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Friday, August 12, 2016

DC v. Marvel: In Need of Meat-And-Potatoes Storytelling

Can I let you in on a little secret? We here are GeekRex... like DC. We write about their comics all the time, often positively. Kyle, our editor-in-chief, has been writing weekly articles about Rebirth over at Comics Beat. Shane, one of our contributors, is writing extensively about Rebirth right here. My first pick for our Comics Club podcast? A DC comic. And, more so than a lot of nerd-centric websites, we are often critical of the saminess of Marvel Studios' film offerings.

I say all that to blunt the impact of what I'm going to say next, and to assure you that it is not meant to be taken as an insult, but as a suggestion for improvement: For all their issues, Marvel's films aren't just better in general than anything DC's done since The Dark Knight, they're reliably better. Predictably better. And the reason Marvel movies are more popular and better received? It has nothing to do with being 'lighter' and more 'audience-friendly' - that's a stupid argument and a cop-out, an excuse made to put off looking at some hard truths. Plenty of light, fluffy films come out every year that fail, while Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is plenty dark, and those were enormous hits. No, the tone is a difference, but it's not the important difference.

The important difference is this: Marvel is telling stories, while DC is making amusement park rides.

Don't get me wrong, DC. You do a lot right. Your movies look great. The Enchantress effects and lighting in Suicide Squad were gorgeous, and the film's grimy cyber-goth aesthetic is nothing like the chilly iconography-chasing grandeur of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. There are dozens of frames I could pull from any of these movies and, say, put on a dorm room poster and have an instant classic look. There are individual shots from both movies that have stuck with me long after damn near any visual from a Marvel movie.

But when it comes to scripts, you treat every single DC movie post-Nolan - and way too many of your other blockbusters, frankly - like a theme park ride. They function as a machine meant to guide audiences from thrill to thrill before depositing them gently at the exit having given them an 'experience'. Now, an avant-garde art film might be able to get away with providing nothing more than an 'experience', but that would make about 30$ at the box office. You aren't making art films; you're telling stories. And you're doing it poorly.

Let's take Suicide Squad as an example. Early in the film, you have Amanda Waller visit El Diablo and Deadshot to recruit them. El Diablo refuses outright, and Deadshot has a series of demands he wants in exchange for his services. Both are pivotal character moments. How will Waller get the repentant pacifist El Diablo to join the fight when she seemingly has nothing he wants? Does he have some secret desire? How canny an operator is she? How will she buy off the mercenary Deadshot? Will she betray her deal? Will Deadshot just trust her?

I have no idea, because the movie just basically skips from their refusals to them being on the team without a word. El Diablo and Deadshot are the two characters in the film with anything resembling a character arc, and Suicide Squad never tells us. They're just... there, when the team assembles. And, hell, Deadshot's story arc ends up having nothing whatsoever to do with those opening scenes, instead coming to be about him earning the grudging respect of soldier and team leader Rick Flagg. As the film, about two-thirds of the way through, remembers El Diablo, he quickly begins to strive for redemption, but they're trying to compress a movie's worth of storytelling into a flashback and a couple dialogue exchanges. It doesn't work.

Even the characters they do set up end up being betrayed by sloppy plotting. In Suicide Squad, Amanda Waller fights tooth and nail for a chance to try out her team. She's portrayed wonderfully by Viola Davis as the steely-eyed, sociopathic ball-buster we all know and love, and yet in Suicide Squad, she's deeply incompetent. The first mission for her team comes when her first recruit goes rogue, destroys a major American city, and the Squad's first mission... is to rescue Waller, who dallied around in said city for profoundly stupid reasons. The first mission comes with escapes and defections, and is basically an all-around failure. So, we have the Waller the film talks about - scary, dedicated, competent - and the Waller the plot shows - indecisive, sloppy, incompetent. Which am I to believe?

Compare that to Captain America: Civil War. Rewatch that one, and pay attention to what's going on in every scene that Tony and Steve are in. Look at the repeated ideas the film hammers home and then builds atop: Tony's combination of missing his parents and needing a break from being the hero, Steve's lack of self-control when Bucky's name is mentioned, and how those two feelings clash as tensions build. By the time we reach the climax of the film, I know exactly why both characters are doing what they're doing. And yeah, that seems almost stupidly simple, but you simply can't say the same about the current DCEU.

It's not that Marvel Studios doesn't make similar mistakes, of course. The Thor scenes in Avengers: Age of Ultron nearly derail the entire film, and Thor: The Dark World features a lot of the same issues, driven almost entirely by plot rather than character. But Marvel Studios has, in general, a philosophy of putting the character first that guides their films, and audiences clearly respond to that. Fox, Sony, Warner Bros. - you're all trying to argue that audiences only care about spectacle because that's what audiences say, those are the things they talk about when the movie is over. But what you're missing, the reason why Marvel Studios and Deadpool are dominating the box office and taking down vastly more well-known 'brands', are because they're making us care about the set pieces. Yours may be bigger and more graphically impressive and better shot and have cooler scores... but if the audience doesn't give a shit about the characters, you are almost never going to have a hit. 

If you ask me what my favorite food is, I might say ice cream. I love ice cream, in a wide variety of different forms. I get excited at the thought of getting a really good cone, or a great root beer float. But I can't live on ice cream alone - it's a treat, something meant to liven up my meals periodically. Even if I wax rhapsodic about Mitchell's ice cream, for dinner, I don't just need something more filling, I crave it. Meat and potatoes aren't the most delicious meal, but without it, I can't appreciate the dessert.

That's what you're lacking. Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad and Man of Steel are all dessert, eye candy that can entertain me in the moment periodically, but that grate in such concentrated doses. There's no meat on their bones.

