The Three Kinds Of Villains

I think there are three kinds of fictional villain.

Bad villains (and by ‘bad’, I mean badly written!)  are the opposite of the hero: they are ugly, dissolute, petty and cruel, while he is square-jawed and noble, their physical and mental superior. Because they have nothing in common with the hero, there can be no moral complexity to the story: one side will win, or the other will, and its always the one you expect.

Good villains are the same as the hero in many important ways. They may have similar backgrounds, similar preoccupations, aspirations and desires. They probably want the same thing the hero wants – a job, a particular love interest, the child who knows the secret code, a lost nuclear bomb – though they want to do completely different things with it.

Their skills are probably different – an intellectual villain opposing a instinctive, fist-fighting hero, or vice versa – but that dreadful cliché of bad guy dialogue  “We’re not so different, you and I”  is basically true.

But, as demonstrated ably by the original Star Wars trilogy, the very best villains are the man we fear the hero will become…

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Things I Learned From… Man Of Steel

I freely admit that I’m not a Superman fan. He’s too goody-goody, too socially compliant for my liking. All that “truth, justice and the American way” is off-putting in the morally complex 21st century.

Not that there’s much of “the American way”, however you define it, in Man Of Steel. To my mind, it’s a movie heavy on the steel – the strength, the power, the unbending mindset of the superhuman – and pretty light on the man. This Clark Kent decimates Metropolis and Smallville without batting an eyelid. The human beings he lives among are constantly cited as being the motivation for his actions, but his connection to them is arbitrary and intermittent. Some are saved, many are left to die at the hands of the bad guys. Many more, though we never see their faces, must surely have died as a direct result of his actions…

Given that title, it’s interesting that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan, who take joint story credit on the movie, seem a lot more interested in creating a god than a man. Clark spends the first act of the story appearing from nowhere, wreathed in fire or defying icy water, to rescue helpless, faceless mortals from apocalyptic fates. Later he levels cities, destroys vast machines, and fights an unstoppable opponent. He’s a modern Hercules, roaming the world arbitrarily intervening in human affairs, leaving legends of himself in his wake.

That divine identification reaches its zenith when a Clark in crisis, contemplating self-sacrifice, enters a church in search of guidance  – and spends the scene outlined against the painfully obvious metaphor of stained glass depicting Christ praying before his crucifixion…

Okay. Superhero movies are heroic narratives, and it’s in the nature of a heroic narrative to create a protagonist who has to save the helpless. If he didn’t, how would we know he was the protagonist?

(“He”? Yes, usually. Interestingly, female protagonists tend to inhabit genres like horror and thrillers, where their task is to save themselves, not others. But that’s a discussion for another post.)

And there’s nothing wrong with superhumans. Aliens, vampires, cyborgs, mutants, genetically engineered warriors; all superhumans reflect our own humanity back to us by inhabiting the border between human and non-human. It’s in exploring the boundary that we learn what lies on either side of it.

But there’s a reason people tell stories not about gods, but about men (and I’m using ‘men’ in the spirit of the original meaning of the word: humans of any gender). Because men, human or superhuman, embody our hopes and fears and passions and dreams. Because they are us.

Does this Clark Kent embody anything that we can empathise with, any human hope or fear? Not that I can see. He doesn’t even appear to want to. This Clark is not a man of steel but a god of steel – cautiously worshipped from a distance, occasionally entering the human world to rescue or to kill, yet still beyond our empathy and our understanding. The last truly human moment in the movie, to my mind, is the last appearance of Pa Kent. There’s no humanity in the child he raised as his son.

And thus, as a hero, the God Of Steel has nothing to offer me.

Qualities Of The Great Blockbuster Movie part one

As you’ve probably all realised by now, big Hollywood movies are my natural sphere of interest. If it’s being described as high-concept, a tentpole, a blockbuster, a ‘genre’ movie, then I’m probably already in the ticket queue.

