Friday, January 16, 2009

WW #6 Follow-Up: Good With The Treasure Hunting, Not So Much With The Treasure KEEPING

Judging from the comments, the "Six Qualities" list sparked one of our more interesting debates. The comments certainly had me thinking and reflecting. Some clarifications:

1) I apologize if anyone thought I was deliberately belittling Dr. Henry Jones or the Indy movies. At least one commenter seemed to have taken it personally. Not my intent. Raiders is still one of the greatest screenplays of all time and one of the best movies in anyone's film collection, including mine. But I honestly think that what I love most about that movie is its subversiveness towards the classic movie-hero tropes--most notably that if you take Indy out of that movie, the plot stays virtually intact. Okay, yeah, it might take the Nazis a little longer to find the Ark out there in the desert, but they still get their faces eaten off by tampering with Forces Unknown. ("Find the ark and get it to the US Government. He did that." Please. Only because the Villain Defeated Himself.) I really don't mind this. And, more importantly, I surrender to it.

2) I still feel like you have to stretch the definition of "successful" in order to make it fit Indy, who loses things almost as often as he finds them and manages to leave an awful lot of archaeology-unfriendly destruction in his wake, but I certainly accept that "successful" doesn't always mean "at the obvious goal" and can mean "at an unintended goal" so long as you can sell the audience on the idea that the latter's just as significant. (Not always a given.)

3) I have no idea how Frodo manages to bypass this list, but I'm convinced I could figure it out if I liked him as a character even remotely and hadn't spent eight moviegoing hours silently imploring his comrades to just leave the little bastard behind.

4) I probably should have added the word "altogether" to the statement "if my hero is missing one or more of these qualities". Not backpedalling, just emphasizing the earlier point--not every hero has to have all six qualities firing on all cylinders all the time. But, as I said, if I look back on some story of heroic fiction that I've written and realize I failed to have my protagonist hit these touchstones even once, the story feels "off" unless I did it on purpose.

Agreed all around that sometimes the most interesting stories are about the protagonist acquiring one or more of these traits as part of his journey. In fact, to further the discussion, let's let's expand on the original list. Here's how I interpret the Six Qualities. YMMV. (In fact, since it's not even my list to begin with and I no longer know how the original author interpreted these terms, MY mileage may be the one that's varying.)

COMPETENT--this doesn't leave a whole lot of room for interpretation. Hero doesn't have to be consistently brilliant--that's dull--but it seems like you want your hero to be at least baseline not-a-total-buffoon. I suppose there are exceptions--within the world of the Pink Panther, Clouseau is a hero, I guess--but I'm not sure these guidelines translate well to slapstick comedy.

BRAVE--again, pretty self-explanatory. Fundamental, I'd say. Because no matter how quirky or comically cowardly your hero seems, anyone who's willing to start down the path of the Heroic Journey however reluctantly is, to some degree, "brave."

MORAL--I take "moral" at its strictest definition: demonstrating a consistent ethical code, not necessarily MY ethical code. Dr. Doom is actually "moral" in that sense. I do think that if your hero's all over the map morally, it's much harder for the audience to keep his motivations straight.

SELFLESS--toughest to infuse consistently without making your hero a dull boor. Personally, I like selfless heroes more than heroes with feet of clay--personal preference--but I fully understand why they don't resonate widely. In Back to the Future, one of my favorite movies of all time, Marty McFly shows only the occasional flash of selflessness--his goal is, in fact, 100% selfish and his own welfare is almost always at the forefront of his actions. But the key word there is "almost"--there are the occasional flashes of selflessness in act three, and I'd argue that without them, the story would be more hollow.

RELEVANT, at least as I interpret it, means that the hero's goals or needs are in some way relatable to our own--the more relatable, the better. The reason Spider-Man's popularity overtook Superman's back in the '60s was that Spider-Man's problems were relevant to us--family worries, trouble at school, feeling like you can't catch a break. Meanwhile, Superman's biggest problem was that he couldn't figure out how to enlarge the Bottle City of Kandor.

