0285 – Conan, Stark and Heroic Journeys

I once played a video game at a friend’s house about Conan The Barbarian. It was similar to God Of War, where you’re basically this title character who’s physically strong and powerful, and you go around hacking people up in increasingly difficult and complex combinations. Along the way you earn points, get stronger, increase your skills, become stronger, become more powerful, face up against more powerful enemies, do more killing and slaughtering, and ultimately… a whole lotta slaughtering. And you make love to some sexy maidens. And there are some epic boss confrontations and you have to do quick-time events where you respond to things, and it’s just a whole lot of mindless fun.

Conan has been on my mind for some time because I seem to recall the game starting with the character already rather strong and overpowered– perhaps kind of like how Thor did in the first Marvel movie. He already had skills and power, but he was naive and arrogant and hungry for action. In both cases, Conan and Thor get cast out and lose their advantages– a fool and his money are soon parted– and they then spend the rest of their time on a Hero’s journey, earning back what was supposedly their birthright, but earning in in an honorable, respectable way so that the audience feels that this time they deserve it. I believe in Thor’s case he has to earn the right to wield Mjolnir, and he doesn’t earn it until he is willing to sacrifice himself for others. With Conan, he loses all of his amazing armor powerups, and he has to earn them back one by one by defeating bosses in trials. (I can’t remember the specifics– maybe I’ll look them up again at some point, but the point is made.)

Really, Tony Stark goes through the same thing in the Iron Man movies. He starts out inheriting a lot of money and intelligence, and he coasts along (though for a superhero movie to work, even the coasting involves essentially being a physics/engineering superhuman). He enjoys the cars and the women and so on… until he suffers this devestating setback where he’s kidnapped and forced to be creative and think his way out. But that creativity alone isn’t enough– he has a friend who takes care of him, nurses him back to life, who helps him with his escape plan– who sacrifices himself, that Tony might live. “Don’t waste your life,” Yinsen says with his dying breath.

Tony then goes on to build a better version of the Iron Man suit, which allows him to be a one-man army righting the wrongs that were perpetuated by his earlier inaction and indifference to reality outside of his bubble. Along the way he has to tussle with Obadiah Stane– a person who was his right-hand man, but is power-hungry and wants to take over– he had commissioned the kidnapping of Stark, and he builds the Iron Monger– a more powerful version of the Iron Man suit, but less aesthetic. In the boss battle, Stark is again forced to improvise his way around, to exploit environmental advantages and such to defeat the physically stronger opponent.

In Iron Man 2, he gets complacent again, and discovers that he has a peer he didn’t know about– who’s equally intelligent, but was disadvantaged by circumstances. That peer takes Other People’s Money to fund his war– Tony was lucky to inherit money and also bootstrap his way to more money. Ultimately Stark defeats Whiplash with mentor-assisted ingenuity (his holographic father teaches him to invent a new element, which cures the health problems he was having), and with the power of Friendship (Lt. Col Rhodes, aka War Machine.) He was pretty lucky that Whiplash had no real friends and that Justin Hammer wasn’t particularly smart.

In the Avengers, I think Stark initially wasn’t all that interested in getting involved– Coulson approached him and he said he was busy– but he couldn’t help but get involved when Loki was kicking Captain America’s butt in Germany. Then it seemed like it was just a bunch of interpersonal ego battling until shit got more serious and Coulson dies… I can’t quite remember, maybe I got to watch it again. But basically the proposition is (by Rogers) that Stark is selfish and narcissistic, and he responds by making the sacrifice play at the end of the film. So it’s a sort of “for-my-friends-and-people” type deal. This doesn’t feel too good, I should watch it again.

In Iron Man 3 Stark has gotten overwhelmed with PTSD and anxiety attacks– he’s worried that he won’t be able to protect Pepper, who he loves. And fair enough he gets attacked at home by the strongest enemy yet, who has both the insights of Whiplash (puzzle/insight), the strength and resources of Stane (schlep/asset) and the package (theater of war/terrorism). Stark wins by unleashing a hidden stash of deep assets– saved up for a rainy day– but also by surviving long enough for it, through his limitations, by working with a kid who reminded him of himself, by improvising his way through little conflicts, effectively starting from scratch and then playing out the clock. And in the final conflict he is helped by Rhodes and Pepper– #friendship again. (This is what ultimately saves Shepard from the Shepard Clone in one of the Mass Effect expansions– which very obviously copied the ending of The Mummy Returns, where the villain realises his lover doesn’t truly love him, while the hero’s wife does– as demonstrated by their respective willingness and unwillingness to endanger themselves to save their lovers.)

ANYWAY. The point of all of this is… I recognize that narratives are powerful and full of tonnes of information– the most amount of information packed into the least amount of space, with an emotional heft that moves people. I remember watching Up with my wife after we had some trivial arguments, it moved both of us to apologize and agree that it was stupid and that we both are lucky to have each other at all when others lose their loved ones. Similarly I keep wondering– is there some narrative that I could be adapting and embracing that would motivate me? I liked Conan because he started out overpowered and then got cursed and lost all his shit– and had to claw his way back to get it. I feel like that vaguely mirrors what I’m grappling with.

But having written all this, it feels a bit silly. I don’t know. Just putting it out there. Might change my mind about this. We’ll see.

Relevant tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ATasteOfPower


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