Saturday In the Echo Chamber
Okay, enough already.
This is the classic example, I suppose, of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ When I was a kid, routinely getting mocked– and even beaten up once in a while– for liking comics and superheroes and SF (because everyone assumed it was all as silly as the Adam West Batman or Lost In Space) I would wish devoutly for some movie adaptation that would prove to all those people that I was right all along, that this stuff was serious and cool.
I knew Batman was cool…. but no one else in my school did. All I ever heard was guffaws and a reference to ‘some days you can’t get rid of a bomb!’
Well, we live in that world now. Superhero and big-budget science fiction movies are everywhere. The biggest box office hit in history was Marvel’s Avengers. Everyone knows that superhero movies are supposed to be serious and cool. Even Superman and Star Trek got all serious and cool.
This is what I hoped for, that everyone would, finally, get it. We own pop culture now.
…and I came to the startling realization this week that I kind of hate it. I find myself wishing that Hollywood would just go away and leave us alone.
Here is my issue. The glaring problem with our new nerd-culture/superhero movie renaissance is this– They’re all the same movie.
Seriously. Let’s see if you recognize this plot.
A hero who’s a selfish jerk must overcome his childhood traumas/personal demons and learn to care about the people around him and serve the greater good.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s Mask of Zorro and Daredevil and Hancock and Zoom and Green Lantern and Man of Steel and Thor and The Green Hornet and Elektra and Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider and Battleship and The Shadow and the rebooted Conan and Solomon Kane and… I mean, I could go on and on. Some even use that plot twice, like Iron Man and Iron Man 2, or Batman Begins and Dark Knight Rises, or Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness. They all blur together.
This isn’t to say that some of these aren’t done well. Or that some of them aren’t good movies. I actually really enjoyed quite a few on that list. But when you get right down to it, it’s all the same thing. The execution varies, maybe sometimes it’s played for laughs and other times it’s deadly serious…. but the journey and the landmarks are always the same. The hero starts out as a douchebag, but we understand his douchebaggery because he has an excuse– usually a trauma like the death of his parents or some other loved one. Still, we know that he has to get over it, usually by killing the villain who’s the source of his original trauma. (Or sometimes he just beats the living shit out of him or watches him fall out of a train, while bragging about NOT killing the bad guy.)
Some of these movies were good, others not; some of the actors did it better than others; but really, scrape off the paint and they’re all THE SAME GUY.
Inevitably, the whole damn movie’s about that arc, and every turning point along the way becomes predictable. You have the Event that Causes the Hero to Relive the Moment of Trauma. You have the Angry Friend Calling Him Out. You have The Return of the Villain that Started It All. You have the place where the Hero’s Overconfidence Leads to the Horrible Setback. You have the Epiphany where the Hero Realizes He Must Must Face His Fear. You have the Final Huge Confrontation (where a lot of shit blows up, more often than not.) And finally you have the Optimistic Ending where the Hero Goes Off A Better Man, and is rewarded by finding out the Girl Loves Him After All…. until the sequel, when we find out the lesson didn’t stick and he has to learn it all over again.
You know what’s even worse? Most of these movies also have an origin sequence that takes up the first third or even the first half of the story, because they’re using the same template of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. (That template being Act 1- Origin, Act 2- First Appearance, and Act 3- Big Showdown.)
We’ve reached a point now where it’s a formula. And that formula is the character arc of Rocky III, where Rocky has to learn humility to beat Clubber Lang, but throwing in some kind of origin story using the Superman three-act structure.
I probably would have liked DARK KNIGHT RISES a lot more if Mr. T had played Bane.
Honestly, I’m getting so jaded about this that most of the time I feel like I can call it from just the trailer. We haven’t seen the new Lone Ranger yet, but I’ll bet a year’s pay against a stale doughnut that it uses the Superman three-act template, and that John Reid has to get over the loss of a loved one and learn to put other people first, and that the big explosive showdown is where he finally gets even with Butch Cavendish. Hell, they already MADE that movie back in 1981 and it was dull then.
My prediction? Same basic plot as the 1981 version but with more smirking and stuff that blows up.
Here’s a nutty idea. How about skipping the origin?
Is there anyone at this point that doesn’t understand who Superman is? Or Captain Kirk, or the Hulk, or Batman? There have been zillions of non-origin stories about those guys. Why not trust the audience to have enough of a clue that it’s okay to just get on with it? A quick voice-over was more than enough for the original Lone Ranger, and that sufficed for hundreds of radio episodes, five seasons of a TV show, and two movies.
Or– here’s an even crazier notion– just introduce them without bothering with an origin story at all. The original Solomon Kane never needed an origin– he was just there, fully-realized and fighting evil. Likewise with the Shadow, Zorro, the crew of the starship Enterprise… it really is possible to introduce your protagonist without reaching back to childhood. Sometimes it works better to just do it on the fly.
The screenwriter of the first Michael Keaton Batman movie, Sam Hamm, said something very smart in an interview once. When asked about how he structured the screenplay and cracked a project that had languished for years in development hell, he said, “I went back to the very first story, where you open with a fully-realized Batman and work your way back to Bruce Wayne. Because what you want to avoid at all costs is the part where the hero sews the suit. I mean, what the hell do you do? A montage? Every draft up to that point was structured the same way as the Superman movie. But that’s not the approach to take with Batman. He’s a different character.”
Exactly. Different characters require different approaches. That should be Writing 101 for Christ’s sake. And yet apparently the wisdom of Sam Hamm has been lost to the ages, because I can think of dozens of movies with the sew-the-suit/training montage scene. Sometimes it works– Batman Begins did a nice job of it– but most of the time it just stops the damn movie cold in its tracks.
Of course, railing at the movie industry for being derivative and unoriginal is hardly a new complaint. I remember all the crappy space-dogfight films that showed up in the wake of the original Star Wars, and the retro-adventurers that followed Indiana Jones. Not to mention all the rubber-suit-with-abs superheroes that showed up after the aforementioned Batman movie in 1989. Sometimes the second-wave imitators get enough of it right to be fun– I admit to being very fond of High Road To China, a movie that owes its entire existence to Raiders of the Lost Ark– but you never lose the air of déjà vu that hangs over the films that were made solely hoping to cash in on the initial success of the first one.
I will even cop to enjoying a familiar tale told well, because sometimes you want to see the band just play the hits, damn it. (I have something like six different versions of Dracula here on DVD. What? I happen to like Dracula.)
The Coppola version with Gary Oldman is not among them, though, because even I have STANDARDS.
So I’m okay with a redemptive hero story. Especially when it actually is the original story, like Spider-Man learning that with great power must come great responsibility.
What I object to is that same arc being grafted to every single hero in the genre. Because they’re not all the same guy. I like the Dracula story well enough to have a bunch of them here, but I’d be really annoyed if someone made a Werewolf or Frankenstein movie that was beat-for-beat that same story and character arc. Different characters should have different approaches. I explain that to my fifteen-year-olds in Young Authors and they understand it, so why can’t your average Hollywood studio exec get his head around the idea?
You know, the more I think about it, the more I think it’s just the old Adam West problem with a new coat of paint. Except this time, instead of every superhero and genre piece forced into being a campy comedic version, now it’s a forced makeover of every hero into a tormented loner who needs to face his fears.
The irony? After a decade or so of this crap, I think I like the Adam West take better. Yeah, my childhood wish came true… but I should have quit when I was ahead.
See you next week.