Ancient Spirits of Evil

Ancient spirits of evil, transform this decayed form into Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living!Yeah, I’m going to talk about Thundercats again. Hey, when the new TV series stops being awesome, I’ll shut up about it.

As it is, this show is getting a lot right not only in terms of reviving a pretty lame 80s franchise and making it good, but in storytelling techniques in general. The most recent episode, “Journey to the Tower of Omens,” dealt with one of the most difficult parts of Thundercats lore: how to deal with Mumm-Ra.

Mumm-Ra is the traditional villain for the Thundercats. In the old series, he fought and was defeated by the protagonists every episode. The new show uses him a bit more sparingly, but he has still had two confrontations with the main characters in the first six episodes. The show would be over quickly if he just killed the good guys, but having him lose each time makes him more pathetic than menacing. You could do the fantasy RPG thing of having him remain in the background until the final confrontation, but that’s generally poor storytelling, as it doesn’t make him the kind of foe the audience loves to hate.

The first time Mumm-Ra fought Lion-O and friends, the good guys literally got a save from the heavens when the rising sun burned Mumm-Ra and weakened him, allowing them to escape. That revealed this version’s main weakness (although it doesn’t seem to be all sunlight, but only very bright light) while also leaving the audience wanting more because we hadn’t seen what used to be a once-an-episode event: Mumm-Ra’s transformation from decrepit mummy to giant avatar of evil.

The most recent episode features a direct confrontation between Mumm-Ra and the Thundercats as they both try to obtain the magical artifact known as the Book of Omens. While the rest of the group goes to get the book, Panthro, badass that he is, holds the line against Mumm-Ra. In keeping with the established fact that Panthro is a god of ass-kicking, he’s able to hold his own against a villain who handed the rest of the group their asses a few episodes ago. This prompts Mumm-Ra to finally go through with his whole, “Ancient Spirits of Evil, transform this decayed form into Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living!” spiel, transforming into his super-powered form. The resulting climactic battle does a lot to show how to run a good “boss” fight in serial fiction where you want the bad guy to remain threatening.

To make things brief, Mumm-Ra kicks the Thundercats’ asses. All of them. He blasts Panthro away, nearly causes Tygra to fall to his doom (Tygra is saved by my man-crush Panthro, because an energy blast can’t keep him from climbing the side of a tower while carrying two kids, a full-grown man who he caught from a fall, and Lion-O’s pet Snarf), and then hands Lion-O his ass in single combat. So he’s still very dangerous, because the Thundercats haven’t been shown capable of defeating him.

What finally does best Mumm-Ra is Jaga, an old mentor of Lion-O’s and Cheetara’s, who was captured by Mumm-Ra and forced to reveal the location of the Tower of Omens. In a last-ditch moment of desperation, Jaga sacrifices himself to create a blinding light powerful enough to weaken Mumm-Ra and force him to retreat.

The word “sacrifice” is key there. As of the end of the episode, Jaga is seemingly dead. That means that he’s no longer available to help Lion-O and company, and that is the key to a good serial villain.

Defeating Mumm-Ra has now cost the group something. They lost their mentor. That leaves them weaker and more vulnerable than before. It also means that they no longer have access to the method they used to defeat Mumm-Ra. And that’s also one thing that the old series missed.

Old Mumm-Ra was easily defeated either by the Sword of Omens or by viewing his own reflection – a weakness easily exploited by Lion-O, whose gauntlet was big and shiny. Heck, even Snarf defeated him on at least one occasion. When the old Thundercats defeated Mumm-Ra, it cost them nothing. They expended no resources and learned nothing from the encounter. In the new series, Mumm-Ra’s defeat cost them something. They lost a friend and loved one, and they are now more vulnerable than they were before.

This is a lesson that can be used in many different forms of fiction, from TV shows to comic books to role-playing games. A villain who is defeated multiple times loses his edge and stops being a threat. But you can maintain that villain’s edge a little while longer while still having him lose here and there if there is a price to his defeat. Be it friends, a powerful item, or their own innocence, heroes have to make a sacrifice to defeat evil. The cost tells a lot about the type of story that they are going through and can show how dangerous a villain can really be. Yes, Mumm-Ra has been temporarily defeated. The price? The possibly permanent loss of Lion-O’s friend and Cheetara’s mentor. Not exactly an even trade, but one that increases the drama and the stakes greatly for future episodes.

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