We’ve all heard the line, “I was only trying to protect you,” mainly used by a various assortment of heroes (aka ALL-OF-THEM) when explaining why they kept their identity a secret from their closest friends and family.
On one hand, the “protection” excuse makes me want to run up a wall. It’s so overused, you can practically feel it getting ready to leap off their tongues, and often at inopportune times. Its commonality has increased its annoyance to epic proportions.
Yet on the other hand, I get it. Who but the most cold-hearted person would want to willingly endanger the people they love? The inclination to protect people, even if it means boarding Dishonesty Ferry until it becomes second nature, is something we all can relate to. Would we do any less?
Most of the time, this over-protection mindset takes the form of hiding true identities, lying, and making excuses. Out of the goodness of their hero-ness, the main characters purposefully keep the curtain pulled over their hidden life of battling crime, saving the day, and ruining the villainous plans of their foes.
But when does protecting someone go too far? Is such a thing even possible?
Last week’s episode of the The Flash delved into this question of when protection goes too far, and it set me down a path through the Thinking Woods.
(FLASH SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED AT OWN RISK.)
If you’ve been following this season, you know Zoom has entered the storyline and is wreaking a startling amount of havoc. Including in the personal life of Earth 2 Harrison Wells. For a long time, Zoom was holding Wells’ daughter Jessie prisoner. Recent events have brought Jessie and Harry to Earth 1 permanently, but while his daughter was in Zoom’s grip, Harry was determined to do anything he could to save her.
To protect her from Zoom.
He agreed to help Zoom steal the Flash’s speed. He double-crossed the Star Labs team. He murdered a man.
All to protect Jessie.
She’s since been rescued and reunited with Harry, but his protective instincts are far from quelled. He’ll still do anything to keep her safe, as was the case in last week’s episode, where he capitulated to Trajectory’s demands and gave her the V9. Even though it was the worst decision he could have made, he did it anyway.
To protect Jessie.
This is an extreme example, because a father’s need to protect his daughter is a powerful incentive.
What about Stark in Age of Ultron? Ever since New York, the world had been different. The threat of an alien invasion loomed over everyone. If it happened once, it could—likely would—happen again. Stark saw that threat as an opportunity, a duty, to protect earth. To create an impenetrable barrier ensuring the world’s safety.
We all know how that turned out.
How Far Is Too Far?
The question becomes, “Is it always the best decision to protect people, no matter the cost? Where do we draw the line?”
As Spock incessantly reminds us, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few.”
Is that truly the case? Is life so simple we can reduce it to a formula, a numbers game where the majority always comes out on the safe side? Can we honestly expect a father to protect a building of people if it means letting his family die? After all, his first and foremost loyalty is to his wife and children.
It’s a fascinating dilemma that doesn’t have a clear-cut answer, at least in my mind. There are too many factors to consider to make a blanket statement one way or the other. However, such moral quandaries make for compelling storytelling.
This is where the beauty of a deep story shines bright. Not content to muddle through on the strength of shallow themes, it dares to ask probing questions that hook us because not only do they matter to the characters, they’re intrinsic to human existence.
Situations that place the characters on the spot bring reality into stark relief. The magic of storytelling transports us into their shoes, and we wonder, “Could I take a life, innocent or guilty, enemy or bystander, to save a life?”
“Would I give in to the villain to protect my family?”
“Could I let my best friend die to save hundreds?”
Such questions take a story to another level, and leave a deeper impact on us because they don’t give us the easy way out. Sometimes, there seems to be no right way. We’re forced to engage with the story and mentally chew on the implications—for the characters and for ourselves.