The Journey Goes All The Way To The End

A blast from the past here, but… Captain America: The First Avenger has been bothering me ever since I first saw it. There’s so much in this film that’s brilliant. Truly brilliant. The first sixty minutes or so has a good shot at the title of Best Superhero Origin Movie Ever (only Batman Begins is a serious rival).

But then… what? There’s a bunch of stuff, not nearly enough Howling Commandos, a moment of genuine tragedy, and then the Arctic and the present day (the latter of which is actually handled really well). But none of it, well…

None of it seems to matter.

But why?

For a long while, I wondered if the movie has a villain problem. The Red Skull always felt a little out of keeping with the tone of the movie, and yes, more villain-hero screentime would certainly have helped established a meaningful conflict between them…

But I’m starting to think something else is wrong here. The real problem is, the hero’s emotional journey finishes partway through the movie.

Steve Rogers’ journey, within this movie, is essentially a quest to realise his own potential as a leader and a hero. There’s greatness in him from the start: Bucky sees it, Erskine sees it, Peggy sees it. But the rest of the world can’t. Even when he’s transformed into that deeply ironic Aryan ubermensch, the Army has no use for him except as, in his words, a performing monkey.

What Steve has to learn, ironically, is true courage. He’s always been happy to start fights he can’t win, but that’s just belligerence and self-righteousness. You can’t become a great leader that way. In disobeying orders to save his best friend, Steve assembles a team, shows leadership, and risks his life for someone he cares about. This is the moment he truly becomes Captain America –

And in any other movie, that would be the whole narrative. Bucky’s (wonderfully conflicted) shout “Let’s hear it for Captain America” feels like the last line of a movie – because, emotionally, it is. Steve has undergone his emotional transformation, for this movie at least, and the narrative should be over.

But it can’t be, because there’s still so much set-up for the Marvel universe at large to be got through.

Wait, I hear you cry: there’s Bucky’s death, for a start. Isn’t that part of Steve’s emotional journey? Yes, definitely – their relationship is the key to the whole (cinematic) Captain America universe –

But the writers have a problem here. It’s part of Steve’s emotional journey in the next movie. Hit it too hard here, and you not only risk tipping the audience off to what will happen next, but you undercut the next movie, leaving it repeating emotional beats you’ve already played here. So, inevitably, Bucky’s death has to be underplayed for the good of the larger narrative, leaving the second half of Act Two of this movie weaker than anyone would have wanted it.

And there’s the big showdown with the villain, right? Yes, but… really, where’s the emotional drive in Act Three? Aside from Steve’s final sacrifice – and remember, the teaser to the movie has already told us he survives – where are the stakes, the choices, the failures and the victories? What are we being asked to feel?

(Actually, I’m starting to think that Act Three is the weak point in many Marvel movies. Only The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have a truly satisfying Act Three – and why? Emotional journeys. But that’s a subject for another time.)

The point here, though, is that Steve’s emotional journey is already concluded. His choices here reinforce who he is, but they don’t reveal new elements of him, they don’t change him. He’s still that person he became when he turned the Captain America persona from a stage act into a hero – and if your hero isn’t changing and growing, then the action he undertakes is inevitably flat and emotionally meaningless.

So what can we learn here?

When adapting existing material, it’s easy to assume that in order to reach point F, you simply have to work through points A – E. To set up Steve Rogers in the modern world, simply romp briskly through everything that happened before he got there. But your character may not be undergoing a single united emotional journey during that period. There may be several, which the original material had time to cover – and you don’t. But if you don’t find an emotional journey that will cover the whole of your chosen narrative, you end up with some scenes that have meaning, and some that just don’t…

Some Brief Pointers For Action Scenes

I’m still neck-deep in this new sci-fi action feature script, so here are a few more action pointers I’ve been thinking about…

Get it written. So you’ve used the world ‘avalanche’ four times in the last two paragraphs? Or you’re not sure how many rounds this model of handgun holds? Doesn’t matter. Correct the details and polish the prose later – just get the basic sweep of the action down first

Don’t over-direct the actors. Giving an actor a clear objective to play is always a good thing, and it’s even more important in an action scene, where they may have minimal dialogue. But, because you’re very much in visual writing mode, it’s easy to get over-descriptive. Don’t tell them how to move or what to feel – remind them what they want, and everything else will flow from that.

Cause or effect?  Some villains, like the Joker, make an entrance, make their presence felt, and then start committing acts of violence. Others, like the Winter Soldier, enter after the explosions and the carnage have begun – they started killing before we even knew they were there. Neither is better than the other, but it suggests a very different attitude to violence, so it’s worth considering which of the two your villain is and sticking to it.

