Punisher, Deadpool, and the Ups and Downs of Antiheroes

I’ve written about antiheroes before on this blog, about how their character motivations affect their actions and how their moral ambiguity can show us what we value as an audience and a culture. But lately I’ve been writing about a specific comic book antihero named Deadpool and why, despite all the recent hype, I don’t really think he’s that great of a character. In my last post I mentioned how I can’t really root for Deadpool much, because he’s not fighting for a good reason, but only for money and fun.

“But wait!” you say. “Deadpool is more of an antihero anyway! Isn’t that what he’s supposed to be like? Not every character has to be a completely moral hero. You can like him even though he’s morally ambiguous.”

Yes, and I do like a lot of morally ambiguous characters. As a comic book fan, I still enjoy and am often fascinated by the adventures of grim antiheroes such as Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach. I also really enjoy(ed) shows like Breaking Bad and its successor, Better Call Saul, which feature protagonists who definitely walk the moral line and in many ways become worse as they go along. In the literary realm (which I majored in), I love the stories of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who frequently treat the theme of moral ambiguity and often feature heavily flawed protagonists. And yet I’m still not a huge supporter of Deadpool. Why?

Deadpool vs Punisher
Art by Steve Dillon from Deadpool #54 published by Marvel comics. Image taken from user lukesuperior on Flickr Creative Commons.

In my analysis, there are two different types of morally ambiguous characters. Or, characters who we would label as “antiheroes” are considered such for one of two different reasons. There may be some overlap or some in-between now and again, but I think these two categories encompass quite a few “antihero” characters.

The first type of character has high ideals and goals (morally, philosophically, etc.), but they become antiheroes because they use morally questionable methods. They have good goals, intentions, and motivations, but maybe not good actions. This is the standard “chaotic good” character. I would posit that Wolverine, Punisher, and Rorschach all fit into this category, and even Batman sometimes does depending on how he’s written. They believe in fighting evil, but they use violence, brutality, and even lethal force to achieve that end. Even Walter White seems to fit this description, at least toward the beginning of his transformation; he has noble goals (providing for his family) but they lead him to evil actions (dealing drugs). For more on this type of character, see my previous post about monomania, or an obsessive goal that would lead someone to do almost anything, no matter how drastic or immoral, to achieve it. Personally, I find this type of character quite fascinating and compelling, because I like to see their determination and just how far they’ll go to carry out their mission.

The second type of antihero has no such noble goals or high ideals; they are antiheroes because they only serve their own interests without actively trying to commit either good or evil. This type of character is often labeled as “chaotic neutral,” or maybe even “true neutral.” Characters of this sort would include Han Solo when the audience first meets him in Star Wars, as a lone(ish) smuggler without much altruism. In discussing the show Heroes with some friends, I’ve placed Noah Bennet in the first category and Nathan Petrelli in this second, self-serving group.

This is also the category where I’d place Deadpool. He’s commonly labeled as a mercenary, so we know that he’s not supposed to fight for much of anything besides his own gain. In many iterations (although I listed some exceptions in my last post), he just fights for money, for fun, for personal vendettas, or for his own depraved, insane reasons. Personally, I don’t find this type of character nearly as interesting, because they tend to lack a strong or clear motivation. Unlike those rigidly determined characters I mentioned above, they just kind of meander and get into random adventures and do whatever feels best to them at the time. They lack a compelling reason to fight or for the audience to root for them.

Some people tell me, “if you object to Deadpool’s mature content, then you must only like morally good characters.” That’s not really true, but I do tend to favor characters who have good intentions. Even when their actions are severely flawed like in the examples above, I’m drawn in by their determination and by the inherent conflict between their motives and actions.

On the other hand, when a character has a less compelling motivation, I have to ask myself why I should even be rooting for him. If Deadpool is just killing people for money, then why should I support him over his enemies? Why should I care if he wins or loses? And for me, the answer is that I really don’t.

It’s often been said of writing fiction that desire plus obstacle equals story. In other words, give a character a strong desire, place obstacles in the way of that desire, and you have conflict, which is the basis of story. You have something happening that audiences will find interesting. But what happens if you take away that strong desire and throw in a halfhearted character who doesn’t care enough to take almost anything seriously? Where does the conflict come from then? Where is the compulsion? I think a lot of it gets lost.

