Thursday, January 14, 2016

Fictional Personal Weapons

Size isn't everything, but a big gun helps eliminate the
competition.                                                     © Paramount Studios

Man is a pretty defenseless creature; were it not for his big brain, he wouldn’t stand a chance out in the wild. Well maybe in Tahiti (I hear it’s a magical place), but not so much in the more hostile rest of the world.

    But a big brain he has, and sometimes he’s smart enough to put it to good use. Man has been making weapons since he was knee-high to a Neandertal. At first, though, he was probably more into shopping for instruments of mass destruction than creating them – as in, “Hmm, that rhino leg bone would be just the thing for crushing a cave bear’s skull!” – but it wasn’t long before he got the idea of modifying these hard and sharp things to use them against the more fragile parts of his fellow hominids. The survivors caught on pretty quickly, too, and before they knew it, our ancestors found themselves in a full-fledged arms race.

    That competition continues to this day.  As a result, the world is overflowing with all manner of guns, swords, knives and rolling pins, not to mention smart bombs and ICBMs.  The world is a scary place, but our big brains enable us to imagine an even more terrifying one.  Adventure fiction is all about making things bigger than life, and that certainly holds true for personal weapons.

    It’s fun to think up new ways to kill one’s fellow man, even if one has no intention of ever using them in the real world.  Sometimes it’s just a way to pose a difficult problem for the protagonist, as Chester Gould did when Dick Tracy had to figure out that a bullet made of ice would leave its victim with no evidence other than a hole in his chest (NOTE: the Mythbusters have since proven that such ammunition would not survive the firing of the cartridge, but why not try it with an ice dart or shuriken?).  Sometimes, it’s more a matter of catering to adolescent power fantasies by packing a lot of punch into a small package, giving the little guy an edge when standing up to a bully. After all, isn’t that what superheroes and super spies are all about?

    Before we go any further, please allow me to spell out my criteria for selection and judgment.  First, although there are plenty of weapons that have already seen service in the real world – many of them ingenious in some way or another – I am concerned here only with fictional weapons.  That does not include minor modifications of existing ones (such as an ice bullet fired by an ordinary revolver), although a weapon disguised as something else may well qualify.

    Second, I am excluding any innate body parts (such as prehensile hair, fangs or mutant power-beam eyeballs) and built-in prosthetics or bionics (adamantium claws, cyborg implants, grafted-on chainsaws or robotic arms), as well as live animals and plants (hawks, vines and biting insects, to name a few).

    In passing judgment, I will consider such factors as portability, readiness, effectiveness, safety and security, as these characteristics define the very market for personal weaponry. Although this is a discussion of things that do not exist, I will still make an effort to look at plausibility and, of course, aesthetics (which I prefer to refer to as “the cool factor”).

    The devices I have chosen to examine fall into five basic categories:
  • Edged Weapons
  • Projectile Weapons
  • Energy/Effect Weapons
  • Thrown Weapons
  • Flexible Weapons
    There is some crossover among these divisions, however; I will return to this point as we come to those for which a single category is not enough.  In a similar vein, there are some that are both good and bad, depending on the circumstances, and as we all know, ugliness can apply to either.  I will place each item in an appropriate group based what I see as the weapon’s most characteristic attributes, knowing full well that others may see things differently.

    Iron Man’s repulsors are at the top of the Good list. What more can you ask of an energy weapon than that it not only blast your enemies to smithereens, but also carry you home again at supersonic speed?  A physicist might complain that the energy requirements are prohibitive, but that’s what that little arc reactor on the guy’s chest is for; presumably, it taps into some kind of unlimited power source that makes mincemeat out of any such arguments. And although the reactor was originally a part of a prosthetic device, it has since been removed from Tony Stark's body, so the weapons it powers do meet my criteria. What is more, this repulsor technology is so good that SHIELD adopted it as a way to fly its gigantic helicarriers!

