When Good Guys go Bad: Poor Scriptwriting

With the summer blockbuster season in full swing, a recent trend has become apparent: this is an off year. While releases like Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel haven’t been critically panned (although Man of Steel only enjoys a 56 on Rotten Tomatoes and a 55 on Metacritic), the reaction from fans has been less flattering. For me personally, both Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 have been disappointing mixed bags with more to say against than in favor. I still stand by Star Trek Into Darkness as a simple yet enjoyable Star Trek movie. But this article is not about how I feel about summer films, this article aims to look at what is usually a weakness in the blockbuster genre overall: the writing. There’s a lot of areas here we could discuss. Bad writing ruins films by creating plot holes, cringe-worthy dialogue and nonsensical character action. Let’s talk about that last point.

Nonsensical character action is, quite simply, when someone in a movie does something that the audience doesn’t believe he or she would do. Whether it goes against the source material (which nearly every big budget movie has these days) or whether it defies an earlier scene in the movie, these are actions that just don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. I’m going to go into a few examples that will illustrate my point. Warning: there will be minor Man of Steel spoilers to follow. But let’s not start with a Superman movie… let’s start with a Michael Bay movie!

I will never understand how his name isn't as poisonous to the box office as M. Night Shyamalan's is.
I will never understand how his name isn’t as poisonous to the box office as M. Night Shyamalan’s is.

I almost feel that this is an unfair jab. If you’re paying to see a Michael Bay, you’re not paying for the script… at least he and his marketing have been honest about that aspect. For those of you out there who may not know the man pictured above, Michael Bay is the director behind blockbusters like the Transformers trilogy, the two Bad Boys movies, Pearl HarborArmageddon and The Island. He’s done others but that’s enough to get the idea. Let’s talk about those Transformers movies, in particular something that annoyed me in all three films:

Besides this guy.
Besides this guy.

Anyone familiar with the Transformers universe knows that the Autobots are the heroic good guys and the Decepticons are the evil, horrible, villains. The Autobots, lead by Optimus Prime, are valiant and peace loving while Megatron and his Decepticons would push puppies in front of buses. This is established in both the lore and the movies (I’m giving the movies credit for something). Yet in the movies, while the dialogue establishes this, the action paints a different picture.

The decepticons take autobot prisoners in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Patrick Dempsey's character is the one who suggests killing them.
The decepticons take autobot prisoners in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Patrick Dempsey’s character is the one who suggests killing them.

Wait, the decepticons are taking prisoners? That’s actually really nice of them, you know, given they’re at war with the autobots and everything. Maybe they have some honor after all. Well, I’m sure if the decepticons are this generous than the autobots are even greater pillars of morality.

Nope.
Nope.

The autobots kill the decepticons every chance they get. Not just kill either but in most cases tear to pieces. Watch those movies again (if you can) and observe just how brutal Optimus Prime and his heroic autobots are. It kinda adds an underlying sinister element to their characters when the good guy (who constantly professes to be good) is a lot more savage than the bad guy. But again, poking fun at a Michael Bay script is easy. Let’s go after George Lucas instead.

In this instance, I’m going to discuss two scenes in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Let me say up front: I like this movie. Is it perfect: NOOOOOO (inside Star Wars humor there), but it’s still enjoyable and a lot of it really works. Here’s something that didn’t: remember when Anakin killed Count Dooku? He just executes him as a prisoner. This is huge, it is a giant step in Anakin’s fall to the dark side. Jedi don’t kill, they take prisoners whenever possible. Except when it’s this guy:

General_Grievous_(Qymaen_jai_Sheelal)

I know what you’re saying. Yes, I have thought way too much about this… but you’re reading it so what does that say about you?

Anyway, so Obi-Wan kills General Grievous and I personally don’t have a problem with that scene. Grievous poses a lethal threat and is about to kill Obi-Wan so it is in self defense. The Jedi seem to be cool with that. I have problems with all the scenes leading up to the confrontation. When Obi-Wan speaks to the council, and when they are speaking to each other, it becomes very clear that “taking prisoners” is not what they have in mind.

“If he does not give up his emergency powers after the destruction of Grievous, then he should be removed from office.”

That’s said by everyone’s favorite cone-head Jedi, Ki-Adi-Mundi (never mind how I know his name). At this point, Obi-Wan has only “made contact” with Grievous so… he should be trying to secure him as a prisoner, right? A whole part of this movie is how Anakin falls to the dark side by being too eager to kill. Seems like the Jedi Council is bloodthirsty too. Maybe the emperor had a point about them.

