What Writers can Learn from Netflix’s Godzilla Trilogy

Godzilla anime trilogy

When you’re a writer, every and any piece of writing can serve as a lesson for how to write (or in this case not write) a story. We often think of books as natural learning tools – after all, a common message for writers is that every writer must do two things: write a lot and read a lot. That said, lessons come from every form of storytelling, including comics and screenplays.

The Godzilla franchise is the longest running major motion picture series in existence. With a current 34 movies released (one more due out in May), Godzilla has firmly resonated with international audiences for decades. That’s a success story that any storyteller should note. Recently, the king of the monsters went animated for the first time in his film history.

The results…pretty mixed. Reviews and fans are divided on what to think of Polygon Pictures’ anime trilogy. It’s widely available on Netflix so if you haven’t seen it, you can give it a watch. I personally can’t  really recommend it for entertainment purposes.

For writing instruction, however, well – this new Godzilla series provides some cautionary tales of what can go wrong during scripting.

The Importance of Building a Protagonist

Every story revolves around some kind of a protagonist. They don’t need to be a hero – they don’t even need to be good – they are simply our point of view character. The entirety of the story is laid out through their perspective (bias). The best protagonists resonate with the audience.

We feel their struggles, experience their doubt, and want them to succeed. Think of Charlie Brown – we want him to do well and be happy, even when we know he won’t. He’s endearing to us as readers.

In the Netflix Godzilla anime trilogy, we get Haruo:

Godzilla Haruo

In case you’re wondering, he’s as charming as his disposition suggests. I put it forth that Haruo is not a strong protagonist. He struggles sure – he is up against Godzilla, one would hope there is a challenge. Haruo, however, is not sympathetic – but I get the impression they want him to be.

Right away, we’re introduced to a young Haruo as he loses his parents to Godzilla. Shortly thereafter, Haruo also loses his grandfather. That’s a lot of loss. No wonder he scowls all the time.

The problem with Haruo, in my opinion, is that he feels artificial. In each film, he can be characterized via one emotion. In the first film, it’s determination. Haruo is driven to kill Godzilla, so much so that we never see him reflect on anything else. Yeah there’s brief flashes to his life before (and we’re told how much Haruo hates living in defeat), but we don’t really see his struggle. This is in part because the whole crew seemingly loves him – everyone supports Haruo, even the people who don’t.

Despite opening the film by being incarcerated, Haruo is always at the center of the action and often in a position of power. Without seeing his struggle – besides cliche “my parents are dead!” moments – Haruo does not seem to have reason for his mad passion.

Let this be a lesson: It is okay to have zealot protagonists, but the danger here is they may be unreliable/unsympathetic and feel one dimensional. To get the audience firmly behind them, we have to see exactly where they came from/what lead them to this path. If we don’t, then they may be better off as a side character.

Ahab is fascinating in Moby Dick, but part of that is because he is seen through Ishmael’s eyes.

Bad Character Writing can be Sexist

I make no assumptions about the writers/directors of these movies. I am not calling them (as people) sexist. Their writing, however…geezy creezy.

Female characters are few and far between in this trilogy. There is an obligatory female soldier, the two Mothra priestesses, and…that’s it. Three movies, three female characters – and two of them are interchangeable twins.

It’s more than this, though, that raises the “sexism” flag. When writing a character, you must always keep in mind agency. What is agency? How the character pushes or changes the plot.

For instance, in the second movie – the female soldier (Yuko), falls into a trap and must be rescued. She has no agency in this scene, merely serving to establish a scenario for Haruo to be the hero. Despite being a trained soldier, she squeals and does very little in the way of self-preservation.

Oh, she is also romantically interested in Haruo…as are the priestesses. Yep, evidently he’s just a lady killer. Must be all that talk about how Godzilla must die – really compelling stuff.

Haruo Yuko Godzilla
There’s a lot of chemistry here. Look at how their scowls match.

To be fair, all the characterization in these films is pretty weak (remember when I said Haruo gets one emotion per movie?) but the danger comes when doing female characters. Sexism is real and has a long sad history and, if you’re not careful as a writer, you can add to it.

I don’t know if the writers of these movies were aware of just how token their female representation was, or just how many stereotypes it played into, but nevertheless – here we are.