Iron Man's primary weapons are repulsive, but they're not ugly.                    © Marvel Entertainment

Spider-Man is back on the web.  © Marvel Comics
    The same dual criteria apply to Spider-Man’s web shooters (the ones Peter Parker built himself, not the ones he apparently grew in the Toby McGuire movies): they are an example of a flexible weapon, greatly extending his reach and helping to tie up the bad guys, while providing a thrilling way to get around in the city. It helps a lot that he lives in a city, of course; Spidey wouldn’t get very far web-slinging around rural Kansas, no matter how high the corn grows.

    The major fly in the ointment is the limited amount of web fluid these artificial spinnerets can hold, not to mention the bulges that any spare tanks would produce in his otherwise svelte costume. So the artists simply cheat by leaving these unsightly lumps out of the picture.

GL powering his power ring.   © DC Comics

    Stepping away from the Marvel Universe for a bit, let’s give the Green Lantern a ring.  No need; a dying alien already gave him one.  The power of the ring is tantamount to magic, with its reliance on a focused will propelling a healthy imagination, and the stylized lantern logo it bears hearkens back to ancient alchemical or astrological symbols. Green coloring aside, Hal Jordan is definitely a good witch (warlock?), but when he conjures up a mental construct, you can bet it’s going to be a wicked can of emerald-hued whoop-ass.

    I never cared for the idea that this energy weapon could be thwarted by the color yellow (after all, anyone familiar with the Prang color wheel knows that red is green’s opposite, or complementary, color, and yellow is actually a component of green), but even magic has to have its limits, or the stories would be pretty boring (see: Superman).  At least it’s no longer ineffective against wood, as was the case in the Golden Age.

    A more palatable limitation of such a weapon is the eventual depletion of its energy cells, for which Hal must make contact with the power lantern and recite the oath of the GL Corps, just as a sorcerer would say the magic words while touching a sacred talisman.  Equally mystical benefits of this bit of galactic bling are the way it can encase its bearer in a green field that provides fresh air and warmth as he travels through the vacuum of space (an ecological message if I ever saw one), and like the hand weapons of the previous two heroes, gives him the ability to travel great distances at tremendous speed.  In fact, Green Lantern could fly rings around Iron Man any day. He just couldn’t do anything to the yellow parts of his armor.

    While we’re on the subject of advanced technology masquerading as magic, let’s take a look at Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir (by the way, shouldn’t all hammers have a name? I’m thinking of calling mine Thumbsmasher).  This solid block of ancient Uru metal (whatever that is) is pound-for-pound the most impressive blunt object ever swung at a charging frost giant.  What makes it even more effective is the way it can be thrown with great force and then come flying back like some kind of Asgardian boomerang.  It flies so well, in fact, that Thor can throw it into the air and ride along, holding onto its leather thong. For a thrown weapon, it’s got a bit of the energy weapon to it, helping the Thunder God call down lightning or bring forth a maelstrom whenever he feels it’s hammer time.  There’s a security system built into it, too: only one who is worthy can lift the god-named thing, which prevents any evil-doer from picking it up and whacking ol’ Blondie with mallets aforethought. The movie-makers have given it an impressive sound effect for when it flies – a powerful zing in a low key, like the deep thrum of the big brother of all tuning forks. 

You can't pick this hammer up at the hardware store, even if you're worthy. © Marvel Entertainment 
    I like the way Thor and Captain America have forged an effective team within a team in the latest Avengers movie: there being no Uru anvils around anywhere, Thor has figured out that he can send a devastating shock wave across the battlefield by hauling back and striking Cap’s shield at just the right angle.

Cap's red, white and blue shield affords him 
unflagging protection.   © Marvel Entertainment
    This shield is an armor plate that can really dish out the punishment.  Another thrown weapon this, albeit one that also serves a defensive purpose. In the movies, it’s said to be made of vibranium, an imaginary metal that has the power to absorb the energy of any impact. This certainly comes in handy when bad guys are tossing bullets and grenades in Cap’s direction, or he needs to survive a fall from a great height.  But it would make it a pretty wimpy thing to throw at someone, as one would have to assume the shield absorbs those impacts, too – or does it somehow release the potential energy it’s stored up from all those previous defensive hits?

