Monday, April 19, 2010

Superheroes on the move

As someone who’s grown up in southern California, I know my way around transportation nightmares. I’m told that other parts of the country measure the distance between point A and point B in miles, not minutes, and I have to restrain myself from asking, “But what if there’s a SigAlert?”

This would naturally have to affect crime-fighting vigilantes.

In Masks, neither of the two main characters can fly, teleport, or otherwise circumvent the laws of human physics. That means that in Los Angeles, they’re pretty much limited to feet and wheels, and the wheels aren’t always much help. I decided early on that Rae would have to ride a motorcycle rather than drive an enclosed car. (I chose a 1940 Indian Sport Scout just because it was cool.) While the Batmobile looks great plowing through roadblocks, I can’t see Batman consenting to sit in a midnight traffic jam.

And don’t get me started on public transportation! Even if you can imagine Spider-Man on the subway (as I, in fact, can—although he generally seems to have left his money in his other tights), the subway system in Los Angeles is famously useless. Because of a variety of bureaucratic hurdles and the decentralized nature of the city, you can’t actually find a subway line that takes you from your starting point to your ending point. I don’t think I’ve ever made a public-transportation trip in L.A. that required less than three different modes of transportation—buses, surface trains, subways, etc.—and that’s without counting things like taking two or three buses just to reach the nearest useful subway stop. And a good half of that is shut down at night, which means that any vigilante trying to take the subway to a crime scene is just going to have to wait for dawn. When my father was in college, it would take him about two hours to travel the ten miles from his university campus to his father’s office. I interned at an office in that area when I was in college, and found that the trip hadn’t gotten any shorter, despite the implementation of a new subway line and a high-speed bus service. I could walk the distance faster, if it weren’t for the neighborhood I’d have to walk through.

Yet L.A., in Masks, is distinctly lacking in heroes who can fly, teleport, or walk through walls. Rae gets around on the Black Mask’s old motorcycle; Trevor seems to improvise through a combination of running along rooftops, stealing cars, and tinkering with stuff in the hideout. John Lawrence can fly, but Cobalt uses a bizarre all-terrain vehicle. The Masked Rider probably has the right idea with a horse that can appear out of nowhere.

Not that the transportation nightmare gets any better once you get outside the city. In Masks, Trevor is invited to join a superhero team that uses an experimental “slideship” to travel to global hotspots and save the day. This sounds great in theory … except that the technology that allows them to cross the planet in two hours also causes unpleasant side effects in first-time passengers, so Trevor and four other heroes spend half the trip throwing up. The huge airship that serves as the superteam’s headquarters isn’t much better, at least in my view; I can’t look at my notes for it without thinking, “Wow, it’s a giant metal whale held aloft only by highly experimental propulsion systems … and it’s in a holding pattern over a populated area whose atmosphere is trapped in an air basin. That’s going to end well.”

And all of that’s when the system works! One scene in Masks features a herd of cattle getting loose on the 405 freeway where it winds through a mountain pass, so the cars are all trapped there while Rae and Trevor try to round up the cows. The scene is based on a real incident; while memorable L.A. freeway snarls have come from a lot of strange places, including an overturned truck full of pies, a small ocean of root beer, and a group of dogs having some kind of orgy in a tunnel, my personal favorite involved a cattle truck with a broken slat and six or eight steers on their way to market. The freeway was shut down so long that drivers not only turned off their engines, they parked, locked their cars, and hiked off the freeway to hail taxicabs, leaving the city to tow their vehicles. The California Highway Patrol was in no way equipped to round up cows on a freeway—as one wag pointed out, the typical trooper’s equipment did not include a lariat on his saddle horn—and things looked pretty grim until an honest-to-God rodeo cowboy finally decided to unload his palomino and show the cops how it was done.

But just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, I should mention the aftermath of all this. After the cows were rounded up and the pony safely stowed back in its trailer, the cops wrote the cowboy a ticket. Turns out it’s illegal to ride a horse on the freeway.

It is with unbridled glee that I imagine a CHP officer trying to serve the Masked Rider with a citation …

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