Now, I’ve been saying that this preference is my own personal opinion. Maybe it’s just me and some people can enjoy the second kind of character without much motivation. But I think there’s a solid case in stories for the first kind (chaotic good) being better than the second kind (neutral).

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Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

You know why? Because Han Solo didn’t stay morally neutral for very long before he gained some more development and started fighting for a cause bigger than himself. And because even Deadpool, traditionally an amoral mercenary in the comics, has been altered for his huge film debut. In the movie, he’s not taking a hit on someone just for money–he’s trying to take revenge on someone who ruined his life. Yes, Deadpool is fighting against a bad guy, doing at least some form of good, and giving him an actual compelling character motivation! While he’s still a very flawed character certainly, this mission of his seems to place him more in the first category than the second. Filmmakers know that, for a big action movie, there needs to be a clear antagonist and a clear reason to root for the protagonist over that other person. They know that the antihero with a good(ish) mission is a lot more interesting than the antihero who just aimlessly does his own thing.

So that’s why I find the Punisher and others a lot more interesting than I find Deadpool. That’s why I have a hard time really rooting for Deadpool very often in the comics. But if I’m saying that the film version of Deadpool is closer to the kind of character I like, then why is it that I’m still not too excited about the film? Wait for my next post to find out.

What do you think? Is there really a huge distinction between different kinds of antiheroes? Who are your favorite antiheroes, and why do you find them compelling? Post your thoughts below.

 

Why I’m NOT Excited about Deadpool

Deadpool! Theaters, audiences, and social media posts have been abuzz lately with the newest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen. But aside from the normal hype about the action and laughs, the Deadpool movie has also gotten lots of attention–both positive and negative–for being R-rated due to violence, nudity, and excessive language. While the superhero genre was once thought to be good family-friendly fun for kids, that is certainly not the case with this offbeat, over-the-top antihero, leading to high praise and enjoyment from some longtime fans and harsh criticism from others.

As a longtime comic book fan among other fans who usually flock faithfully to each new superhero film, mine is an unpopular opinion, or at least so it seems in my circle of friends. But, while admitting that I haven’t actually seen the Deadpool movie yet (and probably won’t at least until I can rent it on DVD), I must admit that I’m not excited about or in favor of this one. People say it’s a very faithful representation of the character in the comics–but guess what? I don’t really like Deadpool much in the comics either. And I’d like to tell you why. Do my moral convictions and objections to mature content have something to do with it? Probably. But I think it goes beyond that into the realm of good storytelling and character development as well. Allow me to explain.

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Art from X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1. Art by David Lopez. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

It’s a generally accepted rule of fiction that a protagonist has to be likeable in some way in order to garner the support of the audience. I even had one friend posit that “likeable” was not the criterion so much as “fascinating”; even if we don’t “like” the character per se, we as the audience have to find them compelling and interesting enough to care about for some reason or another. Feel free to form your own opinions, but I don’t see this quality much in Deadpool.

When I read a superhero comic book (which I do a lot), I’m looking for a reason to root for the hero, to think that he’s in some way the “good guy” (even if he’s a flawed character) and that he’s justified in fighting his enemies. But with Deadpool being a mercenary, commonly labeled as the “merc with the mouth,” I don’t get that sense of compelling support for a character. He’s only a mercenary, so he’s not fighting for some good or noble cause; a lot of times he’s just doing his own thing and fighting others for money or for fun. Therefore, I wonder, why should I root for him over his enemies? What makes him better or more likeable than the people he fights? Why should I care whether he wins or loses? I often can’t answer these questions with Deadpool.

Some people criticize me for this, saying that I must only like morally ideal characters such as Superman and Captain America. That criticism is simply not true, because I do often appreciate a certain kind of antihero; I find characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Rorschach all fascinating, despite or perhaps because of their moral ambiguity (more on this point later). But my thinking is that, if the character isn’t going to be morally good, then there’s got to be some other quality instead that makes them likeable or compelling to the audience. And, while some disagree, I still don’t really find that with Deadpool.

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Promotional image of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool in the 2016 film. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons user canburak.