Let me give you an example from Man of Steel. Early in the film, we see how Superman's enhanced senses hit him, a disorienting, overwhelming force that he was only able to overcome with his mother's help. Kryptonian abilities meeting human kindness and relationships. Later in the film, Superman takes Zod's helmet off, and Zod experiences the same disorientation. Now, we have a solution that makes sense to the Zod problem: Superman isn't as good a fighter as trained-warrior Zod, but Zod lacks Superman's empathy and relationships, so Zod has a glaring weakness that becomes his downfall. Makes sense, pays off that earlier scene - why else is it in the movie, after all? - and creates a solution that depends less on brawn and more on empathy, which is what the character is all about.

Except that's not what happens. What happens instead is, Zod shakes it off, and it never matters again. That earlier scene didn't really have any meaning, Superman's relationship with his parents isn't particularly important to the story, it's all just stuff that happens for some reason.

Let me give you a smaller example, from Suicide Squad. Captain Boomerang, who contributes absolutely nothing to the film - he doesn't particularly fight, and at one point he abandons the team only to just... be there in the next scene, without explanation - really only has one characteristic. The one thing we have on him is his love of his pink, stuffed unicorn. We don't know why, just that he has this pink stuffed unicorn that he loves and keeps stuffing in his jacket.

Part way through the film, during one of the action scenes in which he tries to contribute, he gets stabbed in the chest, and miraculously survives. It seems the knife hit... a stack of cash in his jacket? We don't know how he got the cash, why he had it over his heart, nothing, just that it was suddenly there when he needed it. Why didn't the pink unicorn keep him safe? At the bare minimum, why not reveal that he had been hiding the cash in the unicorn, hence his obsession with keeping it near. These are moments that pay off a running strand, giving us one big laugh or revealing something about the character. What you just had was, again, just... stuff happening.

Right now, your stories are 'and then' structured: This happens and then this happens and then this happens. Have you ever been stuck at a party with someone torturously reciting a story from earlier that week? That's what you're doing. 'And then' plotting means that you can't build momentum, because things that happen in one scene don't really carry over into the next scene. What you want to aim for is 'therefore, but' structure, the gold standard in action storytelling. Sarah Connor gave birth to John, therefore Skynet sent back an assassin. But the Resistance knew it would happen. Therefore, they sent back a protector of their own. But that model is wildly outclassed by the more powerful pursuer. Therefore, Sarah decides to kill the man who created the technology that would give rise to the Terminators. But she realized she couldn't take an innocent life. Therefore, they have to recruit Dyson to their side and get him to destroy his tech. But... well, you see where this is going. 

I know this sounds technical, like something you wouldn't recognize if you didn't study storytelling structure like some dumb dorks who definitely aren't me enjoy doing. But the fact is, you can do this with most great narrative films, and that's not an accident. Think of it like a car: You might not be able to tell how it's working just by looking at it, but if you get in and the engine won't start, even an amateur can tell that something's wrong. We feel stories, and great ones - the ones we list as our favorite movies ever - tend to stick with us somewhere deep inside. Even if we like a lot of the candy-coated surface of a lot of modern blockbusters, I don't think it's any surprise that the films people revisit time and time and time again tend to follow certain basic storytelling tenets. Which is why I see a lot of people saying Suicide Squad isn't bad as a defense - they recognize that it's got some great performances, an interesting aesthetic, some cool design choices, a diverse cast, an interesting point-of-view, all really vital things. But without the basics, it's hard to like and borderline impossible to love, and on some level, they can feel that something isn't right with the engine.

I know that meat-and-potatoes things like, "Maybe pay attention to characters" and "basic plotting" aren't very sexy, but I promise, you will make more money. Another pass at the script is the cheapest fix you could ever ask for, and it would solve the biggest problem with your films. You can make your movies as dark and as grand as you'd like, and if the scripts work, the people will come. It's Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, for Christ's sake. If you can't make money off those three, you shouldn't be in the money making business.

And yeah, it's not the end-all be-all solution. The reason I think Marvel movies get dinged by a lot of people who see a lot of movies is because they're basically nothing but meat-and-potatoes storytelling. The cinematography, the effects, the scores - they're all functional, but they only very rarely grow beyond that. In 13 films, Marvel has yet to produce a song for a score as good as Man of Steel's "What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World," or as chest-thumpingly cool as the opening riffs to Junkie XL's "Wonder Woman Theme". It hasn't produced a villain as visually fascinating as Suicide Squad's horror-leaning Enchantress in combat. 

The reason I keep seeing DC's films is because they're so clearly trying to do more, and that ambition appeals to me. But they haven't mastered the basics. I'm blaming the script here, but it could just as easily be the fault of the editing - Deadshot is introduced three separate times to the audience for some damn reason, while multiple characters basically aren't introduced at all and just sort of show up when the mission starts. Is that a script problem or an editing problem? Is that studio notes or just bad writing? It's impossible to tell at this distance, but what I can tell is that it's not working.

I've seen a lot of articles pop up along the lines of, "How to Fix the DC Cinematic Universe." But the problem isn't necessarily with what you're trying to do; it's the way you're trying to do it. There's nothing inherently wrong with a relentlessly grim and grimy version of a comic book universe other than the risk of monotony. But, as you've seen time and time and time again now, there is something wrong with fundamentally failing to put together coherent scripts. That's not a hard fix, but it does require a reframing of the way you think about your movies. A successful film isn't a 'brand silo', it's a story, and it's time that your started thinking about them that way -- yes, even on an administrative and executive level. Especially on those levels.
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