It’s a small thing but that’s just it. It’s one line of script: fix it before spending millions of dollars.

Last but not least, Man of Steel. As this is a new release I won’t say much here (I could, there is definitely a lot to say on this movie). Let’s go with those trailers, especially the newest ones. You see Superman fighting General Zod in a city. Looks really cool right? That city is full of people. Superman: the man of steel, the protector of humanity, has no problem with collateral damage in this film. He throws Zod through buildings in a city the audience knows to still be populated (the film makes sure to show this).

Disregard buildings and acquire cape.
That’s a lot of devastation in the background.

Again, what makes it worse is that one of the main theme’s of the film is Superman’s morality. How he will do anything to protect the people of Earth from an alien, super-powered, threat. Is he just not getting the irony in that? I know Superman isn’t supposed to be the smartest hero on the block but come on.

If you want to see a film that encompasses Superman's morality and character in a much more competent way, check out this movie instead.
If you want to see a film that encompasses Superman’s morality and character in a much more competent way, check out this movie instead.

So why is this such a common problem? Effects shots sell tickets. That’s the simple answer. That’s what people want to see in their summer blockbusters, right? Right. Because when it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t… blockbusters don’t have much to fall back on if they’re not enjoyable. I put this one on the scriptwriters and the directors. Movies shouldn’t be made for the sake of cool scenes, they should be able to work cool scenes into a great movie.

Christopher Nolan: putting cool scenes in great movies since 2000.
Christopher Nolan: putting cool scenes in great movies since 2000.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

Marketing Method: Man of Steel

Who doesn’t love hype? By its very definition it instills excitement. Some directors are better at it than others. Probably the best out there at the moment is J.J. Abrams (who doesn’t remember trying to figure out what was in the train for the trailers to Super 8, let alone the mad race right now to discover Benedict Cumberbatch’s identity in Star Trek into Darkness). Good marketing lays the foundation for blockbuster film. However marketing, like any tool, can be a double-edged sword. There are plenty of good films that suffered from poor trailers (Stardust, Scott Pilgrim vs the World) which failed to properly convey the tone of the upcoming film. Many times these poor trailers try to capitalize on another popular property rather than focus on the strengths of the film they should be trying to promote. There is no better example that comes to my mind for this than Beowulf. Neil Gaiman and Robert Zemeckis’ thoughtful deconstruction of the heroic ideal was instead neglected in favor of conjuring a 300-esque style of masculine action (“I am Beowulf” is used to the exact same effect as “this is Sparta” in the trailers). This style of marketing always does a disservice to the movie it represents. Sadly, something similar to Beowulf is currently occurring with the upcoming blockbuster, Man of Steel.

Watch the trailers for Man of Steel. There are three of them, the teaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wArmHSPIvlQ, the first trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVu3gS7iJu4, and the one that was very recently released: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6DJcgm3wNY. I’ll wait.

Looks good doesn’t it? Let’s talk about that teaser though. Kinda bizarre right? Clearly designed with the intention of not immediately revealing its identity right away. Looks more like a trailer for Superman: Deadliest Catch rather than the high-flying epic of Man of Steel. I joke of course but the fact remains: the teaser is constructed in such a way as to convey that you are watching a personal drama first and a superhero movie second. As I stated before, the fact that he’s Superman isn’t made abrupt until the final seconds of the teaser. Interesting approach… wait, hasn’t it been done before? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lu2ecPMX0kI

Yep. Looks like the Man of Steel is using the same agent as the Dark Knight. Really, in terms of emulation, you could do a lot worse than Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Also there are a lot of similarities in terms of creative staff. While Zack Snyder is directing Man of Steel, the script was penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, with final version coming from David S. Goyer. That is essentially the exact same writing team as Nolan’s Batman films. Also, all movies were made using Nolan’s own studio: Syncopy Films. Oh and Hans Zimmer is once again in charge of music (although that has only effected the marketing of the most recent trailer).

I know this is a fan mockup but it does shed light on similar design used for promotional photos.
I know this is a fan mockup but it does shed light on similar design used for promotional photos.

