BLOCKBUSTER CHARACTER ARC
In THOR: THE DARK WORLD (and the previous THOR movie) we get a family drama amongst the Gods… a touch of Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN. Thor is the favored son of Odin, and Loki is the mischievous son who always gets into trouble… but his mother Frigga keeps bailing him out. This is one dysfunctional family… and the most powerful in the nine worlds. In DARK WORLD the brothers (who are bitter enemies) must work together to fight an outside threat. And that threat will tear his family apart, threaten the woman he loves (on Earth), and cause deaths that will rip Thor apart emotionally. The THOR series is *not* Marvel’s flagship (that’s IRON MAN), and is basically about a big lunkhead with a magic hammer… but they understand that *people* buy cinema tickets and ground the film in stories that are *about people*. It had elements of a family drama, with stern fathers and forgiving mothers and sibling rivalry and a family business in constant turmoil. Emotional stories. The genius of Stan Lee or whoever created this character decades ago was to make the story about family dynamics, and a boy torn between dealing with his messed up family at home while venturing into the world outside where he has met a girl… It’s what every teenage boy in the world is dealing with! And every adult remembers from their childhood. A story based on real human emotions and conflicts that we can relate to… even though it’s kind of the «throw away» Marvel Superhero series.
The last WOLVERINE movie (2013) was a real surprise for me (since I hated the previous one), an adult story about mortality and regret. The Wolverine character is a mutant whose body heals no matter how badly he is wounded, making him immortal. The problem with being immortal is that you get to see the people you love die… again and again. Your entire life is sorrow and loss, and this film focuses on that. It opens with Wolverine saving the life of a young Japanese soldier during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Decades later, Wolverine is living alone in the woods… a haunted man… struggling with nightmares of killing the one woman he loved (Jean Grey), when he is approached by a Japanese woman who takes him to that young Japanese soldier who is now a dying old man. A dying old *wealthy* man, who offers Wolverine a chance to die and end his pain and sorrow. In exchange, the old man asks a favor… and that’s when things begin to go wrong. A dying man and a man who can not die. A favor for Wolverine’s oldest friend who will grant him an end to his pain… that’s the plot of a superhero movie? Yes.
In SPIDER-MAN (the first one) Peter Parker is riddled with guilt over causing the death of his Uncle Ben (father figure) and must battle the father of his *best friend* — a messy emotional dilemma. Throughout the film, every action scene is a messy dilemma — save a school bus full of cute kids or the woman you love? How can he even kill the father of his best friend… depriving him of a father the same way Peter’s arrogance resulted in the murder of his Uncle Ben? At the beginning of the film, Peter was madly in love with the girl next door and would do anything to go out with her… by the end he has realized she will never be safe as long as she’s with Peter — so he breaks up with her.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is wall-to-wall character arc. Look at Will (or any other character — even the villain Barbosa) at the beginning of the story and compare that to who they are at the end of the story — completely different people! Now track back and find all of those difficult decisions they made in order to change from what they were to what they are. Will goes from good man to pirate… and this character is complex enough that he is *both* an good man and a pirate simultaneously. Even the villain is a fully developed three dimensional character — I get misty eyed when Barbosa talks about losing his ability to taste an apple in one scene… and if you just follow the Barbosa-apple thing, it’s amazingly well done. The villain’s emotional journey in the story is fleshed out, and his back story is fleshed out, and he has goals and desires and regrets and all of the other things you probably don’t expect to find in a big blockbuster movie. All of the characters have depth in this film… and it’s fast paced and exciting and things explode. It’s the ultimate summer tentpole movie — spawned two sequels and maybe three — and yet it has complex characters who make one difficult decision after another which will test their character and expose their character and explore their character.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, often pointed out as a film with little in the way of character or character arc, begins with Indiana Jones as the most curious guy in the world — he spends the whole film chasing after that Lost Ark to find out what is inside it… and to possess it. Early on, Belloq tells Indy that they are exactly the same — both value objects over people. Indy doesn’t believe this, but his single-mindedness causes the death of the woman he loves, Marion… and slowly he realizes that Belloq was right… so he begins to change his priorities… and by the end, when the contents of the Lost Ark are revealed — he has spent the whole film chasing it — he tells the woman he loves to close her eyes… and *Indy* closes his eyes, too. He no longer cares what is inside, he cares about Marion. Indiana Jones goes through a series of subtle changes throughout the story which may be difficult to see because of all of those great action set pieces, but are easier to see if you compare the character’s goals and desires and actions at the beginning of the film with their goals and desires and action at the end of the film. Once you see the differences, you can trace them back through the script scene-by-scene and see all of those scenes where the character was faced with difficult decisions and chose the thing that was unlike what their character would have chosen at the beginning of the film.
