Originally posted 07/18/11 on NerdPuddle.com
Hey Hollywood. It’s me again, yelling into the void. I hope this gets to you okay. I was thinking about this earlier, and I’ve been watching a bunch of your superhero movies, and I dunno, I could be wrong, but I think your conventional wisdom is broken. So I thought I’d try to help out a little, because some of your media empires won’t get great mileage when you’ve got cracked conventional wisdom leaking bad ideas all over the place. Anyway, here you go.
STOP DOING ORIGIN STORIES
When Superhero comics introduced the practice of telling origin stories, they typically came later in a comics run, after it had been proven that the character was worthy of an origin, after growing and maintaining an audience through a series of compelling, popular adventures – then you’d get an origin story that helps shine a new light on why the character acts the way they do, and it would deepen their motivations. The problems with starting your superhero film series with an origin story are several:
1) Everyone knows what’s going to happen. The origin story is so rote at this point you might as well watch a pile of cliches fuck a checklist for 2 hours.
2) Your superhero spends most of the movie bumbling around like an asshole and complaining about how hard it is to live with all these kick-ass powers that most viewers would gleefully murder their fellow man to obtain.
3) The origin story ends just before the superhero you paid money to watch actually becomes the superhero you paid money to watch. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an unfinished handjob – frustrated masturbation with no release.
That’s another good reason to skip the origin story: The 2nd film in your series is typically the one everyone wants to see in the first place. Spider-Man 2. Hellboy 2. X-Men 2. Blade II. The Dark Knight. And while Batman Begins (and Iron Man) are good examples of an origin story done well, The Dark Knight renders everything that happened in Begins utterly irrelevant. All that “world building” that people say Nolan needed to do? It’s done in Dark Knight’s opening bank heist, the gangster meeting the Joker crashes, and the rooftop meeting between Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. Everything you need to know about how Nolan’s version of Gotham works is told to you in those three scenes. Hell, Batman Begins probably works better if your first viewing comes after you watch The Dark Knight – much in the way classic origin stories worked.
Here’s the best reason to skip the origin: The finest superhero movie ever made doesn’t even have one. Now, I’ve heard people argue that The Incredibles is an origin story – that it’s the origin of their formation as a superhero team. And yeah, that happens at the end of the film, but that’s not the point of the movie in the slightest. The formation of a superhero team is a result of the story, not the story’s engine. There are no origins for Bob and Helen Parr, and the film is not concerned with why Bob does what he does, or what event made him decide to be super. There are no flashbacks to what gave Frozone his talents, no moment where Dash is learning how to do what he does. The film doesn’t need to, nor (thankfully) wants to waste time explaining why all this fantastical shit is happening. It gives its audience credit enough to be able to roll with it. It’s been about 70 years since the first superhero hit the scene. There’s no reason to spend 2 hours explaining to an audience how superheroes work. I think we’re pretty comfy with the general concept. You can stop bolting training wheels onto your movies now.
STOP MAKING LIVE-ACTION ADAPTATIONS
Another reason The Incredibles works as well as it does? It’s animated. It’s inherently counterproductive to adapt a fantastical story by desaturating it, draining it of its magic, making it greyish brown and altering its iconography because it would otherwise “look silly.” That silly look is a huge part of why it works, and you’re putting a tremendous strain on your suspension of disbelief by adapting the artform to a medium that automatically has huge problems translating those strengths. It’s why Bryan Singer had Wolverine comment on the fact the X-Men were wearing what looked like sleeping bags made out of leather tires. Sure, Singer managed to come up with a look that worked for his movie, but at the cost of a million unnecessary headaches.
Also, it costs way more to facilitate this watered-down translation to live-action than it does to faithfully animate it. Take Superman Returns’ 200 million dollar budget, cut it in half, and let George Miller direct an adaptation of Kingdom Come, with character design and art direction that closely matches Alex Ross’ aesthetics. Most of the time you saw Superman do anything in Superman Returns, he was animated anyway. If one of the biggest appeals of superhero stories lie in its visuals, why limit what you can do with those visuals by tying it to our reality, when you can more easily bend that reality by painting it entirely in the world of animation?
Animated films (and I don’t mean the cheapjack straight-to-video movies where a decent script is hamstrung by arbitrary 70-minute runtimes, oversimplified art direction and 12 fps animation during dialog scenes) are huge business. Go on and take a look at the receipts for anything Pixar or Dreamworks Animation has put out in the last 15 years. The “they’re just cartoons” argument obviously doesn’t hold the weight it (unfairly) used to hold.
And yet the automatic argument is that people basically think animated films “don’t count,” that they’re somehow lessened because usually, they’re family films. That this would somehow be a negative if applied to a superhero movie. Now, setting aside the visceral, kinetic thrills and emotional impact found in movies like Toy Story 3, or How To Train Your Dragon – shouldn’t most superhero movies be family films? Why aren’t they considered as such, either by the people who watch them or the people who make them? It’s the same mindset that allows for Transformers movies – based on a series of toys that are still aggressively marketed towards children 6-10 years old – to feature main characters not just murdering their enemies, but dismembering, disemboweling, decapitating and even urinating on them.
