Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Five Writing Lessons From Suicide Squad

The wife and I went and saw Suicide Squad over the weekend. We didn't expect it to be a good movie, but we laughed all the way through Batman vs. Superman, so why not? And coming out of the theater we agreed that Suicide Squad was probably better in the sense that we weren't immediately mocking everything about it, so that's something. And it's a good movie if you enjoy looking at Cara Delevingne. Because holy shit, there's a lot of Cara Delevingne to look at in this movie. I mean distracting amounts of Cara Delevingne. Did anyone tell her Enchantress wears a literal robe and wizard hat in the comics?

She wears WHAT?!
But never mind all that! Some things could have been done better, and my writer's mind has seized them in its rusty vice. And some things about the movie, actually did get done remarkable well. So let's have a look, shall we?

1. You Really Need To Watch Your Tone

Not swearing - go ahead and fucking swear if you want, you fuck. I'm talking about the overall feel of your work, or your voice if you like. It's important for a single book to have a consistent tone throughout, or to have a tone that evolves in a natural progression from beginning to end. What you don't want is to ping-pong between like four different tones.

Suicide Squad ping-pongs between like four different tones. It opens in Gauntanamo Bay, Louisiana, then jumps to a bunch of flashbacks that go tense-political/standard-supervillainics/politics-again/WTF-Harley/more-politics/horror-movie/back-to-politics, and that's just like the first ten minutes! The soundtrack doesn't help because none of the songs stay on for any length of time - I'm not sure there even was a score, it was so lost in the rest.

If the movie had maintained a consistent tone (preferably not the darkest one), it could have been a hell of a lot better. So take a look at what you're writing/creating and make sure you're not bouncing around like Harley on a surprise meth injection.

2. Don't Spare The Knife

Task Force X, the titular Suicide Squad, is a gang of criminals that get picked to do dirty jobs for the U.S. Government in return for reduced prison sentences. That's it. It's the Dirty Dozen with supervillains, something even the director acknowledges. And one of the traditions for that particular trope is that a fair portion of the people picked for the "Suicide Squad" are going to, um, die.

Unfortunately, probably because of sequel concerns, only one member of the Suicide Squad actually dies in the film. (Well, two if you count Enchantress, but she's the main villain and that's a whole different problem with superhero movies.)* It's a pretty decent death, done well, but it's kind of ridiculous how low the body count ends up being given the threat the Squad is facing. A few more Z-list villains getting offed might have made the threat more credible. (How do you get time for more villains? See point 3.)

*Yes, three if you count Slipknot. But who cares about Slipknot?

You have to be willing to kill your characters when the situation is so bad that nobody dying is absurd. Also...

3. Kill Your Grinning Evil Darlings

For all the hype Jared Leto's Joker got he doesn't actually do a hell of a lot in the film. His only real contribution is to abduct Harley Quinn from the Squad briefly, but she ends up right back with the damn team anyway after his chopper gets shot down! Basically the Joker moves Harley from roof level to ground level. That's it.

Joker could have been left as a flashback character to tease an appearance in a later Batman film. Hell, let him have the stinger too. The rest of the time he used up would have been much better used to flesh out the Squad, patch a few plot holes, or just introduce a couple more warm supervillain bodies to off in creative ways. Instead we got Jared Leto being vaguely creepy, and a few thousand horror stories about working with him that will dog his career for the next decade.

Don't leave a character or a scene in the story that isn't necessary. Cut cut cut!

4. Shoot The Damn Guard

You've heard that a gun placed on the mantel in Act One needs to go off by the end of Act Three, right? Well Suicide Squad loves putting guns on mantels, but it doesn't actually fire too many of them off by the end of the movie. The excepion is the neck bomb implants, which get fired off almost immediately. (Because nobody cares about Slipknot.)

A prime example is the abusive asshole Guantanamo guard early in the movie. Deadshot tells him flat out he's going to kill him. The rest of the Squad has reason to hate him. And then the Joker turns up and makes this guard his new best friend to try and spring Harley Quinn. (After killing the last guy who was his new best friend.) Yet somehow the movie forgets about this guard for the second and third act, and he remains alive by film's end. What the actual hell? Did Mindy Kaling pull some strings? (I did not recognize Ike Barinholtz from the Mindy Project but the guard is totally him.)

Do not set up a character to be obviously killed off and then fail to do it. Pick your guns off the mantel and pull the trigger.

5. Don't Let Your Heroes Let Your Villains Win

In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is a disjointed mess of a plot, but I will give the movie credit in how it treats Enchantress, the main villainess. She's being forced to work for Amanda Waller under threat of death, but manages to escape briefly by playing on her minder Rick Flagg's emotions. She can't reclaim her captive heart, but she frees her brother, who immediately begins a killing spree. Waller sends Flagg and Enchantress in to deal with it, but Enchantress bails and gets her brother to protect her from Waller. She then immediately starts working a plan to end the entire planet.

At no point in all this do the villains, er "heroes", get an obvious chance to stop her that they screw up. Even Rick Flagg only knows she's done something, not what, and it goes bad so fast that there's no time to figure it out. Enchantress pretty much executes her plan perfectly from start to finish, and it's only because she doesn't know what the Squad's capable of that she loses in the end.