The exception to characters who change may be James Bond, who is a series character, and like any series — TV or books like Sherlock Holmes — there is usually no change in the protagonist so that the series can be viewed or read out of order without confusion. And James Bond is a superhero of sorts — not an everyman but a superman. We enjoy Bond movies because he unzips his wetsuit and he’s wearing a formal dinner jacket underneath. This guy is our fantasy… not a real persona at all. But ask a real Bond fan what their favorite movie is, and they will say ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE — the one that is all about Bond’s emotional issues, where Bond *gets* emotional and cries. When Bond lets down his armor and shows his vulnerability. And that is one of the reasons why CASINO ROYALE was a hit — Bond lowered his armor for Vesper, and got hurt. Because this was a reboot movie, we are seeing the reasons why Bond wears that armor over his emotions in the first place in this film — we learn why he doesn’t get emotionally involved later in his career. But every Bond film, even the Roger Moore fiascos, always have at least one scene where Bond gets emotional… just to show he is human and allow the audience a peek at the man behind the armor (which helps us identify with him). Here’s the thing — ask any of those writers who complain about having to write shallow characters if they would be interested in writing a James Bond movie and most would jump at the chance!
CHARACTER DRIVEN BLOCKBUSTERS
All of the Jason Bourne movies are what Hollywood calls character driven! In BOURNE SUPREMACY the woman Bourne loves is killed by an assassin, and Bourne spends the whole movie chasing the guy to extract revenge…
But the story really begins with Bourne’s nightmares — he keeps remembering bits and pieces of his past, bits and pieces of assassinations, bits and pieces of his life as a villain. What is great about the Bourne character is that he is a villain *and* a hero in one — a man having to come to grips with his past. And each film has him exploring that past — digging into his *character* and having to face the things he most dislikes about himself. And his past sins are what trigger the murder of the woman he loves.
The Russian assassin is trying to kill Bourne, who murdered a Russian dignitary and his wife many years ago as part of a scheme… and now the conspiracy behind the scheme is falling apart and they need Bourne out of the way.
Bourne and the Russian Assassin are reflections of each other — similar characters — which forces Bourne to deal with his past… and deal with his guilt. He murdered people. How is he any better than this assassin who murdered the woman he loves? By the time he catches up with the assassin, he has an easy shot at killing him and getting revenge… but he *does not*. And right after that he tracks down the daughter of those two assassination victims — her mother and father — and apologizes to her. He takes responsibility for his past… and proves that he is *not* a man of violence any more. Name a serious drama that delves that deep into issues of guilt and regret and making atonement? The great thing about a big action flick or some other mainstream genre film is that the raised stakes create *more drama* and allows us to dig deeper into characters. A life or death situation can force a character to think of their own mortality, and their regrets about their lives.