   Anyway, it’s pretty cool to watch it go ricocheting around the arena, taking out enemies with incredible accuracy, and then somehow pulling a Mjolnir and coming back to Cap’s gloved hand. Either Captain Rogers is unbelievably skilled at predicting multiple-collision trajectories (in which case, he must be one hell of a pool player), or that magnetic device in his glove is way more powerful than any others on the planet and he has to stop periodically to clean off all the loose metal objects that get caught in its field.

    In the comics, the shield is made of not only vibranium, but also adamantium, steel, and various combinations thereof, making it a truly advanced piece of weaponry. Still, Ultron’s sneering comment in the movie regarding the precious vibranium is right on target: “They took the world’s most versatile metal and made a Frisbee out of it.” Ultron can’t help being a metal-plated jerk, but he’s just begging Cap to hit him with a huge dose of wham-o.

    In hopes of casting a ray of light on the subject, let’s open up the weapons locker and pull out one of the most famous of all: the phaser.  Introduced in the sixties TV show Star Trek, the phaser was conceived as a more advanced version of the already familiar laser, and as Gene Roddenberry explained, it took advantage of the many “phases of light” of which current electromagnetic theory spoke.  That’s about all the science there was to it; the rest was pure imagination.  For instance, it has different settings for stun, kill and disintegrate (although the last two seem to be identical).

     The coolest idea is that the primary device is a little hand-held object about the size of a car’s electronic key-fob that can be clipped into a bigger, more gun-like body to increase its power and range.  The little version is easy to conceal under the hem of one’s tunic (the idea of pockets apparently having been given up as too old-fashioned), while the bigger one is clearly more intimidating and easier to recognize in wide shots, as in a battle scene.

    The phaser is nothing if not versatile. In one episode, Scotty drains a couple of them into the power cells of a shuttle craft, giving it enough get-up-and-go to attain escape velocity. In another, Sulu fires his at a boulder to heat it up so he doesn’t freeze to death on a wintry planet while the transporter is having one of its little technical fits (apparently, the shuttle craft isn’t working either – possibly in need of another phaser-charge – or Spock would simply send it down to pick the helmsman up). In a pinch, a phaser can be set to overload, the power cell building up a charge until it creates what they call “a force chamber explosion,” turning the gun into a powerful hand grenade. There is even a rising whine, like that of a photographer’s flash unit, to build up the tension before it blows.

Light weaponry: Federation phaser, Klingon disruptor and Bajoran phaser.  © Paramount Studios

    Of course, the enemy powers have their own energy pistols, such as the venerable Klingon disruptor, a swaggering son-of-a-gun whose parents might have been a Colt .45 and a soldering iron. In later series, there is the Bajoran phaser, which looks alien precisely because the original prop was made out of the plastic leg of an over-sized insect toy. It's weird and menacing, although the uncomfortable handle (what do you expect from a bug's upper thigh?) would leave you with a handful of joint pain. 

Big thing, small package: Agent J is OK with the noisy cricket.                             © Columbia Pictures
    There are phaser rifles, too, for those times when a more impressive barrage of fire is called for. But with high-energy weapons such as these, size doesn’t always matter. Take for instance the noisy cricket from Men in Black.  In the armory, Will Smith all but drools at the array of shiny, exotic alien-blasting weapons, only to have his hopes dashed when Tommy Lee Jones hands him a teensy pistol smaller than a lady’s Derringer.  The punch line to this comedic scene comes when Smith sneeringly pulls the trigger and gets thrown across the room by its awesome recoil.  Apparently, it’s a long-running gag traditionally pulled on rookies, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell by Jones’s stony expression. However, as an energy weapon of high power that is easily concealed, the noisy cricket definitely packs a wallop.

Dying of gilt: Scaramonger's golden pistol
is prime example of firepower through 
superior pieces.                             © United Artists

She knows the ropes: this lass's lasso will tell
her if you're lying or not.              © DC Comics

    All of the weapons used by the MIBs have a silver sheen that gives me the impression they are just Super-Soakers that the prop men have covered with chrome spray paint. Since most of them are never taken down from the rack, that's probably a good way for the producers to hang onto some of their own pieces of silver.

