Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

November 28, 2006

Everyone in this Movie's Just So Super!

or: The Superhero's Journey

Why do superheroes think they're too good for character arcs? Huh? Riddle me

The so-called "heroes" of Superman Returns and My Super Ex-Girlfriend are certainly super. But they're not perfect, right?

Superman's a bit down. He's been away for five years, never got to see his home planet, presumably suffers from some guilt at having abandoned Lois, which would only be compounded by realizing she was with child, ALL of which is compounded by the fact that he's not sure what he does is meaningful in any way AND the fact that he isn't human and quite possibly doesn't understand human beings. Surely this is a guy who's going to go through some kind of emotional journey over the course of this film, right?


Can someone please explain to me what, exactly, Superman's journey was? The significance of his decisions in the end, and where he ends up?

My Super Ex-Girlfriend is even more baffling, because Uma's arc is, to my mind, set up and then not paid off. Pre-Origin Story Uma was a nice girl. Geeky, gawky, but sweet. Then she got the radioactive power. She got powerful. She got hot and popular. She ditched her real friend. And now, in the present, look at that-- she's a needy, selfish bitch. Hellllloooo? Am I the only one who thinks Uma was on course to discovering that the geeky gal was the "real" her?

Now, many might argue that the superhero isn't always the hero of the story. Often it's the non-super person who's affected and changed by the experience of knowing the hero. Well, I didn't understand or buy Lois's "slightly less adamant about the world not needing Superman" change, and Luke Wilson seems pretty comfortable not having any kind of transformation-- he's used to it.

The problem with heroes having ill-defined character arcs is it makes it damn hard to figure out what the whole thing's about. Was Superman Returns about the idea of home? The home you’re born into vs. the one you create? Was it about regret? Was it Don Quixote, or Moby Dick? Was it about second chances? Or hoping for a second chance when things aren’t really that simple? Was it about love? Love lost, love returned, being torn between two kinds of love? Was it about duty? How there are things we want to do and then there are things we must do?

My Super Ex-Girlfriend could've been about "absolute power corrupting absolutely"; or about recognizing what's real and what's just show; or how being super is tough on the social life; or even simply about how everyone needs balance in their life. It wouldn't have been hard at all-- each of these themes was nicely planted by Uma's mania in the second act. Instead the movie went with no discernible theme. Being super's good! It's fun to have a girlfriend who's super!

Come on, guys. Writing superhero movies comes with great responsibility.

Promised follow-up post: All it would have taken was...

November 19, 2006

Love Triangles Are For Squares

And just to follow up on Bellamies... not every romantic comedy has to be structured around love triangle involving a "wrong guy" or "wrong gal"! Think about:

The 40 Year-Old Virgin
- A grown-up hero who's never been in a relationship before? Plenty o' conflict there. No need for a Ms. Wrong... our protagonist's choice isn't "her, or her?" it's "ready or not?".

Jerry Maguire
- Again, the problem lies with the hero himself. Imagine if Jerry had left his wife and her kid and run into the arms of another woman, instead of throwing himself at his one remaining client. Show me the bo-ring.

Annie Hall
- Who needs a Bellamy when our two leads are wrong enough to carry the whole story? Seriously... what would "Mr. Wrong" look like in this neurotic world? (Bill Pullman, allergies 'n' all, would be the smoothest guy on the block in Annie Hall.)

Don't make your script a triangle if it wants to be... well, two dots with a line between 'em.

November 12, 2006

The Blatant Bellamy vs. The Tough Choice

I'm off to a wedding today, which made me think: has it been a while since we talked about the rom-com?

Here's my rom-com whinge of the day. This issue has been noted by many students of the romantic comedy, but for the rest of you: take notes. In the modern romantic comedy, the Bellamy--the term coined by Billy Mernit to describe the "wrong guy" or "wrong gal" in a rom-com--is always so darn wrong. You know it the minute you see them--they're dull and weak, or they're mean and manipulative. It's only a matter of time before the hero/heroine sees that they're with the wrong guy/gal and makes a beeline toward the new guy/gal on the scene.

Some examples:

Wedding Crashers - Rachel McAdams' fiance is pretty much a complete jackass.

High Fidelity - Laura's "new man" is an over-the-top new-agey Tim Robbins. You just can't take the guy seriously. She might not have ended up with Rob, but she sure wasn't going to settle down with this dude.

Sleepless in Seattle - Poor Bill Pullman, with his allergies. (Folks, in movie-land, being sniffly = total dudsville.)

Why does the Bellamy tend to be so blatant? I suppose there are two decent reasons: 1) there's more comedy to be had in a more extreme character, and 2) if our hero's going to leave their partner or fiance(e), we can't be feeling too sorry for the ditchee.

But there are also at least two huge problems with the blatant Bellamy: 1) if the hero's with an obvious ass or a wuss, the hero can look like a bit of an idiot, and 2) the hero choosing Mr. or Ms. Right over the lame-o Bellamy isn't much of a choice, is it? Don't we want choices to be tougher on our hero than that?

Some examples of more interesting Bellamies:

Forces of Nature - The third party is Ben Affleck's fiancee, at home waiting for him, and going through her own cycle of doubt. She's a real person. By the time you get to the third act, you're starting to realize that maybe free-spirited Sandy Bullock is actually the Bellamy. Ben's choice at the end of the film feels like a legitimate one, as there are two totally different, but real, women he could be with.

My Best Friend's Wedding
- The Bellamy in this case is the bride, and a lesser movie would have played her as a witch. Instead, she's the impossible-to-dislike bubbly and bright Cameron Diaz. The groom's choice in the end is a tough one, as is our hero Julia's... she, too, starts to realize the "other gal" is the "right gal".

13 Going on 30 - Almost has it right. Jen Garner tries to convince her oldest, dearest friend Mark Ruffalo that she loves him, and that he should call off his imminent wedding. Mark tells her he has feelings for her too, but it's too late-- he's getting married. "We made choices. I chose Wendy." Nice stuff for what's supposed to be a fluffly little flick. My only complaint is the obligatory scene in which Wendy, the fiancee, has her moment of bitchdom. Why why why?

So here's my call to action for you, writers: consider the alternatives. Consider new ways to Bellamy. Hell, consider playing the existing partner as the RIGHT choice, and the hot new love interest as the WRONG one... just don't do the easy Bellamy thing.

Your hero deserves better.

November 05, 2006

Lessons from the Incredibly Obvious File #3

Or: Taskalicious!

Most of us agree that, in conventional narratives, the protagonist has a desire or goal and must accomplish tasks and overcome obstacles--likely designed by the antagonist--on their path to reward.

We writers devote a lot of energy to making sure our protagonist and his or her goal are organic, credible, and interesting. But we can't forget about that path strewn with tasks. Those tasks have got to be interesting too!

The Devil Wears Prada
has a great example of a deliciously tough task for a protagonist: Meryl Streep asks her newest assistant Anne Hathaway to get the "new Harry Potter book" for her twin daughters. Anne says she'll run up the street and buy a couple of copies. But Meryl gently chides her-- the girls have read all the published books, silly. They want to know what happens next.

And so begins Anne's desperate search for what we all know must be one of the best-protected unpublished manuscripts in the world.
It's an interesting, memorable, appropriately difficult (yet not impossible) challenge, and when it's presented to our hero we recognize instantly how amazing she'll be if she can pull it off--and how evil our villain is for even asking for it.

You knew it was coming, but here it is: people, the devil's in the details!