Needs More Leverage

As the build-up to NaNoWriMo accelerates, I’ll be using this space to put down my thoughts on some of the works and ideas I’m intentionally drawing on when planning my novel. This is the first such post.

Amidst the rise of the television antihero, who’d have thought a show with the tagline, “Sometimes bad guys make the best good guys,” would be so…fun?

From late 2008 to late 2012, TNT ran five seasons of Leverage, an explicit throwback to the likes of Mission: Impossible (the ‘60s-‘70s television series, not the movies) and heist/caper movies like 1973’s The Sting. The basic premise is simple enough: Former insurance investigator Nate Ford works with a crew of top-tier criminals to con and steal from the rich and powerful on behalf of those victimized by the Powers-That-Be.

The show has little to nothing in common with reality as most people live it; it is unabashed escapism. That’s not a rare thing to find in television, but this show did better than most combining escapism with many different stripes of intelligence. The typical episode mixes together the how’d-they-do-it cleverness of a caper flick, the quippy banter of fan favorites from the Whedonverse or non-obnoxious Sorkinland, and (crucially) a level of social and emotional intelligence that’s too often missing from plot-driven and formulaic escapism.

To elaborate on that last point, the crux of most episodes of Leverage is the team’s ability to understand and respond to their mark’s strongest wants and needs. Their superpower is empathy. Empathy that they then use to manipulate, pressure, and trick bad people, sure, but empathy nonetheless.

Yes, there’s some great punchy-punchy action. One of the team members, Eliot Spencer (Christian Kane, familiar to Angel fans as Lindsey), is labeled in the show’s credits as a “hitter,” after all. And hit he does. Frequently, effectively, and with much creativity. But he usually does so in the service of the larger job, and he spends at least as much time assuming false identities and aiding the interpersonal parts of cons as he does beating people up.

While some of its villains are the face of serious, real-world problems, the show is careful not to wallow in the grim-‘n’-gritty that runs through so many other shows. The closest it gets are Nate’s alcoholism in response to a traumatic time from his past and veiled references to Eliot’s history before joining the team. Neither ever goes full-on antihero, though. Nate is more properly classified as a Byronic hero in the mode of Angel, Batman, or some of the great hardboiled and noir detectives. His two most common ways of dealing with the worst parts of his history are drinking and brooding. As for Eliot, the very concept of having a “hitter” on the team necessitates a history of violence, and his character is midway through a journey of self-reconstruction. And ultimately, even when each character’s issues receive significant screen time, they aren’t allowed to overwhelm the show’s foundational tone of clever, well-characterized fun.

The strength of characterization brought to mastermind Nate, grifter Sophie, thief Parker, hacker Hardison, and hitter Eliot is the true core of the show. Even within the first season, we get a taste for the complex relationship between each character’s history, self-concept, motivation for staying on the team, and connection to the other team members. By, say, the third season, the show has built up enough visible history to manage emotionally resonant call-backs, clear personal growth for each character, and fascinating structural experiments that depend on the characters’ traits for both humor and depth.

Season 3’s “The Rashomon Job,” for example, is fine enough on its own, but the real strength of it comes from a familiarity with the previous two and a half seasons’ worth of character development. A quick scan of the episodes with the highest ratings on IMDb reveals episodes that depend on the audience’s knowledge of and relationship to the characters. For as much as this is a heist show, the cleverness of the heists is distinctly secondary to character moments in the eyes of the audience.

I often find when I’m playing the, “How would I improve this?” game with other properties, one of my most common responses is, “Needs more Leverage.” As a specific example, I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy, but I would have enjoyed it more if it had a bit more of Leverage’s strengths. (What follows is a more detailed exploration of this; by all means skip to the last paragraph if that’s not of interest.)

For starters, I’d like to have seen more of GotG’s team success depend on their social intelligence rather than just their combat skills. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed plenty of the pew-pew action and wouldn’t want all of it stripped away. I do think it would have been interesting to see how each of these different outsiders has learned to navigate galactic society and how they can (a) use those lessons to individual advantage and (b) learn from the others’ lessons.

