Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

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It’s finally here. After years of waiting we’re finally getting a team up movie featuring the most iconic superheroes on the planet. So far the reviews have been pretty brutal. Is the movie any good?

Spoiler alert: I love this movie.

0:00 – My thoughts before watching the movie

16:00 – Non-spoiler Review

26:00 – Spoiler-filled Review

Listen to Episode #36 below – iTunesStitchermp3

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What Makes A Great Villain?

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To listen to the audio version of this article, download Episode 13 of the Story Punch podcast. This article is a heavily expanded version of an older Story Punch article.

A hero is only as interesting as their primary villain. Why is that? I think it is because a good villain is the litmus test for any aspiring hero. If you stop to think about it, heroes are a reactionary force. It’s in their nature. They see evil and they step in to stop it. But it is always the villain that drives the plot forward. The villain comes up with their plan and the hero struggles to prevent it from happening. The villains acts, the hero reacts.

In many stories, the villain is the protagonist moving things forward while the hero is an antagonist trying to slow things down. But this creates a problem.

If you don’t have a compelling villain, you probably won’t have a compelling story. If you mess up this part, if there is no real threat, if all you have is an ineffective toothless villain, nothing the hero does will matter anyway.

This is perhaps the biggest problem we see in comic book movies today. The villains are blandly evil, predictably stupid, and never feel like a real threat. They are simply another hurdle to climb when they should be an impenetrable wall. They should be not just evil, but cruel. Not just menacing, but calculating. The villain should not simply oppose the hero, they should oppose everything the hero stands for by offering an alternative perspective on the world.

THEIR PLAN SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE SENSE FROM A WARPED PERSPECTIVE

A good villain is thorough, logical, precise. They know when to strike and where it will hurt the most. They not only have a goal, but they know the best way to accomplish it. But not only that, they somehow represent different shades of evil. Not just one generic kind of evil, but a multifaceted complicated evil. If you’re too evil, you’re just a monster. But the best kind of villains are the ones that actually have a deeper moral purpose behind what they are doing.

They think what they are doing is reasonable, necessary, and justifiable. Their actions are logical, even if it is a rather twisted logic. But at some point, you should have to stop and think, wait what if the villain is right? What if this is the only way? Part of the hero’s journey should include a point where they actually wonder if the villain is right. Maybe their plan isn’t all bad and could even result in some good. Even though ultimately we might reject their methods, the villain should still make a really good point about the world and the way it works.

zodLet’s pick apart one example, General Zod from Man of Steel. Some parts of Zod’s character work pretty well, but other parts don’t at all. Zod has a mission to protect Krypton. It is his guiding force and under normal circumstances, we would agree. That’s a good mission. Protect your race. Save your people. But instead of keeping Zod in between good and evil, he immediatley falls into the villain camp right away. Unfortunately, I don’t think Zod quite passes the great villain test. How can I possibly sympathize with a villain who cherishes his people dearly, offers an olive branch to Kal-El, and at the same time is happy to wipe out another planet of people in the process of rebuilding his own? As one of the few survivors of a planet that was wiped out, how could he not see that he is duplicating the same pain and suffering he has himself experienced?

He does everything “for his people” but he will kill all the humans in the process? It feels inconsistent. It’s a strange mix of compassion and psychotic ruthlessness that doesn’t quite work. When Zod’s terraforming plan is defeated, instead surrendering or figuring out some other way to deal with it, Zod goes on a rampage targeting innocent civilians. He’s like the bully at school who beats up smaller kids just because he can’t get what he wants. It is warrior DNA? Is it is a psychotic break? I couldn’t tell you.

But let’s imagine a scenario where Zod was on the same team as Jor-El back on Krypton. They work together as colleagues and friends to try to save Krypton, but ultimately fail. Instead of Zod leading a military coup he watches his people be wiped out because he didn’t try hard enough. He showed too much restraint before. So the next time he has the chance he is doubly motivated. To do what he and Jor-El couldn’t the first time but this time by any means necessary. When I close my eyes I see a Zod who is a tragic figure, a man who has lost everything, and is trying to make up for his past failures.

His plan needs to make sense. It can’t be just convenient to destroy Earth in the process. There has to be a logical reason. The Kryptonians made a big deal over the fact that they did not possess a sense of morality and it gave them an evolutionary advantage. But that is dumb. Morality and caring for others is an advantage, one specifically shared by all mammals who raise their young. We are better off together.

I want to see a General Zod who sees the problems on earth and decides that they are the same things that led to the destruction on Krypton. Instead of having Zod bring genocide, he should bring a global dictatorship. An universal vision for peace and harmony. He doesn’t want to destroy everybody. He wants to rule them because he doesn’t think they are able to.

Humans would never agree with terraforming the planet for Krypton and wiping out us in the process. But they might go for world peace. A vaccine that can cure cancer. Renewable clean energy. They might even sell their planet to Zod for unlimited data and faster wifi. Who knows?

Of course a global dictatorship would not be easy or ethical. Superman would have plenty of reason to prevent Zod from forcing the whole world until his control. There is still a way to get lots of drama and turn Zod into a true villain. But destroying the human race right off the bat? It’s just not logical or sympathetic. It turns Zod into an angry genocidal psychopath.

That’s not a great villain. That’s a shortcut.

kobaOne of the best villains in recent memory is Koba from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Now here is a villain whose plan makes perfect sense. In fact, Caesar, the leader of the apes, is actually far too trusting of the humans and if it were up to him alone, his people might have been wiped out in a surprise attack.

Koba does not trust the humans. He firmly believes that Caesar is endangering the whole colony by working with the humans. But the thing is, Koba is right. The humans are pretty dangerous and untrustworthy. They have a stockpile of machine guns, tanks, rocket launcers, and they are ready to strike.

Yet Koba is still the villain. Why? Because of his methods. He tries to assassinate Caesar. He starts a war on the humans. He locks up any apes that disagree with him. And he executes anyone who stand in his way.

Even though war was a possibility, it was never inevitable. Koba took matters into his own hands and compromised the most sacred values of the apes. Apes do not kill other apes. That is what separates them from the rest of the animals. Those moral principles. And Koba violated them.