   It wouldn’t do for James Bond, though, who seems to have an obsession with gold, as evidenced by the films Goldfinger, Goldeneye, and of course, The Man with the Golden Gun.  Bond’s nemesis in the latter movie is a high-rent hit man named Scaramonger whose trademark projectile weapon he  assembles out of what appear to be a cigarette case, a lighter and a fountain pen, all plated in gold.

    Not only is the precious metal a classy touch for something that performs a rather dirty function, the fact that the gun breaks down into seemingly harmless objects (well, it’s the cigarettes that will kill you, not their case) that he can then put in his pockets and walk through the airport without a care makes it one of the cleverest killing machines ever devised.  I am assuming, of course, that the pieces wouldn’t fly apart when the thing goes off, turning it into several ounces of fool’s gold.

   Another golden item on my list is as different from a hit-man's pistol as capturing is from killing. Wonder Woman’s glittering lariat is a flexible weapon with the power to compel people to tell the truth.  It’s certainly more ladylike than tying a man to a chair and beating a confession out of him (not that she wouldn’t be able to do that, muscular as she is). Being a rope, though, it can certainly compel a guy to stay in his chair, or to come along with her wherever she goes (as if the scantily clad Amazon couldn’t accomplish that just by crooking her finger at him!). She can wind it into a neat coil and hook it to her belt for easy access, and it probably comes in handy whenever she goes rock climbing. I’d love to see her use it at a rodeo -- or better yet, a session of Congress, where they really need help reining in the bull.  

Non-rattling sabers: a young Jedi needs his knight light.          © 20th Century Fox

    One celebrated implement of mayhem that straddles the boundary between Good and Bad is the light saber, which made its debut in the first Star Wars film, A New Hope.  Attempts have been made to explain it as a high-powered plasma jet, a shaft of very hot energy of limited length. When it’s turned off, it looks like a glorified flashlight that a Jedi knight can clip to his belt (presumably with the safety on so it doesn’t accidentally chop off a leg or something).  As Obi-wan tells Luke, ”It’s an elegant weapon from a more civilized time,” as he later demonstrates by disarming a walrus-faced barfly in the famous cantina scene.  Such an energy weapon has many advantages over a blade of solid metal, such as the ability to slice through walls like a blowtorch, to retract instantly into its hilt and become harmless, and to cauterize a wound while it is burning its way through flesh and bone, saving its victim from any worries of infection or bleeding out.  It might be good for barbecues, too, but don’t let the younglings play with it; they could put someone's eye out! 
Two hot to handle: the Sith's duplicity leads to no good end.    © 20th Century Fox

    Now for the bad side, which in this case is aligned with the Dark Side of the Force, as represented by Darth Maul. Having one plasma jet sticking out of your flashlight is dangerous enough, but two? That’s just crazy! Imagine trying to keep an eye on (or out of the way of) a pair of plasma jets pointing in opposite directions while simultaneously dodging the other guy’s light saber, and doing all sorts of leaps and flips and telekinetic tricks with the nearby furniture. You’ll be thankful for that cauterizing thing once your own plasma quarterstaff mauls the sith out of you.

  At the other end of the color spectrum is another weapon that is both Good and Bad.  In the DC comics, the Green Arrow’s bow is a projectile weapon with a lengthy and honorable heritage, and it does offer a few useful qualities: it’s quiet, it can attack from a distance without a telltale muzzle flash or puff of smoke, and it does not require an energy source beyond the muscles of the archer.  On the downside, it’s big and bulky – traits that Oliver Queen overcomes on the TV show Arrow by using it as a mini-quarterstaff (or would that be an eighthstaff?) to bludgeon his opponents at close quarters – er, eighths. Another minus is that he can only carry so many arrows in his quiver. In a tight situation, he’d have to make do with whatever featherless stick or rod he can find.

