A trope is a recognizable theme used in storytelling. The kidnapped princess, the final battle, the training montage, these are all tropes we have seen again and again. Usually recognition of a familiar trope is a good thing, it lets the audience know how they should feel about things and sets them up either for a satisfying conclusion or an excited twist. But what happens when a trope goes stale? When you can’t watch two hours of TV without seeing the same situation over and over, like the writers just emptied their cliche bladders all over the place? Some themes have suffered this fate, through excessive use now they accomplish the opposite of what the writers want. They take the viewer out of the experience. What follows is a list of tropes that I find tiresome, troubling and most of all, trite.
#10 – Youth Interface Activate!
“I am glad that I ignored my first impulse to crush you like a cockroach, Sam Witwicky.”
I remember, back when I was little, talking to one of my friends about Transformers, and I recall him saying, “wouldn’t it be awesome to be that kid who gets to hang out with Optimus Prime?” And even then I remember answering “No, it would be awesome to be Optimus Prime.” The kid sidekick trope is probably the least offensive because now a days it’s very rare. It seems (non-anime) writers have finally gotten it into their heads that being a superhero is a lot more appealing than being friends with a superhero. However, I’m still putting it on the list because of how incredibly dissonant it is to watch an episode of Superfriends in which Superman is basically saying, “I have an idea of how to defeat Lex Luthor, but it will require us to put two powerless teenagers and their idiot dog in mortal danger!” Also, in comics we constantly have to deal with writers trying desperately to make former kid sidekicks appealing by giving them superpowers, but amazingly the most consistent superpower Jimmy Olsen and Rick Jones have is their nigh invulnerability to relevance.
#9 – Girl Version
“Ok guys, everyone loves Krypto the super-dog, right? Well what if there was a female version? We could call her Kryptalina the super-… oh wait.”
How do we make girls read Superman? I know, let’s add a Super-type-girl! Or at least that’s where this meddlesome meme used to come from, now it’s just a calculated business move. It’s pretty obvious that if Wolverine sells 10% of the comics in the market share, Buxom Underage Female Wolverine should add at least two points to that. Of course this also applies to kid versions of superheroes as well as animal versions. Each of those is wonderfully blah in its own way. This is also where I throw in my now-required blah blah blah why are women and minorities relegated to less powerful clones of white male blah blah blah. Sadly this is one that a lot of comic fans just accept, but it drives me up the wall because it’s such an obvious and unimaginative ploy. Sure, maybe after years and years you get a gem like Wally West, but in order to get it you need to make your way through an enormous field taking care not to step on any Scrappy-Doos.
#8 – Nazis
“Ve haf vayz of making you talk… incessantly.”
Americans are obsessed with World War II. And why not? It was a big victory that wouldn’t have been achieved if the U.S. hadn’t stepped in. There were clear heroes and villains, it solidified the U.S.’s positions as a world power, it was a war that changed everything… And sixty-five years later we’re still hearing about it. Largely because Nazis make the perfect villains! They were bad people, they ordered and allowed some of the greatest atrocities in human history to happen, they hated entire subsets of people and wanted to rule the world. Sadly, no other group has stepped up to the challenge of evil superpower so that we can incorporate them into American fiction. Islamic extremists come close, but writing about that Jihad is a minefield, between the risk of offending American Muslims as well as the nagging issue of “how did these guys get guns and training in the first place?” most writers know better than to open that container of annelids. Russia got a lot of play for a while, but there was a reason why they called it “the cold war” in the end not a lot happened and now Russia is not really a threat. Like everything else in this list Nazis are used as shorthand, in this case for evil. Why spend any amount of time developing what, exactly, makes your villain evil, when you can just drop a convenient swastika in the background and be done with it?
#7 – Mon Dieu!
“Come to Jean Luc’s baguette emporium, you will surrender… to savings!”
Let’s dwell on World War II for a while (since every one else seems to). Does it seem weird to anyone else that the American stereotype of the French is that they are weak and surrender at the drop of a hat? Why? Because in (that magnificent) World War II the French surrendered. I don’t think people realize where France is located in Europe. Seriously, go look on a map, I’ll wait… There you go, see? It’s right there next to Spain and, wait that’s that country on the other side? oh yeah GERMANY. It’s like being Mike Tyson’s roommate in college, and having your friends make fun of you for letting him take the top bunk, who’s going to stop him? he just beat up Poland. But that analogy may have broken down. All in all I suppose it also makes for funnier jokes than the other stuff the French have done:
“Hey, did your hear how much aid the French sent after Hurricane Katrina?”
“Yeah, you’d think after giving us that big ass statue that we use as a symbol for our country they would have called it good.”
“Ha ha, yeah silly Frenchies.”
“Oh man, Asterix: the movie wasn’t very good.”
“Figures, first they redefine the art of cinema, while inventing many of the techniques that American directors use to this day, and then they send us a flop like this.”
“Ha ha, yeah, silly Frenchies.”
Seriously stop picking on the french, if you piss them off enough they’ll just start making collect calls over and romancing your ladies away from you. Although I suppose that is also a stereotype. Oh well, c’est la vie.
#6 – The Girl’s the MacGuffin
“Take care of her, she’s more precious than you’ll ever know… because she’s the Holy Grail.”
