Archive for the 'Writing Articles' Category

May 03 2021

Hour 1 of Justice League’s Snyder Cut, Scene By Scene

Published by under Writing Articles

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1:30 – 6:55: Cyborg sees his Mother Box acting up. Then Mera sees her Mother box acting up. Then Amazon guards see their Mother Box acting up. Also there’s a Lex Luthor flashback where the computer shows him that Mother Boxes are plot relevant in case you missed that. PS: In the first 8 minutes of the movie, the only line of dialogue is an Amazon saying “Alert the Queen!”

6:55 – 9:30: A super-long Batman hike which doesn’t fit in at all with anything that’s happened up to this point (Mother Boxes acting up). Iceland is rugged but this camerawork is more grey/dreary than beautiful. Contrast to a Western where the epic vistas support the plot and characterization. For example, when a sheriff does a slow march out of town to apprehend an outlaw, the terrible beauty and desolation of the West are perfectly in sync with how savage the task ahead is. We don’t know anything that’s going on with Batman, so hopefully you REALLY like watching 2.5 minutes of desolate hiking through the crags of Iceland because that’s all you’re getting from this scene. We’re still on one line of dialogue so far.

9:30 – 14:30: Batman offers Aquaman/Curry a spot on the Justice League. Aquaman refuses. Ladies burst into song at 13:20 in the strangest use of diegetic music I’ve ever seen in my life.

Aquaman requests $5000 to pass along a message to the man from the sea “if he exists.” This ruse is a waste of time because Batman already knows he’s Aquaman. Proposed rewrite of this part of the scene:
Aquaman (Icelandic): $10,000 and I’ll find him if he exists.
Batman (English): $20, it’s a short search. (Batman briefly stares at a clean-shaven extra). There might be a mirror here. (Batman is obliquely saying that Curry is Aquaman, but Aquaman misses this).
Aquaman (Icelandic): You’re a billionaire and you can’t spare $10,000?
Batman (English): You’re a king and you need $10,000? (Pause). To find yourself (disbelief). I’ve seen a lot of business proposals, but Arthur you might have just topped shark repellent. (Hands him $10,000, which Aquaman quickly passes on to a local).
Aquaman (English): Finding someone that wants to be king, that can be a king is not easy. Keep the shark repellent, you’ll need it.
Batman: There is no shark repellent.
Aquaman: There is no Atlantis. Not for me, anyway.

An Icelandic local gets offended that Bruce offers Curry money to talk outside, and even the local’s confused about what he’s doing in this scene. “How dare this dog speak to us like children? Ooh, magical man from the sea! We are poor. Not stupid.” When your supernatural savior is handling a conversation with a stranger that seems to know his secret, antagonizing the stranger is a real dumb move, and it’s hard to imagine that he thinks this is helping Aquaman.

Instead of wasting a minute on a detour that goes nowhere (Aquaman claiming not to be Aquaman), I’d suggest focusing instead on Aquaman shooting down Batman’s request. For example, he’s jaded about being a ruler — the political situation in Atlantis looks awful for a new ruler with very little experience or political ability. I wouldn’t have him claim he’s in Iceland to get away from people – it obviously isn’t true, he’s close enough to the locals that they serenade him and sniff his sweater and oh God I hope that’s weird even in Iceland. I think it’d make more sense if he wants to choose his own problems, ones that he can actually fix. All of this points him away both from Atlantis and Bruce’s warning of impending danger.

Batman clumsily drags Superman into the conversation. CURRY: “Strong man is strongest alone. You ever heard that?” BATMAN: “You ever hear of Superman? He died fighting next to me.” If anything, I’d have Aquaman bring up Superman’s death first, as evidence that Batman’s plan is doomed. If you can’t make it work with Superman, it won’t work whether or not Aquaman joins.

14:30 – 15:30: Martha moves out of her foreclosed house. This is bizarrely slow, and won’t ever go anywhere. The only person fighting to keep this scene in the movie was U-Haul.

15:30 – 16:30: Bruce Wayne lands helicopter and discusses his recruiting failure with Alfred. Alfred’s main role in this movie is to narrate at people and be narrated to. When he’s not doing that, he’s being the even sadder guy in a room which is already well-steeped in morosity and lethargy.

