A Philosopher's Blog

The Impossible, the Improbable, the Flash & the Hobbit

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2015
Captain Cold

Captain Cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a fan of the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and superheroes I have no difficulty in suspending my disbelief when it comes to such seemingly impossible things as wizards, warp drives and Wonder Woman. But, when watching movies and TV shows, I find myself being rather critical of things that are merely very unlikely. As a philosopher, I find this rather interesting and find that it wants an explanation.

To focus the discussion, I will use examples from movies and TV shows I have recently watched. The movies are the first two in the Hobbit “trilogy” (I have not seen the third movie yet) and CW’s The Flash TV show.

The Hobbit movies include what is now standard fare in fantasy: wizards, magic swords, immortal elves, dragons, enchanted rings, and other such things that are most likely impossible in the actual world.  The Flash features a superhero who, in the opening sequence, explicitly claims to be the impossible. I, as noted above, have no problem accepting these aspects of the fantasy and superhero “realities.”

Given my ready acceptance of the impossible, it might be surprising to learn that I am rather critical of certain aspects of these movies and the TV show. In the case of the first Hobbit movie, my main complaint is about the incidents with the goblins and their king. I have no issue with goblins as such, but with the physics of the falling and such in those scenes. While I am not a physicist, I am rather familiar with falling and gravity and those scenes were, on my view, were so implausible that they prevented me from suspending my disbelief.

In the case of the second Hobbit movie, I have issues with the barrel ride scenes and the battle between the dwarfs and Smaug. In the case of the barrel ride, the events were so wildly implausible that I could not accept them. Ironically, the moves were too awesome and the fight too easy—it was analogous to watching a video game being played in “god mode”: there is no feeling of risk and the outcome is assured.

In the case of the battle with Smaug, the implausibility was largely a matter of the fact that every implausible step had to work perfectly to result in Smaug being in exactly the right place to have the gold “statue” spill onto him. Oddly enough, the incredible difficulty made it seem too easy. What I mean by this is that since everything so incredibly unlikely worked so perfectly it was evident that the events were completely scripted—I had no feeling that any step could have failed. Naturally, it might be said that every part of a movie is, by definition, scripted. This is true—but if the audience realizes this, then the movie is doing a poor job.

In the case of The Flash, I have two main issues. The first is with how Flash fights his super opponents. It is established in the show that Flash can move so fast that anyone without super speed is effectively motionless relative to him. For example, in one episode he simply pulls all the keys from the Royal Flush gang’s motorcycles and they can do nothing. However, when he fights a main villain, he suddenly unable to use that same tactic. For example, when fighting Captain Cold and Heatwave he runs around, barely able to keep ahead of their attacks. But these two villains are just guys with fancy guns—they have no super speed or ability to slow the Flash. Given the speed shown in other scenes, the Flash would be able to zip in and take their guns. Since no reason was given as to why this would not work, the battles seem to be contrived—as if the writers cannot think of a good reason why Flash cannot do this, but they need a fight to fill up show time, so they just make it happen for no good reason.

The second issue is with the police response to the villains. In the same episode where Flash fights Captain Cold and Heatwave, the police are confronting the two villains, yet are utterly helpless—until one detective manages a lucky shot that puts the heat gun out of operation. The villains, however, easily get away. However, the fancy weapons are very short range, do not really provide any defensive powers and the users are just normal guys. As such, the police could have simply shot them down easily—yet, for no apparent reason, they do not do so. The only reason would seem to be that the writers could not come up with a plausible reason why they would not shoot or use snipers yet they needed to fill up show time with a fight. Now that I have set the stage, it is time to turn to the philosophy.

In the Poetics Aristotle discusses the possible, the probable and the impossible. As he notes, a plot is supposed to go from the beginning, through the middle and to the end with plausible events. He does consider the role of the impossible and contents that “the impossible must be justified by artistic requirements, higher reality, or received opinion” and that that “a probable impossibility is preferable to an improbable possibility.”

In the case of the impossibilities of the Hobbit movies and the Flash TV show, these are justified by the artistic requirements of the fantasy and superhero genres: they, by their very nature, require the impossible, albeit certain types of impossibilities. In the case of the fantasy genre, the impossibilities of magic and the supernatural must be accepted. Of course, it is easy to accept these things since it is not actually certain that the supernatural is actually impossible.