In internet arguments (some specifically in preparation for this blog post), I’ve asked my friends to explain to me what exactly they find appealing or likeable about Deadpool’s character. I haven’t gotten a very compelling answer (in my opinion). A lot of people say they like him primarily because he’s violent, crazy, crass, and crude. And that simply just doesn’t hold much appeal for me. While I admit that I sometimes enjoy Deadpool’s pop culture references and metahumor (even I don’t completely hate the character, although I do think he’s vastly overrated), I usually don’t enjoy crude jokes when they’re there just for cheap laughs and no story purpose. And I don’t really see much purpose or compelling character depth in an insane guy who just likes to shoot things for money or for fun. That kind of character could easily be a villain (such as the Joker or Carnage), but again I ask, why should I root for them as a hero? What deep or complex quality in this character’s psyche is supposed to make me root for him or support him in his random misadventures? For the most part, I haven’t found one.

“But wait!” you may say. “Deadpool actually is a complex character with a complex psychological disorder! And he actually is a hero sometimes!” To that, I would begrudgingly admit that you have a point, and after some recent social media discussions with friends, I’ve concluded that it largely depends on who’s writing Deadpool at the time. The thing about comics characters is that they change creative hands quite frequently, and so their portrayals aren’t always as consistent as some of us would like to think. For example, due to the recent Deadpool ongoing series beginning in 2012, I’ve developed a somewhat greater appreciation for him than I previously had. Among other reasons, the writers gave Deadpool both a wife and a long-lost daughter, two reasons for him to genuinely try to be more of a hero. And I was like, “Yes! Finally he has something interesting to fight for other than just money and tacos! Finally there’s a reason for me to care about his character a little bit!” I’ve also heard some people claim that Deadpool was a much more complex character following his initial creation in the ’90s, but that he got watered down when his popularity grew in the late 2000s. I can’t really speak to that personally, as I didn’t follow Deadpool much until around 2008, but it may be true that Deadpool’s history has had some deep character moments that I’m not familiar with.

However, when I say that I don’t care for Deadpool much, I’m talking about what has, for better or for worse, become the most common portrayal of Deadpool these days. And from what I’ve read and seen, I don’t think that’s the one who has a lot of deep character moments. Rather, it’s just the one who is known for, “YEAH! VIOLENCE AND SEX AND CHIMICHANGAS AND INSANITY FOR ABSOLUTELY NO STORY PURPOSE BUT JUST FOR RANDOM FUN!” It seems that whatever potential Deadpool may have for compelling plots or complex character development too often gets lost under the banal banner of utter ridiculousness that appeals only to the entertainment of our basest appetites. And, while I could be wrong, having not seen the movie yet, the trailers and reviews lead me to believe that this is the same version of Deadpool that has been translated to film.

This is why, from a storytelling perspective, I’m really not a big fan of Deadpool, or at least not the Deadpool we most commonly see. In my next few posts later this week, I plan to continue this discussion. I’d like to elaborate on why I like some antiheroes but still don’t like Deadpool (told you that was coming), and then on why I can appreciate some other very mature movies without appreciating Deadpool.

Do you agree or disagree? Is there more to Deadpool’s character that I haven’t considered and still should? Let me know in the comments.

 

Marvel vs. Star Wars: Dawn of Justice

In my last couple of posts, I’ve been dealing with the idea of originality in storytelling. It’s a huge idea, and I certainly don’t expect to uncover all the answers here, even as I’m wrapping up this three-part series. But it’s an idea that audiences (of books, movies, etc.) often pick up on quite a bit, whether positively or negatively, and so a serious writer should know how to address it to.

I looked at two recent blockbuster movies, neither of which is admittedly terribly original: first Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then Marvel’s Ant-Man. I’ve argued that both films share significant parallels with the first film in their respective franchises (the original Star Wars and 2008’s Iron Man). And yet, while it’s a fine line and I may be nit-picking at the details just a bit, I still feel like one of the two films is simply following a formula in the way that much fiction does, while the other is more of an outright rehash of its predecessor. Is this a legitimate analysis? Let’s see if we can find out.

Of course, it’s true that very few films or stories these days are completely original. As a book I regard quite highly observes, “there is nothing new under the sun.” And as many people before me have stated, most stories are just combinations of old elements in a new or different way. I have found this to be true as a reader, a moviegoer, a student of literature, and as a creative writer. Universal concepts such as the hero’s journey and the monomyth work themselves and their familiar tropes into nearly every story, or at least into action movies with major elements like heroic quests, good versus evil, etc.  I don’t deny that these elements show up pretty strongly in the Star Wars galaxy, the Marvel universe, and quite a few other places too.

