Long ago, in a galaxy named after a candy bar for some reason, I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced–because the Mouse had bought the entire Star Wars franchise.
Everybody who grew up on the original Star Wars movies felt this pain.
However: this was before they announced that JJ Abrams would direct the first new movie.
Also: Disney also owns Marvel now, and Marvel is on an insanely successful roll.
All of the Marvel movies since IRON MAN have rocked. I figured the Captain America ones would stink, since it would be easy to make those corny and uber-patriotic, but they nailed both of them. WINTER SOLDIER is darker than dark. Loved it. On the other hand, FOX studios proves you can take a great character and great actor and absolutely blow the thing with two horrible Wolverine movies.
Marvel can’t do wrong. And now JJ Abrams, after rebooting Star Trek into awesomesauce, looks like he’s doing the same thing with Star Wars.
The only way this trailer could look and feel better is if the new Sith uses his wicked lightsaber to make a clean break with the Lucas prequels by slicing Jar-Jar Binks in half.
The pilot episode of GOTHAM tried to pack three hours of characters, action and material into one hour, which is more like 42 minutes with all the commercial breaks.
Did I like it? Absolutely.
Was it 10 pounds of plot shoved into a 5-pound bag? Yes. And part of that couldn’t be helped.
However, we now have Episode 2, in capital letters, to reflect upon and answer the question: Can the writers and showrunners keep this thing exciting while slowing it down and giving key characters more screen time?
Here’s the trailer for the pilot, and while this trailer is well done, it doesn’t do justice to how much they tried to pack into it.
And for comparison, before we chat, check out the promo for Episode 2:
So how did they do? Just fine.
In fact, this is one of the rare shows where Episode 2 is better than the pilot.
Why? This time was slower in a good way. They gave villains time to chew the scenery, with the best bits being the slowest scenes.
The second show reminded me of how Quentin the Tarantino ratcheted up the suspense, higher and higher, with the opening scene of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.
And that’s only a taste of that scene. It goes on and on, and you don’t care that nothing seems to be happening, that’s it’s simply two men at a table with a glass of milk, talking. Because there’s crazy tension and conflict there without a single gunshot or explosion. Michael Bay would go deep into withdrawal, right?
But slow can work. Slow burns are often the best burns. Gunfights and making things go boom doesn’t mean anything unless you give it meaning.
BREAKING BAD understood this perfectly. There was no shortage of blood on the floor of that set, yet Vince the Gilligan and his creww always took their time to carefully plant setups and build up that tension before finally paying them off.
One of best examples of Chekhov’s Gun ever comes from a literal gun, an M60, they planted in the trunk of Walter White’s car, not knowing when, why or how that gun would go off later in the last season. Brilliant!
ARCHER — the TV show about a dude with arrows, not the cartoon spoofing James Bond — isn’t horrifically good or amazingly bad, which are the two types of things that are worth discussing and dissecting.
Yet this middling show about a middling superhero is worth taking apart to see the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s also a good test case, a chance to learn a few lessons from where ARROW works and when it doesn’t. Useful less for anyone who ever wants to write stories, novels, TV shows and movies — or become a masked avenger who lives with his mom.
On the mark: Constant action
There’s no lack of fights, chases and conflict. The opening scenes are often quite good, sometimes starting in the middle of a battle without any boring exposition at all, making you wonder, “Who are those guys Archer is ventilating with green arrows?”
Off the mark: Constant special talks
The fights aren’t bad. The dialogue, though, can kill you.
Every conversation is a special talk that ends in zingers. It’s like the showrunners hired some guy who helped choreograph fights on Jason Statham’s last movie to handle all the fights, then kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS to provide the dialogue.
On the mark: A big bad guy
At least in Season 1, the show avoids the Villain of the Week problem, even when it usually has a different villain of the week, by overlaying the entire thing with a conspiracy headed by a Big Bad Guy who tends to sneak into the bedroom of Arrow’s mom to talk smack about their evil plans.
The big villain also happens to be the billionaire father of Arrow’s best friend, who happens to be sleeping with Arrow’s ex-girlfriend. Also, Arrow’s underaged sister has a thing for the best friend. It’s all rather complicated and weird.
Off the mark: A sea of sidekicks
Read that last paragraph again, because it’s the tip of the iceberg. Arrow does live with his mom in a version of Wayne Manor, and his mom (a) ordered Arrow kidnapped earlier to find out what he knew about (b) having Arrow’s dad killed in the same boat sinking that (c) killed the sister of Arrow’s ex-girlfriend and (d) stranded Arrow on an island for years.
