Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Superpower-Driven Narrative

If you are one of the many aspiring directors who are interested in making Hollywood blockbusters, but are worried because you’re artistically inclined, frugal, or otherwise disadvantaged, don’t worry. The Film Walrus is endeavoring to help you out with a handy guide to making crappy films that sell like collectable cross-marketed hotcakes. Today’s lesson: superhero movies.

Everybody (males 13-30, the “everybody” that counts) loves superhero movies and it’s a good place to start if you’re worried about straying into sincerity, sophistication or originality. The key thing to note is that you have a lot of flexibility, since audiences will flock to see a superhero film even if you don’t call it a superhero film. What do I mean? Many, if not most action films are really just superheroes flicks in disguise. Take James Bond, swap the tuxedo for a cape, and voila! Take Dirty Harry, swap the cop outfit for a cape. Take John McClane, swap the wife-beater for a cape. Rambo, Jason Bourne, Jackie Chan, Captain Jack Sparrow, Shane, Julius Caesar, Flipper, Willy Loman, etc, etc, etc.

The point is: if capes seem too sissy to you, they can be disposed of. The superhuman abilities are what matter. All we need is a handsome male lead we can identify with plus the escapist fantasy of being more powerful than everyone around us. The ‘handsome male lead’ part of the equation is an interchangeable cog that you can leave up to the producer. We’ll focus on what’s really important, designing what I call the superpower-driven narrative, a more financially consistent alternative to character-driven screenwriting.

Most of the heavy lifting happens right here at the beginning, brainstorming what superpowers to give your hero. Try and be creative, but don’t sweat it if you’re not; there’s plenty of alternatives to new ideas!

1) Remake an earlier movie. There are tons of films like “Man Made Monster” (1941) and “4D Man” (1959) that are ripe for fresh incarnations. If you’re worried about fans of the original hating your ill-conceived attempts to modernize the story (Note: you should describe your decision to add misplaced comic relief, flimsy technogadgetry CG and supermodels that serve no purpose but to pose for the poster art as “updating the film to be relevant in our modern day and age.”), just find some actor from the original film who’s still alive and put them in a walk-on cameo. If the dissidents still don’t fall in, shout “series reboot!” and tint all your production stills darker. Don’t ask why, but people go wild for that.

2) Adapt an as-yet untainted work, preferably something with more pictures than words like a comic book or magazine ad. Saturday morning cartoons from ¾ of a generation back (remember your demographic; you want to aim for licensed nostalgia, not historical awareness or cultural literacy) are also acceptable. Make sure to put on a big show of how “loyal” and “into” the source material you are, while changing everything important to make it more commercial. You’ll also want to pare down the vocabulary and squeeze out any talky character development, what I like to call “the residual pall of the written word” (if you didn’t understand that, you’re well on your way!). Audiences can smell the reek of intellectual ambitions from miles away, and you can bet they’ll wrinkle their noses.

3) Rely on total nonsense. Pick out some random creature and contrive to have the hero cross-DNA with it. Maybe he has tapeworm powers, turns into a capybara during full moons or is half-dragon. Go further. Maybe he has robot DNA (from being infected by a mutated computer virus) or is part hurricane (ooh, topical!) or was raised by wild vending machines (consider the tie-ins!). He could be born with shotguns for limbs. Maybe his father was a ghost and his mother was a pop rock band. The less sense it makes the better! Give your screenwriters something challenging to explain. If the logic gets dicey, throw in a meteorite.

4) Feeling lazy? Just pick a cool job like spy, assassin, rogue cop, film blogger or cooper and make them insanely good at it. Superhuman strength and a tendency to never get shot go without saying. If it doesn’t sound cool, add a prefix like ‘super,’ ‘cyber’ or ‘turbo’ to their job title.

OK, now that we’ve got some superpower ideas, let’s rank them into three groups by asking, “Does this make our protagonist essentially invincible?”
1) Yes
2) Almost
3) No

Powers of the second type are what we’re after, but the others are useful, too. If you want to go with a first order power, then invent a weakness. It’s OK to just use kryptonite, but call it something else and make it glow a different color. Or apply a variation of the “vampire catch,” like all his powers go away during even-numbered hours or whenever he hasn’t eaten enough combo value meals (remember, it doesn’t have to make sense).

The third order powers can be used for sidekicks, midlevel henchmen and minibosses (you should be keeping the videogame supplement in mind at all stages of production). If you really insist, you can go with a band of heroes with lesser complimentary powers or batch two or three abilities together for a hybrid hero. If it seems contrived for one person to gain multiple unrelated powers, have an elderly mentor character wave his hands and mumble something about military experiments or ancient prophecies.