    The bow may have a couple of drawbacks, but you can’t knock his arrows -- it’s this arsenal of specialized missiles that makes this weapon system unique (aside from the one used by Marvel’s Hawkeye, which is of a similar bent).  A partial list of what Oliver calls his “trick” arrows includes incendiary, smoke, taser, flashbang, grappling hook and boomerang arrows.

Oliver Queen pulls one of his trick arrows, and his
foes are all a-quiver.             © Warner Bros. Television 

   Not to be outdone, Hawkeye arms himself with many of the same, but also includes acid, net, putty, bola, sonic, explosive, cable rocket, suction-tip and freeze arrows. Green Arrow, on the other hand, is the only one brave and bold enough to employ an atomic warhead arrow – it’s not one he’d like to have fall short of its target, although a near miss would probably be as good as a bullseye. The silliest of them all is Oliver’s boxing-glove arrow.  He designed this as a non-lethal means of subduing his arch enemies, which makes sense, but really, there’s no need to go to all the trouble to mold its soft head into an actual boxing glove shape, except to sell the idea visually to the readers.  It’s excusable from a storytelling point, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.

Xena's #1 Rule of Engagement: find something sharp
for your ring flinger.                          © Universal Television
    Stepping down the royal succession from a vigilante Queen to a warrior princess, we come to Xena and her celebrated chakram.  Whereas Ollie’s bow is drawn from the tradition of the plains Indians, Xena’s flying buzz saw is a spin-off of more exotic Indian weaponry, the Sikh sickle that is its namesake. Basically, it’s a flat metal ring that she flings like a discus. More times than not it comes back to her, presumably with a little blood on it. It’s highly portable, hooking onto her belt like Diana’s lasso, and it’s got a deadly razor edge that makes it easily the sharpest pizza cutter in the drawer.

Catching the chakram is the trick, though, and only a handful of characters have managed to do it without ending up with a handful of stumps in place of their fingers. This is where plausibility flies out the window: with terrific reflexes and highly developed skill, one might be able to bypass the sharp outer edge and grab the ring on its (presumably less dangerous) inner circle, but that’s not what Xena does. She snags this whirling EpiLady by the outside rim, sometimes bare-handed, with nary a nick to show for it.

.The balanced chakram: maybe you can
halve it both ways.    © Universal Television
    There are other versions that turn up in the series, namely the dark chakram and the balanced one, the mystical powers of which are supposed to override the fact that it comes apart in two semi-circles, neither of which would be of much use in an Ultimate Frisbee death match. But the whole yin-yang motif is fairly clever, and the separated halves might be handy for, say, a game of Fruit Ninja.

The balanced chakram’s dual nature exemplifies the fine line that is often drawn between Good and Bad when judging a weapon’s merits. Rest assured, though, there are plenty that fall clearly into the latter category. 

    For our purposes, a weapon is truly Bad if it blatantly violates one or more of the principles outlined at the beginning of this article, especially if that serves to make the thing unworkable. Case in point: the Batarang. Like the chakram, there have been several versions of this supposedly clever throwing weapon, but as the name suggests, it was originally conceived as a metal boomerang with a scalloped “batwing” edge that could be thrown at an opponent and return to Batman’s gloved hand.

A bat for pitching: the non-returnable Batarang
from the 60s series Batman.             © Warner Bros.
    Aerodynamics aside, this is not such a bad idea, except that the glove would have to be pretty well padded to enable a non-super-powered hero to catch it and still be able to dial the Bat-phone. Where it really begins to veer off target, though, is when Batman tries to give it additional capabilities, all of which are in direct conflict with its ability to spin through the air. Attaching a rope to one wing may sounds like a good idea, but the tether would make rotation impossible; still, it could function as a sort of one-armed grapple, looping the line around a girder or something and, one would hope, hooking onto the rope rather than slicing through it. Nevertheless, I wonder how our hero manages to get it to release so he can retract it for another throw.

    Additional additions that would yield diminishing returns include explosive packages, spy cameras and – worst of all – a remote control, as if this were some kind of glider or self-propelled drone. There is a simple solution to some of these, and that is to stop calling it a Batarang and name it something more appropriate, like a Bat-drone or a Bat-grapple.