Also, as I mentioned last time, Marvel admittedly has a proven formula that works, and most of their movies stick to it to some degree or another. They have a similar lighthearted tone, similar themes of saving the world from evil threats, and similar plot structures where the hero and his allies have to overcome impossible odds together (I say “his” because none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe solo films have featured a female main character…yet).

And while these elements are all significant parts of the movie, that may be where the similarities end. The settings of each are vastly different, ranging from modern-day America to deep space, from World War II to mythical realms. The same goes for the protagonists who inhabit each setting. Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America all have vastly different personalities and backgrounds, and Ant-Man’s is different from all of theirs as well. Although they face similar obstacles and overcome similar crises, the characters are each distinct and unique. In this sense, I might posit that the formula Marvel has become known for is comparable to the hero’s journey itself. They both refer to a certain set of tropes and plot structures, but those elements can be applied to nearly any type of hero in any type of setting. In that sense, one could argue that Ant-Man and the other Marvel movies copy elements from a certain common formula, but not necessarily from each other.

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Cover for Marvel Premiere #48, featuring Ant-Man. Image from Flickr Creative Commons.

Also, one should remember that the Marvel movies are based on comic-book source material. There are a lot of vastly different characters in the comic book universe (all with a much more complicated history than any you’ll see onscreen), and so there’s quite a bit of material to draw from. That’s why, while Ant-Man featured Scott Lang as the main character, it also included Hank Pym, who in the comics was the original Ant-Man, and other characters who are recognizable to a comics fan like me, such as the Wasp and Cassie Lang (yes, even the little girl in the movie eventually becomes a superhero of her own). So does the comics background make the movies more original? No, not really, but it does mean that the movies draw elements from an outside source rather than directly ripping off each other. They have a wide range of source material to draw from because the comics have been going on for so long, and they can include characters and elements that aren’t necessarily central to the same plot formula that keeps recurring in merely the movies.

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Movie poster from Star Wars, 1977. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But, all of that being said about the Marvel movies, I still maintain that The Force Awakens was, to a large extent, a rehash of the original Star Wars, A New Hope. To reiterate, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the movie on some level, but just that it felt somewhat lacking in depth and ambition. It didn’t copy merely a formula such as the hero’s journey, but it copied one particular movie very directly. There was a desert planet that looked like Tattooine, but totally wasn’t Tattooine! And a planet-destroying weapon that’s kind of like the Death Star, but oh, it’s completely different from the Death Star! And Rey, while an interesting and compelling character so far, is to a large extent a female version of Luke Skywalker. I don’t want to give away too many details or spoilers, but see my last few posts for further details on how closely the two films and their plots mirror each other. In many ways it seems to me that they should have just called it A New A New Hope.

So yes, I am concluding that Ant-Man was a good (or at least better) kind of predictable, while The Force Awakens was more of a rehash than it should have been. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs here, as neither movie was completely original, and both fell into the category of “fun, but not amazingly awesome” for me. Of course, an ideal story, a truly memorable and groundbreaking one, might be more original than either one. But keep this difference in mind as you write. Audiences will usually accept it more or less if you follow a time-tested pattern such as the hero’s journey, but not necessarily if you borrow too heavily from one work in particular, like The Force Awakens did to A New Hope. (Then again, The Force Awakens is still proving to be amazingly successful at the box office, so despite the criticisms from a sizeable group of viewers, it’s clear a lot of people are still quite willing to accept it).

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote about originality to ponder in your own writing. And though it’s a lofty ideal to reach, maybe this will help. C.S. Lewis says: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Predictably Fun: The Success of Superheroes

In my last post earlier this week, I started trying to tackle some pretty big questions of originality in fiction writing. I looked at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which, though enjoyable, lacked originality and seemed to recycle many elements from the original Star Wars. Today I’d like to explore the same ideas but in a slightly different genre of story, one that is also immensely popular despite some potentially legitimate claims of unoriginality. And it’s one of my favorite genres too. I’m talking about superhero movies, specifically the ones made by Marvel.