Really this one’s as much a trap for the writer as it is for the reader (or viewer). Rather than looking for an all powerful artifact you are looking for an all powerful sassy girl you are destined to fall in love with. If you hint at it too much, you’ll telegraph it, and the audience won’t be surprised (like maybe in a Tom Hanks movie). If you don’t address it before the third act, it comes out of nowhere (like maybe in a recent M. Night Shyamaladaptation). Furthermore, you pretty much have to base the whole premise of your comic/movie/flipbook/ around it, so if the audience gets wise to it before the big reveal they’ll completely lose interest. And if that happens, even with Oscar-worthy acting or Eisner-worthy writing, you’ll still have a whole third act of characters exchanging meaningful looks and whispering cryptic phrases that might as well amount to “I got a great deal on these shoes at JC Penney.” Well no duh, albino Jude Law, JC Penney has great every-day low prices. Sheesh…
#5 – Superman Analog
“Ok, new pitch for an Elseworlds book. Everyone loves Superman, right? But what if Superman was raised… in Kansas!?”
As I was sitting here, brainstorming for this article I came up with, no exaggeration, about twelve superman-like characters across various companies. Which is really sad. How lame is it that this sort of thing requires no explanation? “In Invincible the Superman analog is called Omni-Man.” is all the information you need, because EVERY COMIC BOOK UNIVERSE HAS AT LEAST ONE SUPERMAN ANALOG. Granted there’s plenty of potential for exploration there, and there have been several amazing, flavorful, and unorthodox takes on Superman. But by that same token there are some amazing, flavorful and unorthodox barbecue sauces, that doesn’t mean I want BBQ sauce in everything I eat. I mean ran out of milk for my cereal that once, but that was a one time experiment.
#4 – The Chosen One
“General, kill all red-headed children in my kingdom!”
“Why, my lord? Was there a prophecy foretelling your demise at the hands of a red-haired youth?”
“No, those ginger bastards just piss me off!”
Here’s another one that people just automatically accept. “Oh, OK, it’s fantasy, so clearly there has to be some prophecy saying some peasant kid will someday free the land from a great evil, right?” Wrong. This is just fantasy writers abusing a very easy writing crutch. Think about the major fantasy films (and a few sci-fi ones) of the past decade, how many of them feature a prophecy prominently? How many of them said that Anakin/Neo/Ang would one day bring peace to the galaxy/sexy ravers/planeteer nations? Of course, as with all of these there are good, original ways to execute this, the problem is that writers don’t walk into a project saying “Hey, I got a good idea for a cool twist on ‘the ancient prophecy’ angle.” No, they walk in saying “Hey, I got an awesome action scene in mind, how do I get the characters there for it? I know, an ancient prophecy.”
#3 – The Punk-Out
“If he killed Chuck Norris, what chance do we stand against him?”
We have talked about this one on the podcast before. A punk-out is when you establish a new character as the biggest badass by having him easily obliterate the previous biggest bad ass, or by similarly bringing him low. It’s an unfortunately common device for sequels and second-seasons. The first time I ever remember seeing this (and maybe I saw it before, but didn’t really notice) was on a Japanese show called Saint Seiya, AKA Knights of the Zodiac, AKA supercool armor guys. In the show there was a character who was way more powerful than the protagonists and, after a brief fight (in which the heroes couldn’t so much as scratch him) decided to let them through because he liked them. The next season then began by having some unknown warrior one-shot this character… for no reason. Even as a kid I remember thinking, wow, that was a waste of a potentially cool fight. And you know what? Kid Rodrigo was right because neither Dragonball Z, nor the WWE, nor the second season of Legend of the Seeker, nor Transformers 2 have convinced me of the validity of this trope.
#2 – Poca-freakin-hontas
“You think the only people who are people are the people who read People Magaziiiiiine”
I’ve come to the conclusion that Americans have a deep-rooted cultural guilt over the execution of Manifest Destiny. Why else is it that every two to five years we get a new movie in which a bunch of mean invaders eradicate a bunch of technologically inferior natives? And you might say, “well it’s a reference to history, stuff like that actually happened.” Sure it did, and so did other cool things like “A bunch of outnumbered guys defended a fort” and “A bunch of outgunned guys invaded a beach… uphill… in the rain.” But we don’t see a summer blockbuster re-imagine them over and over again. No, I think that audiences like going to movies like Avatar and Dances with Wolves, so they can feel bad “Yes, it is terrible what white people did to Native Americans hundreds of years ago, I feel bad, ooh a catharsis, what’s for dinner?” Meanwhile those of us not plagued by the atrocities of our forefathers (Hard to pick a side when both sides are represented in your bloodline) have to sit there and watch while the only sensitive white guy puts on samurai armor, or a loincloth or a genetically engineered body and stands with the natives against his own people… just like last year.
#1 – The Bad Guy’s Related to You
“Luke… you can’t tell because of this mask, but you totally have my nose…”
The Beatles are to modern music what Star Wars is to modern movies (modern narratives, really). The biggest problem with this is that a lot of the ideas first brought to the mainstream by the original trilogy have stuck around almost unchanged. I equate this to chewing a tasty piece of high quality gum and then, after spitting it out, accidentally stepping on it. If you want to see this taken to an almost comical extent check out Legend of the Seeker TV series, as the characters travel the countryside it becomes obvious that more and more people are related to the main character. To the point where I was really starting to get worried that the forbidden love storyline was going to become a double-forbidden love storyline.