It’s weird enough for any adult character to live with their mom. The show gets even weirder with Arrow’s new step-dad also living there and running his dad’s old company, plus the detective who keeps trying to catch Arrow is his ex-girlfriend’s dad.
So yeah, it’s a hot mess of a soap opera, and when Arrow isn’t fighting, he’s having special talks with EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS.
On the mark: Island flashbacks
I hate flashbacks. They’re usually lazy, useless bags of exposition. Info dumps.
The scenes on this show about the island are fun, because there’s all kinds of conflict, suffering and growth as a spoiled rich kid tries to survive and eventually learns the skills to become a superhero.
Off the mark: All dialogue is on the nose
This was the second reason I thought the showrunners kidnapped the entire writing room of THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS.
There’s no subtlety to the dialogue, which beats you over the head like a sledgehammer. Everybody says exactly what they mean and they do it in the meanest possible way.
It’s a cornucopia of melodramatic zingers and overwrought angsty nonsense.
The melodramatic dialogue makes the plot veer off all over the place. Characters will throw epic hissy fits, then reverse course in the next episode — or next scene. Archer goes all Bruce Wayne by pretending to be a drunken playboy and telling his ex-girlfriend to stay far, far away from him. Then he shows up at her apartment with a pint of ice cream for them to share while curled up on the couch.
If you fire up Netflix and binge-watch three episodes, Arrow will have a major falling out with his mom, ex-girlfriend, best friend, sidekick, sister and five other people, then make up with all of those people only to piss them off again by the third episode.
Though this is not high art, and middling superhero trash, I like my trash to be as watchable as possible. It’s fun, but could be far better, not by increasing the budget for costumes and sets, but by simply ditching the melodrama and killing off most of the sidekicks.
Special note to showrunners: “More villains! Fewer special talks! Also, don’t have Arrow live with his mom, because that’s creepy for somebody who’s gotta be closer to 30 than 15! Kthxbai.”
Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.
THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.
They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.
What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?
Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself
You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.
THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.
Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling
This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.
A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.
Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.
In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.
The villain is where the writers truly nail it.
In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.
Not this time.
The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).
The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.
These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.
In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.
The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.
In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.
A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.
Movies are all around us. Kind of like the Force, before George Lucas ruined it with all that claptrap about midichloridians or whatever.
Films live inside your TV, your iPhone, your laptop. They’re sitting on shiny metal disks and even being celebrated in these insanely large and dark stadiums where you pay $12 for popcorn and a Diet Coke that costs 20 cents.
And if you’re anything like me, movies are something magical.
So there’s this professional movie critic, David Ehrlich, a man you’d think only takes joy in ripping apart SMURFS 3: ARE WE THERE YET, PAPA SMURF while praising some black-and-white existential French movie where the hero finally kisses the girl and promptly gets hit by a bus–well, you’d think critics like him wouldn’t create something so joyful and beautiful as this.
Except of course he would. Why does anybody become a movie critic, book reviewer or rock journalist? Because they love nothing more than movies, books and making fun of Axl Rose and Vanilla Ice trying to stage a comeback.
So, it’s the second movie in the series that already had three movies in its previous incarnation. Let’s skip the usual insane pattern of having two villains and go straight to three: Electro, the Green Goblin and Rhino. Seriously?
This is getting a smidge ridiculous. Will we see four villains in the third movie and five in the fourth? The original trilogy of Spiderman movies starring Tobey Maguire went like this:
SPIDERMAN: one hero, one villain (Green Goblin, played by Sergeant Elias from PLATOON). Well done.
SPIDERMAN 2: one hero, two villains (Doc Octopus and James Franco, who likes to write novels while going back to college, plays the angry Son of Green Goblin by using all of the acting range of that dude who played Anakin Skywalker).
SPIDERMAN 3: one hero, three villains (Sandman, Venom and grumpy Son of Green Goblin).
THOR also followed this silly formula, with one villain in the first movie (Loki) and two villains in the second (angry pasty space elf plus Loki again).
The first movie that started our current comic-book movie craze, the original Batman directed by Captain Crazypants (love you, man), had one hero (the Batman, by Michael Keaton when he had hairs), one villain (the Joker by that dude from THE SHINING) and Alec Baldwin’s ex-wife No. 2 or whatever as the girl for Batman to kiss.
BATMAN RETURNS had two villains: Danny Devito in a fat suit, munching on raw fish, plus Christopher Walken with crazy hair, while the love interest was Michelle Pfeiffer rocking a catsuit.
BATMAN FOREVER featured Val “Top Gun” Kilmer as Batman, some man from Grays Anatomy as Robin, Jim Carrey going insane in a green bodysuit as Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones trying to camp it up as Two Face–so yes, so technically, this third movie in the series didn’t have three villains, but it’s a hot mess of a reboot directed by Joel Schumacher, so all bets are off.