16:30 – 18:15: Lois Lane gets coffee and exchanges pleasantries with a cop at Clark’s memorial. There’s a ridiculously over-the-top dirge. I think the point here is establishing that she’s still grieving over Clark’s death, but it’s hard to tell, since most scenes so far have been this bleak.

18:15 – 26:00: London. The world’s most incompetent terrorists shoot their way into a museum to buy time for a 4-block-radius bomb they could easily have detonated outside. Then they forget that bombs can be detonated instantly, so they set a minute-long fuse, which is enough time for 20+ cops, 5 police vans, 2 snipers and a superhero to show up. If you’re getting your hopes up for non-superheroes to do anything useful, don’t worry, we’ll next see the cops when debris from the last terrorist’s corpse rains down on them like a particularly bad construction accident. There’ll be a hat too. Welcome to London.

21:20: The bomb counter starts. 22:10: clock shows 30 seconds left, but it really should only have 10. Everything in this movie moves slower than normal, even bomb fuses.

Wonder Woman has an awful lasso of truth moment with an extraordinarily boring terrorist. Among other things, this guy expects to be dead within 60 seconds, and he’s under a lasso of truth, so he might have some unexpected emotional cues, e.g. maybe he’s got some regret about how it went down or he’s grimly confident that blowing up this bomb won’t accomplish anything he’s looking for, but it’s more about making a statement, or maybe he fears that bringing back the Stone Age might not work out all that well for his parents. He doesn’t need to be a likable character, but it is on-brand for Wonder Woman to bring out humanness in characters that normally don’t get it. It is NOT on-brand for Wonder Woman to dismiss the world’s most boring terrorist with “Boring!” If your scene is so lame that this feels like an appropriate response, get back to rewrite.

You're 5 feet from a door! But 0 feet from useless

23:10: Wonder Woman leaves with the bomb. At this point there is 1 terrorist with no bomb and a pistol. 23:30: The terrorist points pistol at the crowd. The hostages do… absolutely nothing but scream. 15 seconds later (!), the terrorist reconsiders and picks up a rifle from a dead comrade. The hostages do absolutely nothing. The terrorist points rifle at the crowd and now the crowd starts ineffectually putting their hands out. 23:55: Wonder Woman bursts in as the world’s slowest terrorist opens fire. I saw 15-20 adult hostages, mostly men. Not only are they so helpless that they don’t attempt to flee at any point or grab one of the rifles lying around or charge the shooter or do literally anything besides wait to die, they don’t even take the front row to body-block for the 20+ kid hostages. Shockingly, there are adult hostages *behind* the kids, which I think is a lesson for kids not to get caught with hostages this useless.

Wonder Woman savages the last terrorist and the cops watch inertly as his hat slowly drifts to the ground, which is a perfect visual for this scene. If you added clownish special effects the pointlessly long hat drop would BE this scene.

“Can I be like you someday?” If you sit down for your death, probably not. You know she wouldn’t have.

These kids have seen some REAL stuff. There’s been 30+ shots fired at them, multiple people have been murdered, they’ve seen a bomb count down to 10 seconds, the bomb eventually explodes, and later the windows explode with enough force to wreck a cop car. This cutesy “Can I be like you someday?” line seconds later is a terrible mismatch for the tone of the scene.

26:00 – 27:30: The Amazon Queen investigates the Mother Box. “Any changes today?” “No, my Queen.” What? Wasn’t the entire point of the opening scene that the box started acting strangely? Everybody in the room saw it change. 27:30 – 28:00: People around the island react to skybeam coming out of the Mother Box’s vault.

28:00 – 37:00: Action scene. If you’ve seen any movie with the heroes trying to protect plot coupons from invaders, at least the first 2 will be easy wins for the invaders. It didn’t have to be this slow, though. E.g. there’s a 2 minute sequence between the Queen taking the box and leaving the building.

37:00 – 37:45: Amazon denouement. They’re going to light the warning fire, a plot line riddled in logic holes to get Diana in position to see a visual history of something her mother might already have mentioned to her, seeing as her mother was part of an army that saved the planet against an enemy they know will return. It’s hard to imagine this is some sort of arcane secret hidden in a shrine if they keep 50+ Amazon guards around the clock guarding their Mother Box.