It might be easy to miss the characterization because of all of those car chases and explosions — all of that *action* — but we are talking about *movies* here. The job of the screenwriter is to tell the story (whether it’s action or comedy or rom-com or whatever) through the *actions* of the characters. They *demonstrate* the change through what they *do* in the story. We write pictures. Look at what the characters *do* — that is what shows us who they are… and how they change. A small indie drama might have pages of speechifying where a character *talks* about all of his life’s emotional issues, making it *obvious*. But we usually don’t want to be obvious, we want to be clever and dig below that surface. If you are only looking at what a character *says* you may completely miss what they *do* — which shows us who they really are. One of the reasons why many people miss the characterization in some big Hollywood movie like SPIDER-MAN or the Bourne movies or BATMAN BEGINS is that they ignore the actions of the characters. They see Bourne *not* kill the Russian assassin after the car chase and think it is just part of the action plot, not a character scene. In a good film, the action scenes *are* character scenes, and a screenwriter’s job is to infuse the action scenes with character, and to make the action scenes all about making difficult decisions that expose character. If you think writing a scene where a character *tells us* about his emotional issues is difficult, try writing a scene that demonstrates their emotional struggle in an epic battle with Green Goblin!
The great thing about Blockbusters and good mainstream movies is that they connect with the audience on an emotional level, which is why they make all of that money. Sure, some people may go on opening weekend to see the big explosions and the CGI work, but if the film is going to keep selling tickets it needs a human story. People care about Peter Parker and Jason Bourne… and worry about them. That’s what makes the action and suspense work — we care about these characters. The studios, who invest in screenplays, want to find screenplays that connect to the largest possible audience. Why buy a script with limited appeal? That’s a bad investment.
I think if you take 10 random indie films and 10 random studio films, you will find more of the studio films with real character arcs and real character scenes… though those studio character scenes may not be dialogue scenes. Because the studios know that humans buy cinema tickets and showing the human side of a super hero or spy or pirate connects with the audience, so they make sure — for purely financial reasons — that there are character scenes and situations in the movie. In the indie world, movies are often made for the filmmaker and not for money, and often scenes that really dig deep into character are just not there. The stories are soft and often emotionally evasive. Characters are never tested or forced to deal with their issues or have anything other than conversations about emotions — with no actual emotional scenes. When you have to make the decision between a school bus full of kids and the woman you love, you have to dig deep into your character and emotions… if you’re a slacker musician who has a crush on some girl but can’t bring yourself to say so for 84 minutes of screentime, that’s just surface character.
An indie drama like MUTUAL APPRECIATION is all surface without ever digging into the character and motivation of the lead character. I’m not cherry-picking some dreadful indie drama as a bad example, Andrew Bujalski’s MUTUAL APPRECIATION was the opening film at an international film festival I attended and is a key film in the mumblecore movement, won some awards and got a bunch of great reviews for its slice-of-life realism. It’s the story of a guitar player who has a mild crush on a friend’s wife… and does nothing about it. But the crush part doesn’t really become part of the plot until Act 3, before that it’s just the guitar player in New York City. No real conflict, no drama, obviously no explosions. It’s the kind of slow paced film where nothing much happens that is usually referred to as a «character study»; except I hope they don’t have a test because after 110 minutes of study I know nothing about the character. I only know the surface — he’s a guitar player in New York City.
The film was all wish-fulfilment for the filmmaker. The guitar player is *instantly* discovered and *instantly* gets an amazing concert gig and *instantly* has a hot radio DJ throw herself at him and *instantly* lands a record deal wityh a major label that calls him a genius… even though we’ve heard his music and it’s not all that great. The character never has to work for anything! Never has to deal with any of his own failings! He just doesn’t have any failings, no regrets, no emotional problems… except that crush on his best friend’s wife thing that is never explored in the film. Why? Let’s dig below the surface and get into motivations! But the guitar guy does nothing — he does not steal his friend’s wife, so he doesn’t have to deal with the emotional issues that may come from that. He is just this perfect surface person with unbelievable luck. We never get to study the character because the character is never in any position where they must make a difficult decision or regret the decisions they have made. Because there are no explosions and was slow paced, all of those critics who loved it thought it must be about the character. But what do we ever learn about the character? Nada. His character is never tested.
