Superhero violence is a force for drama, excitement, and bombast – at least, that is the convention. Punching, detonating, eviscerating, and otherwise brutalizing bodies and scenery is the preferred method of making things happen on-screen and on the page. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is emblematic, relying on explosion-laden cinematography to create space for important plot and character (or at least plot) development. In Thor: The Dark World, the (as always, temporary) reconciliation between Thor and his trickster brother occurs when Malekith’s lieutenant stabs Loki through the chest. In the first Avengers movie, all major character development happens in two major scenes: the attack on the Helicarrier, and the invasion of New York, both of which are replete with wanton destruction and fatal violence, including the graphic impalement of Phil Coulson.
Every major change in the relationships between characters in Captain America: The Winter Soldier occurs during or immediately after an episode of violence; Cap’s suspicion towards Black Widow is triggered during a raid against a group of pirates. His distrust of Director Fury initiates after the latter fights his way out of an assassination attempt against him by Hydra. And, of course, the final moments of the film, representing the emotional climax of the film’s central conflict around state surveillance, involve lots of firefighting, hand-to-hand fisticuffs, and (of course) a series of massive explosions. Even in the first Iron Man film, Robert Downey, Jr. creates a perfect, clean, abundant energy source for the whole world, and could have easily returned to his original plans to make it freely available after defeating Obadiah Stane – but he inexplicably abandons these ambitions in favor of flying around the world in his private, flying tank-suit, and eventually creating Ultron instead. Superhero stories can’t seem to escape violence as a central narrative trope, even when they set themselves up to avoid it.
It was into this well-trod superhero canon that the original inFamous was released in 2009. It quickly became one of the PS3’s major hits, not least because of an entertaining premise—a college-dropout working as a bike messenger is suddenly granted superpowers by events outside of his control, and is faced with a series of choices about whether to use his power to become a hero or a villain. The franchise derives its name from a game mechanic producing different narrative outcomes and gameplay options depending on which of the two moral paths—good or evil—the player chooses. For the purpose of this piece, I will be focusing predominantly on the narrative presented by the “good” path, although both are broadly similar.
Starting with a Bang
inFamous begins with a massive explosion. Before we meet any characters, hear any exposition, or even view more than one establishing shot, we see five square blocks of the fictional Empire City being leveled by this explosion. Only after this do we learn anything about the protagonist Cole MacGrath, who inexplicably survived at the center of the blast zone. Later, we learn that the blast was caused by a device called the “Ray Sphere”, which killed thousands of people as a prerequisite for granting electricity-based superpowers to an individual.
This incident sets the template for the remainder of the plot. As all the movies I mentioned above also do, inFamous relies almost exclusively on violence to further the narrative. Every single mission concluding in a plot point involves the protagonist using his newfound abilities to kill armies of goons, or electrocute them into submission. There is no clue discovered, no revelation made, no discussion had in the whole of the game that isn’t immediately preceded or followed by a massive shootout. Just as the game literally creates its superhero protagonist with an act of mass slaughter, so too is every step of his personal growth not only characterized but catalyzed by brutality on varying scales.
This cycle of violence is crucial to defining Cole as a superhero. This becomes clear when we take one such definition of the term for consideration. In particular, Peter Coogan’s definition in Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre:
Su•per•he•ro (soo’per hîr’o) n., pl. – roes. n., pl. – roes. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers, extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character, powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret. superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero.
When we measure inFamous‘s protagonist against this definition, the role of violence in the development of his character, as an exemplar of the archetype, is put into stark relief. For example, when a plague strikes Empire City after the blast, the city is put under strict military quarantine. The only hope Cole has of ever leaving the city is to make a deal with a shadowy agent of the US government named Moya. It’s this deal that first propels him into his own “selfless mission”, his extended efforts to better the lives of Empire’s citizenry by defeating the gangs that have taken over the city (this, in the “good” moral path of the story). Of course, defeating these gangs is framed solely as a problem requiring a violent solution. You dramatically electrocute your way through hundreds, thousands of faceless goons, culminating in three spectacular boss fights that involve some brutal set pieces (defeating the first boss involves ripping parts of her body off with your bare hands). Cole’s “pro-social mission” of establishing nominal law and order requires him to murder and maim his way through an army of dehumanized thugs and monsters. This is to say nothing of the fact that the establishment of “law and order” is an inherently violent goal, fulfilled with inherently violent solutions.
Cole’s abilities certainly fulfill the second requirement of the definition (namely, having superpowers), but interestingly, they also create his “superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume.” As Cole’s powers develop alongside his “karma” (the mechanic devised to respond to whether you choose “good” or “bad” moral actions), the physical appearance of his character changes. A predominantly “good” play-through will maintain a light color palette, and his powers will create blue electricity – a predominantly “bad” play-through will give him sickly tattoo-like marks on his body, a darker color palette, and red electricity, along with access to more explosive, less precise abilities. While he doesn’t have a secret identity or codename, his empowered body presents a basis for an “iconic” identity that defines his political and moral position relative to the fictional lay-populace. This iconic body, of course, is literally created by the use of his powers to murder and brutalize whomever he targets, which corresponds directly to his “transformation from ordinary person to superhero”.
Punching in Circles
At the end of the game, you learn that the predominant villain of the story, Kessler, is actually the protagonist, Cole MacGrath, from a bleak, dystopian future where a monster cryptically referred to as “the Beast” has ravaged America and killed millions of people. Kessler has traveled back in time in order to create the conditions for his younger version to gain superpowers sooner, in the hopes that Cole would become a hero capable of destroying the Beast and preventing the impending apocalypse. This is where the violence of the narrative is transformed from an aberrant event, offering an eventual resolution, to a never-ending cycle. But more importantly, this twist actually solidifies the existing patterns of violence in the game-world, rather than changing them.
