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The Cheap Joke

In editing my latest manuscript, my agent, though overall very positive about the book, had this to say (I will paraphrase):

This book is fun, but perhaps too much fun. You are telling jokes at the expense of plot – cut some of it back. Don’t go for the cheap line.

Now, first off, if you’ve read any of the Saga of the Redeemed, you know that I enjoy banter. It works its way into a lot of my writing, honestly. I want the reader to have fun. I want them to laugh, I want them to be on the edge of their seat, I want them to cry sometimes – I want the entire emotional smorgasbord to be in there.

But mostly I want them to laugh.

This is one of the reasons I loved Guardians of the Galaxy and, indeed, why I think the MCU has been beating the pants off of the rather wretched DC Universe on the big screen of late. The Marvel movies are fun, even the deadly serious ones. There’s Cap, getting his face punched in, and he just rolls his shoulders, puts up his dukes, and say “I can do this all day.” There’s Loki, presiding over the destruction of New York, and in comes Hulk: “Puny god.”

Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 do this to a level far, far greater than their fellows, though. I loved it in Guardians 1, but in 2, seeing it as I did quick on the heels of my agent’s commentary, made me wonder: do we need all these quips? All this banter? Like (mild spoilers) when Yondu comes down saying “I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!” it was funny, yeah. But was it needed?

How much is too much?

Like most things in writing, I think there aren’t precisely hard and fast rules so much as a kind of spectrum we’re seeking to describe. On the one hand is a story where a bunch of adventurers sit in space-dock (or what have you) and spend the entire time playing practical jokes on each other. Long on fun, and maybe even on character, but nothing really happens – no plot. At the other end, we’ve got a joyless, tightly-paced thrill ride of nothing but stern looks and, perhaps, the occasional grimace or maniacal laugh (some of the Bourne movies come to mind). You read/watch those and you want to yell “loosen up, you clowns!”

Finding precisely where the line is requires a keen understanding, I think, of how your book is coming across to your target audience. This is famously difficult to determine, of course, since how an author views his or her own work and how the audience encounters it are often totally different things. What you find funny falls flat with them, and what they latch on to are things you never imagined being important. This is why writing is as much an art form as it is a craft – we are assembling something in a black box of sorts, and while we have a good idea of what’s going to come out the other end and present itself to readers, we can never been 100% sure.

In the end, I think my agent is right about that last book. Perhaps a bit too much banter, perhaps a bit too much going for the cheap joke. I took out a lot of the extraneous stuff and left in the things that built character or illuminated personal conflict. Looking back on it, as much as I enjoyed GotG 2, I think they probably could have done the same and wound up with a movie that was less of a mess. I mean, again, I liked it, but a little too much of that movie wasn’t so much plot, as it was this:

Tip: Don’t let your book be this guy.

 

 

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My Hierarchy of MCU films (to date)

Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Multiple stories, same basic arc

Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.

Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.

Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.

Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.

Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.”  We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:

13: The Incredible Hulk

12: Iron Man 3

11: Iron Man 2

10: Avengers: Age of Ultron

9: Thor

8: Captain America: The First Avenger

7: Thor: The Dark World

6: Marvel’s The Avengers

5: Doctor Strange

4: Iron Man

3: Guardians of the Galaxy

2: Captain America: Winter Soldier

1: Captain America: Civil War

 

Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.

Well, what do you think?

The Superhero Accretion Dilemma

Superhero movies have a problem. This problem is endemic, evidently, to their nature and I am uncertain it can be solved unless our expectations of superhero movies change fundamentally. In brief: if a superhero movie is made and it is successful, another one, by definition, will also be made. However, as this movie must surpass the original, the makers of the film invariably choose to expand the next film in scope, cast, and budget. The result is a movie that is not as good as the first, but just as successful. This leads to a third, and the same thing happens (only the third is not as good as the second) and so on until, at last, the final film in the franchise either fizzles, the cast gets tired and moves on, or it dies some other, more esoteric death (perhaps involving the death of a cast member, legal issues, scandals, etc.).

Okay, so far, so good.

Okay, so far, so good.

Allow me to explain in more detail.

Stage One: We begin, first, with a superhero. This superhero has his own movie and it is his (or, more rarely, her) story. We see how they become who they are, we are introduced to their struggles and are hopefully inspired by their ability to overcome their foes. Huzzah, huzzah – everything is wonderful.

This first movie is, by far, the easiest to get right – one main character, one external and internal conflict, one story arc to manage, one villain to face, and so on. It is basic, mythic, Campbellian storytelling that human beings have been doing since Gilgamesh. Now, notably, the movie can easily still be terrible, but so long as it makes money at the box office, it hardly matters. Stage 2 approaches.

 

Oooo! The plot thickens!

Oooo! The plot thickens!

Stage Two: So, now we’ve got this movie studio that feels it’s discovered a money-making machine, and they’ll be damned if they don’t capitalize. The thing is, though, that you can’t just make the same movie twice – you’ve got to move forward, wow the audience, blow their minds. So they add more moving parts to the story.

It should be noted that there is no objective reason the second story has to be worse than the first. Indeed, some franchises actually do improve in the second installment (Captain America: Winter Soldier, for instance). If they do so, however, it is because of two things: (1) the second story didn’t incorporate more characters, but instead incorporated more complex character conflicts for the hero to resolve or (2) the first movie was terrible and there was nowhere to go but up.

