room which allowed him to run through the negotiations he was a part of, and keep trying and failing at them until he got them right.

Recently, I’ve started thinking about scrapping that bit of magic as well.

The reason you need to run over your negotiation over and over again, is because you’re dealing with somebody who is not yet operating in good faith. They think you’re trying to take something away from them, and you have to walk around their landmines to convince them that you are a friend.

I never got very far with that line of stories.

Now, I believe it is because when most people are mature already, that level of picking your words is unnecessary.

Build a story world where people know how to process out their own pain and have love left over for others, and it suddenly becomes a story about logistics and rolodex, not a story of convincing people to work together.

5. Rolodex

The first venture capitalists were a group of scientists or engineers or something, who walked out of a bad job together, and tried to get hired, as a group, at other companies.

Or something like that; it’s from a documentary a decade ago and the details are hazy.

What does matter is that eventually, when they formed the first venture capital firm together, the question they would ask when taking on a new project, was, “Not do we have a big enough bank account for this, but do we have a full enough Rolodex for this.”

The deciding factor for whether they would invest in a potential company was not whether they could afford to buy the company, but whether they knew enough people who would shore up what the company needed.

6. Alvin, Cont.

I used to want to play characters who could power up and fight away any foe.

As I grew, it became clear to me that while there are people who will deliberately make the world worse if it benefits them, there is nothing to be gained by them being vanquished. Many of the people who took deliberate action to destabilize our ability to trust one another are dead, but the grooves they dug were easily filled by others who had no qualms continuing their divisive work.

Our problems cannot be solved by scattering the demons away.

We will be saved by no super hero.

Our solutions will come together collectively.

We will gain power not by fighting martial arts until our hair glows golden, but instead, the power will come from our ability to understand and work with others who have skills that mesh with our own and create something stronger than we could have done in isolation.

I used to want to imagine myself as someone who was strong enough to need no one; it had been a lonely and mismanaged life to that point. But now, when I think about who a hero is to me, its someone who can reach out and ask for help, and who has built a support network that keeps them afloat in hard times.

7. The Diamond Dogs

Ted Lasso is the furthest point I’ve seen in the development of stories for the screen.

It’s our best creation that I’m aware of.

Ted Lasso is a story about people who are disgruntled and disempowered, finding a way back to their own sense of control and stability in their lives.

One of the most important aspects of the Ted Lasso show, makes an appearance only a handful of times, but it is essential for humanity moving forward.

The characters all work for a sports team.

And the Diamond Dogs is what they call the squad of guys who get together to help one another through their personal problems.

I don’t think of the Avengers when I think of the super team I’d like to be a part of.

For a long time I used to think of Star Trek, and their future where they’ve got some serious emotional stability as a baseline for the population in that century.

But what I like about the Diamond Dogs, is that they’re contemporary men, and they’re working through their problems together.

That, to me, is still as fictional as Goku’s glowing hair and energy powers, but I’m hopeful now that I won’t have to be beamed to the 24th century in order to experience something as great as a world where even the men talk to each other and ask for each other’s help.

The above post was an entry for Paul Scrivens’ 30 Day Prompt Challenge.

Prompt:You have an alter-ego.
What is it good at?