37:45 – 38:45: Steppenwolf setting up a Russian base. He deploys search teams to smell out the other two boxes. He’s trying to prove his worth to Darkseid. This is surprisingly non-bad for an alien invader. The less we see of Darkseid, the better this setup works. PS: His plan is way better than lighting a warning fire.

38:45-40:15: Batman discussing possible Flash sighting with Alfred. Alfred’s not sure the goal of putting together the team is doable. He’s not convinced of the threat, or of their results so far. Batman needs to set him straight that this doom-and-gloom counsel is not helpful. And not necessary, we already have Snyder.

40:15–42:15 Dr. Stone leaves work super-late. Janitor finds a pile of rubble. Note: despite holding Superman’s ship, this place isn’t as well guarded as the museum with the magic cops. Alarm systems later heard aren’t on here. The janitor stumbles in on a parademon without knocking and, spoilers, it’s EXACTLY what it looked like, a serial killing in progress.

42:15–44:30: Amazons light signal fire in the off-hand chance that it gets carried by the news and that Diana happens to see a news update from a no-casualty fire 1000+ miles on Crete.

44:30–45:45: Diana happens to see a news update from a no-casualty fire 1000+ miles on Crete. Well, glad that worked out!

45:45–47:15: “What’s your rank, Doctor?” If you try to pull rank but you can’t guess who outranks you (e.g. the oldest person that everybody’s deferring to in conversation), you probably won’t be working many super-cases. PS: It seems very unlikely that there’d be an obviously nonhuman murder at the facility holding Superman’s ship without the investigators having even the slightest clue about why the facility is important. It also seems impossible that you could grab 8 people at a secure facility without getting caught on camera but at least this sets up a cool and senselessly dramatic sketch ID.

47:15-48:15: Dr. Stone goes home, and tells Cyborg that the Box isn’t safe at home, that people were abducted by a monster. Cyborg: “You know a lot about monsters, don’t you? Especially how to make ‘em.” What the Bojangles. This editing is just the worst. We don’t at this point have any of the beats established to either make this dialogue impactful or even for it to make sense. Later on, we’ll get a fairly good set of scenes laying out Cyborg’s conflict with his father, and it all would have made a lot more sense if we saw that before the first parademon attack involving Dr. Stone’s lab. Of the first 45 minutes, there are at least 20 that could be cut or moved back to make room for this.

48:15–51:00: Wonder Woman at Shrine of Amazons. She sees a history of the Darkseid invasion and the backstory with the Mother Boxes. Don’t worry, if you miss it here, she’ll also have a scene narrating the history to Batman.

51:00–52:45 Aquaman saves a boater from drowning. He grabs a whiskey, which is pretty much the only scene in the movie where they passed on product placement. “It’s on him” is probably the first very good line so far.

52:45 – 53:45: Curry downs a whiskey and marches out to a 20% badass song and his second shirt-removal scene. At least it doesn’t get sniffed this time, I hope.

53:45-57:00: Curry’s tutor Vulko finds him at the gravesite of an ancient king. Vulko gives a pretty plausible reason that disappearing sentries are a problem for Curry — the existing authorities, under Aquaman’s half-brother, are trying to blame it on the surface. That’s actually a pretty cool setup. Across the board, I really liked what we saw of Atlantis in this movie. It’s delightfully dysfunctional and feels *exactly* like how a superpowered aristocracy would struggle with people coming to power that have a terrible personality mismatch for actually ruling. Aquaman is a PERFECT reflection on this disaster. Thamyscara mainly shows up to burn like 15+ minutes on two excruciatingly long action scenes with 50+ extras getting mowed down, which is the role that fictional places like Atlantis/Thamyscara/Wakanda usually provide for team movies.

57:00 – 59:30: Steppenwolf gives a status report. Destroy their will, unite them under Darkseid, repeal the capital gains tax. DeSaad narrates that Steppenwolf betrayed Darkseid in some prideful mistake. Implied character development: he’s not particularly hubristic in the movie. His attack plans are rather modest, and he flees almost immediately after acquiring each box rather than try to stick around and accomplish secondary objectives or eliminate downed enemies. When he sees the relief army of Amazons coming, he leaves.

