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On The Other Hand ... Traps (Part I)

Written by Logan on Monday, June 27 2016 and posted in Columns

On The Other Hand ... Traps (Part I)

I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death. Begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism!

No one has ever come out of there alive.

The opening vignette of Raiders of the Lost Ark is possibly the best ten minutes in movie history. Indiana Jones, renowned archaeologist and adventurer, makes his way through an array of deadly, primitive booby traps to retrieve a priceless golden idol. (At one point, his companion gets covered in tarantulas. I've seen this movie over twenty times, and I only kept my eyes open for that part once.) To escape with the statue, he has to make it through even more booby traps, including an enormous rolling boulder that crushes everything in its path.

As a kid hooked on traps and escapes, this scene was practically a religious experience. I began to look at traps in a completely new way. The contraptions in the temple were convoluted, impractical, overblown, and totally awesome in every way. I dreamed of the real traps that lurked inside the ancient pyramids. Around that time, I also discovered Dungeons & Dragons and I couldn't get enough of trap-laden tombs. To this day I am quite proud of my carefully cultivated reputation as a killer DM who populated scenarios with numerous deathtraps for my unsuspecting victims, er, players.

Traps were abundant in pulp fiction and the Golden Age of comic books. Numerous villains used deathtraps. Stories were filled with now classic situations such as descending ceilings, spike filled pits, and rooms filling with water. Radio serials used traps as cliffhangers to get you to tune into the next exciting installment.

Can this be the end of our beloved Caped Crusaders?

FrostydeathTraps took on a new life in the 60s with Adam West's Batman. Taking cues from the old serials, the first part of each Batman story ended with a cliffhanger. Batman and Robin were often caught in impossible deathtraps.

And such deathtraps! The Riddler tied up the dynamic duo and lowered them into a vat of boiling wax ... The Clock King placed them in the bottom of a giant hourglass as the sand slowly filled in around them ... Mr. Freeze trapped the twosome in my personal favorite, a pair of giant snow cones. They were deliciously absurd devices that made the temple traps seem understated.

Every villain used them in the show. In the comics, weird and wonderful traps were making more frequent appearances. It was the Silver Age, and death was not allowed to be scary (thank you, Dr. Wertham). This led to some really bizarre stuff. Superman was forever getting caught in kryptonite cages. (Remember when kryptonite was hard to find?) Themed villains invented machines that the TV show could only dream of, like giant typewriters of doom. Entire teams were captured in traps designed to counter each individual's powers. For evil trapsters, life was good.

The Most Dangerous Game

Arcade, Marvel's eccentric assassin, made his debut in 1977. While other villains occasionally used them, Arcade's whole purpose as a villain was to craft outlandish deathtraps. He spent millions to create the ultimate deathtrap, Murderworld. A funhouse inspired collection of deathtraps, Murderworld left the previous machinations far behind. In his first appearance, he trapped Spider-Man and Captain Britain in an enormous pinball machine!

Arcade Dressed in a bright white suit with a comedic, oversized bowtie and big, wavy red hair, Arcade's appearance is designed to give the impression that he is not to be taken seriously. That is the point, of course. His sinister grin belies the danger that lurks beneath. Arcade is the classic evil clown archetype. Even his name states that this is all a game to him. As part of his gamesmanship, he hides a way out in each of his deathtraps. In his philosophy, the victim needs to be given a chance, no matter how small. Fittingly, he makes a great video game boss and has appeared in multiple games.

Arcade has taken on many of Marvel's biggest heroes at some point. He has managed to trap but not kill Spider-Man, Captain Britain, Excalibur, X-Factor, Deadpool, Hercules, and perhaps most notably, the X-Men. He's even taken on several villains including Dr. Doom! (Arcade and the good doctor have a famously bitter relationship.)

He doesn't do it for the money, he is all about having fun. That is a good thing since he is probably the worst assassin in history. By reputation, we are told that he has killed hundreds of people in Murderworld. We never see those, though. When he takes on supers, he invariably loses. Sadly, his reputation as a real threat started to decline.


This is the problem with deathtraps: they're all or nothing. This doesn't bother me because deathtraps are there to be foiled; We want to see the escape. The trap gives the hero a chance to display cleverness and creativity. It's not a straight-up fight where simply being stronger will probably win. They're fun and whimsical, as whimsical as death can be, really. The best traps are more creative than deadly. If you're a villain such as Arcade that lives by the trap, in a world where we don't want to see the heroes actually die, then yes, your reputation is going to suffer.

So Arcade got an injection of maturity. Tired of being teased by the supervillain community (really) he decided it was time to get serious. Avengers Arena was a series designed to capitalise on the Hunger Games craze and Arcade was the villain behind it. He trapped several teen heroes on an island and ordered them to kill each other. I won't go into the story in detail because plot holes abound, but perhaps the biggest crime was what they did to Arcade.

His physical appearance, in fact his whole tone, was toned down. No longer the eager gamesman, he was now the bored dilettante seeking gladiatorial entertainment. He also exhibited abilities far beyond anything he could achieve before. And the traps? Gone. His only machinations kept the victims on the island and forced them to fight. On the bright side, he was finally successful; several heroes died. And so did Arcade. So gritty!