In the case of the superhero genre, the powers of heroes are typically physically impossible. However, they are what make the genre what it is—so to accept stories of superheroes is to willingly accept the impossible as plausible in that context. The divergence from reality is acceptable because of this.

Some of the events in the show I was critical of are not actually impossible—just incredibly implausible. For example, it is not impossible for the police to simply decide to not deploy snipers against a criminal armed with a flamethrower. However, accepting this requires accepting that while the police in the show are otherwise like police in our world, they differ in one key way: they are incapable of deploying snipers against people armed with exotic weapons. It is also not impossible that a person would refuse to use her full abilities against people intending to kill her. However, accepting these things requires accepting things that do not improve the aesthetic experience, but rather detract by requiring the audience to accept the implausible without artistic justification.

To be fair, there is one plausible avenue of justification for these things. Aristotle writes that “to justify the irrational, we appeal to what is commonly said to be.” In the comics from which the Flash TV show is drawn, the battles between heroes and villains always go that way—that is, the show matches the comic reality. Likewise for the police—in the typical comic the police are ineffective and pretty much never just take out villains with sniper rifles—even when they easily could do so. As such, the show could be defended on the grounds that it is just following the implausible genre of comics aimed at kids. That said, I think the show would be better if the writers were able to come up with reasonable justifications for why the Flash cannot use his full speed against the villain of the week and why the police are so inept against normal people with fancy guns. Of course, I will keep on watching.

In the case of the Hobbit movies, accepting the battle in the goblin caves would require accepting that physics is different in those scenes than it is everywhere else in the world. However, Middle Earth is not depicted elsewhere as having such wonky physics and the difference is not justified. In regards to the barrel ride battle and the battle with Smaug, the problem is the probability—the events are not individually impossible, but accepting them requires accepting the incredibly unlikely without justification or need. Those who have read the book will know that those events are not in the actual book and are not, in fact, needed for the story. Also, there is the problem of consistency: the spectacular dwarfs of the barrels and Smaug fight are also the seemingly mundane dwarfs in so many other situations. Since these things detract from the movie, they should not have been included. But, of course, I did enjoy the movies.


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3 Responses

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  1. Anthony T said, on January 31, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    I think this is what Pixar calls realism vs. believability. Realism is how realistic a story is, i.e. how like the real world. Believability is the internal consistency of a story’s world that allows the reader to suspend his disbelief and treat the world of the story as real on its own terms as long as he’s engaged in reading or watching it. A story can be completely unrealistic and yet possess believability: i.e. the Lord of the Rings book, or Toy Story.

    Another good example of believability vs. realism is Jurassic Park. Even though the science in JP1 isn’t real, it is given enough plausibility in the world of the story that we accept it, and the dinosaurs act like real animals, not movie monsters. But then JP3 violates a lot of what was established as how that world works. The raptors are anthropomorphized (meaning they cease to be scary, because they can be, basically, reasoned with). The little boy survives weeks on the island and even gathers T-Rex pee and learns that it frightens raptors and attracts “one really big one with a fin.” In the previous two movies we’d seen how hard it is to survive even a day on the island, so this strains belief. There’s also the satellite phone in the Spinosaurus’ stomach: we’re supposed to accept that we can’t hear the Spino’s approaching footsteps but we CAN hear the satellite phone ring through several hundred points of animal fat, muscle, and gastric juices? Like the scenes in The Hobbit, that must have been an idea that sounded cool when it was written, but it just doesn’t fit into the world, and so pulls the viewer out of the story.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 2, 2015 at 9:59 am

      Anthony T.,

      Good points.

      The phone in the belly example is a good one and, as you said, it probably sounded cool.

      Sometimes movies can overcome such flaws. For example, I really like the movie Aliens, but having a ship with no actual crew and having everyone go to the planet is wildly implausible-no military would function like that, even in space.

  2. Christy Mag Uidhir said, on February 3, 2015 at 9:06 am

    You should check out the 2011 article I co-wrote with Allan Hazlett titled “Unrealistic Fictions” in American Philosophical Quarterly 48(1): 33-46. http://apq.press.illinois.edu/48/1/uidhir.html

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