Emotional objectives – everyone in this scene has a personal, emotional objective. Sure they want to stay alive and defeat the bad guy, but they also want to, say, prove that they’re a good pilot, or they can control their temper in a fight, or that they’re worthy to be in command. Find their emotional objective, and you’ll find what they have to achieve in this sequence.

The TARPIS Theory

…and no, that’s not a typo! Stick with me…

So, let’s talk action sequences.

Some people say you shouldn’t put too much effort into your action sequences, because the director and the stunt coordinator will inevitably throw them out and design their own. But that, frankly, is a load of bull poop.

Firstly, the job of every sequence, every scene, every word on the page is to sell your script – and a half-assed version of anything, even an action sequence, isn’t going to sell anything to anyone.

And secondly? If you write the most exciting and original action sequence imaginable, I guarantee you that the producer who buys your script will want to see some version of it in the movie.

Think of the inevitable changes to your action sequences as being, in effect, another rewrite. When you write the second draft, you know there’s going to be a draft three, four, and probably five – but that’s no excuse for slacking off on draft two. You still deliver your best. Write the best damn action sequence you can, and worry later about whether it’s going to change or not.

So how do you write a great action sequence? You remember the magic acronym: TARPIS.

Now, you’ve all heard of the TARDIS, right? And what does that stand for? Time And Relative Dimensions In Space.  Excellent. Ten Doctor Who points to everyone.

Now, what you need to do in order to create a great action sequence is to shift one of those words a bit. Because action scene writing is all about

TIME AND RELATIVE POSITION IN SPACE

Action scenes are all about who’s where, in relation to whom, and how long they have before the next disaster strikes. In that car chase, where is the hero’s car? Where is the villain’s car in relation to him – falling behind, or catching up? What vehicles and other obstacles lie between them? How much distance does he have to cover before the lights go red in order shake his pursuers? And, maybe, what’s waiting round the next corner that we know about and he doesn’t?

It’s knowledge of all these variables that creates tension. If we don’t know precisely what’s happening, how can we be worried for the characters? The instant the audience loses track of any of the variables, you lose them.

So your job when writing an action scene is be absolutely sure what the obstacles and dangers facing your characters are, and then find ways to convey them clearly and effectively to the audience – ways that build tension and convey the characters’ fear, desperation, wants and needs.

Beware The Fridge Magnet

(with thanks to @abigailb, who came up with the term)

Thank you for coming, everyone! I see we have a good range of female characters here tonight – girlfriends of superheroes, wives and daughters from action movies, and secondary characters from television shows…

Now, we’re all very much aware of the primary danger to all of you – the constant threat of “fridging”, the killing of love interests (invariably female) to motivate the hero to revenge. You’d think villains would have realized this course of action invariably leads to their downfall, and stopped, by now, but I guess if they were smart they wouldn’t be villains…

Anyway, tonight we’ll be talking about a disturbing element of that threat that has recently been identified – the fridge magnet.

That’s right – the hero whose every partner, casual hook-up, or anyone he so much as flirts with, ends up dead.

For many years, the primary danger came from James Bond, and we were at least aware of that – but with the rise of movie franchises, and the increased danger presented by a hero appearing in more than one movie, the danger is now everywhere. From Wolverine to Dominic Torretto, the fridge magnet could now be any male lead in any genre of film.

How can you identify a fridge magnet?

He may be a character whose worth is defined, partly or wholly, by the physical things he possesses – and a woman is just another thing to be possessed, used up, and thrown away.

Or he may be a character whom the audience expect to remain miserable and/or damaged, for whom yet another dead female is a simple shorthand to illustrate that misery.

And having identified him, what can you do?

Go to the writer. Remember, only the writer of your film or television show can save you – by redeveloping your hero and you into characters who have a complex, interesting and ongoing relationship. This will satisfy the audience, filling them with emotions and dilemmas, without resorting to the crude, simplistic device of yet another death.

The writer has doomed you to this fate – but they can save you, and become a better writer in the process…

The Ten-Second Version

I’m currently working on a spy thriller, and near the beginning of the film, our protagonist is presented to a team of spies as their new recruit.

In the first draft, I then launched into a series of tests and trials for her to prove herself worthy of joining the team, and to impress the team leader – establishing the primary relationship of the story, between new recruit and mentor-antagonist.

But that sequence never felt right. It slowed down the narrative. It felt obvious, predictable. It just wasn’t working.

And then this morning, I realized – I need the Ten-Second Version of that sequence. I need the one test, the one question to answer, that will convince the team leader that the protagonist is the only person for the job.

Why? Because near the beginning of a story, the dramatic process is not important – the decisions are.