Before we begin, I’ll admit my personal bias. I love superheroes and superhero films. Even the mediocre ones are still enjoyable to me on some level, and it has to be pretty bad for me to actively dislike it (but trust me, there are some bad ones out there). While I love Star Wars as well, I do have to admit that Star Wars is probably my second-favorite fandom–after superheroes. So with the exponential popularity of Marvel movies over the last several years, I’ve had quite a lot to enjoy.

Iron Man poster
Theatrical poster for Iron Man (2008). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

But I can certainly understand why, from a perspective of an outsider who doesn’t love all of those characters as much as I do, the movies may seem to follow a similar or predictable formula. If you’re unfamiliar, you can find a pretty decent summary of that formula here. This type of movie may have seemed fresh and innovative when Iron Man introduced the Marvel Cinematic Universe back in 2008, but eight years later, it’s been done and redone a number of times.

 

Consider the Ant-Man, Marvel’s most recent big blockbuster from August. (Interestingly, I almost typed “bug blockbuster” there, but I guess that would have also been accurate.) The film was, in my opinion, a lot of fun and a well-made story for what it was. But it was also very predictable, at least to someone like me who has watched quite a few action and superhero films over time. The good guy overcame his challenges and figured out how to be a hero in the end, even when it seemed like there was no hope left. The bad guy was fairly one-dimensional and was pretty obviously the bad guy from the beginning without much subtlety. The whole film was laced with Marvel’s trademark blend of flashy action sequences and witty humor and dialogue. I won’t say that it lacked character development, but the characters and the relationships it did build were familiar too from a number of other works of fiction–the ex-con looking for redemption, the older mentor figure and his estranged daughter, the maniacal businessman-turned-supervillain, the goofy friends who provide comic relief. Etc. (Not to mention the fact that Ant-Man is a science expert who gets his powers from a scientific suit. Now where have we seen that before?)

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Theatrical poster for Ant-Man (2015). Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Of course, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Ant-Man is exactly like all the other Marvel movies. Each hero and their backgrounds and personalities are different enough to make them distinct, ranging from a billionaire scientist hotshot-turned-hero, to a legendary god come down to earth, to the idealistic super-soldier back from the past. The film version of Ant-Man is a little different from them all in that he’s a former criminal, a down-on-his-luck ordinary guy trying to support his family, who ends up becoming a superhero. The individual characters and settings are different in each movie, and of course team films like The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy shake up the dynamic somewhat too. But still, I must admit that by and large the Marvel movies are getting similar and predictable in terms of plot structure and overall tone.

 

So then, what’s the missing element? What is it that makes Ant-Man and similar films so enjoyable still, even though they’re so formulaic? And why do I appreciate one type of movie despite its unoriginality, but still look with a critical eye on recycled plots like that of The Force Awakens? Is it just because I happen to like superheroes a little bit more than space operas? Or is it because TFA was hyped up so much more that unoriginality on its part felt like a letdown in comparison? Maybe. But maybe there’s something more objective in the content of each story, too.

I’m honestly not sure exactly what that would be yet, but maybe I can figure it out in my next post later this week. And if I can, then I’m sure there will be some important applications for us as writers as well when it comes to originality and borrowing from other works.

 

 

 

 

Nothing New Under the Sun: The Franchise Awakens

STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS

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Theatrical poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Now that I’ve got your attention by name-dropping the biggest and most record-breaking film on the market right now, I’m going to be talking a bit about the film Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. There’s a lot I could say on the film, both good and bad, and since much of it has already been said throughout the many circles of the blogosphere, I’m certainly not going to try to give an exhaustive, in-depth analysis here.

Actually, I’m going to take it back a bit and try to get a broader look at some things, such as general storytelling principles and the concept of an ongoing franchise that has a lot of continuity to deal with. About a year ago, when advertising for the film first began in full force, I wrote a post about it on my personal blog. I was a tad skeptical, but cautiously optimistic, because I’ve been a fan of all things Star Wars for so long–not merely the movies, but also the numerous books, comics, and other media that had been created subsequently by various authors to flesh out the story more and further expand this universe. My post argued that, even though the new movies weren’t drawing from the existing source material and were straying from the wealth of books and other stories that I loved, I would still enjoy the films as long as they told good and creative stories of their own. (The original post I’m speaking of can be read at this link–and, since it was written a year before the movie came out, it is 100% spoiler free.)