 Steel winging it: a slightly more aerodynamic duo  
  from the film Batman Begins.              © Warner Bros.  
   One Bat-grapple doesn’t spoil the whole bunch, though. More recently, the Batarang has morphed into something more akin to a shuriken, or ninja throwing star. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne carves a set of pointy, sharp-edged bat shapes with a metal grinder that looks suspiciously like the machine the guy at the hardware store uses to make duplicate keys. These razor-rimmed business cards look cool, but it would be a touch of steel-edged irony were Batman to find a few flying back to him, not because they are boomerangs, but because if he can throw them, so can his enemies.

    To use a Klingon bat’leth, on the other hand, one would need to use the other hand. A big scallop-edged weapon, this traditional warrior's blade is meant for hand-to-hand combat by a race of aliens who seem to think broadswords are for sissies. It can be swung like a sword, held up with both hands to block an opponent’s thrust, or cradled in one’s arms like a baby (though I’m not sure why that would be of much use in a battle).

    True, it does look alien, and the sharp bits can be rather scary, but the drunken swordmaker who dreamed this thing up missed the most obvious point. The curved blade of a cutlass or scimitar – or a cavalry saber – is curved for a reason. It’s less of a stabbing weapon than a slashing one, and the arc of that deadly edge is designed to follow the swing of the swordsman’s arm, providing maximum contact with an opponent’s body so it can better cleave, say, his cleavage. The bat’leth has a really nice arc on it, but for some reason it’s on the back side, with leather thongs wound around it to make handles. Now, I realize that in many ways, the Klingons are a backward culture, but one would think they’d know enough etiquette to pick up a knife the right way!

Blades of glory: Klingons take great pride in their poorly designed bat'leths.     © Paramount Studios
 Too big for his britches: Cloud Strife is
an anime character whose weapon has
delusions of grandeur.
         © Square Enix
    Klingons aren’t the only ones with a preference for big weapons. A quick survey of anime and manga characters will turn up a whole ginsu set of over-sized swords, guns, mallets and even a cross. I’m not just saying they’re too big to put in a holster; these massive implements of destruction are often bigger than the persons wielding them.

    Cloud Strife, from Final Fantasy, is a good example of a bad idea. His sword is as long as he is tall, and broader than his chest.  Not only would this Green Giant can-opener be too cumbersome for close combat, it would be exhausting just carrying it around. It’s not like you can stick it in your belt or hide it in your boot.

   This is by no means the most outlandish of anime’s brobdingnagian weapons; there is one young woman whose pistol is about the size of a school bus, and I’m betting she doesn’t have a concealed-carry permit for it!  While its impact on the target may be sizeable, the recoil from such a crazy howitzer would leave little more of her than a glistening smear across the background.

    Swords and guns often go hand-in-hand, as any reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s books will surely attest.  Case in point: John Carter of Mars. An earthman who finds himself mysteriously transported to the red planet, Carter is delighted to discover that he is somewhat of a superman in its lesser gravity, and as he is a veteran of the Confederate cavalry, it’s no great leap for him to become a master of the fine sabers the Martian warriors favor.  
John Carter's radium gun is so preposterous, he chooses
to stick with his sword.
                                         © Frank Frazetta

    He’s perfectly at home with their radium pistols and rifles, too, but is understandably disconcerted by the strangeness of their ammunition. These projectile weapons fire some kind of radium bullets that are supposed to explode upon contact with sunlight. Burroughs describes the aftermath of a night battle, with the corpses exploding as the rays of dawn reach them one by one.   

    My problem with this is two-fold. First, how would an explosive bullet that may take hours to go off stop an enemy from closing in? Second, how does sunlight even reach a bullet that has been lodged inside a person’s body? For all that trouble and expense, you might as well just use a chunk of lead.

Missing the mark: Han Solo's blaster is as aimless as he is.                        © 20th Century Fox
    Another gun that doesn’t seem to work very well is the laser blaster used by Han Solo (and just about everybody else) in the Star Wars movies.