And SUCCESSFUL we've already discussed. Successful at something important to the audience, something the importance of which (if it isn't the stated goal) clearly supersedes on an emotional level any failed goals.

I repeat: not a recipe. Rules of thumb. But, for writing pulp adventure, rules I find useful.

27 comments:

Peter said...

Frodo bypasses that list because he is not the hero. Sam is the hero. Frodo is a ring-mule that Sam drives through hell and back, constantly saving his butt. Frodo is the Professor to Sam's Tintin. Often useful at crucial moments, and sometimes heroic, but hardly *the hero*.

Justin said...

I'd still maintain that Indy affects the plot insofar as I assume the Nazis probably kill Marian for the headpiece if he's not there, though.

Someone on YouTube should edit together an "Indy stays home" cut of Raiders with just the Nazi parts, ending the same way.

werewolf123 said...

Indy is a pot hunter not an archeologist,success for him is to gather enough stories to fill a speaking tour and allow him to gain enough money to have another adventure.

Dean said...

Mark, your definition of "relevant" makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks.

To marketing folks, it is called addressing your target market. The case of "Smallville" is by far the most interesting in that regard. If you stop and think about it, previous versions of Superman were more or less a newspaper movies. They had a lot in common with "His Girl Friday" and "The Philadelphia Story". The big stroke of genius in the '80s revamp was lift the central character from the greatest of the newspaper films and turn him into Lex Luthor.

However, people stopped watching newspaper movies thirty years ago. The daily paper just is not relevant to the lives of most people under 40. As a result, the target audience for Superman product got grayer and grayer.

When I was doing my heaviest comic reading, people used to love to talk about how to "fix" Superman. They always focused on ditching the elements that didn't seem consistent with the Lee-Kirby model (i.e. the Fortress of Solitude, the multi-hued kryptonite, etc.)

What Gough and Millar did instead was ditch the dated genre trappings. They threw out the newspaper stuff and replaced it with teen soap opera genre elements. They kept nearly all the supposedly impossible Wesinger elements. The show was a huge hit by the standards of the tiny WB network. In other words, they made Superman relevant to a younger (and much broader) audience.

In the DVD commentary for (I think) Season One, the producers mentioned a letter that they got from an upset young, female fan. She wanted to know why the "meteor rocks" made Clark weak. You see, she had no idea that she was watching a show about Superman and that the meteor rocks were krytponite. In fact, I would wager that she would not have watched a full episode if the dated genre trappings were intact.

Dave Menendez said...

It's been a while since I've read the books and seen the films, but I think book-Frodo is more heroic than movie-Frodo. But then, almost everyone is more heroic in the books.

John Seavey said...

I'd say these are all good starting points. Obviously, it's important to note that it's not a strait-jacket; you can have a character do something that's a little selfish, a little cowardly, et cetera, if the story demands it and you think you can convince readers to go with it. But it's a nice initial set of parameters to make a sympathetic protagonist out of, and in comics (which are designed, in general, with the long run in mind) it's important to have a sympathetic protagonist.

(Come to think about it, I actually wrote about this on my blog, how "Booster Gold" failed as a series the first time because the audience wasn't willing to give the writer time to develop Booster into a hero. They thought he was a selfish, amoral jerk, and dropped the book before he could evolve into something more.)

(Um, not to plug my blog or anything. You can also read that same entry on 'Comics Should Be Good!', which co-hosts my columns. :) )

Winterman said...

I especially like the outcry against the various examples of Deus ex Machina displayed at various times over the most recent Indy film. As if that wasn't the modus operandi of each and every one of the Indy movies beginning at the beginning.

In Raiders, all he did was fail upwards, ultimately getting into so much trouble (saving neither himself, nor the girl nor the precious artifact, nor the world) that only GOD could save the day.

