Daily Archives: March 7, 2014

“I Only Wanted to Help.” Well, That Doesn’t Un-Genocide My Planet, Does It, Mr. Helpful?

12 Reasons Why Superheroes, Super-Villains and Advanced Beings Don’t Share Their Amazing Inventions and Discoveries with the Normal Folks Living in Their Respective Worlds 


1. Because they know what’s best for us, and what’s best for us includes them not giving us access to [Item X].
“Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind.” So says Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor in Superman Returns when explaining why he’s got such a mad-on for Superman. And to be fair, the bald dude’s got a point: we’re told Superman’s Fortress of Solitude is filled with “the accumulated scientific knowledge of dozens of different worlds,” and yet the guy spends his free time catching bank robbers and rescuing spunky reporters. If Superman has access to advanced knowledge and technology that could help humanity solve some of its more pressing problems, then wouldn’t he have a moral obligation to share the wealth? Alas, one of the more common themes in superhero stories (and science fiction in general) is it’s bad when people have stuff given to them before they’re advanced enough to use it properly. See also: any Star Trek episode where some Federation type screws up a primitive civilization with gifts of advanced weapons and copies of Mein Kampf. It’s also Marvel’s explanation for why the Watchers — a supremely advanced race of interstellar peeping Toms — adhere to a strict code of non-interference; after their efforts to share advanced technology with another alien race led to some rather unintended (if not totally unexpected) consequences, they were so traumatized by the accidental genocide they caused that they swore never to interfere with another culture again. Except for that one time Galactus came to Earth. And that other time when… okay, almost never.

2. Because [Item X] is something that simply can’t be duplicated.
Sometimes it’s as simple an explanation as the thing in question can’t be shared because it’s a one-of-a-kind occurrence. Think of all the scientists who die right after inventing something awesome (while conveniently neglecting to keep notes for anyone else to follow up on their work), or a power-bestowing accident that can’t be repeated because of the unexpected insertion of some random element. This is the reason why, for example, humans aren’t teleporting across the galaxy thanks to Dr. Erdel’s amazing long-range teleporter; it worked only once, when he accidentally beamed the Martian Manhunter here to Earth, and the shock of seeing an alien life form in his lab gave the old man a fatal heart attack (not that you can blame him). This sucked not only for J’onn J’onzz, but for anyone who might have had an interest in pursuing options for interstellar exploration that didn’t involve coming up with insane amounts of spaceship fuel. Which brings us to…

3. Because [Item X] is made of/fueled by an incredibly rare substance.
By definition, superheroes and super-villains are exceptional people, in the sense they possess something that sets them apart from the roiling masses. But that something doesn’t have to be superhuman powers or a finely honed set of skills; sometimes it’s just enough to corner the market on a substance that’s extremely rare. Wakanda, the home of Marvel’s Black Panther, is a tiny African nation that jealously guards its greatest resource, a mountain of vibranium with highly prized properties. That vibranium was once combined with adamantium (another hard-to-find metal) to create Captain America’s shield, a one-of-a-kind object that can’t be duplicated for some reason. And why is a brightly costumed operative allowed to fling that shield at the heads of neo-Nazis and bank robbers instead of being ordered to give it to metallurgists who might be able to reverse-engineer it for the benefit of humanity? Because shut up, that’s why.

4. Because using [Item X] too often can have terrible effects on human health or the environment.
Sometimes a thing isn’t mass-produced or made readily available to the public because it’s just too dangerous to have in untrained hands. And when you live in a society where hair dryer manufacturers are forced to put “do not use in shower” warnings on their products because of what stupid people might do… well, you can see why, say, an ethical fellow like Tony Stark might have a problem with marketing his repulsor rays at the local big-box store. Then there was the case of Carl Sands, a common thief who used a gift from an other-dimensional alien to make himself as intangible as a shadow before Hawkman and Hawkwoman shut him down; while there might have been some money in it for him to reverse engineer the device and sell copies to others, it was later discovered that prolonged use of the “dimensiometer” would have plunged Earth into the next Ice Age. More recently, the TV show Arrow featured mirakiru, a super-strength serum that would give any world government the edge in the human-killing-machine-production department if it were mass-produced for soldiers… except for the small detail that the drug actually kills most people who take it, and it leaves the rest not quite right in the head. That’s the kind of side effect the FDA tends to frown on.