BATMAN AND ROBIN gave us two sidekicks (Robin again and a Clueless blonde famous for being in Aerosmith videos) plus three villains: Arnold in a neon suit spouting his worst one-liners ever, Uma Thurman wasted as Poison Ivy and Bane as a walk-on. This film was also directed by Joel Schumacher and is an even bigger mess than his first one.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The rebooted and awesome Christian Bale-Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman movies wisely veered away from the Hollywood formula of “For every new movie in a superhero series, pile on more villains and sidekicks until we have to reboot this train wreck.”
BATMAN BEGINS had two villains: Qui-Gon Jinn as Ra’s al Ghul (nobody can pronouce either name, so don’t even try) and Mr. Pretty Face himself, Cillian Murphy, doing an amazing Scarecrow, and yes, he was rumored to be in the running to play Bruce Wayne in the first place. Keanu Reeves would say, “Whoah,” except guess who turned down THE MATRIX to do some other movie? Will Smith. DOUBLE-WHOAH.
THE DARK KNIGHT gave us the two best acting performances for comic book villains ever, with Heath Ledger nailing the Joker and Aaron Eckhart rocking as Two Face.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES could have three villains, if you count the cameo by Scarecrow, but let’s go with two and say Bane plus the sneaky Miranda Tate, daughter of Qui-Gon Jinn, and let’s give credit to Anne Hathaway as the best love interest ever for Batman.
So what can we learn from all this?
Hollywood executives, please pour your energies and not into hiring three different screenwriters for $2 million apiece to rewrite these train wrecks, but focus from the start on a simple truth: the more villains and sidekicks you throw into a script, the less you get out of them.
Now that the Avengers have assembled into a giant machine that prints dollar bills, the X-Men are getting rebooted and Batman/Superman are teaming up to create billions more for an entirely different set of studio executives who live across the street from the Marvel folks, there’s something we need to discuss.
Because there’s a common problem with all of these movies–except for Batman, and we’ll get to that.
The Invincible Hero problem.
I’ve seen all three movies involving Thor and his hammer, and yes, the hammer has some crazy Norse name, and even though I’m a Swede nobody knows how to really pronounce the thing. IT’S A HAMMER.
Those movies are fun, and great, but tell me this: how do you hurt Thor, or kill him?
Because I don’t have a clue.
So there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in CGI explosions happening, and Iron Man grabbing Thor to fly him into trees and a cliff and such, but all amazing special effects that cost more than my house and your house and every dollar we’ll ever make in our lifetime, well, they don’t really move me, because I’m never worried about Thor being injured or killed.
You can throw the man around, blow him up, stab him with Loki’s sneaky dagger, punch him with the Hulk, and none of that really matters. The only proven way to hurt Thor is to remove Natalie Portman from the picture.
The first Thor movie was better than the sequel because for a good chunk of it Thor didn’t have his powers. He was just a man who could get hurt, lose a fight or even die, and it was his willingness to sacrifice himself and die that made Odin restore his powers.
See, when a hero is invincible, you don’t worry about them. And when you don’t worry about them, you stop caring about bullets and thugs and whatever else the villain is throwing around.
Superman is the worst offender. When you look at heroes on the screen like Wolverine and Captain America, they don’t seem to get hurt, since both guys regenerate and such. But they’re powers aren’t crazy like the boy from Krypton, who can (a) run faster than a speeding bullet, (b) fly, including going into space without needing to breathe, (c) shoot heat rays from his eyes when they’re not (d) busy taking x-rays of your bones, (e) ice anything with frost breath, (f) move so fast he GOES BACK IN TIME and (g) 17 other powers I don’t have time to list.
When you’re so powerful and invincible that tank shells bounce off your skin (Superman, Hulk) or armored suit (Iron Man), it’s hard to ramp things up without jumping the shark. Should we have Hulk get hit by a comet, or throw Superman into a black hole to see what happens? Also, no barber could cut Superman’s hair or trim his beard, right? He’d look like the lost fourth member of ZZ Top.
Batman is a better, more interesting hero because he’s simply a man. You know his bones can break, that the villain can truly hurt or kill him. It matters.
Hollywood could fix this problem, if it cared to, by setting up in each of these bazillion-dollar stories not just how cool the hero is and what amazing things he or she can do.
Tell us, up front in Act 1, what the hero can’t do. Show us a few weaknesses and how they can get hurt or even killed. Because then in Act 2 and 3, we’ll care a lot more about those CGI explosions and bullets as part of the story instead of eye candy that doesn’t really affect the story.
