Always Mind Your Surroundings

So, as you’ve probably heard already, comic-book-movie screenwriter David Goyer has got himself into some hot water in front of a live audience while recording the Scriptnotes podcast (which is usually excellent, by the way). You can check out the details for yourself, but, with a little help from Craig Mazin, in the midst of a debate on how certain superheroes should be adapted into movies, he managed to suggest anyone in the audience who’d heard of Martian Manhunter was too geeky to have had sex, and call She-Hulk a ‘porn star’ created for Hulk to have sex with. (Eeeww, dude, they’re cousins!)

Does this matter? Is this just some guys getting carried away in the midst of banter and saying something dumb?

We’re all human, and we all take the piss and say off-colour stuff we don’t really mean under certain circumstances. The atmosphere in a writers room can get pretty silly at times, and we live in a culture that values laddish behaviour and sarcastic humour. Writers are far from being the worst offenders – I’ve done a lot of jobs over the years, and writing has by far the most inclusive, affirming and tolerant atmosphere that I’ve ever worked in – but still.

But in the end, it is part of a writer’s job to value what they do, and the people who respond to it.

None of us want to gush about how ‘important’ what we do is – but you know what? It is bloody important. Books, films and TV programmes have changed the attitudes of individuals and societies. They’ve contributed to improvements in civil rights for racial, sexual and social minorities. They’ve forced government action on social issues, led to the setting up of charities and pressure groups, and given individuals the inspiration and courage to change their lives. Art matters.

So the way we talk about our own work, and the people who enjoy it, matters too. If we imply people are dumb for liking this or that, we’re undermining all art, including our own. If we imply characters of one gender, race or sexuality are less important than others, we’re making a statement that has an effect on the society we live in.

And some criticism is more powerful than others. If you call Superman a porn star, you’re dissing a white, heterosexual American male, a group that has enough power and enough representation in art to handle some trash-talk. But when you start attacking a female hero on the grounds of appearance, you’re adding your voice to a tidal wave of cultural pressures and expectations that already warp the young minds exposed to them. There’s no heroism, and precious little humour, in an easy target.

Like it or not, as a content creator, it is a part of your job to learn to understand, tolerate and live alongside all humanity. That’s what’s going to make you a great writer – knowing and caring about people. It’s a part of your job not to be a douchebag. So, y’know. Get on that.

And if you can’t, at least remember Ducard’s advice from Batman Begins (which Goyer co-wrote) and don’t do it in public. “Always mind your surroundings.”

Things I Learned From… The Wolverine

The Wolverine is a pretty fun movie. Okay, it’s straight out of the Big Book Of Japanese Tropes, right down to the ninjas and the chopsticks, but it’s certainly refreshing to see a superhero movie that takes place somewhere other than a thinly-disguised New York.

But there is something slightly weird about the cast of characters. There’s a huge amount of redundancy in their character functions – that is, in the ‘types’ of character they are. There’s a rich ambitious grandfather – and his rich ambitious son. The granddaughter has a former boyfriend – and a current boyfriend (who’s also rich and ambitious and thus occupies a similar character function as her father). On top of this, the granddaughter has a female live-in companion of the same age, with similar skills, concerns and wants to her.

Characters, characters everywhere, and many of them very similar! What’s going on?

The answer seems to be in the combination of genres involved in the movie. Most of the movie is a detective thriller – there’s an evil plot afoot and we need to know who’s behind it – and only in the third act does it shift into a superhero-action movie. And for a detective story, you need a wide cast of characters to provide suspects and red herrings.

The problem is, what do you do with them when you shift into an action movie and you need a few clearly defined characters…?

So maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you’re combining genres, make sure that the character needs of both are compatible…

The Hero Behind The Mask

Superheroes make for great movies. The mythic figures of our time, demi-gods in lycra, they serve the same dramatic purposes as ancient heroes – wish fulfillment, role models, inspirations, a reassurance in a dark world that there are people who do the right thing and take responsibility for making the world a better place.

Of course, like ancient heroes, they have their dark side. They’re self-selected, unaccountable, and they frequently seek to overcome violence with violence, a tactic that’s usually spectacularly unsuccessful in the real world. As contrived as the “superhero loses his mind and turns evil!” storyline can sometimes seem, it embodies a real truth: the hero is only ever a few steps away from becoming the villain.

But there’s something else about superheroes that we as writers ought to bear in mind: something that might go some way to explaining why some superhero movies fail and others are huge hits.

Superheroes can be utterly unsympathetic figures, because they’re not like us.

The mythic hero is a distant figure, a divine being on a pedestal. His abilities, his personality, his morals and his ethical concerns are very different to ours. We may admire him, but we can never be like him.

Which is why – unlike the great heroes of the Greek, Roman and Norse pantheons, and most cultures around the world – superheroes have alter-egos. Cover identities. Human selves, effectively. And the greater the disconnect between the alter-ego and the hero, the more effective the character – and, off the top of my head, the more successful the film.

Who are the two most popular comic-book superheroes? Batman and Superman, both of whom have cover identities very much at odds with their costumed selves. Big disconnect = big box office. Now let’s take Green Lantern – who, at least as portrayed in the recent film, was very much the same reckless, immature person, in or out of the mask. Zero disconnect = so-so reviews and disappointing box office.

This understanding goes back as far as the 1960’s, at least in comic books. Marvel’s heroes are deliberately ordinary, young, and physically imposing: teenagers, nerds, scientists. Firmly at odds with their abilities and skills, And in film form, Marvel’s heroes have consistently outperformed DC’s heroes at the box office (though identifiable alter-egos are far from the only reason for that!)

Okay, you’re about to say Iron Man disproves my theory, aren’t you? Well, I would say he doesn’t. Tony Stark may think he’s the same swaggering badass in the suit and out of it, but I’d assert that out of it, he’s damaged, careless of others’ feelings, self-centered, and self-indulgent. In the suit, he can suppress that side of himself just long enough to be a hero. Indeed, The Avengers revolves thematically around the idea of consciously “putting on the suit”; becoming, at least for a few glorious moments, the best ‘you’ that you can be.

So, if you ever find yourself writing a mythic hero, think for a moment about who she is when she takes off the mask. The greater the change she undergoes, the better your story.