Was he right about the humans? Yes. Was he right about how he went about dealing with them? No. He became jealous of Caesar, he turned against him, and betrayed everything that the apes stand for. But he had really good logical reasons that in a twisted way makes really good sense. In some alternative universe where things were just a little bit different, Koba could have been right. His reasons were sound, but his methods were way off. He went too far.

A VILLAIN SHOULD BE MYSTERIOUS BUT NOT A MYSTERY

A villain should never be a total mystery, but we also don’t need to know everything about them. Darth Maul is a total mystery, but it’s too much mystery. He has that double-bladed lightsaber, facial tatoos, and a black trenchcoat, but who is he? We don’t know. But what does he want? To rule the universe? To scare little kids

The thing is, a mystery cannot also be a character. To be a fully rounded character, we need to know their motivations, aspirations, desires, needs, flaws, and a sense of their personality. They have to have quirks. But a shadowy figured mired in shadows moving silently in the shadows behind more shadows? That’s not a character, that’s a mystery.

On the flipside, we don’t want to know too much. Nobody wants a prequel trilogy explaining how the villain became a villain.

Think about Koba. We know from the first Planet of the Apes movie that he was a lab animal who underwent some pretty gruesome experiments. But in the second movie, do they go ahead and explain his life history and how he was born a cute little chimp baby and how the humans beat that innocent out of him? Nope, the only information we get is when he points to his scars and says, “Human work.” He has seen a lot of cruelty from the humans but we don’t need to know what it is When it comes to villains, their backstory is best left to the imagination

On the blog Overthinking It, Ben Adams has a great article called The Banality of Evil Origin Stories. In it he talks about why most villain origin stories simply don’t work:

In the end, most of these stories are simply unconvincing. For an implacable and unabashedly evil evil villain, it almost impossible to create a origin story that both a) makes the audience empathize with the future villain and b) portrays a convincing transformation. In Episode III, Anakin jumps pretty much straight from “arrogant but still good Jedi” to “murdering children in cold blood.

And he’s totally right. In Episode III, Anakin goes from being a pretentious brat who is mad about not being on the Jedi Council to helping wipe out the Jedi in exchange for the power to bring people back to life. Oh yeah, and he doesn’t even get that power. Trying to make a great villain like Darth Vader sympathetic doesn’t work because you can’t explain that kind of evil in a satisfying way. Evil is elusive, unpredictable, hard to define.

Villains are evil but we don’t need to know exactly how they got that way. You can hint at it, suggest some possible factors that helped cause it, but you can never explain it.

fiskOne of the greatest villains of the modern superhero age is from the tv show Daredevil, Wilson Fisk is a man trying to save Hell’s Kitchen by first tearing it down to the ground first. He doesn’t even think he is a villain. He thinks he is doing what is right. That he is the hero saving the city and that the only way to rebuild it is to start over. There is one episode that give us insight into Fisk’s past and it centers around a defining moment from his childhood. When Fisk was a boy, his rage got out of control and he brutally attacked someone close to him. It’s a shocking scene and it goes a long way to let us know how Fisk ended up how he is, but don’t mistake this short glimpse into his childhood for what it is not. It is not his full backstory. It one crucial turning point in his life. But it does not try to explain everything. The truth is we have no idea how Wilson Fisk went from a kid who committed a terrible crime to the head of a powerful criminal organization. We don’t know how he learned to throw a punch or how he can stand toe-to-toe with Daredevil. How did he get to the top and what did he do to get there? It’s a mystery. And we the audience don’t need to know all his secrets. He is menacing, his name is not to be spoken, and he might snap at any moment, and that is enough. If Daredevil were to explain exactly how he became the man he is, it would take away his claws. It would overly humanize him. Fisk is a terrible foe to reckon with and we will never know exactly how it happened.

But perhaps the best villain of the last decade is universally acknowledged to be Heath Ledger’s Joker. and there is a similar mystery surrounding the villain of The Dark Knight. While the 1989 Batman movie went out of its way to show the Joker murdering Batman’s parents and falling into a vat of chemicals that transformed him into maniacal clown, the modern Joker has conflicting backstories all revolving around his scars. They are gruesome accounts, making the line, “Why So Serious?” both memorable and morbid at the same time. But the point of them is that they keep Joker’s real history in the dark. Was Joker tortured as a child? Was he married once? Are these real or are they just the ravings of a lunatic? We’ll never know. We just know that the Joker cannot be reasoned with. He can’t be bought off. He cannot be tamed or rehabilitated. Whatever he once was, that is now gone. As Ben Adams points out, his backstory is contradictory because it is not necessary. It would actually hurt the character’s intrigue and appeal if we knew where he came from.

Villains should be fully fleshed out in their motivations and identities, but we don’t want to know all the details of how they came to be. Some things should remain forever a secret.

VILLAINS SHOULD EXIST WITHIN A LARGER MORAL UNIVERSE

Villains are evil, but evil can also be relative. The best villains are not unstoppable forces of destruction. That is too much like a force of nature. No one blames the hurricane for being a hurricane. Villains are evil but they exist within a much larger moral universe. And a good villain doesn’t have to be the most evil thing around. Because on some level, we actually do want to root for our villains to succeed sometimes. Villains are not just plot points and obstacles for the heroes to overcome. They are characters. They have their own motivations. And at least some of the time, we want to see them succeed.

The best way I can explain is this is through the concept of the anti-hero. Which is a pretty close analogy for what we are looking for in our villains.

Anti-heroes are interesting. Take for example the Wild West. Out there on the frontier there are no good guys. There are just shades of grey. You have bad guys and you have helpless victims. And then along comes the anti-hero. Think of Clint Eastwood in a green poncho. You wouldn’t want to hang out with these guys. But when your town is being overrun by bandits and oil barons, he is the best you’re going to get. Sometimes working with somebody bad is better than falling into the hands of somebody evil.

