Okay, let’s get this out of the way: for the most part, when I talk about these things that need to go away, I probably should clarify that I generally don’t mean most of them are so awful that they should never be used again (though some are). The reason a lot of the stuff I talk about gets overused is because to some degree at some point, it does work, and probably very well, and while imitation is the highest form of flattery, it is not necessarily the best way to create great works of art. Some things simply need to be moderated and approached with caution, but Things That Need To Be Moderated And Approached With Caution just isn’t quite as catchy a title.
Such is the case with “Now, It’s Personal!” the latest Thing That Needs to Go Away. This refers to the conflict between a hero and a villain in which it’s not simply a matter of law and order, good and evil, survival, or prevailing ideals. It is, in fact, personal, between the characters. On a certain level, this can be highly entertaining and indeed drive the story. Adding a personal element can give the audience reason to care about a conflict between individuals, after all. The problem arises when EVERY conflict inevitably becomes personal because that’s what the audience responded to best.
I have several examples of this. A big one is the Star Trek movies. Ask just about anyone what the best one is and they’ll tell you it’s Wrath of Khan. Why? Partially because of (SPOILER ALERT FOR A 30-YEAR-OLD MOVIE) Spock’s death, but mostly because of the personal conflict between Kirk and Khan. Khan saw Kirk as having wronged him, and made it his mission to deliver revenge, along with a lot of Melville references. It’s also kind of an interesting inversion because usually the hero has to seek revenge, or justice if they’re more idealistic, against someone who did something bad to them, but in this case, the villain hates the hero. So okay, it’s the popular one, fair enough. But why do they then have to copy it? I mean, Shinzon becomes Khan for Picard in Nemesis. Picard himself gets personal on the Borg in First Contact (this one I’m kind of okay with, as the Borg aren’t exactly a person), and of course Nero becomes Khan for Spock in the new movie. Of course, Nero was completely insane, and his revenge was against a guy who actually tried to help him, but the crappiness of that movie matters less in this case than does the fact that he was out for revenge.
In every case, we’re given some reason why it’s personal, and frankly, after awhile all that personalness stops meaning anything. If every tale is a vengeance tale, stories of nothing but retaliation for past misdeeds, not only are we mired in the past, but no one is fighting for ideals anymore, and it’s hard to see any side as particularly better than the other. A big example of this problem is superhero comics. Villains are all out for revenge against the heroes now. Again, I don’t mind it in small to moderate doses. Dr. Doom, for example, wants to destroy Reed Richards, but that’s just one piece of his motivation. He mainly wants to rule the world because he thinks he’s the most qualified to do so, and hates that the accursed Richards stands in his way. This is actually more of a psychological flaw on his part, because it impedes his true goal. But when villains don’t actually commit crimes except to destroy the heroes, and heroes aren’t doing any good except to squash their personal rival villains, it takes away a lot of the idealistic themes of the genre. I’m nerdy enough to believe that superheroes were not born out of the desires of physically weak boys who want revenge on the world, but on the notion that given enough power, individuals of conscience would choose to make the world a better place and inspire others to do the same. As such, this ideal must, more often than it doesn’t, come into conflict with those who believe that power is used for personal benefit, which most villains of the mundane and super variety are. Again, I’m not saying it should never be, or never become, personal, but the trend seems to be moving towards only the personal, and it begins to feel a bit hollow. I don’t need Dr. Light, a second-string villain, to have to commit horrible rape against a hero’s wife to be taken seriously. Couldn’t he simply have a really nasty light beam that he uses to blackmail people or something? I don’t know, that’s just one example, but you see where I’m coming from.
Not everyone needs to have a personal mortal enemy. I don’t, and chances are you don’t either. Not every conflict between a cop and criminal has to have a tragic backstory, or sparring commanders on different sides of a war. These situations are compelling in and of themselves. Mainly, this comes down to a matter of impact. Save the personal stuff for special occasions, because otherwise, the visceral thrill of seeing two people who have a truly vested interest in each other’s destruction becomes hollow. That way, when a conflict goes beyond the ideological and enters the realm of the personal, it truly means something.