Once your story is well underway, and especially in the third act, dramatic process – how the protagonist wins – becomes very important indeed. The audience derives enormous pleasure from seeing the protagonist learn from their mistakes, enlist the help of their allies, exploit the villain’s weaknesses and grow into their own power as a hero – and all of that needs to happen through specific, detailed actions.

But early on in the story, the dramatic process doesn’t have all of this emotional weight, and we can take shortcuts to get to the good stuff, especially when it’s near inevitable. (After all, if my protagonist doesn’t get onto the team, there’ll be no story, so it’s not like I can play this for suspense!)

All I need is one good reason why the team leader would accept her, one brief moment of proving herself – and the justification for that decision will play out through the rest of the movie.

So next time you’re struggling with motivating a decision in the first act of your story, consider – do you actually need the Ten-Second Version?

Character and the Audience: The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow

Yaay, it’s another occasional series! I’m becoming very interested in how certain kinds of characters, particularly those that break the traditional norms of race, gender and sexuality, can change the appeal of a film to an audience. So, assuming I can find enough of them to write about, I shall…

(SPOILER WARNING for Captain America: The Winter Soldier…)

Today’s character type, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow, takes its name from a twitter comment that, alas, I have long since lost. If you think it was you, let me know who you were talking about, and with which screenwriter, and I’ll be happy to credit you…

The Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is always male, and he’s that guy who can kill a roomful of people without breaking a sweat – but who is massively emotionally vulnerable, has no social support system, and is incapable of interacting with civilized society. Frequently he’s physically or temporally displaced, and while perfectly adapted to his reality, struggles to map his skills and experiences onto ours.

One great example is Kyle Reese in The Terminator. Reese is perfectly adapted to the future, where killer robots roam and humanity scrabbles to survive and resist. But his skills transfer imperfectly to the 1980’s, and his emotional connection to human savior John Connor, and then John’s mother Sarah, whom he’s come to save, makes him immensely vulnerable and sympathetic.

A more recent, and hugely instructive, example is Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, in the eponymous Captain America movie. The Winter Soldier is a human being erased right down to the skull, a bundle of reflexes and conditioning with no memory and no personality – until he encounters the one person with whom he has such a strong enough emotional connection that his true self starts bubbling up…

What interests me about the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is the character’s immense appeal to the female audience. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has created a massive, and hugely engaged, female audience for Captain America movies that simply didn’t exist before. If you doubt me, search for the fan art and fan fiction… And for all the emphasis on Arnie and on a strong female lead, Kyle Reese was a huge part of The Terminator’s success.

So why are these characters so attractive to the female audience? Two things, I think…

Firstly, they provide female viewers with a double experience – a character they can simultaneously desire, and empathise with.

There’s little common ground between any viewer (male or female) and a traditional muscular action hero, a stuffed shirt quipping his way through gunfights and embracing a ‘girl’ as a prize at the end of the movie. Their skills attract us, but their emotionlessness shuts us out.

(See this excellent post by Alex Epstein for a related examination of why this means that women make better action leads than men… http://complicationsensue.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/cryface.html )

But the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow displays both the “male” physical capability, and the “female” emotional vulnerability, to evoke envy and empathy simultaneously. The audience can share the character’s experiences on all levels.

And secondly: the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is, of necessity, a character locked into a complex, passionate and constantly evolving relationship. He has an opposite, a partner, a second self without whom he is incomplete.

Kyle Reese needs Sarah Connor’s help to survive as much as she needs his. Where she is weak, he is strong, and vice versa. He’s not a savior, he’s a partner.

And whatever your ‘shipping’ preferences for the Captain America movie universe, there’s no denying that Steve’s relationship with Bucky is the formative, deepest and most vital relationship of his entire life. Indeed, from Captain America: The First Avenger onwards, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been reshaping the origin story, and Ed Brubaker’s original Winter Soldier storyline, to deepen this connection and increase the ways in which the characters’ lives, feelings and experience mirror one another. They are opposites, mirror images, unbreakably connected to one another, whether you view that connection as having a sexual component or not.

In other words, the Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrow is a creature of relationships. It’s a cliché to say female viewers embrace the relationships in a movie rather than just the ‘cool’ stuff, but it’s true -

And you know what? Male viewers love relationships too. They just don’t define their reactions in the same way. Any male viewer who says “Wasn’t it cool when Cap faced the Winter Soldier on the helicarrier?” is reacting to exactly the same character points as a female viewer talking about the tragic emotions of the ending. They’re just using different terminology.

So what’s my point here? My point is that Hyper-Capable Wounded Sparrows bring in a female audience for movies that are traditionally male (and yes, that’s a generalization anyway, but…) without ever alienating the male audience.

So why isn’t there one in every action, adventure, spy or superhero movie? If you want to double the audience for your movie, you now know what to do…