Hey, you can’t really have a character study without the character being tested!
In SPIDER-MAN Peter Parker has to struggle with his guilt over causing the death of his father-figure… he has to deal with his emotional conflict and his regrets and his own failings. There’s a *reason* why those Blockbusters connect to so many people — the emotions go deeper. Characters are forced by circumstances to deal with those big ugly emotional issues, forced to deal with their failings, forced to make those awful decisions we hope we will never have to make in real life. The bigger the stakes, the deeper the drama.
Yes, there are bad blockbusters that seem to coast on amazing spectacle and big explosions. Usually they flop, but every once in a while people buy tickets for some big dumb movie like TRANSFORMERS 3… there’s probably one or two of those a year — a movie that people see more as an event than a story. And there are plenty of blockbuster flops. But there is no requirement that a popular film has to be stupid. If anything, box office would prove otherwise. Those crappy soul-less blockbusters tend not to spawn sequels. The gross-out comedies without heart tend to die an early death. There is usually a reason why one blockbuster fails and another succeeds.
The problem with bad blockbusters is not that they are blockbusters, it’s that they’re bad. They were either poorly written or developed into crap and ended up all surface material like explosions and CGI and no character or character depth.
The big mistake is thinking that popular entertainment is some sort of lesser art form with lower standards and requiring lesser efforts. If popular entertainment were simple and easy to write, every mainstream film would be a hit and every mainstream film would *work*… but as we all know, many do not. Writing any screenplay is difficult, and writing a screenplay designed to work for hundreds of millions of people worldwide is danged close to impossible. I think the first step in creating better blockbuster movies is to acknowledge just how difficult it is to write one that only works on an *entertainment level*. Writing a mainstream popular film requires a skill set that you aren’t born with… you have to work your butt off to learn and master. Hey, a blockbuster with great characters that doesn’t work at all as entertainment is pointless. As I often say, screenwriting isn’t an «either / or» situation, it’s *both*. You need to be able to master those skills to create popular entertainment *and* create great characters and stories that resonate with the audience.
WE CAN ADD CHARACTER LATER
And the idea of just pasting on character and quality from the outside doesn’t work — those great characters have to be part of the core of the story. Look at the BOURNE movies — the story comes from the character… as do the action scenes. That «school bus or the woman you love» action scene in SPIDER-MAN is all about the character. Not an action scenes pasted on just to make the story exciting, nor the character and characterization pasted on to some random action scene — the scene itself is both exciting *and* character oriented. That is why writing good popular entertainment isn’t easy — you need to do everything at once. You must have mastered the character and quality and excitement and blockbuster skills.
We are in a cycle of superhero movies right now, but that doesn’t mean those films have to be stupid or ignore character. Whether your story is about a family of Gods on Asgard or the Royal family of Denmark or a farm family dealing with foreclosure, all are just mediums for drama and character and story. It’s not that it’s a «dumb superhero movie» it’s that something is a *dumb movie*. You can just as easily have a great superhero movie and a dumb «serious indie movie». Our job is to write the great version of any story.
Popular entertainment isn’t a lesser form that requires lesser effort, it’s a more complicated form that requires greater effort… and greater skills. Make your characters part of the story, and the excitement part of the story. Chart out your character arcs and emotional moments so that they are part of story and not something added as an afterthought. If the character scenes are *also* the big, exciting scenes they can not be removed from the script in development (or, are more difficult to remove — those development folks are skilled at their jobs). We don’t need any more bad popular films weak characters, nor is the answer trying to force people to see some art house film. The solution is to master all of the skills and create great popular film with great characters. THE DARK KNIGHT proves that if you create a quality blockbuster film with complex characters forced to make difficult decisions, people will want to see it again and again.
Our job is to write those high quality, character oriented, blockbuster screenplays. We need to look closer, to see with better eyes.
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