    It doesn’t look much like a ray gun, which is understandable since it was cobbled together from parts of “real world” movie props (a World War II era pistol, a rifle scope, and some other off-the-shelf doo-dads), but that’s not the real problem. Lasers are renowned for their, well, laser-like focus – it’s why they make such good tools for aiming sniper rifles, performing delicate surgery, or guiding missiles to their targets. But these handguns are far, far and away the least precise energy weapons since the flamethrower. Even Obi-Wan, when describing to Luke the elegance of the light saber, uses the phrase, “Not as random as a blaster.” So even its users are aware of the gun’s shortcomings, and still they insist on arming themselves with this unreliable piece of hardware. No wonder Han shot first!

    Harrison Ford had much better luck with his old-fashioned revolver in the Indiana Jones movies (although it, too, was made out of WW-II-era gun parts), but he is most remembered for the snappy way he handled his leather whip. Unfortunately, not all whippersnappers are alike. Take, for instance, the villain Whiplash in Iron Man 2. This disgruntled Russian scientist has engineered his own duplicate of Tony Stark’s arc reactor and uses it to send bolts of lightning down a pair of conductors that he flings around like a circus lion tamer.  He demonstrates the destructive power of this flexible weapon by slashing a racecar in half with one crack, then proceeds to use it on Iron Man, barely scratching the paint on his metal armor.

    Okay, so maybe Tony’s suit is a bit tougher than the frame of a Formula One (without it, he'd be Stark naked!), but Whiplash isn’t wearing any armor at all, so why isn’t his body getting roughed up by the energy coursing through those cables? His legs would be particularly vulnerable, given their proximity to the whips dragging along the ground on both sides. This is the reason (one would imagine) that the Jedi don’t fight with plasma-jet nun-chucks: no matter which end of the weapon you’re on, you’re going to get hurt.

Better buckle up! Whiplash can kill you, especially at Le Mans.                            © Marvel Entertainment
    In the second James Bond film, Auric Goldfinger’s mountainous henchman Oddjob is a sharp dresser who will chop someone’s head off at the toss of a hat. His weapon of choice is a black hat with a razor ring in its brim (like Xena’s chakram in a size 7-1/2) that he hurls like a Frisbee. This arrangement has a big problem, though. Either the brim is covered in a light material (such as felt) so the blade can slice right through it as it does its dirty work, or it is encased in a tougher material that retains its upswept shape but surely blunts the weapon, rendering it useless as a flying guillotine.

    A third possibility is that the brim itself, curly edge and all, is composed of metal, but then it would be more club than knife; it might still be deadly, but its edge would strike at such an oblique angle that it won’t cut off a person’s sideburns, let alone his head.  The effect on its victims would suggest that the first option is true, but the fedora's durability defies this explanation. Once Oddjob has pulled off his hat trick and the blade has sliced through its target, the brim’s fabric should show signs of damage, but the most this millinery minion ever does is brush the dust off and it’s good as new -- which is to say, pretty bad.
Brimming with menace, Oddjob's lethal headgear flies in the face of credibility.  © United Artists

Snake attack: the zat'nik'tel from Stargate SG-1 looks like
a mummified serpent that's broken in two places.
    © MGM
    A weapon can be effective and still be ugly. The zat’nik’tel from Stargate SG-1 is a prime example.  It folds up so a team member can carry it in a standard military holster, but with the touch of a button, it snaps to attention like a cobra getting ready to strike.  The energy blasts it shoots are enough to knock a person out, or even kill him, depending on how many shots you inflict.

    But this big-asp taser is made to resemble a deadly serpent, and not a very attractive one, which is surprising.  So much of the Goa’uld technology in this series is a sleek mixture of advanced alien science and ancient Egyptian styling that I’m convinced the zat gun was conceived by an entirely different prop shop. Surely, it could have been more aesthetically pleasing (and perhaps more ergonomic to boot)!

