Jul 12, 2006

Superman Returns

Movies based on comic book super-heroes are more difficult to write well than they appear. These stories are a sub-form of the action genre, with a number of fantasy and horror elements thrown in. Mixing these three genres properly is tricky, which is why most super-hero films are huge and expensive flops. Superman Returns has a better script than the Superman films of 20 years ago. The writers have obviously learned two big lessons from recent successful super-hero films like Spider-Man, The Incredibles and Batman Returns.

The first lesson is: give the hero a serious weakness and need. The writers don't just recycle the usual Superman history, which is generic by now and has little psychological force for the audience. Instead Superman's weakness is focused on his relationship with Lois Lane. Clearly they were in love and he abandoned her, and it has had painful consequences for both of them. This is written and played seriously, so while the man has superhuman strength, he is recognizably all-too-human.

The second lesson is: give the superhero a dangerous opponent. Some have complained that Kevin Spacey's performance is too jokey (I don't agree). But as written, this Lex Luthor is not campy, like the opponent Gene Hackman played in the original Superman. He's nasty and deadly. In the Great Screenwriting Class, where I talk about how you create the right opponent for your hero, I start with one of the keys to great storytelling: your hero is only as good as the opponent he fights. This is certainly true when you write a super-hero story. You begin with a big problem: the super-hero is almost never in believable jeopardy. So creating an opponent who can give the hero a fair fight is extremely difficult already. If you then make him a campy joke, you have effectively killed your plot.

The Superman story uses another storytelling trick that audiences love. I refer to it as the Scarlet Pimpernel technique. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero appears to be an effete and effeminate bon vivant who cares about nothing but the latest fashion. Secretly, he is a dashing action hero saving the unfortunate (but not poor) victims of the French Revolution. Superman pretends to be the bumbling and possibly cowardly nerd, Clark Kent. In reality, he is the Man of Steel, saving mankind from all sorts of crimes and disasters.

The contrast between these two personas - the weak and the heroic - is inherently fun for the audience. It also makes the central thematic point of these stories, which is the importance of living courageously. Just how much the audience loves this technique is readily seen in any Superman film. In The Scarlet Pimpernel, the hero does his heroic deeds in disguise, so his pose as a fop is completely believable. In Superman, the hero simply removes his Clark Kent glasses and greases back his hair. Apparently no one in Metropolis has facial recognition, and the audience couldn't care less.

Jul 5, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada is a simple little comedy that appears to have almost nothing going for it. The hero doesn't go through much character development. She gets caught up in trying to be successful, forgets her friends and her boyfriend, and ends up opting for integrity and a substantial career instead of climbing the executive rungs of the fashion business. It's all very predictable and trite. But this obvious character change is there to give the writer a clean line on which to hang a sequence of funny bits. The secret to the success of this comedy is found in three structural elements: a horrible but believable opponent, a unique and authentic story world, and a psychology the audience is all too familiar with.

A great opponent is just as important in a comedy as it is in an action story. Since comedy structure is based on snowballing nightmares (see the Comedy Class for how to set this up), you always have to start with a powerful opponent who can generate the nightmares. A great comic opponent is not literally deadly like an opponent in an action story. But she must be socially deadly, able to inflict severe humiliation or loss. Here, the hero's boss, Amanda (played perfectly by Meryl Streep), is a monster with no end of ways to torture her assistant and make her feel small.

The comic scenes and lines come out of a unique story world - the fashion industry - that is both foreign, and thus surprising to the audience, but is also part of our everyday lives. A sense of authenticity is very valuable in storytelling because it gives the audience the exciting sense that they are peering into a hidden world. When that world is fashion - the clothes we wear to look good - that excitement is magnified.

The comedy also relies heavily on a deep psychological scar, especially for women, that is embedded in American culture. This is the pressure to be thin and beautiful. A lot of the fun in this movie comes from the fortunate casting of Anne Hathaway in the lead, an actress more beautiful than most supermodels. But I'm sure the script was written from the beginning based on the assumption that a beautiful actress would play the part. So when the fashionistas remark with disgust that the Anne Hathaway character is a size 6!!, the joke is funny because it is both absurd but also, within this world, totally real. With each joke the audience senses that if it can happen to a "normal" woman who is this beautiful, what chance do I have. A joke or gag is always meant to create laughs by diminishing the character. If you can also give the audience some recognition or revelation about their own life at the same time, the joke is ten times more effective.