THE CRAFT: Lessons from The Best and Worst Super Hero Films

Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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THE CRAFT: Lessons from The Best and Worst Super Hero Films by Ray Morton | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Tobey Maguire stars as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Spider-Man 2 PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES

The first comic-book superhero made his debut in 1938 when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman appeared on the cover of Action Comics No. 1. An ingenious synthesis of elements culled from myth, pulp fiction, sci-fi, and comic strips, the Man of Steel was an immediate smash and quickly begat a long line of exotically costumed and powered adventurers, including Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.

Superheroes jumped to the big screen in 1941 with a low-budget serial featuring Captain Marvel and a series of short Superman cartoons produced by Max Fleischer. Several more serials were produced in the 1940s, including Batman (1943), The Phantom (1943), Captain America (1944), Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). The characters then migrated to television (most notably in the Adventures of Superman series from the 1950s, the notoriously campy Batman show in the 1960s, and a bunch of cheesy Saturday-morning cartoons in the 60s and 70s) and—with the exception of a cheaply made 1966 theatrical spin-off of the Batman show— superheroes were absent from the big screen for the better part of the next 30 years.

They made a spectacular return in 1978 with the release of Superman: The Movie, a lavishly produced and enormously entertaining epic that was a tremendous critical and commercial hit at the box office. However, although the film’s great success inspired Hollywood to produce a number of movies based on pulp and comic-strip characters—Popeye, Annie, Flash Gordon, The Legend of the Lone Ranger, and Greystoke—apart from a number of Superman sequels, it was 11 years before another major superhero film arrived in theaters. Batman (1989) was another mega-hit and spawned a small cycle of superhero films, including three Bat-sequels, The Punisher (1989), The Rocketeer (1991), The Phantom (1996), Spawn (1997), and Blade (1998). But it was the back-to-back success of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) that finally opened the cape-and-tights floodgates. Over a dozen superhero films have been released since 2002 and scores more are in development. Given this trend, it’s likely that most currently working screenwriters will face the prospect of working on a costumed-hero project at some point, so we thought it would be a good idea to see what lessons the best and worst films in the genre have to teach us about writing a super-script:

1. Your hero must be movie-worthy.

All superheroes have amazing powers that are terrifically visual, but that doesn’t mean they are all suitable to cinematic adaptation. For a character to work on celluloid, there must be some aspect to him or her that can be dramatized. The all-powerful Superman has to keep his true identity hidden from the women he loves by posing as a hapless dweeb; Batman is consumed with the desire to avenge his parents’ murder; Spider-Man has to continually juggle the demands of his private life and his civic obligations. These are all compelling situations with enormous dramatic potential, both in writing and performance, and the best movies featuring these characters—Superman, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and Spider-Man 2—have mined that potential to great effect. The Flash, on the other hand … well, he runs really fast. There’s just not much there to play with, nor is there with characters such as Captain Marvel and Aquaman, which is why, despite constant announcements that films are being developed for these heroes, none have ever come to fruition. If you find yourself faced with adapting such a hero, you’re going to have to work hard to come up with an approach that makes the character interesting, such as the existential loneliness assigned to Bruce Banner in TV and feature versions of The Incredible Hulk, an idea that, while not present in the original comic book, was a logical extrapolation for the character.

2. Respect the material and take it seriously.

When comic books first began, they tended to be crudely drawn and plotted and aimed mostly at children. Despite the enormous strides the medium has made, both in the sophistication of the product and in the breadth of its audience, this negative perception persists in many quarters and has led to a reluctance on the part of many filmmakers to treat the material in a respectful manner when adapting it for the screen. Apparently embarrassed to be working on comic book-based projects and desperate to show audiences that they are above/smarter than the material, these filmmakers tend to either dumb the material down to the point where it becomes simplistic and childish (Fantastic Four, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), make a joke out of it by camping it up (Batman Forever, Superman III, Batman & Robin), or else impose inappropriate themes on the material in an attempt to make it seem more “significant” (think of the Oedipal nonsense that was grafted onto Hulk or all that the weird split-personality stuff Tim Burton incorporated into Batman and Batman Returns, none of which has anything to do with the characters). The question of why someone would accept an assignment to work on something they don’t like or respect aside, I’ve never understood why filmmakers choose to take any of these approaches since they satisfy no one. Comic-book fans don’t appreciate having their favorite characters mocked or distorted, and if the idea is to attract wider audiences beyond just comic-book fans, highlighting just how crappy and insubstantial you think the base material is seems a curious way to accomplish this.

Christian Bale stars as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Begins PHOTO: WARNER BROS.