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One fan’s collection of the very best Star Wars books (which are pretty much any written by Timothy Zahn). Image taken from user Sarah Thrawn on Flickr Creative Commons.

Well, like many fans, I saw the film on opening weekend (and again after that). And, true to what I said above, I did enjoy it. But that’s about all. I liked it well enough to see it a couple of times as a fun event with friends, but I didn’t really love it quite as much as I may have anticipated. And there may be a few reasons for that, including the fact that I had some pretty major parts spoiled for me (thanks, internet jerks). But now that the initial hype has begun to settle down and my opinion has solidified more, I think it’s because–as many people have claimed before me–The Force Awakens was not a very original film on the whole.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars and have talked to anyone about the new film, then you may have heard some people claim that it’s not a very original film, reusing many plot and character elements from the first Star Wars film back in 1977 (not to mention many concepts that appeared in the books but were somewhat changed or mixed around for the onscreen version). Some harsher critics have even used terms like “rehash” or “rip-off” to describe the film. And, while I did enjoy the film on the surface and for the few hours of exciting escapism it gave me, I find myself agreeing at least somewhat with those critics who say that the film was lacking in originality and thus somewhat lacking in depth. (For a fuller and mostly-accurate explanation of how The Force Awakens recycles things from A New Hope, click here–but this link DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, so beware!)

This common complaint about the film’s lack of originality raises some interesting questions for us, both as audiences and as writers. Questions such as: does a work of fiction have to be completely original in order to be good? Wasn’t it good that J.J. Abrams tried to recreate the feel of the original trilogy, since that’s what a lot of fans wanted? Or would it have been better for him to take a new creative direction with the franchise? Is it even possible to be completely original anymore? Aren’t most stories just new combinations of old elements in different ways anyway? Where do you draw the line between appropriately borrowing from the ideas of previous works and completely ripping them off? How much true originality and creativity is it really possible for us to muster and channel into our writing?

These are questions that I hope to explore further in my upcoming posts for the rest of the week, as they relate to both Star Wars and other massively popular fictional franchises. I hope you’ll join me then. In the meantime, if you need some food for thought, chew on the questions above and feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below.

 

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger
Muaahahahaha

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed
Hurraaay!

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

Science Fiction and Human Nature

I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.

Plot Challenge of the Week

images (2)Have you ever played the game Resistance? It’s quite a lot of fun! I’ve been playing it with Alayna’s family for the past few hours. However, I can’t seem to convince Alayna that I’m good. I definitely need to work on lying to her. It seems like it will be a useful skill in the future… … … Okay, that’s probably not something that I’m actually likely to do. I do hope that you all had a wonderful holiday, and that you’re getting yourselves back to work today. I just found out that I have no pre-work for my Ph.D. seminar next semester (YAY!). However, that just means that I can get that much more of my overall reading for the semester out of the way (yay…) :P. In all seriousness, though, I have a plot challenge for you, and in honor of my day, here are the rules for today’s challenge:

Your challenge: Take a movie, book, short story, play (preferably something religious) that you love, and identify each character and significant plot point. Now, identify the three most significant, pivotal events in the story, and work your way back through the plot, but change those three events. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet you might change the death of Tibedo so that he lives. Now, work your way back through the story step by step and figure out how the characters would react to those changed plot points. How would they react (in character)? How does this change the overall events of the story? Feel free to use this as an impetus to write some up a new story entirely, but the goal here is to see how character’s themselves help to shape the plot of a story.

Parody in Practice: “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving”

My first post for this blog was about parody. I explained how parodies, even though they’re by nature lighthearted and somewhat silly, can still be well-done stories with at least some serious meaning. Today, I’m revisiting the subject because I recently worked on a parody. About a year ago during the post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas holiday season, I wrote a narrative poem that was nothing less than a blatant rip-off of Dr. Seuss‘s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and this year, I converted that poem into a quirky, tongue-in-cheek, animated short film. To get some context for this post, if you want to read what I originally wrote about parody, you can find that here, and if you want to watch the humorous and heartwarming video that is “How the Scrinch Spent Thanksgiving,” you can do so here. (The video is probably more fun.)5

I’ll try to run through a bit of what I did with the narrative aspects of the video and how that applies to parodies overall. Maybe it’ll help you make cheesy but lovable holiday stories of your own, or at least to expand your writing horizons in some useful way.