The same principle can apply to villains. Just like anti-heroes, a good villain is not necessarily a good person. But you can create sympathy for them if you can show the villain to the best worst option in a terrible situation. The villain is still bad, but at least they might be more cunning and more principled that the other scum around them.

cobblepotA great recent example of this is Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, from the television show Gotham. Cobblepot is a ruthless sadistic guy. He is horrible. He is brutal serial killer. He doesn’t mind killing just to get a pair of clean clothes. But we never fully turn against Cobblepot because he is at the bottom of the totem pole. All the other criminals in Gotham treat Cobblepot like dirt. He gets pushed around, underestimated, and routinely humiliated. He is still a bloodthirsty murderer, but somehow, I don’t know why, we still feel for him because of how badly he gets treated.

When a villain gets treated unfairly, when a villain is up against even worse criminals, when they have a determination and resolve in the face of adversity, it helps the audience stick with them and want to believe in them, even if they still have some major reservations about it. Anti-heroes make the best out of bad circumstances and so the audience is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is the same thing when it comes to villains. Remind us that this villain exists in a world with even worse people, unscrupulous traitors with no morals at all. Maybe the villain will only kill if it helps further their plan and they will let the hero go if they think it might help them out later. Maybe the hero and villain can work together to prevent an even bigger threat that goes against the villain’s interests. It might not be much a difference, but humanizing the villain just a little bit cann go a long way. The villain is still bad, but the criminal underworld out around them might be even worse.

To the extent that it is narratively possible, contextualize the villain. Make their evil plan just a bit more reasonable and less bloodthirsty than the other options out there. Give us a scenario when the smart thing is to work with the villain temporarily to prevent an even greater disaster.

Wow, I think I just turned evil for a second. Snap out of it.

VILLAIN SHOULD PROVIDE A REAL THREAT

Something about a villain should strike fear into people. There are far too many villains out there that don’t have this primal essence to them. They are just stock bad buys with no spine to them. But a real villain is in control. They command the room with their presence. I guess you would say they provide good management of their employees. Just as a good CEO inspires confidence, a good villain inspires fear. Fear that you will be punished. That everyone you love will be taken away from you. That you cannot escape their grasp if you betray them.

baneThere’s a great moment in the movie The Dark Knight Rises involving Bane, a brutal mercenary who has taken over Gotham City. Although he is highly intelligent like many of Batman’s villains, Bane possesses a sheer physicality to him that makes him quite a formidable foe. Bane moves fast and hits hard. He’s got a creepy mask. He is a scary guy. But my favorite Bane moment showcases one of his more villainous qualities: he is just plain intimidating. In the film John Daggett, a corrupt businessman who hired Bane is chewing him out for not delivering him control of Wayne Enterprises as promised. Daggett tells Bane, I’m in charge, to which Bane simply puts his hand on his shoulder with his palm open and says, Do you feel in charge? It’s such a simple move. He just puts his hand on his shoulder. And as he continues talking. But as he keeps talking, he slowly moves his hand against Daggetts’ face, then his neck, and by the end of their conversation Bane has got Dagget’s whole head. We hear the sounds as Bane kills Daggett offscreen. At the beginning of the conversation Daggett thought he was in control but by the end of the scene the truth has come out.

Bane is not just physically intimidating, he’s also psychologically intimidating. Just by putting his hand on you he is reminding you that yes he can do whatever he wants. And if he wanted to he could squeeze you like a soda can.

A villain who runs around punching people or showing off their karate skills is never as scary as a villain who looks you in the eye and reminds you how powerful they are. Usually the threat of violence is just as scary as actual violence. A great villains always manage to stay in control by reminding those around them of what they are capable of.

While a villain should be able to rule through intimidation alone, but it’s also good to show they mean business. They can rule from their shadows, but their handiwork should also come out into the light.

It’s not enough for Darth Vader to threaten to blow up your planet. He has to be willing to actually fire up the Death Star and prove his point sometimes. The villain should be menacing but also follow through with actionable behaviors.

But to be truly threatening, it’s not enough for them to simply do bad stuff. They should be very precise in what they do. The best villains are able to get inside the protagonist’s heads. To mess with them. They know things about the protagonist that the protagonist is only vaguely aware of. Great villains can read their enemies like a book. They know how to manipulate the hero and exploit their flaws. And this is the part that makes them scary. Not the fact that they can hurt you, but that they know how and where can hurt you the most. They know how to get what they want. To turn the hero against himself

VILLAINS ALSO HAVE A WEAK SPOT

But villains also have a weakness. Usually it is a moral one. They are greedy. They are too proud to admit their mistakes. They overstep their bounds. They get the upper hand but they press their advantage too far.

Villains have a fundamental flaw. They will always eventually lose because of their internal character. They don’t know how to win even when they have all the cards because something about them is broken inside.

Villains take something good about humanity and they twist it. Villains are fascinating because there is something clearly off about them. It is not just that they are evil and bad. There is something about them that is admirable.

They are often eloquent speakers. They have great leadership ability. They usually highly intelligent. Oftentimes they are visionaries, they are ahead of their time.

But whatever was once good about them has now become twisted beyond recognition. Every villain has the same basic problem. They wanted something good but they wanted it too badly and it corrupted their soul.

And that’s why the hero will always defeat them. Because the race does not belong to the strong, nor the wise, nor the powerful. Evil is quite tiring. Twisting everything around you is exhausting. But doing the right thing, doing good, becomes its own reward. When you chase after good, you become stronger. But by the time the villain figures that out, it’s always too little too late.

The Next Cinematic Universe: The Justice League

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This week Warner Bros. announced to its shareholders the impending reality of the Justice League film series which will immediately follow Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. I don’t write normally about news items but this is a major step forward for the under-served DC  superhero universe. We’ve been waiting years for a Justice League movie and now there is not one but two on the way.

All of this has been made possible by Marvel’s unqualified box office success. It’s no accident that Warner Bros. decided to announce this not via press release or at Comic Con but to its shareholders. Fans may feel slighted but it’s the shareholders who will fronting the costs for this huge multi-billion dollar endeavour. By proving that such a massive interconnected superhero universe can lead to great financial returns, Iron Man and his friends have opened the door to a new world for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Shazam, Deadshot, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Thank you Kevin Feige and RDJ.

While there is already a growing chorus of voices claiming that DC is simply cashing in on the trend that Marvel started, the truth is that there is plenty of room for new (and better) takes on the superhero genre. Although Marvel has been careful to take their time getting their universe started and has developed an enormous worldwide fan base, it perhaps tempting to overlook the growing number of flaws in their execution.

