What Marvel Taught Me About Writing, Part One

I haven’t made any secret of the fact that, basically, I don’t like Marvel movies.

Don’t get me wrong. Superhero stories are a wonderful subgenre, just like every other kind of story (except perhaps vampire romances… but that’s a post for another time). If well-done, a superhero movie can be pretty darn awesome. Take Batman Begins, for example; I loved that film. It completely changed my perspective on superhero movies.

The thing is, most Marvel movies aren’t well-done. Be honest with yourself; would Shakespeare look at The Avengers and applaud? No. No, he wouldn’t, and you know it. Fortunately, I think I have figured out the reasons (yes, plural “reasons”) why this particular series is a flop. And, cynical optimist that I am, I have turned it into a list of lessons to be learned for writers that I will share over the next two weeks. You’re welcome.

And yes, I will absolutely spoil the movies for you. Sorry I’m not sorry.

You can recycle an old plot, but you should at least tell a new story.
Still of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in The Avengers (2012)

“Tony, do you ever feel like you’re suffering from severe deja vu?” (image credit)

Paul Assay comments in his review of Thor: The Dark World, “Marvel movies are as reliable as a six-pack of Coke: Every can tastes the same.” I couldn’t have said it better than that. Yes, I understand that we have a limited number of plots, but we have unlimited stories to tell, countless lessons to teach. You’d think that in eight years, Marvel would have come up with a new message to teach its huge fan-base.

Yet pick any Marvel movie at random and see how well it fits my description: Hero has problems, hero encounters bad guy, hero’s friend “dies” (but not really), and hero sacrifices himself and overcomes insurmountable obstacles to defeat bad guy. Moral of the story: a hero is someone who does good heroic things and beats bad guys.

How did I do?

Look, even when you are rewriting an old plot, if you want to write to be distinguished from all the other twaddle out there, you need to tell a new story. Have a character learn something new about heroism or strength, and your story will be all the better for it.

If nothing else, take the time to write a solid story and characters.

“That’s my secret, Loki. I’m always angsty.” (image credit)

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you know something about my conflicted feelings for the movie Thor. The storytelling drives me crazy. Leaving all the terrible acting and dialogue aside, the story just didn’t work, and for that we can blame the characterization.

Let’s start with Thor. All he ever does is whine, smile obnoxiously, or walk around without a shirt on, and I for one do not find any of those things attractive. Even within the context of the story he is a vain, greedy, cruel boy. And we are supposed to care?

Jane. She was supposed to be the Strong Female Character who changes Thor’s character for the better. How, by getting him a cup of coffee and then watching the stars with him? As cute as that sounds, it won’t teach the arrogant Jotun-slayer about the value of humility. 

Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. As for Odin… seriously, what kind of person tells their son that he’s a failure- while the son is hanging off a bridge?? Then he throws a big party after he thinks Loki is dead.

What about Loki, though? Most people agree that Loki would have made a better protagonist than Thor. I agree. Yet Loki has his own character problems. Despite being promoted on several posters as “the god of mischief,” he doesn’t really work much mischief in this movie. Thor does that very well on his own. (I tell you, their roles should have been reversed! Confounded comic books.) As popular as Loki is with fans, he doesn’t even live up to his label.

The most disappointing thing is that Thor did have a chance to be a genuinely good movie with poignant lessons about kingship, sacrificial love, and family values, but the lack of characterization ruined that chance. Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Get to know your characters.

Ah, there’s more… but that will have to wait another week. Check back next week for Part Two!

What do you think so far? Am I right, or do you disagree with me on any of these problems?

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Top 10 Villains

villains-button

Last week, gretald tagged me for the Top 10 Villains post. With cheering and trumpets moderate excitement, I now accept. And, Greta, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, thag you very buch.

So here are the rules. (Because what is fun without rules?)

  1. Post the button.
  2. Thank the blogger who tagged you.
  3. List your top ten favorite villains (they can be from movies or books).
  4. Tag ten other bloggers.

I will probably end up breaking #4, but so did Greta, so I am not too concerned about that one. One more thing you should know is that I am terrible at making “top ten” lists like these, as my favorite kind of anything tends to change weekly. I will probably reread an old favorite book next week and smack myself for not putting that particular bad guy on this list… but here it goes anyway. In no particular order, here are my top ten villains of all time.

Spoilers will necessarily follow…

Morgoth from The Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)

If you see this guy on the street… run. Just run.

Tolkien knows how to write Dark Lords. As bad as we thought Sauron was, his boss Morgoth is even worse.  He is evil personified. Dragons? Spiders? Balrogs? Torture chambers? You name it, he has it. Darth Vader and the Emperor have nothing on this guy- and he is dead set against the free peoples of Middle-earth. He is the villain, and he wants Silmarils! (history geek reference)

Richard from King Richard III (William Shakespeare)

“Villains, set down the corse; or, by Saint Paul, I’ll make a corse of him that disobeys.”