As a non-fan of the Superman, I can honestly say this: MAN OF STEEL is far, far better than expected.
It’s like Zack Snyder took the only good parts of PROMETHEUS (cool spaceships and outfits!), stuffed it into a blender with INDEPENDENCE DAY (aliens are coming to blow up the planet!) and added with a dash of Wolverine (hairy shirtless tough guy wanders planet, doing random good deeds).
I mean all that in a good way.
HOWEVER: The world doesn’t need another review of Soupman’s latest reboot. What the world needs is a real discussion of a real problem that Superman and other heroes can’t seem to shake.
They’re invincible. And that, friends, is crazy boring.
Iconic heroes made of flesh and blood already have a serious problem, since everybody sitting in the seats, munching on $9 popcorn, knows they’re icons. We know the producers of James Bond movies would never wake up one day and say, “I know — let’s kill off Bond and start some other kind of film, maybe with a 200-year-old sparkling vampire who’s into whiny teeangers.”
Hollywood wants franchises, and you don’t kill off the foundation of billion-dollar juggernauts. Ironman will never die. Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Spock, Kirk (new young Kirk, not Shatner, who they did kill off), Wonder Woman — hey, they’re all safe.
But they’re not invincible. They can and do suffer. They can bleed and die. We know that.
Superman is never really in trouble. Stuff happens to him on screen and you shrug, because hey, that’s Superman.
It’s not the same with Batman, who’s been stabbed, knocked out, set on fire and generally abused. One of the great things about the Dark Knight trilogy is how much Batman really does suffer, sacrifice and grow.
MAN OF STEEL does a good job, and it’s a fun movie. The problem is the character of Superman, who’s a lot like Neo after the end of THE MATRIX, when Keanu Reeves can do anything.
Where do you go from there? Turns out you wander around and get lost for two movies that got progressively worse until something perfect turned into something meh. Which is sad. THE MATRIX was brilliant … right up until Neo went all Superman on us.
Here’s an ironclad rule of storytelling that I’m inventing right now: The villain has to be more powerful than the hero. Always.
Not equally powerful. Not less powerful. The villain has to be superior.
Otherwise, we’re sitting in a dark room watching Chuck Norris swivel around on his cowboy boots as he kicks 59 random henchmen in the face. Does it look pretty? Sure. Is it dramatic and exciting and good story? No. We know Chuck — or Jason Statham, or whoever — is better, and that our hero is gonna win.
When your hero is invincible, like Superman and Neo, the villain can’t be more powerful. It’s impossible.
Think about every Boring Action Movie you’ve ever seen: the villain is less powerful and scary than the hero, which is why he needs an army of thugs to protect him from the big bad scary hero, who starts out the story as an amazing tough guy and ends the story … as an amazing tough guy. Most of the bad Bond movies are like this.
Same thing with every Failed Comic Book Movie, like the lame Hulk films. The Angry Green Thing is basically invincible. Bullets bounce off him. Tank rounds go clang off his green skin. How can you worry about the guy getting in trouble, or having a tough time with a bad guy? This is why comic book movies tend to have hordes of villains. That’s compensating for the weakness of each villain, and it doesn’t work.
Two little movies we all remember reverse this beautifully. The villains in ROCKY and THE KARATE KID seem invincible to us, don’t they? Apollo Creed is the heavyweight champion of the world. He’s crazy strong, insanely fast, in incredible shape and everybody with a functioning brain cell in their noggin would bet the farm on him, not the slow, plodding loser they lined up for a publicity stunt of a fight. Johnny also seems like a teenage nightmare, a giant bully who pummels Daniel-san relentlessly.
Rocky and Daniel-san start out as serious underdogs, and they get their butts kicked in all sorts of ways throughout the movie. It’s only at the very end that they eke out a little moral victory. But we don’t care. That little moral victory is more important to us, the audience, than all the beat-downs administered by the tough guy in your average action movie.
Bigger isn’t better. It’s the distance traveled from the beginning to the end. And when you start out cranking it up all the way to 11, and end at 11, you’re not really taking us anywhere.
You’ve been there: sitting in a dark theater for two hours, with sticky unknown substances on the soles of your shoes and your wallet $23 lighter, and you’re thinking, “If the director and the seven different screenwriters given credit for this movie had spent FIVE MINUTES on the major plot holes in this stinker, it would’ve been a fine movie.”
This is why the folks at How It Should Have Ended have jobs.
Here are my favorites, and these are movies that I actually love (except for SPIDERMAN 3).
Big honking bonus: A recurring thing is cutting to Batman and Superman, sitting in a cafe while sipping coffee and talking smack about these movies and each other. I like it, I love it, I want some more of it.