I hate it that intelligence is usually portrated as a character flaw. It just bugs the ever-livin’ hell ouf of me. For a country that prides itself on achievement and exceptionalism, the U.S. of A. sure seems to dislike smart people. We bow down to athletes and actors like living gods, but smart people, they just make us uncomfortable.
The anti-intellectual thread runs all through American culture. For example, Mr. Fantastic, the smartest guy in the Marvel Comics universe is usually portrayed as an inattentive husband and neglectful father. This is just a given. Hank Pym AKA the original Ant-Man is most famous for smacking his wife. And Tony Stark might be a superhero, but he’s also a bit of an egotistical jackass at times. Smart Bruce Banner is the embodiment of weakness to the Incredible Hulk’s brutish power. Dr. Doom is smarter than you and that’s part of what makes him so dangerous.
There’s nothing specific to Marvel about this though. It’s an age old tradition. It’s the nature of the villain to scheme, to build warbots and deathrays, to plot the overthrow of governments or the heist of the century. And it’s the duty of tough guys, men and women of action, to punch their way through those plans.
Yet there is something deeper at work here. We don’t really like smart people. We certainly don’t like people smarter than us. We don’t mind people tougher than us for some reason. If they can kick us in the head, we’re enamored of them. If they can build a time machine, we dislike them.
Why? I don’t know. One might argue that intellectuals are oftened saddled with overwhelming egotism as a character flaw, but how many professional athletes get away with bluster and “attitude”? For all his “aw, shucks” way of presenting himself, President George W. Bush thought he was chosen by God to be President of the U.S.A. That’s a hefty slice of self-confidence. Admittedly, Bush is a fairly divisive figure, but he was rarely accused of being “too distant, too dispassionate” by anyone. Meanwhile, President Obama must deal with the burden of being a smart guy. Even his supporters admit that he can come across as “aloof, uninvolved”.
Dr. House is brilliant AND a jerkass. Monk is highly intelligent AND highly compulsive. I could really go on, but do I need to? All too often, the intelligent character is the hippocritical character, the insecure character, the neurotic, the downright evil and cruel.
The reasoning behind this isn’t entirely built on anti-intellectualism. It has at least something to do with how we classify satisfying conflict in a story. A story where Flash Gordon fistfights his way through hordes of goons to stop Ming the Merciless from enslaving the universe is fun, exciting. Because Flash is the fighter and not the schemer. He’s the underdog. And because he’s just a guy who excels at punching out bad guys, he isn’t the agent of conflict but rather the solver of conflict.
To be fair, smart characters, the schemers, the thinkers, the masterminds, are usually not the kind of character to react to a plot. They are usually the instigators. It’s the hero who steps in and saves the day, and it’s not unusual for that hero to have some smarts on his backup team, but these are the supporting characters, not the protagonist.
But underneath it all, there’s a cultural hostility toward intelligence. We want a President we can “drink a beer with.” We want action heroes who punch away their problems, and we assume that intelligent people must be deeply flawed, either psychological or physiological wakenesses. Even Batman I think suffers from this rule because Batman is smart, hence Batman must be psychologically flawed whereas Green Arrow is just an excellent archer, hence he can be fine. Even Superman is allowed to be “boring” i.e. “well-adjusted” because, even though he’s smart, he’s perceived as more of a trouble-puncher.
My ultimate point is that I like smart characters. I like them a lot. I like them as villains, sure, but I’d like to see them more as heroes too. That’s all I’m putting out there.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,