Why don't you just kill him?

Arcade's transformation is symbolic of the way the world sees deathtraps today. They're inefficient at best and ridiculous at worst. There's no room for them in the modern, serious, world. If you ever see an over-the-top deathtrap now, it's there strictly for comedic purposes.

Look, I get it. If your intent is to just kill the victim, then shooting them makes a lot more sense. Modern frustrations were echoed years ago in Austin Powers (1997). The nefarious Dr. Evil was about to place Austin Powers into a deathtrap of his own devising when his son, Scott Evil expressed stunned disbelief.

Dr. Evil: Scott, I want you to meet daddy's nemesis, Austin Powers

Scott Evil: What? Are you feeding him? Why don't you just kill him?

Dr. Evil: I have an even better idea. I'm going to place him in an easily escapable situation involving an overly elaborate and exotic death.

Dr. Evil: All right guard, begin the unnecessarily slow-moving dipping mechanism...Close the tank!

Scott Evil: Wait, aren't you even going to watch them? They could get away!

Dr. Evil: No no no, I'm going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I'm just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?

Scott Evil: I have a gun, in my room, you give me five seconds, I'll get it, I'll come back down here, BOOM, I'll blow their brains out!

Dr. Evil: Scott, you just don't get it, do ya? You don't.

Silly as it seems, Dr. Evil's response is really the best one. Don't like deathtraps? Then you just don't get it, do ya? There is an art to the deathtrap. It is never used lightly. It's not foolish, it's deliberate. There's a very important psychology at work.

Happy Trails, Hans

hans-gruber-fallAt the end of Die Hard (1988), evil mastermind Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) falls to his death with a priceless expression of horror on his face. (SPOILERS!) The look was real, by the way. Director John McTiernan asked Rickman to fall 25 feet backwards onto an airbag on the count of three. The stunt crew decided to drop him on "one" instead, to make his reaction more genuinely believable. It worked.

It is truly a satisfying death. Many movie villains fall to their deaths, in fact. For example there is The Joker in Batman (1989), Ma-Ma in Dredd (2012), Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi (1983), and many, many others. Disney uses it constantly from the Evil Queen to Gaston to Maleficent and others. One reason that this device is used over and over again is that it creates that satisfying death that we in the audience all crave.

The satisfying death has several elements to it, but most importantly is the moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. We need to see the villain realize that he has lost and the hero has won. This is the point of no return, the villain is doomed and they know it. This is a gratifying moment for the audience, even if the hero was not intending it to happen. If the villain dies too hastily, we don't get this moment. That is why villains rarely die quickly.

The deathtrap is the villain's way of achieving anagnorisis in their victim. They want the hero beyond hope, doomed with the full knowledge that the villain has won. That is where they get their satisfaction. Just shoot them? Not a chance. The elaborate deathtrap doesn't just say to the victim, "I won," it also says, "I'm smarter than you," "I'm stronger than you," or most importantly, "I'm better than you."

It's a trap!

"You don't mean to-- My God, you are a villain!" And with those words the villainous Byke [one of the men whom the law is always reaching for and never touches] tied the helpless Snorkey [a returned Veteran, established as a Soldier but open to anything else] to the railroad tracks. Augustin Daly's 1867 play "Under the Gaslight" was the first occurrence of the now infamous railroad scene on stage.

The situation first appeared earlier that same year in an American short story, Captain Tom's Fright, published in Galaxy magazine, but Daly's play popularized the scene. Since then, the deathtrap has been seen numerous times in films, cartoons, and unfortunately, real life. (In one incident, an article actually used the word "dastardly" to describe the crime.)

Edgar Allen Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum was published in 1842. In this famous horror tale, the narrator, a prisoner, is strapped to a plank facing the ceiling of a dark cell. A razor-sharp pendulum is suspended above him swinging back and forth and slowly descending. This is the first known use of a deathtrap in published fiction. The concept is very old, but before that, it's difficult to establish an exact first appearance. The word "deathtrap" first appeared in 1835, however, in The Battle of New Orleans by Zachary F. Smith.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Build a better deathtrap and the world will beat a path to your door." For over a century, writers have been building better traps. The classic scenarios are all cliches now. Walls closing in, chambers filling with water, pits filled with alligators ... these were old before we were born. Comic books took up the challenge and built better traps with the resources that the world of supers allowed such as super-science and magic. Sometimes they seem ridiculous, but they always present a lively, heroic challenge that we want to see defeated.

Tune in next time ...

The topic of traps in comics is too grand to cover in one column. I haven't even mentioned Mister Miracle yet, and he could merit an entire column unto himself. Yet even now the fire threatens to consume the ropes that hold the piano aloft above my head ... should I survive, next month I'll write more on the terrible trouble of traps!

"On The Other Hand" is a column of unrepentant nostalgia in a superhero world suffering from an overdeveloped sense of maturity. The author used to own the first appearance of Paste Pot Pete, a character that took a giant step backwards when he became Trapster.



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