The best superhero movies—with Superman, Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight being the cream of the crop— are the ones that take themselves seriously and treat the characters and material with intelligence and respect. Of course, you don’t want to take things too seriously. After all, at the end of the day, movies need to be entertaining and films like Superman, Spider-Man, and Iron Man are great fun and provide thrills, excitement and humor (of the “laughing with” rather than “laughing at” variety) along with the respect. On the other hand, films like Superman Returns, Hulk, Batman Returns, The Punisher, and Watchmen are so grim and dour in their approach that all of the entertainment value has been drained out of the pictures and they wind up being no fun at all.

3. Tell the origin story.

For some reason, a lot of screenwriters don’t like the idea of doing an origin story for their superhero. The reason most often given is that presenting the hero’s backstory takes too long and dropping it allows you to get to the action quicker. The problem is that approach also causes you to lose most of the drama. For so many heroes, the drama of their tale lies in their backstory. It’s in Bruce Wayne’s witnessing of his parents’ death and his subsequent vow to avenge them; it’s in Clark Kent’s decision to use his powers to help the world rather than to conquer it; it’s in Peter Parker’s realization that with great power comes great responsibility. If you lose this material, all you’re left with is a lot of set-pieces and special effects and no heart.

4. Your hero has to be a real person.

Powers and tights do not a character make. To write a successful superhero script, you must develop your extraordinary protagonist into a fully fleshed-out, multi-faceted person. This is a challenge with any character in any screenplay, but it can be especially difficult with superheroes because they are so unreal and larger-than-life that it can be easy to let them drift into caricature or cardboard. The key is to find the human aspects within your superhuman and then mine them for all they are worth. For example, it may be hard to humanize an alien with god-like powers such as Superman, or a billionaire like Bruce Wayne with seemingly unlimited resources to carry out his war on crime, or a guy like Peter Parker who has been bitten by an irradiated spider. By contrast, it is easy to humanize a lonely orphan experiencing unrequited love for an inamorata that can’t see beneath his nerdy exterior to the wonderful person underneath, or a man struggling with inconsolable grief and rage, or an awkward teenager trying to fit in as his body is freaking out.

One of the most enjoyable superhero films is Iron Man (2008), which is kind of amazing because Iron Man himself isn’t a particularly interesting hero. He’s got a neat costume, but his powers aren’t so hot, he doesn’t have great villains, and the movie’s plot is a bit by-thenumbers. What makes the film work so well is its wonderfully realized protagonist. Rich, charming, and extremely witty, Tony Stark is an attractive character with a compelling arc. He begins as a self-involved munitions manufacturer who couldn’t care less about the devastating effects his wares have on the world, then he has a brush with death that provokes a crisis of conscience, and eventually he becomes a protector rather than a destroyer. We like this guy, we can identify with his struggle (who among us doesn’t wish we could be better than we are?), and we cheer when he triumphs. Who could ask for more?

5. You need a good villain, but not too much of one.

The rules of drama dictate that a worthy protagonist must have a worthy antagonist, and it is here that comic books have a wonderful advantage because they contain vast numbers of weird and wild baddies, from the diabolical genius Lex Luthor to the mad clown The Joker to the venomously named Obadiah Stane. However, because these bad guys are so colorful, some filmmakers get carried away with them and let them take over the movie. Nowhere was this tendency more evident than in the first four Warner Bros. Batman movies. The antagonists in those films, from Jack Nicholson’s Joker to Danny DeVito’s Penguin to Jim Carrey’s Riddler to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, are the main characters while Batman himself does little more than stand around and react to the villains’ antics, which is simply bad dramatic writing. The villain’s job is to foil the protagonist, not drive the story, and the hero should never, ever play second fiddle to the baddie.

The villain also needs to be credible. Ever since Nicholson’s oversized performance in Batman, there has been a tendency to depict supervillains in a broad, “over the top” fashion which often tips into camp and thus completely negates the threat. Compare Batman’s Joker to The Dark Knight’s incarnation of the character, who is played straighter and so makes a much more effective bad guy.

Finally, only one villain, please. Lots of superhero movies (Batman’s three sequels, Spider-Man 3) like to double and triple up on their baddies, presumably to increase the menace. Their efforts often end in bad drama. Just as a script should only have one protagonist, it is best to have only one villain. Any more dilutes the narrative focus and so, ironically, waters down the menace.

6. Don’t create an original superhero.

Not for a spec, anyway. The studios’ current passion to make superhero movies is driven primarily by the idea that they are presold properties—already-established “brands” to be exploited. They’re not interested in new ones. Plus, original movie superheroes are rarely successful. No matter how sincere the intent, they tend to come across as spoofs. The most successful comic book-like movies, such as The Matrix and Darkman, are those that borrow a lot of elements from comic-book heroes without directly appropriating the cape and boots.

Movies and comic books have a lot in common. When done well, both use dynamic imagery and the rules of dramatic narrative to create potent pop-mythology. When it comes time to combine the two, it’s a job for a super-screenwriter!

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The Craft of Writing Great Villains

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