Parodies play around with common tropes and conventions of fiction.

The point of parody and satire is usually to exaggerate and poke fun at things from existing fiction, whether it focuses on one individual work or author, or an entire genre or style. Obviously, my video of “The Scrinch” takes many of its cues from “The Grinch.” But it also borrows a few elements from A Christmas Carol, Elf, and just about every Lifetime movie in the history of Christmas in which a disgruntled, jaded, or heartless adult gradually comes to learn the true meaning of the holidays. Heck, if you take out the Christmas part and merely focus on a grumpy older person being softened up a bit by an enthusiastic child, then you could also add Despicable Me, Up, and even more Lifetime movies to the list of that trope’s appearances.

In a parody like “The Scrinch,” I wanted to incorporate that trope somewhat, but I also wanted to subvert it so as to avoid too much sappiness and mushy feelings. That’s why, instead of the Scrinch’s heart growing three sizes, I made it his stomach. I mean, let’s be honest–which one of those is really more likely to grow around the holiday season?

Parodies are funny.

This may seem obvious, but parodies are usually supposed to be fun and funny. People don’t really expect them to be brilliant, profound, original works of classic, sophisticated literature, so the reader and the author both have some leeway to let loose and have fun a bit. And they can use at least a few different types of humor. Parodies inherently rely on referential humor, which isn’t all that original, but at least it works; audiences like it when you can say, “Hey, I’m making fun of this thing you know about,” or even just, “Hey, I’m giving a slight nod to this thing you know about.”61

But parodies also have a lot of room for odd juxtaposition, for combining something funny with something that is usually serious. For example, “The Scrinch” uses somewhat elevated language, or at least a strict pattern of rhyme. When someone is reading rhyming poetry in a formal tone, the listener doesn’t expect jokes to come at them; they expect something warm and fuzzy about the holidays, or something old-fashioned from Dr. Seuss’s time, or maybe even Shakespeare’s. But instead, in “The Scrinch,” they get modernized and familiar terms like “ramen,” “Doctor Who,” and “Breaking Bad.” They also get quirky, uncommon words like “isthmus” to rhyme with “Christmas.” And, let’s face it, “isthmus” is a funny word no matter how you spin it.

If you have any skill or interest in the art or animation field, and you’re able to add visuals to your story like I did, then go for it! Silly, simple visuals can serve to increase the humor of a parody. That’s totally the only reason I went with MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker for this project, and it’s not at all because I have no skill with or access to any actual moviemaking technology whatsoever.

Parodies can still have some meaning and significance.

Just because parodies are fun, lighthearted, and cheesy doesn’t mean that they’re completely devoid of significance, or that you can just throw random elements together to make them work. No, parodies still have to adhere to certain conventions of genre and storytelling (even if they do so in an exaggerated way), and they still have to be well-made for their intended purpose. In many cases, satire and humor can be used to deliver a serious or relevant message, subtly criticizing or pointing out the flaws in a work, a genre, or even perhaps a real-life social institution.

I don’t claim that “The Scrinch” contains much subtle, profound social commentary on the nuances of real life. But it does contain a message about breaking out of your own priorities and appreciating family, friends, and fellowship during the holidays. Yes, it’s sappy and unoriginal, but it’s still a true and important message. As I mentioned earlier, I tried not to make that the main focus or spend too much time on super-serious sentiment, but hey, it’s in there somewhere.

82

Also, the Scrinch here seems to be a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student, in a story that, coincidentally, was also written by a disgruntled, introverted twentysomething bachelor grad student. If I didn’t know better, then I might even suggest that the story contains perhaps the slightest hint of an autobiographical quality about the real life situations of its author. Good thing I know better, right?

Overall, parodies such as “The Scrinch” are a fun and enjoyable way to tell a story, but they, like any story, can still contain some depth and meaning as well. If you’re not sure what to write about this holiday season, try a parody (whether Christmas-y or not) and be sure, first and foremost, to have fun with it. (Then, maybe, if the mood strikes you, you can make a video of it and become the next YouTube sensation, but hey, one step at a time.)

Merry Christmas and happy writing, everyone.