How to Manage Audience/Reader Expectations

One of the biggest reasons that many Godzilla fans dislike these anime movies is the lack of, well, Godzilla. The Big G is more of a presence in the films than an actual character. While he has a fair amount of screen time, most of it is spent with him just standing around or walking very slowly.

Since the films take place on a forest-covered future Earth, there’s no real destruction either. It removes the stakes as Godzilla trudges on. Yeah, he’s probably stepping on trees but…who cares?

In addition, Godzilla films are known for their monster fights and the anime film teased all of Godzilla’s biggest rivals (Ghidorah, Mothra, and Mechagodzilla) returning in prominent roles. And Godzilla fights…exactly one of them, if this can be called a fight:

Godzilla Ghidorah Planet Eater
To be clear, an actual video of this footage would not feature much more in the way of movement.

I for one am okay when Godzilla films subvert expectations (there are 34 movies, after all). That said, I understand the audience frustration when – after teasing Mechagodzilla for a film – we only get a generic futuristic battle city that we’re told was once Mechagodzilla (really).

It also reduces the threat of Godzilla to portray him as a colossally slow, rarely active threat. I know he’s giant but the Earth is a big place – couldn’t they just avoid him?

The trilogy was sold as a story about a world ruled by Godzilla, a “planet of monsters.” It felt like a truly barren (read as boring) world.

The Dangers of Exploring High Concepts

So what does the Godzilla trilogy do with its three films since it isn’t developing characters or showcasing monster brawls? IDEAS!

Get ready for three long philosophical outpourings, some of it lecture, some of it debate. And, to be fair, some of it works. I especially enjoyed the climax of the second film, where the question becomes “Is it worth it to give up your humanity to destroy a monster?” The plot implies that, by crossing this line, Haruo will become the very thing he has sworn to destroy. It’s interesting and it feels specific enough in the context to be an intelligent espousal on common Godzilla themes.

Godzilla philosophy anime
One of the alien races decides to turn itself into machines to defeat Godzilla.

However, this film trilogy shoots for the stars more than once, and – more ofen than not – ends up missing entirely. Unfortunately, the biggest disaster comes at the end when the film tries to imply that all forms of human ingenuity and technological curiosity are evil and will only end with the creation of a monster.

Yep – all inventions lead to war. That seems to be the closing lesson. If it sounds like general, broad-based garbage, it is because it is. What’s sad is this lesson has been done in films – and done correctly. The original Planet of the Apes is famous for how well it handles man’s self-made destruction.

The film directly creates ties between nuclear war and the apes ascension. The Godzilla trilogy tries to do this as well, only Godzilla does not appear until well after the first usage of nuclear weapons. He comes in the 21st century for…reasons? It is very unclear and therefore creates a number of causes. Is it war? Climate change? Pollution?

Something awakens Godzilla and the final film tries to tell us it was the atom bomb…but he woke up sixty years too late. Of course, if he had risen directly post WWII, well then they never could have done all the space stuff. I mean they could have but it would all have had to look retro and stylized – you know – visually interesting.

When tackling high thought concepts, everything needs to be air-tight. Get specific, get down into the details. Don’t just have characters talk about war and peace like they want to be Tolstoy.

Overall, the Godzilla anime trilogy on Netflix is an interesting failure. There are some things I enjoy very much but the films trade too much for too little. I personally would have preferred more developed characters and a more living world to all the lecturing and science-babble that takes place in the films. The dueling alien philosophies were interesting but ultimately felt overbearing and plot controlling – mostly because they were the main focus rather than being a charming side addition to world lore.

Of course, the wonderful thing about art is its all subjective! If you don’t agree with me, that’s cool. I just hope you take the lessons I suggested with you on your writing – they will most definitely help.

 

Loki vs. Killmonger: Sympathy vs. Empathy in Villains

Loki Killmonger

I’ve written a lot about villains. Why we like them – why some work better than others – why it can be difficult to follow up one great villain with another. I’ve also written a little about Marvel’s villains and how they…they are. Marvel doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to creating compelling antagonists. Their idea of a villain is often simply a bad dude with a similar power set to the protagonist. The bar is in fact so low that Josh Brolin’s Thanos is – in my mind – easily in the top three, despite having an overall goal that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

But let’s not talk about number three today. Let’s instead discuss my one and two, AKA Loki and Killmonger. Both defy the Marvel mediocrity and create lasting impressions. I know I’m not the only one who thinks this way – one trip to Google showcases just how many people appreciate and identify with these villains. My question, and the purpose of this article, is: Why? Why do people love Loki and Killmonger? Let’s take a look.

