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.

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