Literally.

Technically those qualities should add up to a crappy, forgettable experience yet Raiders was and remains one of my favorite films of all time. And, no matter how you finesse it, it just doesn't bear close scrutiny.

So while I didn't find the most recent iteration as awesome as I'd hoped, neither was it the drekfest that so many people claimed.

I had fun. Which was the point, no?

Dean said...

On Frodo, my memory is that Tolkein was trying to construct a compelling epic with the least heroic protagonist possible. He was drawing a political allegory related to England and its role in the Second World War. To the extent that Frodo is un-heroic without adversely effecting the story, he succeeded.

Iain Gibson said...

I think the key with Indiana Jones is not that he fails, it's that he temporarily succeeds:

He retrieves the idol, initially.
He prevents Marion from being tortured by Toht.
He stops the headpiece from falling into the hands of the Nazis.
He finds the Ark.
He escapes the Well of Souls.
He steals the Ark from the Nazis.
He prevents Marion (and himself) from being killed along with everyone else by not looking into the Ark (a heroic move for a curious archaeologist).
He returns the Ark to America.

Julia said...

Um, yeah. I was going to say pretty much what Peter said, probably not as neatly, so What Peter Said.

Jim Kakalios said...

I agree with your points about Indy and Raiders (beautifully summarized by Winterman). So I pose the following: why was Raiders so much more successful, at least Box Office wise - than Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. At least in WOT, one could argue that the hero fulfills all of the six heroic requirements. without Joe Sullivan, the atmosphere would be ignoted by Totenkopf's rocket, after all. and hey - seriously = giant robots and camera angles straight from a Max Fleischer Superman cartoon?

Second question: Does the fact that Dr. Doom is convinced that the world would be improved by his leadership count as "selflessness"? Certainly he has been cowardly (FF # 10) but also brave in the face of impossible odds (ending of Secret Wars - one of my favorite Doom moments as he puts his plan into action while the Beyonder flays him alive - using sheer force of will). He certainly has the other six components - though one can argue that his successes have been provisional. (except when he managed to save his mother's soul in the excellent graphic novel team up with Dr. Strange by Roger Stern and Mike Mignola). What say you - true believer?

Winterman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Winterman said...

Sky Captain likely failed for many more reasons than we can know. My personal feeling is that the film was essentially a clockwork, done to showcase the glorious CGI, while Raiders was a true homage to its source material (without slavishly recreating it).

Gwyneth Paltrow gave her worst performance ever in Sky Captain and, as we know she's quite gifted, we must ascribe her failure somewhat to the shortcomings of her director.

When I said Indy fails upwards I was alluding to the small victories, essentially meaningless plot-wise but which cement his character for the audience in a positive way. When pushed he's mostly a decent guy who makes mistakes.

So, he fails at the big stuff. He lives to fight another day, gets a little of his own back and bitches about it along the way. He's just like us but slightly better.

Sky Captain, by contrast, is always right, only fails when others fail him and generally functions as a description of a hero, rather than actually being one. He's nothing like us. He is an object among other objects in a piece that looks awesome but doesn't touch its audience at all.

The difference may be that Lucas and Speilberg are of an age where the serials they recreated were actually seen and loved by them in their appropriate context and so they knew, in a physical, real world way, how it felt to watch those films and be affected by them. They tried to recreate an experience rather than a document. Sky Captain is the reverse- a document, rather than an experience, and so falls flat.

The director/writer of Sky Captain is too young to have had that pure kinesthetic contact with his source material so, rather than being a participant in the original phenomenon, he is like an anthropologist, looking at it from a distance and from outside the glass.

It may be as simple as that.

I'm still naive enough to believe that love can sometimes make the difference in art.

Scott said...

Only because the Villain Defeated Himself.

This ultimately prevents me from fully enjoying Raiders. Same thing happens at the end of The Stand: the heroes are tied up and play no active role in the climax.