Consider The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, all middling entries that kept the franchise going without making much of an impression. While all of their latest films have been crowd-pleasing, there seems to be a growing problem with the connective tissues tying these wildly different films together. The worst example  is their curious dependency on the infinity stones, a seemingly unrelated collection of MacGuffins that theoretically have some kind of payoff in Avengers 3.

Marvel is leading by example but they are also falling into classic comic book pitfalls like endlessly bringing people back from the dead (Agent Coulson, Loki, Nick Fury) and relying on cliffhanger-style teaser endings instead of a proper narrative conclusion (just go watch the last secene in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Stringing people along like this will eventually backfire on people who want to a complete and satisfying movie experience.

But my real point is not that I don’t like Marvel. I actually really like what they’ve done, popularizing characters I’ve never cared about before and investing me in their stories. But Iron Man and Cap are no Batman and Superman. The fact is, I grew up with the World’s Finest. They are the world’s most popular, enduring, and beloved superheroes. And no matter how Feige tries, the World’s Second Best Team of Superheroes can never be first best.

And whether or not you agree with this statement, the bigger picture is that more superhero movies from different studios raises the probabilities that we will get more good films. A Marvel monopoly is not beneficial for moviegoers at large. The post-Avengers Marvel films have been critically and commerical successful, but it doesn’t take Howard the Duck to remind us that fans and critics alike will be vicious at the first sign of franchise fatigue. It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.

Being the first cinematic universe is nice, but as Marvel plows ahead into the unknown there are bound to be even more bumps ahead. The rampant speculation about Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evan’s expiring contracts give us just one glimpse of the serious limitations involved in these lengthy endeavors.

But this is perhaps where Warner Bros. has an advantage. They have seen Marvel drag their feet with repetitive and less-than-enthusiastic origin stories. They have seen how Marvel’s top stars demand more and more money. They have seen how intense studio oversight drives away directors like Edgar Wright and Jon Favreau. And most of all, they have seen how audiences respond to a semi-cohesive interconnected film universe.

Warner Bros. has the chance to do it better, do it different, and do it in such a way that proves that the Justice League really is the best superhero team in the world. They don’t need to copy Marvel’s offbeat humor, strange mix of fantasy and technology, or their one-note villains. If Warner Bros. are lucky, they might even just pull it off.

So here is the grand lineup scheduled for the next six years:

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
  • Suicide Squad (2016)
  • Wonder Woman (2017)
  • Justice League Part One (2017)
  • The Flash (2018)
  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Shazam (2019)
  • Justice League Part Two (2019)
  • Cyborg (2020)
  • Green Lantern (2020)

People can claim all they want that Warner Bros. is rushing it, but some things don’t need a hundred years to brew. We are not starting from scratch with these characters. These are established, well-loved, well-versed heroes with decades of material to draw from. They also have a successful movie studio with tons of cash and talent that it can use to attract great writers, stars, and directors. Movies take a while to make, but they don’t take forever.

And despite Marvel’s unique pioneering spirit, they have yet to deliver n their first dozen movies to give us two crucial things: a superhero team up movie and a proper female superhero movie. Batman V Superman is the first superhero film to examine the relationship between two top tier heroes. If it does a good job handling that dynamic between these two very different but equally ubiquitous vigilantes, it will be a defining moment for a genre that is perhaps nearing its creative peak. The Avengers was a hallmark and truly remarkable achievement but was also hindered by its comic book roots and odd mix of second tier heroes.

The Justice League is comprised of at least three undeniable quantifiable heroes: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Each one has been featured in multiple movies and tv shows and are known widely across pop culture and the world. It’s totally possible that Snyder’s team could botch the whole thing up, but there is enough financial incentive for the production team to get it right, if not near perfect.

Do I have concerns?

Sure I do. I am concerned that Zack Snyder is the man carrying the primary directorial duties over the success or failure of this new universe. While his visual acumen is absolutely awe-inspiring and his action scenes are more impressive than almost any other living director, he needs major help with making his characters feel fully formed and three-dimensional emotional beings. His characters feel like representative ideas, not people. I like some of those ideas, but I think more audiences will respond to characters who are heartfelt and relatable in a way that most Snyder characters are not.

I get weary of reading complaints that Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a dumb title. We all know it’s a dumb title, but what concerns me is whether or not it’s a dumb movie. And I have faith that Warner Brothers and their team can pull it off. They don’t just have a star in Ben Affleck but an accomplished director in his own right. They don’t just have heroes, they have the Joker, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid. So far I just don’t see Marvel’s many forgettable antagonists able to fill those shoes.

When I think about the future of the Justice League universe, I don’t expect perfect movies, just good ones. If they can shoot for something spectacular, something bigger than a motley collection of second tier heroes, and if they can transcend the lazy narrative shortcuts that define so many comic book movies, we really could be on the edge of something wonderful.

No matter what these films are going to be divisive. They will receive a heavy dose of criticism for coming in second. Critics and fans will not hold back any of their strong opinions. People will nitpick, probably myself included.

But ultimately I think we’re in for a great ride. These are characters from which all other superheroes in part are derived. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Warner Bros. will in fact produce 10 good-to-excellent superhero movies by 2020, do so profitably, tell some amazing stories along the way, and introduce a new generation to some of the world’s most beloved characters. Let’s wait and see.

The One-Word Themes of Christopher Nolan

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Christopher Nolan movies are the rare marriage of big budget blockbusters with high critical acclaim. The secret to how he does this is probably worth billions. On some magical level his films consistently manage to balance crowd-friendly thrills and huge action set pieces with underlying motifs and cathartically resonance. He creates a spectacle that does more than tickle the senses, venturing into deep waters that no Michael Baysian explosion or J.J. Abram’s plot twist would dare attempt.

Throughout his films, Nolan’s protagonists each must deal with not only their overall goal (stop the Joker, achieve Inception, become the greatest magician), they must also resolve their primary character flaw. Usually this flaw ties into the film’s overall theme, a theme that can be expressed in one word and is reflected in the other characters and sub-plots. The tighter this character-theme relationship is, the stronger the film becomes.

