Saturday, April 2, 2016

Superhero Movies That Don't Suck and The Super-basic Reasons Why

When I picture successful Hollywood writers, I picture pony-tailed film majors with bleary eyes behind their glasses, hunched into screens. They quote Proust at parties without irony, and when someone pours them wine they swish it around and sniff and say something like "hints of autumn" before sipping.

Part of me knows they're just people, but there's always that part of you that can't quite think of the other except in generalized terms.

One of the reasons I picture successful screenwriters as being out of touch is the work they produce. You look at any big budget flop and wonder, "How did they forget writing 101?" They had support. They had a budget. They had a team behind them. For those of us writing on our own, it's unfathomable how anyone with so much talent and support could fail.

There may be a lesson in there about too many cooks, but I can only speculate about that. Given the magnificent floppitude of some recent hero films, I thought it would be worth a back-to-the-basics analysis. Here are three basic writing principals that good superhero films follow and bad superhero films forget:

1.) The plot must challenge the protagonist.
2.) The protagonist must be somewhat vulnerable in order to establish audience empathy.
3.) The plot must have consequences for the characters.

Which brings us to the Superman dilemma. How can anyone relate to a flying tank with laser eyes? The Superman dilemma is a big reason why he's had one good movie in what seems like 40,000 attempts. 1980's "Superman II" worked because it followed the above principles. Although Superman was still nearly indestructible, he was faced with three villains who shared his powers. The antagonists were crafted with the knowledge that they must challenge the protagonist. These villains knew that Superman's caring for the squishy mortals below was his real weakness, and they made every effort to use it against him. In the end, he had to outsmart them before he could use brawn, and the plot benefited by making him win by using something other than his primary asset (strength).

The first Avengers movie worked for the same reason. When I first heard it was going to be all the Avengers vs. Loki, I didn't buy it because it seemed like a mismatch. (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and two professional assassins vs. the Norse God of mischief?) The writers used in-fighting and an alien army to balance the equation, and the results were stellar. Wiseass Tony Stark had to discover a bit of his inner Captain America to make the save at the end. Banner had to trust himself enough to unleash the Hulk. The plot challenged them by taking them out of their comfort zones, making the plot consequential.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was the last good Avengers movie. I couldn't have cared less about the sub-plot with his brainwashed friend, but the writers used a real-life modern fear very effectively: the agency we made so powerful to keep us safe turned on us. When the previously established (as heroic) hovering aircraft carriers turned into fascist drones, it was legitimately terrifying, particularly the scene that showed the Hydra algorithm erasing any line between dissident and "terrorist". Again, the plot was consequential. At the end of the movie, Shield was destroyed, so the movie mattered. Age of Ultron sucked, despite James Spader's amazing performance, because nothing changed. Franchise-ism negated the idea of an important character death, and killing Quicksilver felt like retaliation for his having the best scene in a far superior X-men movie. (A movie that also did time-travel in a consequential way.)

Speaking of X-men, notice how even nearly-indestructible Wolverine works better than Superman, because he has a broken heart and feels pain, even if he does recover quickly from the latter. The worst X-men movie is probably 2006's "X-men: The Last Stand", because it just tried too hard. If you kill everyone, no one death stands out. But even that movie towers over all of the disposable Avengers cash-grabs. They (along with the solo Wolverine movies, now that I remember them) don't work because nothing that happens in them has any consequence. If you've seen "Iron Man", "Avengers", and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", stop.

There are other great superhero movies that succeeded because of basics, such as the Nolan Batman trilogy. Batman is effective because he's tortured and vulnerable--the fact that he feels pain makes his sacrifice for the people he's protecting meaningful. Even in "The Dark Knight Rises", the writers realized Batman needed to be hobbled in order for him to have something to overcome. Bane breaking his back was a nod to comic book enthusiasts, but it also allowed the villain time to shine, making his comeuppance that much more rewarding (though it might have been better without that last minute switcheroo to a different antagonist). Taking Bruce Wayne's fortune away was also courageous. As was introducing Catwoman without an origin story, but by having her pretending not to be who she already was.

Also, the beginning of "The Dark Knight Rises" left no doubt that the previous two films had taken their toll on Batman's body and psyche. Batman's existence in the first film created the Joker in the second. His Pyrrhic victory over the Joker left Batman a bitter, battered, and reclusive martyr to begin the third installment. Each film had consequences for the next, which is why that trilogy will still look good in thirty years.

It must be difficult to get back to the basics when a billion-dollar franchise is on one's back. But the basics are there for a reason. It's worth noting that the hero franchises that hold peoples' imaginations over long periods of time are also the ones that made audiences care about their plots and characters. They accomplish this by challenging their heroes and making what happens in their stories matter.