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Aug 04 2019

Captain Marvel Review: 1.5 Stars Out of 5

Published by under Writing Articles

1. I don’t know where to start with Captain Marvel. So many things went so wildly wrong that we’d need a presidential commission to get to the bottom of it. It’s like the Chernobyl of superhero movies.

2. If at any point you feel like your action movie would benefit from a character whose main role in-scene is to hold a cat, get back to rewrite.

3. The conflicts are completely toothless. Over the first 10-odd minutes of the movie, the main character conflict is faceless asshats criticizing an unusually robotic protagonist for being too emotional. I would STRONGLY recommend building conflicts that fit your characters and that they can’t easily walk away from. For example, if you want a conflict around a character being too emotional, it would help a lot if they were not the least emotionally engaging superhero ever filmed. Even Groot has more emotional variety than Captain Marvel does, and he’s a tree with a 5 word vocabulary.
Captain Marvel Headshots

In contrast, here’s some stills from Wonder Woman. You can be a serious warrior and still radiate charm and excitement.
Wonder Woman Headshots

Also, Marvel’s SFX teams have done amazing work expressing human emotion in characters that should not be able to support it. I’m particularly fond of the moment where Groot – the character with the softest edges in Guardians – follows up on killing several henchmen in an uncharacteristically brutal way by giving his teammates a childish “aren’t you so proud of me?” smile.
Guardians of the Galaxy Headshots

3.1. The “young lady” exchange. Talos refers to Maria as a “young lady” (which is out of voice/character for him and comes out of nowhere), Maria threatens to kick his ass, and Talos backs off immediately. If you must have this exchange, it’d probably be better to commit to the conflict. Talos, a soldier on a desperate mission to allow what’s left of his people to flee a genocide, has tragic and brutal material to work with. Dropping some perspective on Maria would probably be more interesting than backing down instantly. E.g. MARIA: “If you call me ‘young lady’ again, I will kick your ass.” TALOS: “I’ve had to bury towns of murdered Skrulls. I don’t have time for etiquette lessons, and if you threaten me again, I’ll be burying you too.” If a character backs off of a conflict instantly, it’s probably not worth having. Don’t waste your time firing blanks.

3.2. Relatedly, if a teammate casually threatens violence against someone they’ve known for less than 30 minutes, that should not pass without some sort of consequence or reaction (e.g. the other person might take it really badly, particularly if they are an alien soldier fighting off a genocide… or maybe they mouth off at each other and they both react really well to how fiery the other person is).

3.3. I think this exchange makes Maria look unlikable. She’s threatening violence against an alien soldier that isn’t attempting to offend her, and being an alien makes it immediately obvious he might not have the cultural background to understand that he is offending her. This is a more forceful response than I think any Marvel protagonist has given to any insulting banter, particularly from another protagonist, and it doesn’t give Talos anything interesting to respond to. In contrast, when Rocket gets called a “trash panda”, even the gun-toting raccoon in question responds by walking away with a relatively tame “You son of a…”.

3.4. In the first Guardians movie, Rocket gets some truly vicious insults (e.g. “vermin”, “rodent”, being compared to a species that Drax grills on skewers, etc) and eventually nearly breaks down in tears. Losing your cool that much could be dangerous for protagonist likability, but emotional variety saves him. By the point this happens, Rocket’s already established himself as a badass, and he’s been more collected in similar situations (e.g. “not helping!” when insulted while during a critical moment of a jailbreak). In contrast, when Maria snaps over “young lady”, she hasn’t had an opportunity to establish that this is out of character for her, nor has she handled similar situations in a more typically heroic way. I think she comes across looking clownish here.

3.5. Nick Fury reports their location to his boss. This is a major breach of trust and, in a better movie, it’d be a good opportunity for major conflict between the two. There should have been consequences more serious than Marvel taking his communicator away. At the very least, when she sees Agent Coulsen lie to his team rather than give SHIELD their location, she might say something to Coulsen that knocks Fury (e.g. “you’re the only SHIELD agent I’ve met that hasn’t tried betraying me to the Skrulls – are you sure you’re not available for this mission?”).