Some people think that crowd-pleasing movies are inevitably predisposed to be terrible. That they have to shoot for the lowest common denominator, that trying to please a mass audience automatically sucks the originality, the wit, the thematic richness and the character complexity out of a movie.

But I don’t believe that’s true. Tentpole movies can be fantastic, on the emotional and intellectual level as well as on a visceral level. And I believe the great ones have qualities in common that we can learn from and apply to our own writing. Which is what this new occasional series of posts will be about.

Today’s quality that I think all great blockbuster movies share:

Characters interact with each other rather than just reacting to a situation. Bad characters – in any kind of movie – ignore one another, or treat one another as interchangeable pieces on a game board. When you’re watching a horror movie and you can’t remember which of the characters is which? That’s probably because the characters don’t treat each other as individuals. They may occasionally say that they hate Sue and love Kirsty, but their actions towards those two characters don’t reflect that.

Good characters don’t lose their feelings for their fellow characters when things get tough. Indeed, a life-or-death situation tends to amplify your feelings for those around you, good or bad. Social rules are abandoned and inhibition go out of the window. You say and do what you’ve always wanted to. That person who rubbed you up the wrong way will be the first person you’ll leave behind for the zombies. That girl you always fancied; you’ll opt for her plan of escape, not the more logical one your boss is proposing.

So both the dialogue and the decisions made will reflect who these characters are and how they feel about one another. Four interchangeable horror movie teenagers running from a monster will act as a group, reacting only to the threat. But  if, say, Indiana Jones, Marion, and Belloc are running away from bad guys – three characters with complex interpersonal relationships and very different outlooks on life – then everything they say and do will be driven by the richness of who they are and how they relate to each other (yes, even in mid-crisis!)

And here’s some Wolfblood news…

I can finally confirm that Disney has picked up the rights to Wolfblood in several territories, including the US, parts of Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. More details at

http://www.c21media.net/archives/114813

http://tbivision.com/news/2013/06/disney-buys-wolfblood-for-global-channels-and-new-german-service/92062/

So more people will be seeing series one very soon!  (I don’t have specific dates for any countries yet. Keep an eye on your local Disney XD channel…)

You Don’t Have To Be Crazy, But…

One of the funniest things about writers is that we’re largely unaware of our working processes. We do stuff, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we often have very little sense of how we create ideas and what the best way is for us to work on them.

I’ve recently become painfully aware that every now and then, I become childishly obsessed with a current movie. I watch it repeatedly, irrespective of whether it’s any good or not. It dominates my creative thought processes for weeks. I buy crappy magazines just because they contain an article about it. I’ve even been known to dream about it.

And what seems to be going on is that my imagination has identified a tiny nugget of interest and is processing it in some way, expanding on it, and eventually creating a whole new character or story idea.

Eventually, the movie falls away, and I’m left with a totally original idea, often in a different genre  – inspired by one line of dialogue, a single image, even the look on an actor’s face.

So I figure it’s time for us all to come clean. Fellow writers, what are your crazy writing habits? In what weird ways are you compelled to feed your creative processes? I’m not the only one, right?

(deafening silence)

Right…?

Who Are You Calling A Bad Guy?

In the movie Wreck-It Ralph, unhappy video game villain Ralph is fed up with his lot in life. A well-meaning fellow villain encouragingly tells him “Ralph, just because you are ’bad guy’ doesn’t mean you are bad guy.”

True enough. But Star Trek Into Darkness is probably the first film I’ve seen where the villain is debatably more moral than the hero.

Don’t believe me? Okay…

Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers! And I mean BIG spoilers!!!!

Stop now if you haven’t seen the movie!

Still with me?

Okay then.

Taking the plot in chronological order: Khan is awoken by Admiral Marcus and manipulated into helping Marcus prepare for – even provoke – a war with the Klingons. Khan has no choice: his crew, his ’family’, are being held hostage by a ruthless man (said ruthlessness is later demonstrated on screen by Marcus’ behaviour towards Kirk and his crew, so Khan is clearly right to fear him.)