Much of the time, however, neither of these things is the case. You wind up a movie that is pretty much like the first one, only louder and bigger and needlessly more complicated. It can still be pretty entertaining (Iron Man 2) or notable (Batman Returns), but it lacks a certain something that the first one had.

That something, by the way? It’s called “authenticity in storytelling.”

 

Ummm...guys? How are you going to even...

Ummm…guys? How are you going to even…

Stage Three: If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? The second movie made money, so surely the strategy of the producers was the correct one: bigger is better (forgetting, of course, that the audience was coming to the theater on the promise of the first film, not the quality of the second)! But now they need to make another movie! And it needs to be even biggerer! HOW CAN THIS BE ACCOMPLISHED?!

Easy! This time you don’t just add one or two new characters to the mix! You add an additional 2 or 3 on top of the last film. New love interests (everybody loves love quadrangles, right?), the return of an old villain who teams up with a new villain and then both of them encounter a third villain who is tangentially related to the first villain in some way (looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the artificial raising of the stakes (first he saved the city, next time he saved the county, now he is going to save the city from the county and, therefore, the WHOLE WORLD WILL WATCH!), and on and on and on. And of course there are new allies, new sidekicks, new sideplots, and soon the whole thing becomes unwieldy. Everybody needs a story arc, but not everyone gets one (the movie’s got to fit into 2 hours, people!), and so characterization becomes more hand-wavy, more cliche. Our main guy? The hero we tuned in to see? His screen time is reduced, his arc is more predictable, and he very likely fails to undergo significant growth.

But, for all that, the damned movie is still fun, right? Well, maybe. A lot of franchises die right here, a lot of actors get tired of all the green-screening nonsense. If they go on, however…

What the actual fuck, people?

What the actual fuck, people?

Stage Four: MOVIE ARMAGEDDON! Now the franchise is so damned popular, it can have everybody in it. Distinguished actors from across the globe sign on for cameo roles that nerds freak out over. The special effects are absurd abominations for the eyes. People actively forget there’s supposed to be a plot. Character growth? Bah! We want explosions and our hero standing on the crushed remnants of the enemy android army. The only dialogue should be witty banter or over-the-top, Gandalf-in-Return of the King-esque speeches about it “being time” and “time growing short” and how “the time has finally come.” The movie is a complete and utter clusterfuck. Nothing makes sense, almost no character has sufficient screen time to be interesting, and all of us are basically going just to see how it all works out, just like people attend playoff games after their teams are knocked out – just to see what happens, ultimately, and to tell other people about it. It’s not a story anymore, it’s an event. And this is the end. It can go no further.

The MCU Anomaly

Now, I know there are those of you out there who are holding up Marvel’s interlocking franchises as proof that this dilemma has a solution. The solution, of course, is that you have individual movie franchises that keep things a little small (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and then giant ensemble movies where you don’t need to do character development as much because we all already know these people (The Avengers). This, however, is not solving the problem, it is merely dragging it out. The individual films still tend to degrade (Iron Man 3, anyone?), the giant ensemble movies are still fun-but-stupid (Avengers: Age of Ultron was nonsensical, folks), and we are still locked in a steady, downward slope that even new Stage One films (Dr. Strange!) will only serve to slow a bit before they, also, are wrapped up in the morass. Basically, what I’m telling you is that The Infinity War Part 2 is going to be the greatest movie clusterfuck of all time.

And I’m totally going to be there to see it.

Why are you Shooting the Hulk?

Please stop.

Look, I understand that you’re just following orders, nameless army grunt, but do you honestly think that your little assault rifle is contributing to the situation in a positive way? Let me put it this way: I’ve been cowering behind this old Chevy for almost a full two minutes now, and I’ve watched you pump off, I don’t know, like a hundred rounds of ammunition into the giant, angry green monster over there, and do you know what you’ve achieved? Nothing. I ask you, how is the 101st bullet going to be any different?

Oh crap...

You’re reloading? Again? What the hell is wrong with you? Stop! For the love of God, stop shooting the Hulk!

Do you even know the meaning of the word ‘bulletproof?’ Jesus, your buddies in the Apache Helicopter with the giant freaking Gatling gun didn’t hurt him, what the fuck do you think you’re going to accomplish? You’re just giving the freak some kind of long-distance shiatsu massage!

Oh…oh shit. He sees us. Oh crap oh crap oh crap. STOP with the fucking gun, asshole! What the FUCK is wrong with you?

Have you noticed that the more you shoot at him, the bigger he gets? You’re just pissing him off! Cut it out! I swear to God, if that big green fucker throws a trolley car through my ice cream shop just because you’re too fucking stupid not to quit while you’re ahead, I’m taking the yellow ribbons off my front door. No more care packages for you, dumbass.

HOLY SHIT! He just THREW A BUS at that other idiot over there! A BUS! What do you think you’re going to get? This isn’t Superman, buddy – he isn’t going to give you a stern scolding and deliver you to the local jail. He’s going to render your body two-dimensional beneath some massive projectile.

Seriously, you’re still shooting him?

You know what I think? I think you’re suicidal. That’s it. I think you want to die. What happened? Your wife leave you? Miss that promotion to Chief Goon? Find out you have terminal cancer? Look, maybe I can cheer you up, right? I do own an ice cream shop. You want a hot fudge sundae? Everybody gets cheered up by an ice cream sundae. Right?

Hey, what’s that shadow?

Oh…it’s a tank turret. In mid air. Shit.

If I live through this, I am totally suing somebody.