Another reason other reason animated films “don’t count” is that there’s no movie star faces right up front, no Robert Downey Jr smiling from inside a tin suit, no Heath Ledger creeping everybody out from behind a faceful of scars and greasepaint. But this is yet another case of “conventional wisdom” that doesn’t actually hold up to scrutiny. In fact, going animated makes it easier to tap Hollywood’s dying reliance on movie stars to sell tickets.
Casting a big name as a superhero is often counterproductive because it’s hard to see the superhero, instead of a movie-star in a silly suit. For example: Let’s say we adapt Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier (and I mean really adapt it, not neuter both the story and Cooke’s art for a DVD release) If we do it live action, it’s gonna cost upwards of 250 million, and while we might want Jon Hamm or George Clooney to be Superman, it’s going to be too distracting to see either of those guys in the tights. But if we animate it, we can do it for 100-150 million, it looks fucking GORGEOUS, and now we can hire Clooney or Hamm. We get their talent, their acting ability, their legitimacy – just not their potentially distracting, immersion-breaking faces, and we still get to stick their name on the poster. Also, going animated means you don’t have to hire some pouty, babyfaced kid because by the time they finish out the 5 film contract you locked them into, they’ll be pushing 40 and be too old to continue playing ageless demigods.
WORK ON THE SCRIPT FOR LONGER THAN 3 WEEKS
This sort of goes for all moviemaking, not just superhero movies, but superhero movies seem to suffer the most from having really slapdash, lazy scripts that lay bare the swayback skeleton sagging under the weight of a thousand cliches. I never understood why the films that cost the most are the movies that frequently have unfinished scripts being rewritten on the fly during shooting. You’d think that before moving forward on a production equaling the gross national product of about 15 countries combined, you’d want your story tight.
But I think the reason superhero scripts are often lacking is because the people paying for the production are sort of ashamed of these silly movies with these silly concepts and these silly superheroes wearing all this spandex and underwear. And the shame comes because, again – the idea of playing it straight while aiming it at a family audience doesn’t ever really enter in. So you’re staking your career, your industry reputation, on your ability to make something as inherently corny and goofy as Green Lantern be “cool,” whatever that nebulous word means for this year, for people who take great pleasure in smashing their now dirty, cracked childhood playthings together until they break. And the whole endeavour doesn’t alleviate feelings of infantility, it highlights them even further, making the suspension of disbelief into a sisyphean task.
What might make this easier would be to use the stories that captured audience imaginations in the first place. Don’t just reheat a loose amalgam of story details and slap that up onscreen – pick a classic story, and adapt it. Weird pseudo-sequels to 30 year old movies that incorporate “real-world” elements like bastard kids and absentee fathers didn’t help Superman out any. But Mark Waid’s Birthright is sitting on bookshelves, shining like a diamond, a Superman story that could potentially outshine even Donner’s 1978 classic. Why isn’t it getting picked up? Maybe it’s that an “original” story built around generic aspects of more succesful stories means you don’t have to pay the original writer or put them in the credits and send them residuals checks. But now that you’re saving hundreds of millions by no longer awkwardly translating your superhero story to “live-action,” you can afford to spend a couple extra shekels on an aspect of the production where your money goes the farthest – the story.
Part of the reason Thor and Iron Man work as well as they do is because those movies let their superhero have fun being a superhero. And it is fun. It should be. Maybe the purest example of this is, again, in The Incredibles – Dash is running from a bunch of henchmen who are trying to decapitate him with hovering UFO-style aircraft featuring a giant spinning blade. And his escape route is blocked by a large body of water. He has no choice – he has to go into it. And so he shuts his eyes and braces for impact – only it never comes. He looks down at his feet, a Road-Runner-ish blur moving across the surface of the water. And he starts giggling at how awesome this whole thing is.
Most Superhero movies feature a pouty, sad, angsty people to whom powers are not a blessing, but an annoyance, and those powers are employed very grimly, our heroes’ facial expressions less “Yeah, this kicks ass” and more “This lemon tastes like farts.” I’m not advocating that superheroes be grinning idiots constantly elbowing their useless sidekick friends like “Hey, aren’t I awesome? How awesome am I?” but superpowers shouldn’t always be the horrible, soul-crushing burden they’re often portrayed as in live-action adaptations. Have some fun, dammit.
So, yeah, there you go. I guess maybe you can print this out and stick it to the fridge or something, with one of those cutesy fridge magnets like a ladybug or a bottlecap, so next time you guys are like “Hey, lets make a movie about a dude who wears his underwear on the outside,” and someone goes “Yeah, those are cool. I’m gonna go to the fridge and get a beer, you guys want a beer before we start spending a shitload of money?” You’ll see this on the fridge and be like “Oh shit, that’s right, we gotta do something about our conventional wisdom because you can’t make every superhero movie like Nolan made Batman,” and maybe people won’t get burnt out on crappy carbon-copy superhero movies like the ones you keep making.