Saturday, March 17, 2018

Obstacles in an Action Series: How They Matter Most

Arguably the most talked about piece of anything in an action-genre story is how the hero is able to overcome the odds and defeat whatever is in front of them. Sometimes it's completely overpowering a villain, sometimes it's outsmarting an opponent, but most overlooked of all is the hero managing to use their wits or own abilities to overcome some kind of an obstacle. These obstacles, quite often, will prove far more vital to the story or series as a whole than if a hero just defeats a villain using whatever they have at their disposal. Obstacles in action fiction are the most important part of the story's development, character's development, and audience's development with the series.
An obstacle in fiction, specifically an action-genre piece, can really be made up of anything, but to be specific, an obstacle is anything that a hero must overcome that does not directly influence the trajectory of the story's plot. An easy example is Aragorn having to muster the strength to ride back to Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (movie): the Uruk-Hai were going to attack Helm's Deep regardless of Aragorn's intervention; all Aragorn did was inform the viewer and King Theoden how impossible their odds were.

So, why is it that most of the time, when story or characters are discussed, it's often that villains or antagonists are brought up rather than some kind of an obstacle that a character has to overcome?

One reason may be that the definition of obstacle is so malleable. It can be harder to define what an obstacle is if there is no physical manifestation of what it is that the character must overcome. Aang in Avatar: the Last Airbender could not get over his inability to let go of his friends, and thus blocked off full access to the Avatar State. The obstacle here is a mental one, but, again, did not stifle the narrative's plot: the Fire Nation still had plans to take down the Earth Kingdom and wait out the year until Sozin's Comet to make their final play.

Obstacles are, most of the time, seen as a physical manifestation. It's a person, or a literal object. The most basic way of considering it is that there is a big wall between the protagonist and the thing he wants. The problem lies only with how he gets through or around the wall, not if he can get around it, because the story dictates that he must go through if he truly wants his thing. Therefore, the obstacle serves two major functions: 1) Showing what this protagonist is capable of and having them come to an understanding of that, and 2) Showing the audience what the protagonist is capable of and understanding what that means for the rest of the story.

Another reason that some may confuse obstacles with villains and antagonists is that sometimes it can be difficult to discern if a character or force is just in the way for the narrative's sake or if they're there to actively work against, or destroy, the hero.

Originally, I intended for Jiren of Dragon Ball Super to be the example I used as an obstacle for Goku and Team Universe 7 rather than an antagonist, but even then, Jiren is actively seeking to eliminate Goku. He is actively stopping the main character from getting the thing that he wants.

There was, thankfully, another example from the "Universal Survival Arc" that I could use and served a true obstacle for Goku: Kefla.

Yes, the Internet's most beloved/hated new fused Saiyan lady. Kefla classifies as an obstacle for Goku simply because her goals do not align with his, and she does not seek to actively eliminate him from the tournament, but instead to prove herself. Therefore, she is not antagonist, and she certainly doesn't have the malevolent intent to want to actively destroy him. Her innate Saiyan nature keeps her from being either of those things.

She sort of exists as another sparring partner for Goku without any real impact on his character or the audience's expectations of her or Goku's battle until Goku reactivates Ultra Instinct. From here, she is nothing but an obstacle. The video below showcases this, as we see Goku developing into his newfound form while overcoming attacks that were previously harming him, inhibiting his ability to help his team, or, specifically, achieve his goal.

Kefla shows us, as an audience, what Goku is capable of. She's not a great example of an obstacle, since it's less about Goku finding a way to ourwit her and it's more about her overpowering her, but in terms of him achieving a side-goal that he has, in wanting to master Ultra Instinct, she services the plot just fine over other more important characters, like the ones from Universe 11.

While Kefla represents an obstacle in a physical form, there are some stories that do just fine with one as a mental or emotional one.

Consider the scene from The Matrix where Morpheus drops Neo into the Matrix and shows him that it's totally reasonable that people can jump across rooftops, so long as they free their minds from the artificial restraints placed upon them and enter into state of perfect syncronicity with themselves (hmm, in a way, this kind of relates back to Ultra Instinct!).

Neo fails and we continue to see that Joseph Campbell's theories on a hero's journey prove mightier than any bit of plot or narrative structure! However, herein we see the obstacle for the story: it isn't the Smiths nor is it the rules of the Matrix itself: it's Neo's mind. It's Neo's inability to see beyond what is possible.

The Smiths are the active villains and antagonists for the plot because they seek to destroy the freedom fighters as well as take it over. They work solely against the heroes to stop them and do their own thing, to better themselves in place of our heroes. They are not an obstacle; sure, Neo defeats them, but he could've beaten up some of the other Agents and it would serve the same goal for his character: realizing that he is the One and that there is nothing he cannot do within the Matrix.

