I want to issue a challenge.
I want to see someone write an entire superhero movie or TV series, hell I’ll take just a season, in which no character ever utters the words “I’m sorry I lied- but I did it to protect you.”
(Spoiler Warning: Civil War and Agents of SHIELD.)
I’m not talking about your standard, “Me, Superman? C’mon Lois, that’s crazy” kind of lie. I get that there has always been some degree of lying baked into the superhero trope. A secret identity means keeping a few secrets, and that’s sometimes going to mean telling a few lies to protect that identity. I may have trouble believing that a pair of glasses was ever a real disguise in the 1940s, let alone in the age of facial recognition software, but I’ll accept this as part of the package.
I’m not wild about those, but least there the lie is serving the purpose of protecting the secret identity. Sometimes this will get twisted into a protection lie— if I told you, you could be in danger—but it’s pretty easy to see that as just one more way of protecting the person telling the lie.
No, I’m talking about a different kind of lie. One that may have always been part of the comic book/superhero worlds, but that I’m lately seeing more and more. The situation where a character learns an uncomfortable truth and doesn’t tell another character, out of fear the news would upset them. Or cause them to be angry. Or cause them to have a heart attack. And yes, as Arrow viewers can attest, that last, ridiculous sounding example actually happened, when Laurel lied to her father about her sister/his daughter not having died, out of fear that the news would trigger a second heart attack.
Arrow is easily the worst culprit, where it seems the characters are constantly finding ways to justify lying to each other, but it is not the only one. I’ve seen it pop up over and over, most recently in Civil War, when Cap doesn’t tell Tony that the Winter Soldier, aka Brainwashed Bucky, aka Cap’s friend who he is trying to protect, killed Tony’s parents. Cap says he did it to protect Tony. Spoiler alert- Tony doesn’t feel very protected.
My issue isn’t just the bad writing that so often accompanies that trope, though there’s a lot of it, or the fact that it’s become so commonplace. It’s that so often “I lied to protect you” just seems like a justification. It’s not about protecting someone from something that will hurt them, it’s about protecting the person telling the lie from having to deal with that other person getting hurt. Or not wanting them mad at you. Or any of a number of other reasons, some of which may be justifiable, some of which may not, but are all almost always more self-serving than, “I did it to protect you.”
Looked at another way, telling a lie to protect someone is a way of denying them agency. It decides for them whether or not a reality is too painful for them to accept and instead tries to construct a new one in its place. Done too often and it gets into gaslighting territory. It’s a way of controlling them and their reality, according to what the person telling the lie thinks is best.
I don’t expect my heroes to be perfect. I like some moral grey along with the flashy fight scenes. (though maybe not every character be morally grey, by which comment I continue my streak of bashing Zach Snyder in as many posts as possible.) But even in the moral shadows, I expect my heroes to have some principles. Is it too much to ask for honesty to be one of them?