Understandably, Khan tries to escape Marcus’ clutches. Not, we should note, by attacking Marcus. There’s no evidence his scheme to smuggle his sleeping crewmates out of Marcus’ clutches involves any violence.

The scheme is discovered, and the missiles are removed from Khan’s control. He tells Kirk later that he assumed his crew had been murdered. Which is fair enough: Marcus has a big secret to conceal, the crew are evidence against him, and, as we’ve already noted, Marcus is quite prepared to kill to achieve his ends.

So, Khan sets out for revenge against the whole of Starfleet. Maybe an overreaction. But Khan presumably has no idea how official Marcus’ actions were, or which officers are corrupt and which aren’t. For all he knows, they’re all guilty.

He comes up with an elaborate plan to bomb the facility he worked for. (Worth remembering that everyone there is breaking Starfleet regulations by functioning as a spy agency.) That plan involves offering a father a choice no parent would refuse: but it is a choice. He could refuse. Marcus later claims he was ’forced’ to commit the bombing, but Marcus would say that, wouldn’t he…

People die, here and in Khan’s later attack on Starfleet HQ. Few of them deserve it. I wouldn’t justify that objectively –  but in cinematic terms, we’ve excused far worse when it was committed by a character labelled ’hero’ instead of ’villain’. If, say, Bruce Willis’ family were killed by corrupt cops, and he then took an attack helicopter to their precinct, killing corrupt and honest cops alike, we’d probably cheer him on.

Khan goes to ground on the Klingon homeworld, which initially feels like a dumb choice for a genius: but in fact, it gets him exactly what he wants. Marcus puts the missiles in space, on board the Enterprise, where Khan has a chance of getting to them and verifying whether his crew are dead or still in there.

While on the Enterprise, Khan is a model prisoner. He tells the truth when questioned, makes no attempt to escape (despite being inexplicably transferred to the insecure sick bay), and warns Kirk about the danger he’s in. He doesn’t even resist when Kirk tries to beat the crap out of him after his surrender.

Under threat from Marcus, Kirk asks Khan for help to infiltrate the enemy ship. Despite Kirk’s suspicions, he does nothing during the infiltration to betray their alliance. Indeed, he saves Kirk’s life on the journey between ships (self-interest, perhaps, but I bet Khan could have taken that ship alone – or at least believes that he could…)

And, at the moment their alliance triumphs over Marcus and they take his ship, the deal is broken – by Kirk!

Recovering from being maliciously stunned, Khan finally snaps. He brutally attacks his betrayers, threatens to wipe out the entire crew in order to get his people back, then opens fire on the Enterprise. Hardly saintly, but this is a desperate man trying to protect his crew from a man who’s used and betrayed him…

And who can blame him? It turns out that Spock programmed the missiles he just beamed aboard to explode – and Khan has no idea his unconscious crew were removed first, remember. He thinks his people are dead. His suicide run at Starfleet HQ is the last revenge of a man who’s lost everything…

Ah, I hear you cry. But Khan is a war criminal, a genetic Nazi who wiped out those who didn’t live up to his idea of perfection…

But is that even true? Admiral Marcus says Khan’s a convicted criminal, but we’re way past believing him. Alternate Spock from a parallel universe says that the Khan he knew did terrible things. Does that necessarily mean this Khan did?

And it’s worth remembering that if the writers wanted us to be sure of Khan’s evil past, Kirk or any of his crew could have obtained evidence from another source, one less equivocal than a traitorous general or an alternate timestream. But they didn’t.

So taking all this into account, isn’t there an argument to be made that Khan is equally moral – perhaps even more moral – than Kirk?

Am I being disingenuous? Perhaps. But my point is, the labels we apply to our characters are powerful tools. “Hero” and “Villain” have a way of twisting the audience’s perception of what a character does and how justified they are in doing it. So when we use these labels, let’s use them wisely…