Now while those options are doable, it’s the powers of the second order that are goldmines. They maximize cool while still leaving room for tension. Now this is where superpower-driven narrative comes into play, as the various implications of your chosen superhuman skills basically write the plot of the movie for you. In fact, the whole first half of the movie should be spent doing little but indulging the most obvious superpower applications that pop into your head.

But eventually we need to introduce a serious threat. Take a moment or two to brainstorm how the hero’s weaknesses might be exploited. We don’t really need these to imperil him (the villain can always just hold his girlfriend hostage), but we’ll use them if we choose to introduce a “surprise” villain who has the same powers as the hero, but evil and a smidgen stronger. This is a nice little screenwriting shortcut that makes for great final battles, but if you have leftover superpower ideas from up above, feel free to do a more distinctive final boss.

We’re almost done! Just stir in a fistful of angst for our main character, aggravated by a father figure who gets killed immediately after the audience has established an emotional bond. Tack on a romantic interest who the hero must keep in the dark “for her own protection,” much to the detriment of their relationship. If you’re trying to look progressive, give her some witty banter or a minor superpower or have her reveal that she knew the hero’s alter-ego the whole time when she saves him (gasp!) just when all hope seems lost. Just make sure she’s hot.

Now scribble out a couple one-liners, hire a team in South Korea to do the CG explosions and plug in an extended charade implying your superhero is actually torn about the morality of vigilante justice. (Remember, if the hero cries about it a little, the audience doesn’t have to feel bad about all the graphic murders). Lastly, pick a set piece for the final showdown. I recommend a [blank] factory (fill in the blank with something awesome, preferably flammable) or a national landmark. The End. Roll credits.

The target is to get approximately two minutes of decent action movie fodder so that you can cut together a trailer. Anything past that is icing on the hotcakes. Don’t worry if you didn’t use all the potential of your chosen superpower, you can skim through the fanfic later and steal their ideas for the sequels.

Alright, let’s put this guide into action:

What should our superpower be? How about bilocation, the ability to be in two places at once? Perfect for comedy setups and explaining away poor continuity. It comes from the Bible (probably) so the rest just writes itself.

Secret sect of ninja monks has been protecting humanity since the dawn of time. Cynical handyman is revealed to be unlikely Chosen One destined to repel a dark lord that returns every 100 years. Sexy nun is put in charge of training him to use his superpower. He can only die if both versions of him are killed at once, so we crosscut between one being chased through catacombs and another fighting gargoyles, which are actually petrified aliens. Vatican City turns out to be a spaceship. Yadda yadda yadda and we end up in a zero-G final showdown on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Go home. Bathe in cash.

It’s really that easy!

Keep an eye out for future installments where I’ll explain what to do if you blow your entire budget on explosions in the pre-credit sequence* and how to fix a script that doesn’t call for any helicopter scenes**.

* Have characters constantly refer to the pre-credit sequence as “The [blank] Incident” and flashback to the explosion.
** Add helicopters.


Molly said...

haha wow. way to make me feel guilty for liking superhero movies. brilliant essay, though. you should pitch that wild vending machine idea to someone with influence.

Mad Dog said...

How not to create an original superpowered hero: Hancock

How TO create an original superpowered hero: Crank

And please don't forget that a wondrous cavalcade of superhero movie retrospectives can be had at Grump Factory. Watch out for Supergirl, though. D:

FilmWalrus said...

Now it should go without saying that I still enjoy a good superhero movie now and again, just seems like there's such a glut of them this decade and too many of them are remakes, sequels and Daredevil.

Crank was almost what I was hoping for, but recently I was much more amused by Wanted. Just got around to seeing it and it filled me with that "so bad/over-the-top/insane it's good" feeling.

Mad Dog said...

How could I forget about Wanted~

But I just got back from seeing Crank 2 (never saw Crank 1) and whoa, I was blown away~~~~~

Patti said...

This is one of your best posts ever.

FilmWalrus said...

Thanks Pat! It actually started out as a serious study of the title concept and I'm glad my drafts drifted.

Unknown said...

I'm with Pat. Much more enjoyable than all the usual bo-ring analysis. : D

p.s. capybara, yay

Mad Dog said...

Yeeeeees, the power of shameless rants compels you!! }:3

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post. I can't wait to use this in my next book.