Loki as a sympathetic villain

Before Loki became known as just a snarky, smirking Tom Hiddleston, his character actually had a meaningful arc. One of the reasons that I believe Kenneth Branagh’s Thor stands above the average Marvel movie (of which there are now at least a dozen) is because of how the director approached the subject matter. Branagh has a background in theater – primarily Shakespeare – and I feel he applied this very well to the creation of his Loki.

I never liked Loki in the comics. He’s mischievous and…that’s it. To be blunt, he’s a dick. There’s not much more to him. Sure, he mentions he’s Thor’s brother at least once an issue, but I never believed there was actually anything there. It was a classic storytelling blunder: Telling the reader instead of showing them the relationship.

Thor corrected this problem. Loki is presented first and foremost as Thor’s brother…his overlooked, demeaned brother. The movie makes it very clear early on who Odin loves more, and these problems are only deepened as Loki learns of his secret, problematic origins. In short, he’s spurned and it’s easy to see how he falls.

But he doesn’t seem happy about it – this is the other important factor. Remember how I mentioned Loki’s trademark smirk? He actually doesn’t wear it often in 2011’s Thor. Instead, his face is more this:

Loki sympathetic

A mix of surprise, anguish, and pain. Loki’s world is upended in the first Thor. He is desperate to prove himself to Odin and show that he is every bit as worthy as his brother.

Unlike how he would appear in later movies, we don’t see Loki taking a lot of pleasure in being evil. Instead, it seems like he feels this is his best and only option. Loki is driven, single-minded, and self-destructive.

Upon learning that Thor has had a change of heart and wants no part of genocide, Loki laughs maniacally…and cries. Tom Hiddleston plays a character who is literally coming apart emotionally.

I believe this is what makes Loki compelling. His “mischievous” nature is given reason: He can’t stand a status quo where he is routinely cast to the side in favor of his older, incredibly arrogant brother.

As Thor changes, Loki’s behavior becomes more erratic and he ultimately pushes himself to an extreme downward spiral. I don’t think it is any accident that Thor climaxes with Loki falling into a void, as that symbolizes the completion of the descent that has been happening within the character all movie.

It’s compelling, and it’s sad. We see Loki as horrible to his brother yes, but also caring to his father and mother. He is a monster, but he is a human one. This allows him to be a strong sympathetic villain.

Killmonger as an empathetic villain

And then there’s Killmonger. Erik Killmonger AKA N’Jadaka is not sympathetic, at least not to me – and I’ll explain why. Sympathetic can be defined as eliciting compassion, feeling, or understanding. While I think Killmonger does a great job for the second two, I personally find that he fails at the first – because he is too far gone. In Thor, we see Loki at the start of his fall. In Black Panther, Killmonger is a full blown psychopath.

The character kills indiscriminately, friend and foe alike. He is quick to betray, murdering several unarmed people in cold blood. Unlike Loki, we don’t see Killmonger behaving like a human to any other character in the film – even his own father. When asked if he feels sorrow for the loss of his dad, all Killmonger can say is “everybody dies.”

151f36718ae4570e982584042230
“Erik Stevens. Graduated Annapolis aged nineteen, MIT for grad school. Joined the SEALs and went straight to Afghanistan, where he wrapped up confirmed kills like it was a video game. Started calling him Killmonger.”  – Everett Ross

And while there is some sorrow for how far Killmonger has fallen – since we know he was once innocent – it is too indirect, at least for me. It’s the same problem as showing Darth Vader as a child. Yeah, they’re nice as kids but…they’re kids. Even Hitler was probably fine as a boy.

This is not to say that Killmonger isn’t an effective villain. I think he’s terrific, but he’s serving a different purpose than Loki. Killmonger is an empathetic villain because the audience understands the root of his extremism.

Systematic and overt racism are enormous problems in today’s society, as well as the police state that many people of color feel they are subjected to. Given that Wakanda is a paradise – a technological utopia – Killmonger exists to show just how much of a fantasy that really is.

Given his plight, Wakanda could very easily be Norway or Sweden. Sitting comfortably, claiming to be a bastion of enlightenment, while other human beings suffer. Of course, the fact that Wakanda is an African nation adds incredible emphasis to this point, given the continent’s history of being abused and exploited by the “civilized” European world.