5. It’s an ego thing; you wouldn’t understand.
Marvel is rife with super-villains who fall into this category, guys who invent things that are actually game-changing but don’t bother to market them because… well, why should anyone else benefit from their genius? And maybe they’ll share their amazing gifts with the world as soon as the world shows them the love and adulation they never received as a child! Abner Jenkins, for instance, was a lowly mechanic working in an aircraft factory when he designed and built (on his own time, with only his mechanic’s education) a flying suit or armor with, um, suction-cup fingers? For real? Anyway, instead of running right over to Stark Industries to pull off one hell of a job interview, he decides instead to challenge the Thing and the Human Torch to a showdown. And when those two handed him his hat, he came back swinging against them, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and anyone else he thought he could take down just to show that he could. He has since reconsidered his choices in life.

6. It’s a vengeance thing; you wouldn’t understand.
Adrian Toomes was your average retired electronics engineer who went into business with another guy to produce and sell inventions. One day, flush from creating his greatest invention yet — a harness that allows a person to fly — he discovered his business partner had skipped town with the company’s finances, leaving him with no job and no legal recourse. So of course Toomes immediately lines up other backers, puts that puppy into mass production and makes billions off the many customers who are keen to soar with the eagles, as man has dreamed since time immemorial. HA HA JUST KIDDING! In fact, the embittered old man donned a green bodysuit and fur collar, called himself the Vulture, and committed acts of grand larceny whilst searching for his thieving ex-partner. Never mind that a flight harness capable of augmenting a wearer’s strength while requiring no fuel to run is pretty much every aviation engineer’s and military tactician’s dream come true. No, Toomes was having none of that “capitalism” crap, not after what happened to him the last time he tried to make an honest buck.

7. It’s an honor thing; you wouldn’t understand.
This one more likely explains why superheroes themselves don’t take advantage of inventions and innovations that would have made a huge impact in their own lives. For instance, the DC universe is a place where there are many ways in which to repair a broken body, even survive certain death (the Lazarus Pits of R’as al-Ghul being just one handy example)… but the hero might not choose to take advantage of those possible cures because he/she doesn’t feel it’s fair to do so when so many other people don’t have the same option. Barbara Gordon comes to mind here; during her Oracle days, after a bullet left her wheelchair-bound, she refused treatments that could have gotten her back in her Batgirl outfit, saying she didn’t want to dishonor the many public servants also disabled in the line of duty. With that kind of noble attitude to inspire them, it’s easy to imagine how the inventor/discoverer of a cure or a miraculous machine in a superhero’s universe might be reluctant to offer up a discovery until he/she has found a way to ensure everyone benefits from it.

8. It’s a money thing… actually, you’d probably understand this one.
Sure, coming up with a cure for cancer looks good on a résumé, but what good is it to you if you can’t enjoy a little of the cha-ching that comes with having something that everyone wants? (Mind you, real-life heroes like Jonas Salk, the guy who cured polio, voluntarily gave up their patents so the cures they discovered could be made more cheaply for the millions of people who needed it, but don’t let that stop you, my clever little capitalist!) Lex Luthor is the obvious example here; he’s a businessman first and foremost, and you can be damn sure he wouldn’t put his sizable brains to the task of coming up with anything without first figuring out the best way to maximize his profits. On that same note, there’s the kid from The Incredibles who grew up to become Syndrome; in his monologue, he explains how he used the profits from his weapons and inventions to fund his secret island hideaway and his scheme to become the only “super” in the world. Which is too bad — given the fact the guy invented hover cars, zero-point energy rays, and rocket boots that don’t require bulky fuel tanks and such (the last item something he whipped up when he was just a freakin’ kid), he could spent a lot of years getting rich selling that other stuff to the world if he hadn’t been so hung up on the whole “kill all superheroes” thing.