So this is a good thing, right? Equating Snyder’s Superman with Nolan’s Batman? Yes. As I said before, there are a lot worse marketing strategies for Man of Steel to emulate. There is sense in comparing Superman and Batman, DC Comic’s two star superheros, as similar people. Both Batman and Superman went on a journey, both grew as people. Both faced challenges in a world that was unsure of how to receive, both… actually they are very different people.

Don’t get me wrong: Superman and Batman are both heroes, both stand for good and both do everything in their power to make the world a better place, yet their methods are completely opposite. Any good drawing of Superman will have the Man of Steel bathed in sunlight, standing proudly over a grateful city. Drawings of Batman put the Caped Crusader in the shadows; he is hiding from the public eye, doing a job that he feels must be done regardless of public opinion. These two approaches visually reflect the characters’ different philosophies.

So while comparing Snyder’s Man of Steel to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is good on certain levels (superhero movies that are more than just superhero movies), there is a danger. These trailers, especially the first two, give the impression of serious realism. Inherent problem: Superman is not realistic. When you’re dealing with a character who can fly into outer space and blow up a comet with his laser vision after taking a nuclear missile full to the chest – you’re not dealing with something that can happen every day. That is a strength of Superman.

Let me stop right here before people go assuming: realism is not necessary in order for the character to be relatable. Grounding the fantastic in the real world always helps, and Man of Steel definitely appears to be doing that. The two later trailers make it clear that the main focus of this film will be Superman adjusting to and being accepted by the real world (what General Zod is doing intruding into these trailers is beyond me – guess we need that villain fight).  But Superman himself is fantastic, that is part of his identity. Too much of an attempt to make him into your average everyday man is not going to work out well.

What do I mean by that? Superman was raised as a human, he does have emotions so of course he is average. No. First two points are valid. Superman is raised as Clark Kent, he does feel but he is anything but average. The character of Superman goes beyond his red cape and boots. He is the ideal best of humanity in a physically superhuman package. Does that mean he doesn’t struggle, of course not but it is internal. Superman is never going to go on a bender or sink into month long depression. He is more subtle than that. This is partly what makes Superman a very hard character to present on screen. The challenge is essentially the same as presenting the fully human yet fully divine character of Jesus Christ.

If you think representing Jesus on film is easy - please name all the successful Jesus films.
If you think representing Jesus on film is easy – please name all the successful Jesus films.

So everyone has a challenge. The filmmakers have a challenge and marketing has a challenge. How do you portray Superman? They have elected to go the route of Batman. The result has been a trailer evolution that started off with us being introduced (in the teaser) to a man who was unrecognizable as the Man of Steel. Only now, in the most recent trailer, does Superman begin to emerge. Still there are aspects of the newest trailer that seem counterproductive to the nature of the film. The black and white text that punctuates certain frames now looks out of place whereas before it enhanced the sombre mood of the first two trailers. Speaking of that: why is Superman sombre? Batman is sombre, Superman is hopeful. It has taken them three trailers to get that right.

One last thing that speaks to these early trailers not doing the film justice comes in the form of the early review. Check out this first review of Man of Steel (don’t worry, there’s no spoilers): http://www.joblo.com/movie-news/scoop-early-screenings-of-man-of-steel-reveal-more-about-the-tone-action-and-superman-kicking-all-kinds-of-ass. Any time one of the bullet points is “it’s not nearly as dour and serious as the trailers suggest”, that pretty much declares that marketing has made a mistake.

Christopher Nolan has already proven himself a visionary in terms of storytelling. He and his brother have also shown a tremendous amount of understanding in relation to the characters they portray. They understood Batman, they knew what was essential to his character and what was not. That is how they were able to create their own Batman universe that felt every bit as ture to the character as the comics. I have full faith that they possess the same understanding of Superman yet Man of Steel‘s marketing has not convincingly shown that. So far what has been demonstrated is that they understand Superman in Batman’s terms, using Batman’s tools. Not the smartest way to go.

As I said before, trailers are no indication of film quality. A great film can have a crappy trailer likewise a poor film can be very well marketed. So please don’t mistake my critiques of Man of Steel‘s marketing to be any more than that. I don’t hate Superman, I don’t think Man of Steel will be a shitty movie and you shouldn’t be excited to go see it. I simply feel that these trailers have not presented Superman in the best light because they’re too busy sticking to the Dark Knight’s shadows.

Oooh so dark and edgy. Superman should never be defined by darkness.
Oooh so dark and edgy. Superman should never be defined by darkness.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.