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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Collateral Damage: Die Hard, Burn Notice, Star Trek Into Darkness, Comic Superheroes, and Magnum P.I

Just watched A Good Day to Die Hard (Die Hard 5) a few days ago. This isn't a movie review column, so I won't go into why, despite the fact that the original Die Hard is one of the best action movies ever, the latest installment is a murky, boring, and unlikeable movie ranking as one of the worst action movies of all time (unless you have a car crash fetish). But it highlighted some of the thoughts that I had been mulling recently about the isssue of collateral damage in movies and books and, thus, got me to sit down and write a blog post, even though I'm on deadline on a ghost-writing project. Collateral damage comes in two types in books and movies. The first is the "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one/few" approach. This type has a respectable place in both real life and fiction. Soldiers go on suicide missions to secure a target, dams and other huge infrastructure projects get build despite the fact that it is statistically almost certain that one or more people will get hurt during the difficult construction, drugs get human trials (which can not only have adverse effects, but which trials deny patients getting the placebo a chance at actually getting a cure). You see this all the time, although the American fetish for identified victims can stand it on its head at times (e.g., People will spend big bucks to get a kid out of a well or help out the victim of a high-profile crime, but not willingly bear the cost of life-saving programs like pre-natal care, constuction codes/restrictions to prevent building in flood-prone areas, etc.). Heck, the "needs of the many" trope can add drama and pathos to a storyline, by showing the sacrifice of the hero. And, in a world-setting, using this tactic can help identify who the bad guys and who the good guys are, though overusing it can make a government look oppressive (bye-bye Alderaan). Second, collateral damage can refer to loss and destruction resulting from either the single-minded focus of the protagonist or the need for special effects and things that blow up real good. In the original Die Hard, John is clearly a hero, but a practical, down-to-earth guy. He takes some risks for the greater good (dropping a body on a squad car to get attention), but is concerned primarily about protecting innocent life. Sure, he refuses to turn himself in to save the coke-head wheeler-dealer, but he feels conflicted and guilty about it, even though he knows it was for the greater good. Flash forward to A Good Day to Die Hard, however, and we get an interminably long opening action sequence in which John literally wrecks hundreds of cars filled with innocent people in order to chase his son not even knowing yet whether his son is a good guy or bad guy or who is after him or why (I guess cause they're Russians, mostly, we're not supposed to care). At this point, John has ceased to be a hero. He has, instead, become an uninteresting action junkie. In a similar vein, look at the progression in Burn Notice. Here we started with a hard-core superspy, but one which was all noble and soft-hearted inside, taking jobs to help people thwart gangs and thugs and criminals. But as the series continued, Michael's heart hardened and his scruples faded as he became more and more willing to let others sacrifice themselves or to do things which might be hurting unknown people/governments in an effort to protect himself, his quest, and his friends and relatives, including burning another spy. Jesse may have forgiven him for that, but I haven't. The end result, a less interesting show with a less interesting protagonist. Star Trek Into Darkness includes both kinds of collateral damage, culminating in a large airborne craft colliding with multiple buildings, killing thousands. The fact that the ship plows into the bay first doesn't change that dynamic. It's too soon for that to be entertainment. Heck, it will probably always be too soon for that to be entertainment. At least in Transformers, we know the creatures causing such high-casualty mayhem are alien robots who don't know any better (they styled themselves after cars when they came to the planet because they thought autos were the dominant life form on the planet), not that I care for CGI bloodshed. Though the Comic Book Code may also have had something to do with it, early superheroes understood this problem. Nukes were tossed into the sun to prevent collateral damage and the hero wasn't allowed to voluntarily kill anyone. Yep, no matter how much sense it might make to off Magneto, he had to be held in an acrylic prison. The Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game imposed massive damage to a character's karma for an intentional death. I've explored the concept of collateral damage in a number of my books and stories. For example, in GREENSWORD: A Tale of Extreme Global Warming, the protagonists talk about the issue, but care more about damage to animals and the environment than they do to humans. And in Net Impact, both the main character and the head of The Subsidiary, the spy agency he works for, are tough and practical--they do what needs to be done to save the world--but they are mindful of collateral damage (e.g., timing operations to lessen the possibility of civilian loss of life and refusing to engage in a firefight with local cops). The line between tough and reckless may be difficult to walk, but it can be done. In Net Impact, for instance, the main spy threatens to kill an innocent, as well as her mother and her cat, though he never actually intends to do any of the three, but he hates the fact that the job makes him traumatize her at all. Most people may not remember, but Thomas Magnum of Magnum P.I. actually murders someone in cold blood in the course of the series without damage to the character's likeability. Why? Because he kills the Russian KGB operative who tortured him and Rick and TC when they were captured as POWs in 'Nam. It was a justifiable kill consistent with the canon of the backstory and episode plot and they ended the episode with the shot--no carnage, no picture of the bullet hitting--so that anyone who wanted to believe Magnum didn't actually do it, that he shot near the guy to scare him, could believe that if they chose. Over the top action sequences are big these days and lots of stories have large body counts (certainly a number of my stories do). Whether collateral damage is appropriate for a particular project or genre may vary. Certainly, I've written stories in which characters take actions and do things and say things that I would never do--you have to write what is right for the story. But think about the consequences of gratuitous collateral damages on your characters and on your readers. Nuff said. As always, you can check out whether my writing reflects the stuff I talk about in my blog by checking out my website at or just searching for books on Amazon, Kindle, or elsewhere by Bingle (you'll get a few extraneous hits, but not really that many). Aloha. Don

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