9. Because knowledge is power, and you don’t give away power to people who might use it against you.
Two words: Doctor. Doom. Undeniably one of the greatest intellects in the Marvel universe, Victor von Doom didn’t rise to the top of the heap by handing out his schematics and blueprints to every Hans, Dieter and Harry on the street. While Doom might have made a tiny profit selling, say, his robot doubles to other shady world leaders in need of protection, that overlooks the fact that (a) “Doom does not require mere money! Doom has spoken!” and (b) sharing his knowledge might someday lead to that knowledge being turned against him. That’s the same kind of reasoning that led to Tony Stark going to war in his “Armor Wars” storyline; he felt he was responsible for acts of violence committed by people using his stolen technology, so he decided to steal it back. He’s totally fine with putting his know-how towards other products designed to help people, but his Iron Man armor has always been off-limits to anyone who might want to mass-produce it. Granted, his reasons might be a little bit nobler than Doom’s, but the results are the same: “I’m not sharing these toys because I don’t want to see them used by someone else in a way I don’t approve.”

10. Because humans, sad to say, aren’t worth the effort. 
Here’s a question for you: if our heroes live in universes where Earth isn’t the only planet that’s home to intelligent life, and there are all these other planets where civilizations have mastered faster-than-light travel and other wonders, then why don’t we see aliens from those places coming here to Earth to exchange all their wondrous discoveries for what Earth has to offer? Like I said earlier, t could be because those advanced alien cultures have a strict non-interference policy because of some tragic incident in their past… or it might be because those aliens look at us and laugh at the very idea of giving us stuff beyond our comprehension: “What? You want me to travel to some backwater mudball and offer those savages the secrets of the universe? For Gleepglorp’s sake, they only discovered atomic energy 70 years ago! Why not offer them some bear skins and stone knives while we’re at it?” This whole “humans is primitive” trope has been played many times in the comics, like in the 2000 Marvel mini-series Maximum Security, which saw the rest of the universe having no problem with dumping their prisoners on a “backwater planet” like Earth. Earth’s inferior status in the cosmos is also a big plot point of Men in Black, a comic-book film in which Agent K notes the rest of the universe thinks “human thought is so primitive it’s looked upon as an infectious disease in some of the better galaxies.”

11. Because we need to keep some drama in the story.
Remember that part in Star Trek: Into Darkness where Dr. McCoy discovers the regenerative powers of Khan’s super-blood and uses it to bring Kirk back to life? Or that time in the first movie when Scotty figures out how to long-range teleport bodies, which Khan uses in the second film to travel from one planet to the next without a starship? Or the half-dozen times on the Star Trek TV shows that someone used a transporter to cure a disease and effectively eliminated death? And then remember how everyone went back to work the next day and forgot about that amazing discovery? Let’s face it, if Reed Richards can just haul a “cosmic ultimate nullifier thingamajig” out of his elastic ass every time the world is about to end, that would make for some pretty dull stories. And no one wants that. So pretending that last month’s “miracle thing” doesn’t exist anymore, despite the massive benefits it would bring to humanity, is one of those “suspension of disbelief” things us readers are asked to do in exchange for continued comic entertainment.      

12. Because making [Item X] readily available in the superhero’s world might make light of real-life problems in this world, or take the comic-book universe too far away from our own.
As I just said, popular culture is full of these moments where someone discovers something that can literally solve every problem, but it’s almost always immediately forgotten by the next episode because (a) it would make stories boring and (b) using that thing takes the show too far into a fanciful version of reality, maybe too far for viewers to relate to. Sure, every superhero gets a universal translator device when they meet up with other aliens in space, but the idea of using that tech on Earth to help people communicate will never occur to the characters, because doing do would move “their” world too far away from the reality of “our” world — and while it’s true we’re talking about books about flying people who shoot lasers from their eyes, they still need to be grounded in some version of the world that’s recognizable to the reader. This is also why you won’t see stories where, say, the greatest minds in the Marvel Universe come up with a cure for cancer or AIDS — because it would belittle the efforts of real-life heroes working on treatments for those diseases, and move the fictional world too far away from our world. The Death of Captain Marvel in 1982 (written by Jim Starlin, whose father died of cancer shortly before he wrote the story) makes much of the fact that Earth’s smartest heroes never even thought of putting their mental resources towards finding a cure for the disease… mainly because they didn’t think to try before Captain Marvel came down with it. And after he died, they went back to their usual superheroing without even considering the idea of continuing their work. Sad for those living with cancer in the Marvel Universe, but understandable from an editorial point of view.