Winterman said...

Re: Doom

Too many cooks.

he recently made himself new mystical armor out of the skin of his first love.

Not a hero, whatever his motivation.

Dean said...

Winterman, you wrote:

he recently made himself new mystical armor out of the skin of his first love.

I am always a little leery of using recent story examples of long-running characters to discus their fundamental natures. The cast of "The Fantastic Four" has been written in various incarnations by probably a few hundred different people. They all have different takes on and opinions about these characters. Some of them have added bits that are awesome and some have added bits that dreadful. However, only two of people created them.

The genius of Stan Lee (in particular) was that he flipped the script on the genre conventions of 1950s sci-fi movies, horror movies and superhero comics. That is why Baby Boomers thought Marvel was so hip. Ben Grimm was a drive-in monster, so was The Hulk. Peter Parker would have been standing nervously in the back while Flash Thompson went to confront The Lizard. In fact, he probably would've been comic relief played by Bob Denver.

Like all the top-tier Marvel bad guys, Doctor Doom has an origin that is a lot more heroic scale than the good guys. The murder of his parent, his life time of training to get revenge and his Byronic attitude look an awful lot like a certain DC superhero.

Jim Kakalios said...

Winterman:

Nice analysis of Sky Captain. Hard to disagree. It would follow that any film versions of Doc Savage, or the Shadow, if they stayed true to the pulp roots, would suffer similar weaknesses. Same issue of flawless heroes.

Re: Doom, yeah, the armor out of his beloved's skin is hard to spin. What writer was responsible for that? Guy must be twisted!

Winterman said...

Doom is selfish. Whatever his superficial similarities to Batman, their motivations and the actions based on them are as opposite as can be.

Wayne's life is touched by trauma and tragedy so he, insanely, yes, bends himself to the preventing the same thing from happening again to others or, failing that, to punish the evildoers.

Doom's entire motivation is selfish and his method of grappling with what he perceives as injustice- the world not bending to his wishes- is not noble in the slightest.

Jim Kakalios said...

Winterman:

Agreed that Doom is selfish. Though here's the thing - at least some of the time he has been written such that his selfishness is driven by the fact that he truly
believes that the world will be a better place under his rule. The wants to extend what he perceives as the benefits of the crime and problem free (also freedom-free) Latveria to the rest of the world. In those cases its not so much selfishness as a monomania or messiah complex that drives him. He is so convinced that the world would be better under his iron hand that he is willing to kill millions to save billions (Watchmen, anyone?).

Winterman said...

Hm.

I don't think Ozymandias can be linked to Doom either.

Doom is an egomaniac, meaning he is, at heart, self-deluding. His inability to countenance any dissent or contradictory data is an example of this. It's his way, his will that is important raher than the window dressing he claims i.e. that he wants to make the world a better place.

Ozymandias was ruthless, sure, but he wasn't attempting anything more complex than a giant scarecrow, throwing a pebble into the human tide to divert the river into a new, less suicidal direction. He killed, what, a few thousand people in order to terrify a few million?

He didn't set himself up as ruler but ruminated about his actions, alone or with Osterman, hoping the evil he'd done would save humanity from itself. He knew his actions were hideous and was fully aware of the awfulness but it was surgical strike and he as prepared to deal with the guilt. To me, Ozymandias is the only superhero who has ever existed. He's the only one who tried to address the root cause of trouble between humans, to actually stop it.

Doom has no guilt. He's a sociopath. Sometimes charismatic, often brilliant but, ultimately unable to see the world as anything more than a place where he alone is meant to live. The rest of us are just here to make his like better.

Doom doesn't do anything without a puerile, selfish motive at its base. He's greedy, cruel to the point of sadism and completely devoid of conscience.

He is almost a literal mirror to Reed Richards and that is not by accident.

Jim Kakalios said...