On occasion Nolan himself has admitted these one-word themes (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises I believe) so it’s not too much of a stretch to go search for them. Are his films perfectly reducible to one word? Of course not. They all have a multitude of thematic statements of varying significance reverberating throughout every scene. But do they each have an overarching idea that drives the narrative forward? I think so.

Let’s examine his most recent films one-by-one in chronological order and evaluate these themes. Spoilers abound for all movies ahead.

FEAR – Batman Begins

Perhaps no where is the one-word theme more obvious than in Nolan’s mainstream debut. A complex look at the man behind the mask and his motivations for creating his terrifying symbol of justice, Begins explores the innate power of fear. It is not criminals and violence that Bruce Wayne must overcome to save his city: it is fear. Carrying the scars of a childhood trauma, Bruce is fearful of the world’s inherent danger so aptly embodied in the sinster wings of bats. Trained by the League of Shadows he learns to embrace his fear and channel it into a form of strength. Finally understanding his own fear allows him to manipulate fear in others.

The film’s secondary villain is Jonathan Crane, a user of potent toxins that amplify fear to lethal levels. Tellingly Scarecrow draws upon the exact same psychological weapons as Batman. And behind Crane, working in the shadows, is the mastermind of Gotham’s destruction, Ra’s al Ghul who seeks to topple the city by hypnotizing the populace into a terrified psychosis.

Violence, danger, vengeance, loss. All these weave together to form a gripping story about fear and a man who used it against those who would impose their fear on others. Beyond a costumed vigilante, Bruce becomes the fear of retribution personified.

AMBITION – The Prestige

A story of two rival magicians competing to become the world’s greatest magician, The Prestige unfolds non-linearly and only makes sense once each magician’s secret is revealed. A slavish devotion to achieving greatness leads both Robert Angier and Alfred Borden to lose themselves and destroy those around them.

It begins when two magician’s assistants, Angier and Borden, see a frail Chinese magician perform a trick where he pulls a fishbowl out of thin air. The pair speculate that the man lives his whole life, both on and off stage, pretending to be old and limp in order to pull off this trick. This example of total commitment to one’s craft convinces both Angier and Borden that only great sacrifice will fuel their dreams of becoming the greatest magician.

Borden accomplishes this by literally splitting his life with his twin brother. Alternating between playing the magician and his associate “Fallon”, Borden is actually two people sharing one public identity for the sole purpose of performing the Transporting Man trick. The two brothers refuse even to tell their wife Sarah. Their secret routine soon results in the death of Angier’s wife Julia when one of the brothers unknowingly ties the wrong knot. Despite this outcome, they do not stop. They are fully committed regardless of the price. Next they both lose two fingers. Ultimately, their deceitful lifestyle leads to Sarah committing suicide and the death of one of the brothers.

Angier’s ambition drives him into darkness as well. Always outmatched by Borden, Angier finally comes across a trick even better than his: Tesla’s mysterious teleportation machine. So twisted in his pursuit of fame, Angier unhesitating kills his own duplicate and begins using the machine every night to perform the Transporting Man. Every night Angier performs the trick not knowing whether he will drown to death in the water tank or appear high above on the platform. He is now the best, greater than even Borden, but at the cost of very soul. He kills himself every night to the sound of thunderous applause.

These two characters are so fueled by ambition that they divide their own personhood to the point of self-destruction. Ambition consumes them and the ones they love.

CHAOS – The Dark Knight

Batman can stop criminals because they have methods and motives, hopes and fears, a human element to their actions. But chaos has no such weakness. It is entirely random, the unstoppable pull of entropy. In the Joker, Batman finds his true nemesis. The Joker has no goal except to prove that civilized order is an illusion, a tidy house of cards ready to collapse. From the opening heist that leaves his own co-conspirators dead, it is clear the Joker has no rhyme or reason. Most criminals want money, but he burns it with glee.

The Joker sets his sights on Harvey Dent, a force of law and order and a beacon of justice in an unjust city. By killing Rachel and disfiguring Harvey’s face, he knocks the district attorney out of balance, sucking him into the Joker’s chaotic moral universe. Harvey enacts harsh punishment upon the city’s criminals, yet leaves their fate up to chance in a simple coin toss. He is an unwitting ally of the Joker’s chaotic nature, a casualty of a reckless madman.

Batman must master this chaos in order to defeat it. To fight entropy requires sacrifice. Private cellphones are commandeered with Wayne technology and turned into a tool for Batman’s vigilante justice. Joker must be spared as not to increase the already senseless body count. Finally the symbol of Batman must be sacrificed so that Harvey’s memory and legacy will stand. The chaos swirls but at last it is painfully kept at bay.

REGRET – Inception

Cobb is a man haunted by a dark secret. He unintentionally made his wife Mal throw herself off a ledge and found himself wanted for murder and separated from his children. In the dream world his regret chases him in the form of a murderous Mal, making him unable to safely inhabit shared consciousness. However Saito offers him the chance to live without this regret and return to his children. All Cobb must do is perform inception.

But what we don’t know is that Cobb and Mal have lived a full life together, lost in the seeming eternity of limbo. Letting go of his regret and embracing this truth, Cobb finds a way to confront his sorrow, achieve inception, and finally forge new life. While so many enter dreams to escape reality, Cobb uses his encounter with Mal to return to it.

Other characters also reflect the state of regret. Ariadne leaves the team because she knows it is unsafe but returns knowing that she will forever regret the chance to build in the dream world. Saito, trapped in limbo, emerges at the end of the film having lived a lifetime in his own dream. He remembers his promise to Cobb and the life he once had as a young man without regret. Robert Fischer, heir to his father’s empire, only takes to the idea implanted by Cobb’s team regretting that he could never please his father. The dream world becomes a place not just of creation and action but as a place for dealing with the things we cannot change.

PAIN – The Dark Knight Rises

Bruce Wayne begins the film as a crippled shell, a failure in both business and personal relationships. Hobbling around his mansion he is still dealing with the physical pain of his injuries and psychological pain over losing Rachel. As it becomes evident that Bane is threatening the city, the weakened Batman returns to stop this evil from rising from the sewers.