Leave all historical debates aside on this one; Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard is terrifying. Hunchbacked and hated, Richard believes that his only chance of fulfillment lies in the throne of England. A terrifying yet understandable villain drawn from English history? Duh, yes. Besides, I appreciate his dark sense of humor, which is much like my own.

Gru from Despicable Me (2013)

“Pause for effect…”

I’m chuckling evilly to myself as I type this. I. Love. This. Guy. He’s been equipped with gadgets and weapons and cool cars, more dark humor, a bizarre accent, many layers of complexity, and backstory which never fails to elicit an “aww, poor Gru.” Plus, he is one of those few sympathetic INTJs like me. So he doesn’t exactly play the role of Bad Guy in the story, but this a list of “villains,” not “antagonists.” He deserves a place with the best of the best.

Gollum from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)

And he loves games!

What can I say? Gollum is simply adorable, and half the time he’s nothing worse than a Stinker. All he ever wanted was his Precious. I think we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Gollum sometimes: we all want to do good, but we have to fight with our darker side to do it.

Brian de Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)

Hey- there is a movie?

You cannot possibly understand the depths of my hatred for de Bois-Guilbert. The overweening Templar tries to seduce and then abuses the Jewish girl Rebecca while she is a prisoner in his buddy’s castle, only desisting when the house is burned to the ground. And even then he drags her off into the forest so that Ivanhoe can’t get at her. What sort of horrible person does that?

Loki from Thor (2011)

It seems he has an affinity for glowing blue things.

As overrated as the film itself may be, Loki is a believable, even sympathetic baddie. He starts out as a friendly little brother, and then his world is shattered by the news that he will never be a king, only “the monster that parents tell their children about at night.” You might say he was just a victim of bad parenting- even if the horns and super glowstick are a bit much.

Ra’s Al Ghul from Batman Begins (2005)

I recently discovered Christopher Nolan’s film. Let us just say that I now have another favorite movie.

Ninja swords, tragic backstory, and Liam Neeson. ‘Nuff said.

Simon Legree from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)

FYI, finding a picture of this guy isn’t the easiest task in the world.

Ugh, just thinking about wicked Simon Legree makes me shudder. I hate him for all the reasons I hated de Bois-Guilbert, except that no chivalrous knights stopped him from destroying the lives of two young girls and killing his other slaves. No wonder Stowe’s novel had such an impact in the 1800s; Legree is one character that you can never forget.

Baroness de Ghent from Ever After (1998)

She had a snazzy sense of fashion, too.

I hated the stepmother from the original Cinderella because she was so irrationally evil, but I loathe the Baroness even more because she has reasons for being so terrible. Her husband died and left her with a headstrong daughter who threatens the wellbeing of her own children. Who wouldn’t turn a little bit nasty about that? And she is indeed nasty. Sometimes it almost seems as if she wants to love Danielle as a daughter, but she suppresses that tenderness and instead punishes the girl as a wicked servant.

Scar from The Lion King (1994)

Scar is not impressed. He is never impressed.

As terrible as it sounds, I identify a little bit with Scar- that is, his cynical humor, meticulous mind, and unforgettable lines. He is never at a loss for words and always has a plan. And of course he is evil; Scar has no qualms about wreaking havoc on the whole kingdom so that he can take over it. Just like Richard III, and Loki, and Morgoth, and Gru… maybe I do have a favorite kind of villain after all.

Now for the tags. I don’t know many other bloggers who do villain posts, but, like Hans, I will do what I can.

Finally, if you are a blogger and want to take the tag, go right ahead- just let me know so that I can read about your top ten villains. Let’s see what y’all come up with. 🙂

A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Bad

“Whenever you take on playing a villain, he has to cease to be a villain to you. If you judge this man by his time, he’s doing very little wrong.” -Colin Firth

Everyone agrees that a supervillain should be antagonistic, amoral, willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want, and for the most part, these sorts of villains are easy to write. Darth Vader. The Joker. Sauron. These are terrifying characters that you never forget, but for all their scariness, they are surprisingly easy to write. Put them in a dark suit, give them an army, and strip away every quality that made them relatable, and you have the Dark Lord.

What isn’t so easy is writing a villain who is still a human.

What I love about a sympathetic villain is that he or she is still evil, but on an understandable level. With this kind of villain, we know why the baddie does such horrible things, sometimes even identifying with those motivations, and thus we are invested in a whole new facet of the story- that of the antagonist.

It’s a whole new subplot to follow. A sympathetic villain first frightens the readers, then confuses them, and at last wins their unfailing approval. All in all, a humanized villain keeps the audience’s attention and ultimately makes them think. Plus, feelz.

So here are a few ways I like to “humanize” a villain. Minor spoilers may follow…

kylo-ren

Show him to be human. Honestly, this was the element in The Force Awakens which scored the most points with me. For most of the movie, Kylo Ren is literally faceless, just like Darth Vader; as Rey says, he’s just a monster. But then this monster pulls off his helmet.