A key part of Kessler’s quest to turn his younger self into a superhero involves the imposition of the classic “sadistic choice” upon Cole. Kessler actively kidnaps Trish, Cole’s lover, and forces Cole to choose between rescuing her and rescuing a half-dozen doctors. The latter choice is presumed to be “for the greater good”, in the sense that the group of doctors would go on to save innumerable people from fatal sickness and injury. This offers a re-run, of course, of the same trope seen famously in the 2002 Spider-Man movie, when the Green Goblin offers Peter Parker the same choice, between his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, and a busload of children.
A crucial wrinkle in all of this is that neither choice saves Trish. You can try to save Trish and let the doctors die, but Kessler has rigged the whole affair to end with Trish’s death regardless. The only difference in the end is whether or not Trish admonishes you for being selfish, or congratulates you for being a hero while she dies in Cole’s arms. Even saving the doctors does not have any visible effect on the game-world – it merely marks you as a “hero”. The choice is framed as making Cole responsible for his actions, but the outcome actually absolves him of responsibility for the outcome. As Eric Berlatsky writes:
Part and parcel of this problematic, as mentioned, is the fact that the scenes described deny temporal progress in multiple ways. First, each scenario presents a fundamental spatiotemporal impossibility, the idea of being in two places at the same time. The Superman film acknowledges this most clearly when Lois is initially killed by the missile, prompting Superman to reverse the Earth’s rotation, improbably turning back time and saving her life. More metaphorically, the Spider-Man film also “turns back the clock” and brings the hero’s lover back from the dead by restaging the comic-book death of Gwen Stacy, which occurred some thirty years previous in Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973). In the comic, as in the film, the Green Goblin hurls Peter Parker’s love interest from a NYC bridge. In the comic, however, Spider-Man is too late to save her. The film Spider-Man, then, succeeds not only in saving Mary Jane and the children, but also in metaphorically traveling through time to save Gwen Stacy. The fantasy of power in play in this alternate continuity, or “forking path,” is a fantasy of overcoming the progression of time and therefore overcoming mortality itself. Concomitantly, it is a fantasy in which ethics are not asserted, but abandoned.
Although Berlatsky considers scenarios where the hero manages to save everyone, the key point is that the choice presented has no bearing on the outcome. While Superman saves Lois Lane and the town of Hackensack, New Jersey, Cole’s decision ends, invariably, in the death of his lover and an effectively indiscernible outcome for the larger populace. Superman is ultimately absolved of any responsibility for the outcome, because his powers enabled him to have it “both ways”–Cole, in the same way, is ultimately absolved of any responsibility for the outcome, because he had no control anyway. This makes the framing of the incident as a “moral choice” incoherent – there is no choice Cole can make that changes the outcome, yet he is congratulated or condemned for his choice anyway. Regardless, Trish is gratuitously fridged.
The dilemma, evacuated of ethics and moral responsibility, is left to be filled only with violence, and it is marked as a crucial moment in Cole’s development into a superhero. Importantly, the final revelation about Kessler’s identity also includes the information that he only decided to come back in time when his wife and best friend were killed by the Beast, when it was too late for Kessler to fight back. His wife and best friend were future versions of Trish and Zeke, Cole’s lover and best friend, respectively. So not only is Trish murdered to turn Cole into a hero in the present, Trish’s murder turned Cole/Kessler into a hero in the future. Trish is fridged in multiple eras, simultaneously.
This whole scenario constructs an endlessly self-referential structure. The death and destruction wrought by the Beast motivates Cole/Kessler to orchestrate the death and destruction that turns Cole MacGrath into a hero in the present, who fulfills his heroic destiny by killing Cole/Kessler who made himself the villain on purpose to motivate Cole to become a hero… and so on and so forth. The hero and the villain create each other to such an intertwining extent that they are literally the same person.
This process of self-(re)creation is performed solely through violence, usually on the scale of mass collateral slaughter, but a pattern emerges in the crossfire. The process of superhero-creation escalates its violence to the most gratuitous, all-encompassing extent that can be supported through suspension of disbelief before resetting itself to a less chaotic point, so that more room is created for further escalation. Violence escalates in the direction of the movement of time as long as dramatic tension can be generated. Then, when the narrative has escalated to the point where entropy overwhelms the world, time simply resets. In Kessler’s timeline, he only returns to the past once the Beast has destroyed everything, making any meaningful conflict, resolved in any way other than the Beast swatting the resistance aside, impossible. When Cole defeats all other available opposition, he can only fight Kessler; in other words, he can only fight himself, even returning to the Ray Sphere blast site where the narrative began (another temporal loop superimposed on the rest). The time axis’ steady march towards entropy is massively accelerated by the genre’s reliance on violence, and when the narrative’s world is overwhelmed by the entropy it depends on for dramatic motion, it simply resets to a less entropic time, a de-escalated universe.
This is the underlying paradox of the superhero genre, illustrated in Cole MacGrath’s narrative. Time is no longer solely a feature of the physical world, defined by thermodynamics and the march towards universal heat death; time moves in the direction of violence-induced entropy, as gratuitous violence destroys and kills in the name of staving off destruction and death. Attempts to thwart entropy accelerate it, as the protagonist attempts to reassert stasis through inherently entropic means. When this paradox reaches its logical extreme, ending dramatic motion by expanding the scale and scope of violence necessary to escalate the stakes of the story, the genre’s only hope for continuation is to literally start over. Time is wound back to a point where the buildings are still standing, the girlfriend is still alive, and heat death is slightly farther off – all the better to make space for more violence in the name of saving it all.