 The vacuum of space: the NextGen phaser has
two settings: blow and suck.  © Paramount Studios
    Nevertheless, the zat gun is a beauty queen compared to the "new" phaser from Star Trek: the Next Generation and beyond.  Unlike its predecessors, this glorified laser pointer is not the least bit intimidating. It looks like a Dustbuster; if someone were to point it at you, you might expect it to collect the crumbs off your shirt, not burn a hole through your chest.

   A fundamental rule of science fiction gun design is that you have to make it clear to the audience that the object in your character's hand is a gun, even if it’s from an alien culture. Sure, once it’s fired, the viewers will get the idea, but if you’re trying to build some drama, or your hero needs to convince an enemy that he's armed and dangerous, you need something more “gunny” than a fancy flashlight.

    Usually this means an obvious barrel, a main body, and a hand grip with some kind of trigger. You can shove the hand grip forward, as was done with the first generation phaser, and add all kinds of techno-thingies onto the body and barrel (including a light bulb or nozzle at the business end), but just smooshing it all together until the handle is indistinguishable from the barrel will leave your hero exploring perilous planets with a handful of limpness, and that’s hardly the way to boldly go.

Not sound: Dune's voice amplifier looks to rattle itself to bits
 with the powerful vibrations it projects.          © Universal Pictures
    Most energy weapons work within the electromagnetic spectrum, but there are exceptions.  One departure that is a relatively sound idea is the so-called “weirding module” from the David Lynch movie Dune.

    This overblown iWatch is designed to focus and amplify sound waves, and in the hands of the nomadic Fremen, it’s a pretty nasty way to say hello. In the hands of Paul Atreides, who can already bend others to his will by using “the voice,” it is devastating.

He's gotta squash: the Green Goblin just
loves chunkin' punkins that could flatten 
Spider-Man.                      © Marvel Comics
    Unfortunately, it’s an awkward device, looking like something tinkered together out of bits of unrelated machinery. Find one lying around on the floor of your cave, and you’d probably think a giant sand worm had coughed it up after swallowing the company ornithopter. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be anything like a nozzle, barrel or dish antenna to suggest which way to point the flimsy contraption, or to make the viewer believe it’s a weapon of any sort, except perhaps to assault one’s sense of  aesthetics.

   For a more purposeful brand of hideous, take a look at what the Green Goblin has in his fanny pack. Spider-Man's bat-guano crazy nemesis is is a nightmare right out of Halloween: he flies around balancing on a mechanical bat (now, why didn’t Bruce Wayne ever think of that?), cackling like a witch while he tosses around explosive jack-o-lanterns.  These tricky treats are actually intended to be unsightly, and in this they do succeed. Especially unnerving are the ones that appear to be on fire – imagine a grinning apparition laughing like a loon and throwing flaming pumpkins at you! It would be understandable if you lost your head.

  The only problem is their size: unless he had it made at Hogwarts, Greenie's man-purse can't possibly hold more than a dozen of these rather bulky grenades, so the Goblin is likely to come up empty before the battle is over. If ol’ Ab-norm Osborn weren’t already nuts, this would undoubtedly drive him out of his gourd.

    But as thrown weapons go, these exploding emoticons are pretty effective, blasting chunks out of buildings and holding Spidey at bay. Just because a weapon is ugly doesn’t mean it’s a bomb – however, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    The thing about personal weapons is that they are just so personal. You carry them on your person, and use them to inflict damage (or your will) on other persons. It's no wonder that heroes often feel a need to name their most cherished implements (Sting, Excalibur, Stormbringer, Big Bertha, Winona); they are, in effect, partners in the endless fight, sharing the hardships of the battlefield and staying close until their special qualities are called for.

   Much of what these various devices are asked to do is Ugly -- kill or maim or otherwise push the other guy around -- but at the spiritual level, it's not the weapon that is Good or Bad; it's the person wielding it that colors it with his intentions. A sword doesn't care whether it's killing orcs or hobbits. It's the hand behind the hilt that decides which way the blade will cut. But whether the sword will be good or bad at its job? That's all up to its creator.

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