To get more precise, one of the team members – Rocket – is, as best we can tell, completely one-of-a-kind. In one moving scene, we get a sense for how that gives him a deep (well-earned) sense of alienation, and throughout the movie we see him being defensive, sarcastic, and quick to fly off the handle in ways that are clearly informed by that. And yet, he has clearly formed a very strong connection to Groot and is able to build good (if insult-laden) relationships with the rest of the team. How cool would it be to see him in a few more situations that rely on his ability to navigate social dynamics rather than just blow things up?

Two other team members – Star-Lord and Groot – are from species that are incredibly rare in the various parts of the galaxy the movie explores. Star-Lord benefits from being physiologically and linguistically similar to most of the other species they encounter, but he is still a man without a home, a family, or an obvious path forward in life. As the movie’s closest thing to an individual protagonist, he gets the most screen time and development, and I think it’s great that the climactic confrontation depends in part on his use of a piece of his personal past (dancing to a song from his mother’s tape) to befuddle the Big Bad. I would love to have seen his problem-solving throughout the movie depend a little bit more on understanding the mindset of someone else and using his background to play them to his advantage, and a little less on being quicker/more accurate when shooting.

By not being nearly as relatable to others in these parts of the galaxy, Groot is even more isolated. His partnership with Rocket makes great sense in that regard, since they’re both especially alien in a society with a lot of people who from cultures that are alien to each other. I’m hoping that in the future we’ll get to learn more about how Groot got by before Rocket and/or how he does when he doesn’t have someone there to translate for him. Clearly, he’s got great skill in the “hitter” role (in terms of technique – think about that mass takedown of goons near the end – as well as sheer genetic potential), paired with an obvious inner gentleness. Seeing how those two traits developed simultaneously would be great.

Gamora is the one person in the group who’s an outsider by choice, having betrayed her monomaniacal father after spending years doing his dirty work. This is a fascinating backstory that did not get explored nearly enough in the movie. Its repercussions get a little more attention, especially in the early prison scenes as we’re first learning about Gamora. However, seeing Gamora figure out how to develop social skills she needs since she’s no longer a weapon in her father’s arsenal and watching her begin to re-integrate with a society she’s long been outside of are situations with great dramatic (and comedic) potential.

And then there’s Drax. With all respect to Dave Bautista, who did a fine job in the role, Drax is the least necessary of the team members. His motivation is bog-standard: Revenge for the off-screen, pre-movie fridging of his wife and daughter. His two primary functions in the story appear to be (a) hitting things really hard and (b) making socially inappropriate / overly blunt statements for comedic effect. These are redundant, given the rest of the team. Groot is more interesting, visually and narratively, as the muscle. Gamora and Rocket (and, in a way, Groot) offer plenty of opportunities for laugh lines driven by social inappropriateness and bluntness. And there’s no real need for Drax’s character to develop. Yes, it’s nice he made some friends, but presumably he already had some on his own world before all of this and will be able to make more afterwards.

Instead, I would have liked to see Nebula given a larger role. Gamora’s sort-of-sister, Nebula received virtually no development or characterization in the movie. Basically, she’s the Big Bad’s other daughter who remains loyal but who he likes less. There are great seeds of potential conflict and growth in her relationship with Gamora that are barely touched on. Imagine a version of the story without Drax, and where the team spends more of the middle of the movie interacting with Nebula. Imagine a deeper exploration of the relationship between Gamora and Nebula that results in Nebula joining her sister in betraying her father at the very end. Basically, imagine a movie where the team has to empathize with Nebula and start her on a path of self-reconstruction while at the same time bringing down the Big Bad who didn’t pay enough attention to his family. Still with plenty of punch-shoot-quip action, of course. I think that would have been even more interesting and satisfying.

As a final point, one of the movies GotG’s frequently compared to is Star Wars. What’s key to much of the middle of that movie? Before all the shooting, Luke, Han, Chewie, Obi-Wan, and the droids break into the Death Star, hack its systems, grift their way to the detention center, and steal Leia, with her help. Hitting, hacking, grifting, and thieving? Sounds like Leverage to me, bookended by spaceships, lasers, and all that good stuff.

In any case, one of my main takeaways from Leverage is to remember that deception, social intelligence, and empathy are fertile grounds for action and conflict. A creator’s ability to build well-defined characters with interesting relationships and complementary skillsets and attitudes is at least as, if not more important, than their cleverness concocting capers. Also, Robin Hood heists are fun, and fun is good.