Given the CW’s track record on superhero show plots, I fear that Supergirl might succumb next season to the trend of giving the show the worst possible kind of villain. I write this as a plea to the powers that be to resist their desire to land this bird into Supergirl‘s nest and instead do something interesting and creative. What sort of villain am I talking about? The oh-so-trendy “N-steps Ahead” villain (NSAV).
The most famous example that started the current love affair with this sort of character is Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight. On the CW, this has been translated most obviously to Prometheus on Arrow, who was described as 10-steps ahead, to DeVoe on The Flash, who is described as a million steps ahead. Other villains, too, have had similar skills in outsmarting our heroes, but these two recent examples are primarily defined by this ability. If we extrapolate out, you’d next put a Brainiac on Supergirl as her n-steps ahead opponent and watch the interest drop as viewers scratch their heads as to why this is the case.
It comes as no surprise to screenwriters of any significant experience that the worst thing you can do to your action hero is to make them a reactor instead of an actor. The NSAV, by definition, places the hero at a constant disadvantage. Every attempt by the hero to do anything is, unsurprisingly, something the NSAV has anticipated and has a counter for. The hero is then just being led around by his or her nose until some serendipitous piece of information about, or misstep by, the NSAV allows them to be vanquished. It’s like watching a show where a chess master is playing a child just learning the game episode after episode, defeating them soundly (and gloating about it), until some winner-take-all match where the child just happens to win the last contest. That’s…um…exciting?
The worst part is that viewers think this is good storytelling. The NSAV is so clever, after all. How cunning. How interesting. But then they are left wondering why the hero is always such an idiot. How come the focus of the show doesn’t seem as interesting as when they were learning about their powers and vanquishing bad guys?
Well, it’s because of bad choices in the writers room. What’s sad is that the solution is relatively simple: don’t OP the look-ahead for the NSAV.
Here’s the deal: when you have an over-powered hero such as Supergirl, you can’t treat her like that child in the chess analogy. Instead, you make her no worse than a Master chess player going against a Grand Master. The writers and fans still get to have their NSAV, but they aren’t OP. They are more likely to defeat the hero on any given day, sure, but they still take significant hits as well along the way. It becomes a competition where neither opponent is in a game whose outcome is all but set. Losing is always an option throughout the struggle and forces each side to constantly adapt. By the time you get to the end, the hero’s victory feels earned and not a result of convenience.
If it’s that simple, CJ, then why don’t they always do it that way? Good question. I ask it all the time. The fact is, it’s harder.
It’s harder because the NSAV doesn’t have to be particularly creative. It’s a plot device character that you simply Ctrl-V episode to episode until you need to wrap things up. The second version requires the development of an interesting, fully-developed character who is worthy of the hero. It’s not about what they do but who they are. While that seems simple enough, it’s also easy for the character to not have enough “there” there. In regards to the threads of the tapestry of the larger story, they can seem to be, at best, fringe elements. For shows that follow a season-long big-bad paradigm, this can ruin a season. It’s understandable, if unfortunate, that networks are averse to that sort of risk.
Anyway…before this becomes a treatise on screenwriting story structure, I just want to say that superhero show stories are, almost by definition, mythically simple. They are tiny morality plays focused on the basic narrative struggles of person vs fate( or god)/self/person/society/nature/supernatural/technology. It’s when the struggle is person vs writers that the show and it’s hero are bound to suffer.
So I implore the creative team at Supergirl to resist the urges, their own as well as those coming from the executive suite, to put an NSAV as the main villain on the show in season 4 or any following seasons. Two CW shows have already pushed me from eager to obligatory viewer because of NSAVs. I pray that it doesn’t happen to the one featuring my favorite superhero.