Actually - Adrian Veidt killed millions of innocents in order to save billions. Rorschak admires the moral resolve of Truman but is violently opposed to Veidt's actions - as Veidt is unelected and no one can hold him to account.

And in his big speech at the end, Veidt makes clear that he intends, through continued behind the scenes manipulation, to guide humanity to what Veidt considers a new Golden Age. The only real difference between Veidt and conventional supervillains is that Veidt intends to remain under every one's radar and never publicly proclaim himself Emperor of the World.

Enjoying this discussion.

rpm45 said...

Mark, thanks, that's a very interesting analysis. I think it holds true by and large, and is a useful way to make sure the story's in good shape -- with all the caveats you list!

Dean: Lord of the Rings was never intended to have anything to do with WWII; the war was one of many influences, though a significant one. (Tolkien spells this out in the foreword to the edition I have. He even lists all of the ways in which the story would have been different had he been going for allegory.)

I think Frodo was very heroic in the early part of the story, at least. As the ring's influence grew stronger, he became increasingly focused simply on resisting it, and Sam picked up the Hero mantle to keep them going. Hadn't really thought of it in these terms before, but it seem to me the Hero actually passes from Frodo early on (he's the one that decides to take the ring) over to Sam. What do you think?

Jim Kakalios et al: I think one of the biggest problems with Sky Captain was that there was almost no story in there at all. They kept setting something up, then going off in some other direction. I think this was a case of Shiny Things Syndrome: they kept putting ideas in the movie because it was cool (which it generally was!). This makes sense in light of Winterman's analysis that it wasn't a labour of love.

(In Star Wars, by contrast, the story was pretty thin, but at least there was only one and he followed it through.)

Jean-Paul said...

Interesting thoughts about this idea.

Just thinking about Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels vs. Robert Heinlein's works.

Pratchett started with a hero that was completely incompetent (Rincewind). Since then, a lot of his heroes tend to often be incompetent, but he does have his competent heroes (Carrot, Moist). Often his incompetent heroes tend to be more sympathetic and relevant than his competent ones.

On the other hand, all of Heinlein's heroes are competent. This does not stop them from failure, but every one has a baseline competence that is admirable.

I love Heinlein, but his work often does not affect me emotionally, which might be due to an inability to connect to the characters.

Either of these writers do not seem to have been adapted well into comics, and I wonder if it is due to the differences in the medium.

doctoradder said...

I think the reason there's so much churn over this topic is that a checklist like this can't contain the true essence of heroism, which is: A character who overcomes his own limitations to do the right thing.

The reason Raiders is, and was, such a remarkable film is that the really essential arc of it is character-driven. In Raiders, Indy is presented as a far cry from the standard issue hero -- he's something a little darker and dirtier.

MORAL? SELFLESS? Hah! This is a guy who betrayed his mentor to sleep with his teenage daughter. In fact, Indy possesses a trait common to many villains: a kind of greed, a lust for possession, is what really defines him.

Belloq is right when he tells Indy: "You and I are very much alike..." They have fallen from the "pure faith" of archaeology; Belloq is but a "shadowy reflection."

Indy's alleged goal throughout is to get the Ark before the Nazis. But we sense that his real drive is to simply lay hands on it first -- to possess the long-dormant knowledge. That drive propels him to do some pretty shady things -- notably repeatedly failing the girl, time after time, leaving her in harm's way rather than jeopardize his goal.

His choice -- the girl or the goal -- snaps into sharp focus in the scene near the end when he's got the bazooka on the bad guys. Belloq calls his bluff: Indy would never destroy the artifact.

The most incredibly subversive thing about this movie -- and lay this on a Hollywood development guy the next chance you get, watch his brain melt and blood leak out his tear ducts -- the hero's big third act moment, his decisive act? IS SHUTTING HIS GODDAMN EYES -- and having the presence of mind to tell the girl to do the same. This doesn't come across as some clever plan... as in so many moments in the movie, Indy is "making it up as he goes along." But at this point, he's finally realized his blind greed for knowledge, the temptation of possession must be denied. He saves the girl and himself, and is able to deliver the Ark to a safe haven only because he overcame his own demons at the critical moment.