3.6. The sexist conflict is just awful. 1) It’s extremely hard to respond to demographic bullying (e.g. “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) in a way that’s interesting. I think a best case scenario would be having Carol respond with an offbeat quip like “Because you’re a dick.” This is mildly funny and definitely a better response than nothing but it doesn’t fix the gaping structural problem that a “I hate you because you’re a (demographic)” conflict probably doesn’t have enough depth to it and won’t create as many opportunities for interesting dialogue or interesting choices as a more promising conflict would. In this case, the sexist characters didn’t contribute to any good scenes, they didn’t get any good lines, and they didn’t even have enough depth to get names. 2) It tends to reduce characters to demographic boxes rather than their choices and reduces their agency over their story. Ironically, X-Men (a series which hinges on persecution) tends to handle this pretty well – e.g. CIA humans and CIA mutants distrust each other in First Class, which is a more flexible and promising setup than “mutants can’t be CIA agents.” Also, the mutual distrust generally has more substance than “I hate you because you’re a mutant.”

3.7. There’s no conflicts between the Maria and Captain Marvel in the now of the story, e.g. no major disagreements about tactical approaches or courses of action or even whether Maria should be on the mission. The closest they come is a brief exchange where Maria complains that Captain Marvel won a race 5 years ago by taking a shortcut. It’s a non-issue and doesn’t contribute to character or plot development. Weak sauce. The conflicts between Captain Marvel and Nick Fury (who briefly betrays her) and Talos (her ex-enemy) are also surprisingly weak. In particular, if ever there were a teammate that shouldn’t be excited to relegate his goals 100% to the main character, Talos is a general facing a genocide while allied to a human that’s notably unexcited about him and at best a newcomer to his struggle. (And, also, until like a week ago she was assisting the extermination campaign).

4. The scene introducing the real Lawson is shockingly boring. Before this scene, we’ve learned that Lawson is the character Carol most respects, setting high expectations for Lawson. Compare to the crazy hype for Tony Stark early in Iron Man, which Tony Stark actually delivers on. When we first see the actual Lawson, she’s incredibly bland and the scene runs like a first draft. Adding insult to injury: repeating lines that were mediocre the first time makes them worse, and there’s no reason in scene to repeat the lines.

SKRULL TECHNICIAN: Hang on, I think I’ve got it.
LAWSON: Goose likes you. She typically doesn’t take to people. (If your character’s first line is about what her cat likes, get back to rewrite).
CAROL: Early start to your morning?
LAWSON: Late night, actually. I can’t sleep when there’s work to do. Sound familiar?
CAROL: Flying your plane never feels like work.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
LAWSON: You’ll get there soon enough, ace.
(scene starts to rewind)
LAWSON: Sound familiar?
TALOS: Wait, wait, wait! That’s her. Get her back.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
LAWSON: You’ll get there soon enough, ace.
TALOS: What’s that on her shirt? I couldn’t read it.
LAWSON: Wonderful view, isn’t it?
CAROL: I prefer the view from up there.
TALOS, to Carol: Focus.
CAROL: Excuse me?
TALOS: Look down.
TALOS, reading. Pegasus. Dr. Wendy Lawson. That’s her.
CAROL: Do you hear that, too? (This is a notably weak reaction to hearing voices and getting weirded out by conversations repeating themselves).
TALOS: Do we have her location?
TALOS: Now track Lawson until we find the energy signature.

4.1. There’s about four minutes of Talos navigating his way through her memories. She’s a fighter pilot, she drives a go-kart recklessly, male cadets think she’s too emotional (Christ, not this again), she plays pool and sings in a bar, and she finds an alien ship. This is a lot of time to spend without making an impact. I’d suggest focusing on 1-2 of these and making them count. One concept for this scene that would have created more interesting opportunities for interaction between Marvel and Talos would be an interrogation scene where the two talk as her memories play out on Skrull monitors. Having her react to her memories and/or offer any insight beyond what we’re seeing and/or any sort of conflict with Talos is more promising than having her unconscious.

4.2. If you’d ever want your main character unconscious during a scene focused on her backstory, you probably don’t have the right main character, or the right backstory.