I've seen a lot of plots where the heroes screw up to advance the bad guy's plot. It's refreshing when the villain actually is just competent enough to be a major threat.

Anyway. Hope some of that was helpful, and now I'm going to tuck in. Sweet dreams...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Fall of Saruman

Okay, I'm rereading Lord of the Rings, yet again, because it bears rereading. Over and over again, now and forever, I like Tolkien's stuff alright?!

Anyway. I got to the reveal that Saruman is a traitor. Which is his first appearance. And it strikes me.

Saruman is one of the Maiar. He's basically an angel sent to Middle Earth to guide Elves and Men as they overcome the terror of Sauron. But for whatever reason, they aren't allowed to use their full strength against Sauron, so they get put into the bodies of old men and told they can only advise, not pit strength against strength.

Fine. But. BUT.

Saruman declares that he and the rest of the White Council need to serve Sauron to try and guide his actions toward good. But maybe, if Gandalf and he take the Ring, they can overcome him and guide Men toward good with Sauron's power? Hint hint wink wink gimme the ring you old grey fuck.

And it's bullshit and Gandalf calls him out. But. Saruman should know, very well, that Gandalf would recognize his bullshit for what it is. Because they are both angels sent to Middle Earth to help Men and Elves save it from Sauron.

Saruman is not just an old man with magic hands. He is a heavenly being. He knows better.

But he still joins with Sauron. Why?

Because he's forgotten what he is. Because he, at this point, thinks he's an old man with magic hands. Because he no longer believes in the Valar (gods). Because if he did, he'd know full well what the inevitable result of joining with Sauron would be.

So how responsible is Saruman for what he became? Because when he dies, his spirit looks back to the Valar, and all it can do is sigh as it is blown into the Darkness. Because only after death does he see how far he's fallen.

Is it his fault that, bereft of the knowledge of the Valar, he falls to Sauron? Is Saruman truly evil, or just a victim of the body he was condemned to?

And did Peter Jackson really need to cut Saruman's death from Return of the King? Seriously, man, Christopher Lee gave you the most realistic stabbing reaction military training could offer and you cut it. Thank God for extended editions.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Five Writing Lessons From Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman who gets the shit-tier billing even though she steals the big fight of the movie!

I went, I saw, I took some lessons from it. Thoroughly entertaining, but note none of these lessons qualify as "positives". Spoilers lie ahead, all ye of faint heart.

1. Show, Don't Tell

Batman vs Superman starts 18 months after Man of Steel, and early on in the movie there's a lot of beats that feel like a laundry list of Zack Snyder addressing complaints about the first movie. Superman and Clark Kent are established in Metropolis, Superman is a beloved hero, he and Lois Lane are in a solid relationship.

And that's all great, but we never got to see any of it happen. It's easy to overlook that with the Lois/Clark relationship - that trend was established in the first movie - but we've never actually seen Superman do anything heroic at this point! The stuff he did in Man of Steel is explicitly treated as reasons not to trust Superman, and all we ever get is a montage of "saves" where Superman looks miserable as he rescues people we have no investment in.

The first Superman scene in the movie would have been a great place for Superman to actually save people we care about. I was completely expecting it, but it didn't happen because, for plot reasons, everyone there had to die to frame Superman for murder. (With guns.) It wouldn't have been hard to fix this scene to let Superman save everyone, and then have the evil mercenaries come in and wipe the camp out after he was gone. That way we could see Superman being super and gotten on board with him a whole lot faster. Alas.

Point being: don't just tell your reader things about a character and expect them to care. They need to see it!

2. Suggest, Don't Show

Two examples of this, the first being Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot does an excellent job and Wonder Woman is a highlight of the movie, for the record. But part of her arc is that she's trying to get back a blackmail photo Lex Luthor has on her. Batman ends up finding a photo of her standing next to Chris Pine's cheekbones in 1918, looking just as young as she is in 2016 (or whenever).

All that's fine. The problem is that Diana is in full Wonder Woman garb in the photo, and it completely ruins her big entrance in the final fight scene! It would have been fantastic if that had been the first time we saw her in costume. And that would have been so easy, because there's no reason for her to be in costume in the photo - the scene works just fine if it's just Diana in a period dress, or a uniform.

You don't have to spell everything out for the audience immediately. Let them put some thought into things. They'll feel smart and the story will be better for it.

(Oh, right, second example. *ahem* MARRR-THAAAAAAA)

3. OOC Needs To Be OOC

I'm referencing a trope known as Out of Context (OOC) is Serious Business, which means a character starts acting... differently when things get serious. The pacifist starts kicking ass, the jokester gets deadly serious, the klutz becomes scary competent. It's a fine trope, I recommend it.

In Batman vs Superman, there's a flash-forward/dream sequence/vision of Batman in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, apparently ruled by a crazy evil Superman. (Actually ruled by another guy who's blindingly obvious if you read DC comics. Foreshadowing!) In this sequence Batman, who famously abhors guns, pulls a machine gun and just shoots the hell out of enemy soldiers.