I'm not addressing the other movies because, to my mind, they're eminently forgettable in part because they're hellbent to make the hero a much more "standard" hero.

There are some heroes that are defined by their struggle to overcome themselves: Han Solo becomes boring the second he becomes a wholehearted Rebellion cheerleader, a General who's a full-fledged part of the system.

That whole "getting beyond yourself" is why Marty McFly remains such a charming hero, despite the ultimately self-serving nature of his goals -- because to achieve his ends, he has to get beyond the limitations of his perception and relate to his parents as if they're real people with rich inner lives and a history that has a meaning far beyond the part they play in Marty's life.

And as far as RELEVANCE goes... that's a loaded one. What was so goddamn relevant to audiences in 1981 about some archaeology professor some four-and-a-half decades earlier chasing after some mythical artifact and fighting a bunch of bad guys who were ancient history? Hollywood is forever trying to make stuff relevant by "updating" it, retrofitting it with the latest hot trends. (Need I mention the Simpsons episode about "Poochie the Dog" which ably demonstrates how this goes awry?)

Smallville didn't work simply because they transplanted the newspaper elements with high school elements -- and besides, there are still plenty of newsreporting elements involved, with the characters of Chloe and Lois! It worked because the show found the point of contact between the real, experienced lives of teenagers and the Superman mythos -- the feeling of keeping secrets, of exploring untapped potentials unknown to those around you, the changing relationships of your peers as the choices you make transform your identity.

The ultimate relevance is always interior and emotional.

elias_A said...

It's been years since I've seen Sky Captain, but from what I remember...

- The hero seems unlikeable and arrogant. That could be interesting quirks in the hands of good writers.
But Sky Captain isn't introduced in any way that would make us relate to him. As far as I remember, he has no personal goals and weaknesses. He's just the generic hero. And not even a "cool" one.

It is often boring to have a well-trained hero just do what he was well-trained for. We can much more relate to guys like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter who are thrown into unexpected dangers first and have to quickly gain the skills as they go along.
That's the reason why, if we get well-trained heroes nevertheless, like Sherlock Holmes or Aragorn, they work better when they are not the point-of-view characters.
Or they get funny sidekicks. (Sky Captain would have desperately needed one.)

Indiana Jones is well-trained, sure, but I suppose an important point why he's so fascinating is that he is supposed to be a well-trained archaeologist first and foremost and in fact is so different from the mental image that conjures, especially being most competent in an unusual weapon like the whip.
Also, Indy shows his competence not with calm superiority, but with boyish excitement, which is much more relatable. (Sherlock Holmes has a bit of that, too.)

It would have been a good idea to show Sky Captain confused, wide-eyed and out of his element occasionally. Or show that he wants to present a Buster-Keaton like stoicism, but have that pose occasionally slip. Or, alternatively, give him atragic background a serious life-mission, like revenge or something, that he doesn't want everybody to know about.
Did the movie have something like that? Actually, I don't really remember, but I remember I found the character extremely boring and the actor annoying.

Another weakness of the movie that the computer-effects most of the time didn't succeed in creating a pulp atmosphere. (The original King Kong movie would be the perfect reference how to get that right.)
For example, the flying aircraft-carrier seemed too incredible (for a 30s pulp world) and too much modern high-tech.

Were there any interesting villains, besides the evil computer? Some old rival challenging and taunting our hero? I don't remember.

Of course most of what I mentioned are only cliches. But in my opinion, the script lacked even the basic competence to do that right.

Sad, really, because the basic idea of a nostalgic pulp-movie in back and white is very appealing to me. But I would recommend trying to make the script smarter, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen did for Victorian adventure, instead of just as dumb or even dumber than the originals.

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