4.3. If you’d ever want your main character unconscious during a scene where he/she could be talking to the main villain (or a character who appears to be), you probably don’t have the right concept for Talos, either. If the only purpose of this scene is to point Talos and/or Carol in the direction of Earth and establish the engine Macguffin, you have better opportunities than watching a pilot and alien scientist share unusually banal pleasantries. If it really is the case that Talos and Lawson cannot combine for more interesting scenes than this, I’d recommend overhauling and/or scrapping them.

5. Dialogue was off in a lot of places. Some examples:

  • Every line addressed to or about the cat. E.g. “Who’s a good kitty huh? Huh Goose? Yes, that’s right. Who’s a good kitty Goose? You’re a good kitty.” I cannot imagine what raw footage the editors were looking at that made it look like this was the most promising option.
  • “Then dig deeper. Lawson is our link to the light-speed engine. And everything we’re after…” When you’re having two characters talk about what they already know, I’d recommend sounding smoother than “As you know, Bob, this is what we already know.” In this case, I think something like “Then dig deeper. Find me the engine” would have sounded more natural.
  • “Where’s Pegasus?” “That’s classified. Not unlike the file I’ve started on you.” This response is awkward and disjointed, and a missed opportunity to bring Fury into the scene in a more interesting way.
  • Maria: “The Air Force still wasn’t letting women fly combat, so testing Lawson’s planes was our only shot at doing something that mattered.” 1) This superiority complex towards support teammates is ironic now that she’s a support teammate that matters much less to Captain Marvel’s mission than support staff do to USAF operations. 2) In a better movie, this would probably be used to establish conflict or that there’s something lacking about the character. E.g. in Cars*, a movie that needs children to quickly recognize that the main character is being an asshole, having the protagonist call out his teammates as beneath him or “your work doesn’t matter” would definitely work. If you’re not trying to establish the character as an asshole, I’d suggest having her see these other careers as not hard enough or not exciting enough rather than they don’t matter enough.
    *This is probably the first time Cars has ever come to mind as a positive example. Cars is terrible, but it’s not this terrible.
  • There are few if any moments where Talos feels believable as a military commander, and his phrasing is all over the place (e.g. “jazz hands”, “bad trip”, “young lady”, “science guy”). First, anyone stiff/formal enough to say “young lady” probably shouldn’t be using “science guy” or “bad trip.” Second, he’s slotted into a Drax-like “can’t get it” role like not knowing what a cat is, but none of this attempted humor lands at all and there’s no reason to have it. He’s a mind-melding shapeshifter, how can he not get it? If your character knows what “jazz hands” are, how does he not know what a cat is? In contrast, Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy is very consistently literal-minded and the character’s dry portrayal makes it effective. E.g. “Nothing goes over my head. (pause) My reflexes are too fast.” This is a lot better than “What’s a cat?”, or any other Talos line, for that matter.
  • The “young lady” exchange.
  • Every line including the word “emotion” or “emotional”.
  • “All life on Earth is carbon-based, not this guy. Whatever he runs on, it’s not on the periodic table.” If you’re going to rip someone off (or “pay homage” or whatever this is), I’d suggest a better movie than Man of Steel. PS: A completely emotionless protagonist with no good dialogue didn’t work there, either.
  • A Kree soldier mentions to Carol that it was disturbing seeing a shapeshifter take his appearance. CAROL: “Maybe if you were more attractive it would be less disturbing.” SOLDIER: “You think you’re funny, but I’m not laughing.” Carol’s one-liner is alright, but there was an opportunity here for a better followup, if the story hadn’t handicapped itself using a “No emotion/humor allowed” planet.
  • “Name a detail so bizarre a Skrull could never fabricate it.” “I can’t eat toast that’s cut diagonally. But you didn’t need that, did you?” “No, but I enjoyed it.” This is probably the first good exchange in the movie. 40 minutes in. PS: It’d be cool if the first hour had a well-executed exchange that developed character or plot points more important than toast preference.

6. Side characters are grossly unable to contribute what they need to. None of the side-characters contribute anything useful that Captain Marvel doesn’t already have, e.g. no distinctive capabilities or skill sets (e.g. a shapeshifter that doesn’t shapeshift, a pilot on a team whose main character already is a pilot, and a gunman that spends more time talking to a cat than shooting). If they all stayed home, it’d be hard to notice the difference. It’s not like they’re contributing to interesting dialogue or charming moments, either.