When he shows a human face underneath that unfeeling stereotype, Kylo ceases to be a robot in our minds and becomes a real person, a character like Finn and Rey. This makes him frightening in a different way from Vader. Even a normal kid like him can become bad. That’s one reason why I liked this Star Wars movie so much better than many of the others- in just five seconds we see the human side of the villain, something that six hours of Hayden Christiansen were never able to achieve for Vader.

And it doesn’t even have to be a literal mask. Captain Hook is malevolent and heartless, even toward little lost children. Forget all this Neverland Pirates business; he replaced his lost hand with a gleaming sharp hook, for crying out loud. He even kidnaps Wendy. What sort of person do you have to be to do that?

But in a conversation between Hook and Wendy, we realize why. All Hook ever wanted was the same thing that Peter wanted: a mother. It’s a very human, childish thing to do, kidnapping a girl just so she can play mom to an orphaned pirate crew, but even the smallest of children can identify with Hook. Everyone wants a mom! Even though he did just kidnap Wendy, Captain Hook seems to lose his terrible pirate mask to look more like the kind of human you meet every day.

Give him a cause. My favorite Shakespeare play is King Richard III. Even though Shakespeare supported the Tudors who had driven the real Richard from the throne, he realized even the infamous Machiavellian humpback needed a motive. People don’t just up and drown their brothers in wine-barrels every day, not without a reason. Why would Richard do such a thing?

Shakespeare decided that the unimportant Duke of Gloucester wanted to be the very best he could be, but caught as he was in a web of complex politics and superstition, his only route to greatness lay in villainy. As Richard says in the opening monologue, “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover… I am determined to prove a villain.”

Again, when I watched the movie Thor (which was so bad that it deserves its own post), I found myself hoping beyond hope that Thor would die and Loki would win. Isn’t that sad? Of course Thor was flat and didn’t seem to be really doing anything to get Mjolnir back, so it wasn’t worth the effort of redeeming him. But why give a fig about his evil little brother?

After some thought I realized that Loki, and not Thor, had the one thing which drives a story: a cause. Thor was too lazy even to find out how to pick up his hammer, so he spent the film drinking coffee and bothering Jane. Loki, however, wanted to prove himself to the people of his magical star-kingdom-Asgard-thing, and what is more, he was doing everything in his power to achieve that goal. That’s a villain I can appreciate.

Give him the potential to do good. Even my mother, an unflagging non-reader of all fantasy including The Lord of the Rings, loves the little guy on the left. Gollum wasn’t always a wretched cannibal; he used to be Smeagol. He was a hobbit, good and innocent, with friends of his own. In a thematic sense, he was Frodo before the Ring came and corrupted him. Frodo himself admits that he takes care of Gollum because he has to know that someone can still be okay after carrying the Ring for so long.

And Gollum still has the potential to choose between killing and saving. He is truly capable of doing good things, which makes him seem real to us. When he promises to show Frodo and Sam the way into Mordor without being caught, he shows that he still has some of the bravery of a Halfling; when he begs for food, he seems an awful lot like a hobbit. By the end we realize that we care about him.

Image result for lady tremaine cinderella 2015

Make her afraid. Lady Tremaine (or Stepmother, as she is commonly known) starts the film as a normal and even likeable widow who has fallen in love with a wonderful guy. She can even forgive his daughter Ella for being so beautiful- “like her mother.” Yet, even before her honeymoon season is over, Lady Tremaine receives word that her new husband is dead, gone away forever, leaving her all alone in the world with no income and three girls to care for. No wonder she is afraid.

“Where will we go?” she cries. “What will we do?” Oh, but how convenient that the prince is throwing a ball and will choose himself a wife from among the young ladies there. They have a chance of security once again! Now all she must do is make sure that no other beautiful young lady stands in the way of her own daughters…

And I may as well finish with an example from my own book. *nervous laugh* I like creepy villains, and when I wrote Son of Ren, it was easy to make one of my villains, Sardar, an unethical creep without exerting too much imagination. He enjoys war (no, literally enjoys it), uses a really shady kind of sorcery, and manipulates people. Sounds unlikeable enough to me! But there was a lot more to his character that needed exploring… he just didn’t seem real enough.

I was only able to make him human when I realized that he was afraid. In his introductory scene, Sardar can play like he’s big and tough, pretending that he has the upper hand, and he’s got enough armies and magic to outwit Elkay for a little while, but in truth he’s terrified of running out of time. He might even lose what little power he already has. When people feel threatened, they are capable of just about anything.

So that’s the beginnings of a list. Every villain has a human side; we as the writers just need to learn how to bring it out. How do you “humanize” a villain? Do you have any thoughts on making bad guys seem real? Share in the comments.