The Trouble With Super Smart Characters
While I don’t believe in spoilers, I do believe in being polite. So, I will start by letting you know that there will be plot details from the 2017-2018 seasons of The Flash, Supergirl and Arrow in what’s to follow.
I sometimes joke that at heart I’m a teenage girl because at least half of all the television I watch airs on The CW network. I came to Arrow a little late, but I’ve been watching The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Black Lightning from the beginning. Sadly, Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl have all been less than good this past season (Legends was great and Black Lightning had a very promising first season). And they all had very similar problems. One of those problems was the fact that all three of them had super intelligent characters to deal with.
In all the writing I’ve done, I’ve never tried to write a super smart character, but I imagine it’s quite difficult because it never seems to work when other people do it. Super smart characters always wind up causing their authors to tell rather than show. It makes sense when you think about it. There’s no good way to show someone being smart. I mean, you could show someone taking a bunch of intelligence tests and getting really good scores, but that would be too hard on the audience. Or you could show a character saying a bunch of original, intelligent things, but the writer would have to be super intelligent to make that work. So, they end up just telling the audience that so and so is really smart.
This often leads to breaking the illusion that the story is trying to create. It’s harder to create the willing suspension of disbelief when you are told what to believe instead of being allowed to see it. And then it only takes one misstep to ruin it. One instance of the audience figuring something out before the character and it’s gone.
Of the three shows, Supergirl had the fewest problems with their super smart character, because the character wasn’t ever given anything to do. The character was Brainiac. He is introduced as a level twelve intellect. At one point, Brainiac calls Wynn, who is a known smart character, a level 1.42 intellect, as if that is high. The implication is that anything over one is pretty darn smart. However, we never get to see this intelligence in action. We are told that Brainiac invented some things, but he doesn’t seem to figure anything out for the team. He doesn’t even help any of the other characters figure things out. He doesn’t really get to do anything. We are told that he’s the smartest person any of these characters have ever met, he acts a little patronizing and then he leaves. The show told rather than showed, and the audience got nothing out of it. However, it looks like Brainiac is going to be a regular next season. I’m nervous.
Arrow was in the middle with their smart person problem. There’s was a guy named Cayden James. The character is supposed to be a super smart genius hacker, and we think he is the big bad for half the season. He constantly sees through all of team Arrow’s plans. He predicts all of their actions. He infiltrates their base. He’s so many steps ahead that there’s no real fight. The only problem is that Cayden’s whole motivation for being the bad guy is that he believes that Oliver killed his son. And the only reason he believes that is because someone anonymously gave him a video supposedly showing Oliver shooting the kid with an arrow. But, it takes everyone who isn’t Cayden James about thirty seconds to realize that the video is a fake. Cayden James doesn’t figure it out. This super genius based his whole plan on obvious misinformation. Once that is revealed, he doesn’t seem very smart anymore. In fact, he seems kind of silly and stupid and the fact that every other character still treats him as super smart makes everything that follows unbelievable. It makes the whole first half of the season seem completely inconsequential.
The Flash had the biggest super smart person problem. The big bad for the season was Clifford DeVoe, aka The Thinker. His super power was literally being smarter than everyone else. And they told us, over and over and over again that he was smarter than everybody else. But he never did anything that seemed remotely smart. It seemed more like his superpower was seeing the future. The only demonstration of his powers was that he always knew what team Flash was going to do before they did it. And even that came off as fake. If he knew what team Flash was going to do, why did he always let them do it, fight them, and beat them? It would have been much more efficient to avoid all the fights all together. And he couldn’t convince anyone of anything. The show tried to present it as if he was just too smart for other people to understand, but he couldn’t even convince his wife, who truly loved him, that his plan was a good idea. He had to drug her to keep her compliant, and even that ultimately didn’t work. His plan was to irradiate the entire planet with Dark Matter to make everybody (except for him) stupid. This way, he could banish all technology, which he believed to be an unqualified evil. The plan made him look like the dumb one. Then, the season ended by him allowing team Flash to kill him, because he uploaded himself into his fancy, computerized chair (I guess some technology is good after all). He anticipated every move team Flash was going to make, except the last one. DeVoe’s wife walked behind the chair and took the battery out. That’s how they defeated him. He was supposed to be the smartest person who ever lived, but he couldn’t predict someone would take the battery out of his chair. So, basically the big bad was supposed to be smart, but seemed pretty dumb. Nothing that happened during the season was convincing. It never seemed to matter at all.
This might have been tolerable if the shows had at least been fun this season. Instead they were dour and continually broke any and all illusions that they were supposed to be building. I can go pretty fantastic in my fantasy, but when you have characters that consistently fail to demonstrate their main characteristic, there’s no way to remain in the fantasy. I just hope enough people complain about it, so they can do better next season.