So while Killmonger may be a monster, he is “a monster of our own making” as T’Challa puts it. If Loki is Shakespeare, Killmonger is Shelley. He was created by a person (T’Challa’s father) who wished no responsibility for his actions.

But, like the Frankenstein monster, the audience is left drawing the conclusion that, no matter how right the creature may be about how wronged it was, it is still a danger to the world and the innocent people within.

All Killmonger knows is hatred, so that is all he can bring.

So there you have it, my thoughts and feelings about Loki and Killmonger. I think there’s a lot writers can learn from both characters, especially when it comes to creating compelling villains. Whether it is empathy or sympathy, these antagonists have to create feelings within us to be memorable. If not, well…they’re just this:

 

Writing Character Workshop: Jar Jar Binks

When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace released in 1999, reception was mixed to put it lightly. While many children (including myself) enjoyed the movie, it sent ripples of anger through the more adult Star Wars fanbase and drew ire from movie critics overall. While many, many, many…many dissections of Phantom Menace have been completed since that 1999 launch – what’s one more?

For my own examination into the film, I want to focus primarily on Jar Jar Binks – a side character who drew particular ire for what many fans saw as his annoying nature or tendency to devolve the film into dirty humor (fart and poop jokes). Let me say this now – this is not intended to be a “hate” essay. I have nothing but respect for Ahmed Best, who has suffered more than enough at the hands of harassing jerks and jackasses claiming to be Star Wars fans.

This article is intended to view only how Jar Jar Binks was written. Let’s examine what kind of character Jar Jar was supposed to be and what function he may have been intended to serve in the story. For those who have seen the film and want a refresher, here is a rundown of every scene with Jar Jar Binks present:

What type of character was Jar Jar supposed to be?

When George Lucas first conceived of Star Wars, he drew a great deal from the past. One of his primary inspirations was Joseph Campbell, a renowned mythologist who had spent years analyzing ancient myths from across the world. Campbell believed in the idea of the “monomyth” or that every heroic tale from the past has a common core and can be broken down into similar elements.

For instance, many heroes begin their journey as outsiders, drawn into a larger conflict rather than being present with it from the very beginning. Going on said hero journey challenges the protagonist, who ultimately returns victorious but a changed person. Lucas used this idea and many others from Campbell in his original Star Wars trilogy, and the themes have been present in the series ever since.

monomyth

Using Campbell and this idea of monomyth means relying on established archetypes. An archetype is a typical example of certain person or thing, or an idea that has been replicated many times over. For instance, a bully is a character archetype. Every bully shares certain traits – namely intimidation and an abusive nature. The idea of a bully has become so ingrained in society that simply saying the word evokes a near complete image.

When Lucas created his characters for Star Wars, he used archetypes to form the foundation. Luke Skywalker – the heroic outsider, Obi Wan Kenobi – the wise old mentor, Han Solo – the scoundrel with a heart of gold, Princess Leia – the princess in distress: All of these characters came from an already established foundation of traits and personality. When Lucas wrote the prequels, he attempted the same thing. It is easy to read Shakespeare’s Othello in the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker or Oedipus in his desire to alter a prophecy.

Regardless of how well it worked, Lucas clearly had visions of grandeur on his mind. So, what about Jar Jar? Where does he fit in?

Jar Jar as the fool

A popular character archetype that owes a lot to Shakespeare is the fool or clown. This character is, by nature, ridiculous and outwardly very stupid. They are usually of low stature and aren’t doing well in their life. However, they are apart from the situation – no one directly trusts the fool, but the fool is typically present. This can give them wisdom, as they tend not to have subtly. When a fool speaks, they state the obvious, which can include information that the protagonist has overlooked.

A famous fool includes Dory from Finding Nemo. What she may lack in brains, she makes up for in wisdom, directly stating the flaws in Marlin’s parenting techniques.

character fool
Many fools tend to be sidekicks, giving them ample opportunity to travel and communicate with the main character.

Is Jar Jar a fool? He is certainly ridiculous enough to qualify on that level. Jar Jar is clumsy, clownish and prone to self-deprecation. However, what wisdom does he bring?

There two scenes that may qualify. The first comes at his introduction, right after he has met Obi Wan Kenobi and Qui Gon Jinn. Jar Jar suggests that they seek the gungan city for shelter and to hide from the droid army.