Bane however is accustomed to pain, his face disfigured by violence. His sheer physicality overshadows anything that an out-of-practice Bruce Wayne can offer. The breathing mask obstructing Bane’s face keeps away the pain. He will shatter Bruce and claim Gotham for his violent purposes. Hurting people is his speciality, whether through force or through manipulation.

Bruce finds an unlikely ally in Miranda Tate, a likeminded entrepreneur. She wins his heart only to rip it out again when the time is ripe. More hurt, more pain. Overcoming his broken body, his shattered soul, Bruce learns to rise against it.

ISOLATION – Man of Steel

Although Zach Snyder directed and provided the vision for the film, Nolan both produced and provided story input while his Dark Knight collaborator David Goyer wrote the screenplay, making it Nolanesque enough to discuss. Man of Steel is story of isolation. Clark Kent is orphan and alien, losing both his father figures and physically different from his peers. He cannot be hurt, sees and hears far more than he can control, and fire lasers from his eyes. This sets him apart, separating him from his adopted people.

General Zod, cast out for his attempted takeover, is also set apart. Banished for their crimes, Zod and his crew wake up to find their civilization erased. Committed to rebuilding the Kryptonian race, Zod is willing to raze the earth to restore his people. This endeavor alienates him from the very Krypton he is fighting to save and he knows this. Thwarted by Kal-El, the last of his people are pulled into the Phantom Zone. Zod is utterly alone, everything he stands for decisively stripped away, leaving him in a state of nihilist rage.

Here are two men, each separated from the people and home they value most, yet with vastly different coping strategies. Zod clings to what was lost, forfeiting his ethics in the process. Kal-El forged ahead, wisely heeding Jor-El’s advice and becoming a bridge between two worlds and a moral example to his adopted home world. Each man is the product of a deep and profound aloneness.

What Makes A Great Hero? – Flawed Saviors

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A few weeks ago we took a look at what makes a great villain. That seemed to be a fruitful discussion and since I’m still slightly traumatized from my bad movie series, why not look a what makes a great hero?

While it’s usually the villain that steals the limelight, great stories require a great hero. Not necessarily an unbeatable incredible awesome hero, but some kind of relatable figure with generous amounts of goodwill and personality. Unlike the villain, the hero is person in the story that the audience is supposed to sympathize and agree with. The hero is our window to the world of the story. You are supposed to like them. On some level, you actually wouldn’t mind being them.

However nobody likes always successful, always happy, always perfect people. They are annoying. They bug us with their immaculately cleaned toilets and wrinkle-free clothing. And we know that deep down nobody can be thatperfect. They might hide their flaws with precise, but we know they’re there somewhere.

Thus when it comes to a hero of a story, we want someone flawed. Deeply flawed. We want them to have struggles (because we have struggles and so they should too). Ultimately we want them to succeed but we think it should be a constant challenge. Life is full of constant challenges so naturally we expect the same for a hero. And oddly enough, through seeing them overcome constant challenges we grow to like them even more.

A good hero must have a personal obstacle, some overarching problem that humanizes them and creates sympathy for the character inside the audience. There are really only three main sources of the hero’s obstacle that I can think of:

  • a personal vice
  • alienation
  • unwillingness to be a hero
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    Vice is a moral problem. Alienation is a circumstantial problem. Unwillingness is an internal problem. Usually a hero majors in one of these obstacles. Effectively these different problems humanize the hero and lets us in to their personal journey via the universal experiences of trial and temptation.

    From these three kinds of obstacles emerge three hero archetypes:

  • The Cocky Hero has some kind of vice that prevents them from being wholly ethical or socially acceptable.
  • The Solitary Hero is alienated from those around them for reasons beyond their control
  • The Unwilling Hero does not want to be a hero and is defined by their personal struggle to take up a hero’s mantle.
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    A good hero should fall into one of these categories and really own it. I suppose you could have a cocky solitary unwilling hero, but I doubt they would still qualify as a hero and end up being more an anti-hero. A hero might have multiple issues yet should always focus on one tangible problem at a time. After all, in our own lives we find it hard to tackle more than one major problem at a time.

    Let’s look at some examples.

    The Cocky Hero

    The Cocky Hero carries around an easily detectable flaw. Like in real life, most of the time this flaw cannot be completely erased but only minimized and ultimately compensated for by other virtues. Even though they have good intentions, they are often willing to do ignoble things along the way. The audience may root for them to succeed yet at the same time consider themselves morally above them. A major challenge for the Cocky Hero is too overcome their personal flaws in order to complete their sacred heroic task.

    James Bond

    Obstacle: detachment

    007 is the classic Cocky Hero. He’s arrogant, unconcerned with what his superiors’ think of him, and good at his job. He is Britain’s best spy and he always finishes his mission. But he has a vice: he’s emotionally detached. Bond uses women like toys and although its presented as hyper-masculine spy mojo, few people would really want to live a life of empty one night stands and total interpersonal detachment. Despite his prowess with a gun, Bond is made partially inhuman by his inability to connect deeply with or commit to women.

    James T. Kirk

    Obstacle: risk-taking

    In 2009 J.J. Abrams introduced us to a total revamp of the iconic Captain Kirk. Like Bond, he sleeps around with women but his deeper character flaw is risk-taking. Kirk trusts his gut over sound logic, doesn’t care about Starfleet regulation, and leaps headfirst into situations that put himself and his crew in grave danger. Although we admire his confidence and resourcefulness, his unnecessary brashness proves him to be seriously flawed human being along with the rest of us.

    Korra

    Obstacle: impatience

    The Legend of Korra is an amazing television show anchored by its chipper teenage Avatar-in-training. She is strong-willed and eager to use her powers on behalf of others. It is clear that Korra is both courageous and compassionate. Yet she is held back by a singular character flaw: impatience. Korra tends to rush into battle before she’s fully ready or even knows what she’s getting into. Instead of remaining diligent and devoted to learning air-bending, she takes on life-threatening challenges before she is ready.

