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Joel Grineau
by: Joel V. Grineau
Superhero Gadgets as Deus Ex Machina

Deus ex Machina (Latin) - a god from a machine; (fig.) a person, event or object unexpectedly introduced into a story to resolve the plot.

Gadget - (noun)any device, especially mechanical in nature.[Webster's dictionary]

Do gadgets function as Deux ex Machina in comic book stories? Let's look at a couple of examples;

Here's a sample story. In the 1980's the West Coast Avengers were ambushed by some sort of 'machine of death'. Tthe team is all but incapacitated, things are looking dire, and Hawkeye thinks ". . . I'm going to use that Vibranium arrow that the Black Panther gave me, and maybe I can save us..." Guess what? As sure as anything, Hawkeye shoots the arrow into a weak point of the machine, and taadaa . . . the West Coast Avengers are saved!

How about this: Iron Man fights some villain, villain pulls some sort of techno trick, villain escapes, ol' shellhead looks bad; time passes, villain attacks again, villain again uses techno trick, trick fails as Iron Man has built an 'anti-technobabble-countermeasure device' into his armour, villain beaten to a pulp, Iron Man is an invincible hero again.

Writers of the "TV Batman" had Bats pull so many gadgets out of the Bat Utility Belt that writers of the 1966 movie decided to parody the overuse of this technique. Batman and Robin are on a case, they end up in the ocean, a shark closes in, Batman pulls out a canister of 'Bat- shark-repellent' from his utility belt.... ans yes, the shark veers off, and our heroes are saved.

All three of these cases have a gadget save the day. But, here's the key, was it unexpected? Everybody knows that Hawkeye's got all kinds of trick and special occasion arrows, so are we really surprised if he uses the 'do-or-die' arrow when he really needs it? Similarly, Batman's utility belt is legendary for what it can produce when needed. (Heck, to get around this problem, the fine folks at Mayfair Role Playing Games in their late '80's early '90's DC Heroes RPG came up with the concept of the omni-gadget; devices which can be just about anything, and become so, only when the Batman player has declared what they are.)

Tony Stark is expected to come up with the technological counter to any technological threat - because, he is unparalleled in his technical expertise. If he couldn't develop a counter measure, then we would be surprised.

As none of these gadgets are unexpected story devices, they therefore cannot be Deux ex machina. That still doesn't mean that they're good stories, but that's a different issue.

Can a gadget ever be a Deux ex Machina?

You bet your spidey-sense it can! Back in 1966, the cosmic menace known as Galactus first appeared in the Marvel Universe. Reed Richards knew that the Fantastic Four couldn't hope to defeat this menace. Instead, he invaded Galactus' ship, and found the "Ultimate Nullifier". Said weapon had the ability to wipe out all existence, including Mr. Planet-Eater (Galactus) himself. Reed threatened to use it, and Galactus backed off. Now that exemplifies the concept of an unexpected object introduced into a story to resolve the plot: definite evidence of gadgets as Deux ex machina.

Joel Grineau is a former Writer/Contributing Editor for "Chaos" Magazine. "Iron Man" 146 (purchased in the spring of 1981) was his first comic book, and time has not worn down his enjoyment of them. Joel holds a BA from the University of Guelph and an MA from the University of Saskatchewan. He is currently an officer with the Canadian Forces.

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Text © Joel V. Grineau, 1997,1998.
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