The point, I think, is to demonstrate how bad things are by showing Batman shooting people. But he's also shooting people in the present! Hell, he runs over people, stabs people, he burns a guy alive in front of a middle-aged kidnapping victim... Who cares if he's shooting people in the Bad Future if he's already shooting people?

If you want to shock people by having a character go off his usual script, he actually has to be acting out of character. If there isn't a significant change in behavior, it won't work.

4. Talking Is A Valid Action

Now, there are some circumstances where two people will get into a fight immediately without trying to talk things out first. Maybe it's a protagonist and a gang of disposable mooks. Maybe it's two soldiers on opposite sides of a battlefield. Maybe one guy is drunk. Stuff happens.

But, if you have two protagonists getting into a fight. And both are known for having codes against killing. And one of them is being blackmailed by the villain under threat of his mother being killed within thirty minutes. And the other one just had a good friend murdered by the same villain, and has spent years saving innocent people's lives. In that circumstance, you need to have a really good reason for the two protagonists not to at least try to talk things over for a minute before they try to murder each other.

There's a tradition in comic books for heroes to fight at the drop of a hat, but make sure they've got a good reason, and try to make sure that reason can't be resolved by four words, i.e. "Luthor has my mother".

5. Make Your Villain's Schemes Internally Consistent

Crazy villains are great. Joker? A blast. Green Goblin? Superb. But even the most lunatic villains tend to at least make sense to themselves.

In Batman vs Superman, Lex Luthor hates Superman because he's a superpowered alien threat to the planet. And for the most part his solution (Batman + kryptonite) is appropriate to his mindset. But then for some reason, he decides he needs a backup plan and creates Doomsday: a superpowered alien  threat to the planet.

Now, there's a fine tradition of villains hypocritically creating bigger threats in order to deal with the hero's perceived threat. J. Jonah Jameson sponsored the Scorpion to get rid of Spider-man, Movie General Ross helped create the Abomination to take out the Hulk.  But in most of these cases, the bigger threat was intended to be something controllable that ends up getting completely out of hand and requires the hero to stop. In Batman vs Superman, Lex just flat out creates Doomsday without any restraints or controls, apparently believing a sample of his blood would be enough for him to control the creature. Nope! And even when Superman has to save him from getting splattered into meaty chunks, we never get a reaction from Lex to show that he realizes he screwed up. Yes he's crazy, but he's not stupid.

Make sure your villain has a reason for everything he does, even if that reason is only sane to him.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Damn You Santino Fontana

And damn you, too, Rachel Bloom, by extension. Because some day soon my son is going to ask me to play the Frozen soundtrack in the car again, and I'm going to slip this in and tell him it's the missing Anna and Hans song. And then my wife is going to slap me until we run off the road and go up in a giant ball of flame, all because of a cheerful song about urinary tract infections.

Think of the children, you two, for shit's sake.

Street Fighter V Hurts My Hands

I picked up Street Fighter V on a whim. Everything I'd heard about it said "Dave, don't pick up this game, it's not for filthy casuals". But it was in a Redbox and I thought, why not? So I grabbed the game and played it for a bit over three nights. Then I returned the Redbox and bought the digital copy. With the season pass.

Part of it is the fault of the Super Best Friends. They got me hyped for fighting games. It's like MMORPGs where you have to learn a different language to understand them. Footsies! Frame data! It's all beyond me but it's interesting.

The game itself is, charitably, a train wreck. The art style is okay, sometimes good, sometimes not good at all. The menu is shit. The story mode (prequel mode?) is shit, and the real story mode won't be out until June? July? Maybe August at this rate. Survival is a special hell for obsessives. I'd have returned the game on the first day if the actual fights weren't so good.

The fights are not just good. The fights are fantastic. It's Street Fighter! The fights have always been fantastic. It is the fighting game that all other fighters bow to, now and forever. I wish it didn't take five minutes to find each new fight. I guess it's to save gamers from getting arthritis in the first month of the game's release.

Oh God, the loading times. The network search times. It's still better than Mortal Kombat, where fights just lost connection or lagged for no damn reason. But them I stomp Ryu underneath Laura's electrified heel and all is good again.

But Survival. Survival is breaking me. Survival will give me the arthritis.

30 rounds, 50 rounds, 100 rounds, all in a row but the only ones that matter are the last three fights, the toughest fights. Lose here and you lose everything. No experience, no fight money, no matter how many rounds (25 rounds, 27 rounds, 29 rounds) you cleared, even if you just flat out dropped your network connection and the game shit out all your progress for no fucking reason.

But I have to remind myself what this game is. Because I have never seen a game so dedicated to the idea that people will be playing it for years. The trophies are all geared to that timetable, to months of play. The DLC (for the first year!) is spread out over six months. Everything points to a Killer Instinct style experience of frequent updates on and on, forever and ever, amen.

I'll be dropping Street Fighter V tomorrow for Dark Souls III. And then I'll pick it back up. And then I'll drop it for Persona 5. And I'll pick it back up after that, over and over, until my PlayStation finally dies.

Or my hands do. Cripes. Where's the ice?