    Tony Stark

    Obstacle: self-reliance

    Tony Stark is highly intelligent, charismatic, and surprisingly ethical in his use of his Iron Man suit. Frequently he is willing to lay his life down for others, the mark of a true hero. However in public he makes clear that of unique intelligence and prides himself above all. Underneath all that hubris, his real issue is self-reliance. Tony believes only he can handle the world’s threats and takes offense at anyone who tries to help him. In other words, he doesn’t play well with others.

    This brand of hero must work on overcoming their vice. If they refuse to change, they become a sort of self-parody eventually. Bond must get out of his hotel bed and get back to work. Kirk must take more measured risks. Korra must learn to have more patience. Tony must compromise and work alongside others.

    Since the Cocky Hero tends to be the most immoral or unsympathetic of the archetypes, it helps if they are really good at other things like saving innocent civilians or water-bending or hand-to-hand combat. Even if we don’t admire their personality at least we can admire their skill and the dedication required to learn that skill. If the hero has to be a jerk, at least let them do important heroic things (I’m looking at you, Green Lantern).

    The Solitary Hero

    The Solitary Hero’s obstacle does not come from a personal vice like the Cocky Hero but rather from an external reality that divides them from the people they love. This alienating force is something the Solitary Hero must live with against their will with little hope of having it removed. They may never get to live a normal life so they must make the best of what they have.

    When this hero archetype is called to action, they usually arrive with a strong level of intensity that others heroes tend to lack. Because they are already isolated from those closest to them, they have less to lose. Often their heroic acts grant them the solace and purpose they were looking for all along.

    Logan

    Obstacle: attachment

    The Wolverine is a tragic figure, able to completely heal from any wound yet unable to form lasting attachments with those around him. His long lifespan not only causes him to outlive everyone he love/s but also forces him to carry around the memories of violence and war from his past. It is no accident that Logan is often found in the wilderness apart from the rest of the X-Men and that he is such a volatile force to reckon with.

    The Hulk

    Obstacle: self-control

    Bruce Banner’s isolation does not stem from attachment but from self-control. Unable to control his transformations and the brutal rage of his alter ego, he must separate himself from others for their own safety. Even after learning to master his emotions, Banner can never really be sure if he can fully tame the mighty Hulk inside of him. When the beast explodes, Banner is helpless to protect people from himself.

    Batman

    Obstacle: identity

    After surviving a traumatic childhood, adult Bruce Wayne rejects his billionaire identity and dons the Batsuit. Effectively Bruce dies and Batman is born. Batman is the real Bruce while Bruce becomes his true mask. This personality split makes it impossible for Bruce to live a normal life or maintain authentic relationships. Fighting crime ultimately consumes Bruce’s entire identity.

    Superman

    Obstacle: belonging

    The last known survivor of his planet, Kal-El is a man apart. Despite being near indestructible and having the power of flight, Superman can never fully belong with the humans he protects. He is alien. He is an orphan. These truths separate him from the rest of us and make his full integration into society nearly impossible.

    Since they are effectively on their own, Solitary Heroes are usually quite capable of handling things by themselves. Logan has adamantium claws. Hulk is an unstoppable juggernaut. Batman is a stealthy ninja. Superman can bend steel. Although they are clothed with immense power, these heroes still lack one of the most basic of human needs: deep loving connections to other people.

    Balancing their need for social connection against their need to use their unique station in life for the greater good, Solitary Heroes are them most tragic of the bunch. Their happiness will always be limited by a constant external reminder that they are, to some degree, all alone.

    The Unwilling Hero

    Unwilling Heroes are distinguished by the fact that they don’t want to be heroes or at the very least are not ready to do what it takes to become one. Their reluctance keeps them from fulfilling the heroic task required of them. Since we as the audience have all sorts of things we don’t want to do, we can easily relate to a hero who suffers from the same dilemma.

    Ideally the Unwilling Hero should still have some admirable qualities about them. They may not want to be a hero, but they should be worthy in other ways. If they are both unwilling and unlikeable, that’s a problem. They just need some time but the seeds of heroism should already have started to sprout and manifest themselves in smaller ways.

    Neo

    Obstacle: confidence

    Despite gaining the faith and trust of Morpheus, Neo doesn’t feel like a hero. He doesn’t see any evidence that he is the One that was prophesied. The Oracle doesn’t give him much reassurance either. He has no confidence in himself yet through his devotion to Morpheus and timely courage, he finally proves himself the hero he never thought he was.

    Frodo Baggins

    Obstacle: physical strength

    As the only volunteer to carry the One Ring into Mordor, Frodo becomes the de facto guardian of Middle Earth. However he is hobbit, small in size and inexperienced in combat. He is physically too weak to even make the arduous journey. But as the Fellowship crumbles, his moral resolve allows him to push through his physical limitations toward his destination.

    Katniss Everdeen

    Obstacle: power

    Katniss is at the mercy of a corrupt regime, forced to fight for her life. She has no control over her situation and yet refuses to kill other tributes except in the case of self-defense. She is powerless to change her situation. By choosing to maintain an ethical stand in spite of her lethal environment, Katniss manages to emerge the deadly Hunger Games as a national hero and a symbol of a mounting resistance.

    Luke Skywalker

    Obstacle: training

    Luke is not interested in joining Obi-Wan and taking up his father’s lightsaber. After his family’s murder, he finally does decide to join him but he is over eager to enter the fight. Obi-Wan reminds Luke that he is no Jedi. Impatient to complete his training, Luke is not prepared to fully learn the ways of the Force and thus stands no chance against Darth Vader. It takes him two whole movies before he is finally ready to be the hero that he needs to be.

    Just because Unwilling Heroes are unwilling does not mean that they can put off their responsibility forever. Even if the situation is beyond their control they do not stand around and do nothing. Perhaps they try to find another way to solve their problem, like Luke becoming a pilot instead of a Jedi or Neo entering the Matrix for a quick rescue. Despite their aversion to being heroes eventually their circumstances, experience, and inner qualities collude to transform them into great heroes.

    Flawed Saviors

    Heroes of all kinds must be relatable and giving them an obvious flaw is the fastest and best way to do that. However they also have to be likable. If a hero has too many flaws, they become unpleasant. If a hero’s flaws are too cliche, they become bland. Ultimately a good hero needs to have a consistent personality that is also balanced by their unique flaws and limitations as well as personal growth.