It's actually not the final fight against the Smiths that show Neo ultimately overcoming this, but the last shot of the movie, when he flies away and monologues that he is going to be fighting back, which is something he'd been afraid to do until pushed to the very brink to save his friend and mentor, Morpheus. Neo overcoming his obstacle has nothing to do with physical restraints or trying to gain some new power, or even defeating a major physical threat, but rather with him coming to understand what is and is not possible. One can argue that he gets this understanding through some narrative B.S. of Trinity giving him a kiss, or one could argue that Neo hadn't been shot dead at all and he was slowly recuperating.

Either way, Neo overcomes his obstacle without any need to get a new weapon, and it really doesn't do anything to service the plot of the Machines barring down on them. They were going to release the EMP no matter what, it was just a matter of whether or not Neo and Trinity could get away before they'd be killed in the blast.

But I think the best obstacle, in any action series ever, comes from one of the most unlikely of sources: Power Rangers. Take a look at this scene and we'll observe just how this is so:

The Psycho Rangers are the perfect definition for an obstacle in terms of the character and the audience. They are evil Power Rangers, the most deadly foes that the Rangers have faced yet, and they are utterly unstoppable as the Rangers are when they fight them. They are the perfect counters and the ultimate enemies for the Rangers. The show goes even so far as to flat out say it with their opening lines of dialogue after they've revealed their true forms. Let's break it down to see just how they create a bigger and bigger wall for the Rangers to come across: 

"We're the Psycho Rangers."

Already we're finding that they are dark alternates to the Power Rangers. Their designs are a twisted version of what appear to be the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' suits. However, the word "Psycho" implies that they are insane, unorganized, whereas our Rangers are a battle-hardened group with a clear goal of defeating Astronema and getting Zordon back. 

"We're faster than you." "Smarter than you." "Stronger than you."
Through their introduction alone it's easy to believe that these three sentiments are entirely true, and even if they aren't, they're still a clear obstacle in terms of the Rangers and their mental and physical abilities. If the Psychos had just come out and wanted to say that they are better than the Rangers, that'd be fine, but they specifically mention speed, smarts, and strength, which all tie together in the flow of the battle: if one is faster than their opponent, they can use their wits to outsmart their opponents, or they can overpower them. The Rangers now have to contend with enemies that are better than them on the front of battle. 

"But we're evil." 

A stupid line, sure, but it also cements them as a group not to be trifled with. We've seen Evil Power Rangers before, but not to this effect. They weren't as big a threat, and were taken much lighter than these guys, who, immediately, overpower the Power Rangers and leave them, basically, for dead. If Zane doesn't show up, though, I don't think the Psycho Rangers finish them off. 

What makes the Psycho Rangers the best form of an obstacle for characters to contend with and audiences to watch is that they are the exact counter to everything the Power Rangers stand for and it shows where the Rangers stand in terms of their foes. It asks the question: can the Rangers outsmart these guys, and if they can't, what hope do they have against their masters? 

One of the weakest forms of creating an obstacle is the "monster of the week" syndrome that most Sentiai-series like Power Rangers subscribe to. It's rare that these monsters carry on as a legitimate threat beyond their initial stay, and it does little to show the Rangers making actual progression since they don't necessarily recur in the story. If the Psycho Rangers were just one-offs then they would still be a good obstacle, but not the perfect one. 

The perfect obstacle is one that forces our heroes to think as they never have before and shows them overcoming the odds through whatever their character has within them. It's not about pulling out some crazy finishing move or just having that lucky last bullet left in the chamber, it's about entirely outwitting them to the point where the tables irrevocably turn to the tide of our heroes. 

The Psycho Rangers, therefore, pose an excellent physical and mental obstacle for the Power Rangers. 

I want to give one more example of a bad obstacle, and compare it to the Psycho Rangers, just to highlight one final feat that this crew pulls off: 

In Devilman Crybaby, Akira comes across his parents in Episode 4 of the series, something that's been mentioned from time to time. Their inclusion in the story is used in the afforementioned, and poorly executed, theory that, ultimately, has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Now, as we've discussed, that's fine. Obstacles aren't meant to, since they're supposed to show what the characters are really capable of. However, therein lies the problem: Akira never grows from this experience. It's difficult to overcome, yes, but we never see any growth on his part as a result of what's happened, nor is it ever mentioned again. 

To counter this, the Psycho Rangers make an eventual return to defeat the Rangers once an for all, and return as an obstacle just the same. This time, though, the fight is much more one-sided, displaying just how far the Rangers have come and how much they've learned in the time since the Psycho Rangers. It was a genius move to bring them back since now the audience understands just how capable the Power Rangers are. 

An obstacle in a story can go a long way in showing the audience what is at stake and what the character really wants, as well as how far they are willing to go to get it and what they will look like on the other side of it. They serve a much more important role than any basic villain or antagonist for the hero, even if they have no overall bearing on the plot. Next time you watch an action show or movie, keep an eye out for these obstacles, and see what happens to the character afterward. 

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