In the second scene, an anxious Padme is reflecting on the plight of her people. Jar Jar happens to mention that his race, the gungans, have a huge army that can challenge the invading droid forces. While Jar Jar never directly states that the gungans can help, Padme uses this information later to make her plan to fight back.

Jar Jar also states that relations between the naboo and gungans are strained but really doesn’t elaborate further. As far as this writer’s recollection, these are the only moments where Jar Jar may fit the mold of a fool.

Jar Jar as the heart

A more recent character archetype is the heart. Born out of many television ensembles, the heart is a member of the team that has no real special talent or skill. However, they serve as a moral compass, helping every other character around them maintain equilibrium and a healthy psyche. Hearts can be smart or stupid, strong or weak – but their primary strength must always lie in their emotional capacity.

The character Bolin from The Legend of Korra is a heart. While never stated, it is implied that he is not as strong a fighter as Korra or Mako, nor is he particularly smart. Instead, Bolin is trusting and giving, always there for friends that need a hand. His primary motivation comes from a desire to help others, a trait common in many heart characters.

The Heart can be similar to a fool, but with more positive intentions.

At first glance, Jar Jar Binks may look like a likely heart. However, there are problems with this fit. Jar Jar is often reluctant to help, oftentimes being volunteered for assignments he didn’t ask for. Also, apart from the Padme scene, Jar Jar is rarely shown comforting another character.

Jar Jar as the unlikely hero

At the heart of Star Wars is a love for the unlikely hero. Anakin, Luke and Rey have all come from humble origins to take center stage in galactic affairs. The same can be said of Han Solo, Finn, and Rose. None of these people began with the traditional, noble heritage of a hero – they instead earned their place through courageous acts or unnatural talent.

Unlikely Hero Tan smaller
David, in his fight with Goliath, became one of the first and most famous unlikely heroes.

Jar Jar Binks definitely fits this bill, at least on the surface. He comes from nothing – an outcast of his own people. By the end of the film, however, he is a victorious general and well on his way to becoming a senator that will represent Naboo on the galactic stage. From a storyboard perspective, Jar Jar fits this archetype to the letter.

But let’s look closer: Is Jar Jar a hero? Does he in fact do anything to really save the day? Jar Jar’s role in the finale is to lead the gungan army against the droids. It is intended as a diversion to allow the other protagonists to act. Jar Jar loses this battle and is captured. Faced with this development, he promptly surrenders.

When Anakin destroys the droid control ship, the droids are deactivated and the gungans saved. Given how he acted, I say it is reasonable to compare Jar Jar more to a character in distress rather than an active hero. He is never looking beyond his personal safety.

Writing exercises: How would you improve Jar Jar Binks?

I personally believe that Jar Jar Binks has elements of all three character archetypes above. I believe his character suffers from poor implementation of these ideas into the script. He certainly has the negative elements of a fool but is not given enough opportunity for the positive. He appears well meaning but is never anyone’s emotional center. And he is given countless opportunities to perform a heroic action but never rises to the challenge.

He, like many elements of George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, feels like a rough draft of a competent character.

So, rather than dwell on the failure – how can we fix him? Well, I for one believe that all strong character writing begins at the three scales: competency, sympathy, and productivity. A well written character has a mix of these traits on a scale system. For instance, a character can be very competent but unsympathetic or vice versa. Most writers tend to use middle degrees on these scales rather than turning one all the way up or down.

Fixing Jar Jar begins with looking at his three scales, all of which are too far down (in my opinion). Altering these scales alters Jar Jar. Writers should be careful to keep the original idea in tact. It’s easy to fix Jar Jar by transforming him into someone else entirely, but more challenging to simply make alterations.

If Jar Jar is supposed to be the fool, turn his sympathy and productivity up to have him make more emotional impact. To be an unlikely hero, turn up the competency. However you approach it, keep your archetype goal in mind.

This exercise can be a simple scene rewrite or a full plot makeover. If you’re curious to see how you did, I recommend posting on FanFiction.net. You can use a pen name and the feedback can be helpful.

Jar Jar Binks may have earned the fan’s hatred (not that it takes much) but I believe he is a character built on solid bones. Looking at his failure requires studying character construction and plot development, two things that can only make you a stronger writer. Best of luck!