    We should like heroes and admire them on one level, but yet also be aware of their flaws. We should see them as equal to us in human failing and weakness. In some cases, we might even see ourselves as morally superior. Hey if I treat people better than Bond or Batman, that makes me feel pretty good, right?

    But lest we forget, a hero must not exist as a theoretical possibility or live in the realm of good intentions. They must vanquish evil and save other humans. At the very least they must actively care about others and work toward their wellbeing.

    A hero absolutely cannot be idle, even if they are wrongheaded and misguided at times. What they do defines them. Not a cape or a reputation or an idea, but their actual behavior. Their actual deeds. We will forgive a multitude of crimes and misdemeanors for a hero who is simply willing to act.

    In part two, we’ll look at the other half of a great hero: great character motivation.

    A Universal Theory of Bad Movies: Batman and Robin

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    Finally, we made it to the end!

    Last week on Story Punch we’ve began exploring a theory that explains how a potentially good movie ends up as a bad movie. So far we’ve looked at several well known bad movies with just enough redeeming qualities to let us know they could have been good movies with just a few major changes.

    However some movies are unique. They weren’t intentionally made to be bad, yet by some miracle of possibility they ended up wholly bad with no redeeming features whatsoever. Bad movies like these rarely gain much traction or notoriety, except of course when they come packaged as the latest installment of one of the biggest global franchises ever.

    The movie I’m talking about is Batman and Robin, a movie that will forever live in infamy as the worst Batman movie of all time.

    The 1997 film directed by Joel Schumacher is unique in its commitment to its unbearable self-mockery. Even though this is a comic book film with masked superheroes, it takes nothing seriously. Gravity is optional. Puns are obligatory. And story tumors arrive early and often, eventually overwhelming any sense of narrative coherence left.

    Story Tumor #1: Batsuit Closeup

    As uncomfortable as it was in Batman Forever, somehow the closeup shots of the batsuits are worse this time around. No one wants to see Batman and Robin’s butt, crotch, or fake nipples yet this movie decides it should grace the opening scene. Way to set the tone for the entire movie.

    Story Tumor #2: Opening Dialogue

    The first dialogue we hear is a petty argument between Batman and Robin, with a baffling reference to Superman. Robin is a whiny man-child obsessed with impressing “chicks” and wanting to use the Batmobile for just that purpose. Batman is the cold distant father we never wanted. He won’t even let Robin ride in his car. As they say, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

    Story Tumor #3: Ice Skating Battle

    The next scene takes place in a museum where Mr. Freeze is stealing an oversized diamond to fuel his suit. It also introduces us to what will be a touchstone feature of this entire movie: bad Mr. Freeze puns. But not to worry, soon the scene erupts into a tussle on ice.

    Why does Batman have ice skates in his shoes?
    Why are things flying through the air at rate one third the speed of actual gravity?
    Why is everybody ice skating again?.

    Movies at times require us to suspend belief but this is an all out war against the senses. In this world, the only constant is sheer improbability.

    Story Tumor #4: Mr. Freeze’s Rocket Ship

    Next Batman and Robin climb inside a rocket ship blasting into space. It is an act of utter incoherency. No reason could be good enough to connect the outlandish ice battle we have just witnessed to the homage to old sci-fi movies we are now seeing. Also Mr. Freeze will use his ship to freeze all of Gotham. This will help him save his wife somehow.

    Before he can succeed, Batman and Robin blow up the ship and make their way from Earth’s upper atmosphere all the way back to the ground. Temporarily suspending the law of physics, our heroes invoke the law of improbability and emerge unscathed.

    This cannot be happening. And yet it is. The assault on reason continues.

    Story Tumor #5: The Robin Popsicle

    Sidekicks are sidekicks for a reason: they lack the sufficient skills and experience to be their own hero. Robin affirms this notice and runs ahead to challenge Mr. Freeze alone.

    Immediately he is turned into a Robin Popsicle. In real life, having your entire body flash-frozen would kill you or at least cause some major tissue damage. But this movie thrives on the improbable.

    Batman kicks the human ice cube into a tank of water and turns the water red with his laser. Yes, the laser turns water red. Red means hot. This defrosts Robin and makes him all better. Mr. Freeze gets away and Batman and Robin live to fight another day.

    We’re only 15 minutes into the movie.

    Does It Fit The Bill?

    It’s only been 15 minutes and we’ve already suffered five indefensible sins against the art of cinema. Five terrible crimes against our delicate senses. Five insufferable stakes driven into the heart of the Batman mythos.

    Possibly this would make sense in a cartoon. And wait, now it all makes sense. I am a watching a live action cartoon. This movie has nothing to do with the previous three Batman films in terms of tone or dramatic effect. It is one giant gimmick, a slideshow of strange and anti-rational things designed to dazzle and provoke. It is Wylie E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner in circles for the amusement of small children.

    Batman and Robin is special. Unlike most bad movies (ones that could have been good except for three or four major missteps) somehow it manages to make a major mistake every few minutes. But ultimately its major issue is tone. The film panders to kids with its garish cartoonishness without any actual heart that makes a kids movie watchable for adults. The result is over-the-top antics and logic-breaking ridiculousness that defy explanation.

    But does it fit the theory?

    Well in many ways it takes the theory and carries it to the furthest possible conclusion: What if every scene was a story tumor? What if every scene didn’t make sense and made the viewer scratch their head? What if every scene was worth ridiculing and laughing at? What if every scene was terrible and interrupted the audience’s enjoyment of the movie? That would be the baddest movie of them all.

    Sadly this is what makes Batman and Robin an important film to rewatch and study. It is a masterclass in how not to make a movie. It interrupts the narrative flow with one story tumor after another in an incredulous display of bad taste. If you want to see the power of story tumors, look no further.

    So Is There Really Such a Thing as a Universal Theory of Bad Movies?

    I think I’ve spilled enough digital ink on this topic. I’m not sure I can handle watching any more bad movies. While this series probably deserves some kind of conclusion, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if the theory holds up. Are bad movies too deeply flawed to save or could they be largely fixed by removing a few story tumors? You tell me, because after slogging through these six articles I simply refuse to write one more word.