6.1. Lawson the superscientist makes her scenes worse. She has no good lines at any point and her entire first scene is low-stakes chatting with no bearing on the plot. She doesn’t contribute anything besides a superpowered engine. In contrast, most logistical support characters (particularly Marvel super-scientists) create interesting conversations with their leads. E.g. Iron Man and Rocket are in a league of their own, and I’d also recommend checking out Beast in First Class, Shuri in Black Panther, Pym in the Ant-Man series, and Edna in Incredibles. It’s hard to imagine any of these characters ever having a scene as boring as what we got from Lawson.

6.2. Nick Fury has a great car chase. After that, he gets a lot of screentime but doesn’t actually contribute anything. I think Incredibles’ approach to Frozone and Black Panther’s approach to the CIA pilot was more effective here – their screentime is brief and impactful. They’re never useless. Nick Fury should either have been written out after Marvel enters the military base or been given a reason to stay around. As it is, he gets beat up by Talos, he’s reduced to holding a cat in the final mission, he loses an eye to a cat, he sings a Marvelettes song, and he helps with dishes. I don’t think I can point to any moment post-car-chase where Fury makes a scene more interesting, and he bends over backwards to make them worse. In particular, the baby talk between him and the cat is just embarrassing. Rereading the transcript, I feel so bad for Samuel L. Jackson. This is worse than getting eaten first in Deep Blue Sea.

6.3. Maria and secondarily Monica. First, Maria doesn’t have any capabilities Captain Marvel doesn’t, which makes her mostly useless in a movie where Captain Marvel is doing 99%+ of the work. If you need her around, I’d suggest giving her some unique ability to contribute (e.g. better at piloting a particular plane or a better scientist or whatever). Splitting the team up for some missions would also help — for example, a secondary objective might involve handling explosives, taking down a shield generator, creating a diversion, adding air support, providing an escape route, etc). As it is, the only thing Maria adds that Captain Marvel doesn’t already have is the ability to gush about how amazing Captain Marvel is, and God does she use it. “You are Carol Danvers. You are the woman on that black box risking her life to do the right thing. My best friend… who supported me as a mother, and a pilot when no one else did. You’re smart and funny, and a huge pain in the ass. And you are the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fist. You hear me? You hear me?” Across the board, 20% of her lines (14 out of 70) cover how impressive Carol is or how much Carol means to her. In more effective movies, there’s ups and downs in team cooperation (e.g. check out friction between teammates in Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers, and Into the Spider-Verse). Protagonists usually have more setbacks and have to work harder to prove themselves. PS: If you absolutely do need to have someone deliver gushing praise to Captain Marvel, it’d probably sound less bad coming from the grade-schooler than a hardened fighter pilot, and preferably after the villain is defeated (less damage to pacing).
PS: I would guess that this movie had more lines praising the main character than Lincoln or Gandhi. It’s a distinctive approach for an action movie, particularly one with a main character this meh. I think it makes more sense in the opening of Iron Man because a character whose signature flaw is massive ego problems and/or overconfidence NEEDS to be highly competent to avoid massive likability issues. Also, Iron Man is extraordinarily charming from minute 1.

6.4. Neither Captain Marvel nor her side characters have any charm or chemistry together. An effective side-cast could have helped somewhat. I think the two biggest issues here are the lack of conflict within the team and Carol’s lack of personality. (E.g. the side-antagonists she shared with Guardians of the Galaxy had much better scenes with Quill in GOTG than with Captain Marvel, and let’s not even talk about the huge downgrade she gave Nick Fury).

7. The movie is unusually heavy on unnecessary audience cues. Don’t call out your viewers as idiots, and don’t waste time.

  • “TORFA: KREE BORDER PLANET.” This comes seconds after a scene mentioning that they were going on a mission to this planet.
  • “SUPREME INTELLIGENCE – AI LEADER OF KREE CIVILIZATION” – this could have been handled more smoothly in-scene.
  • There’s no need to have Fury’s boss Keller reveal himself to the audience as a Skrull by caressing the corpse. First, doing this with humans in the room makes him look careless/incompetent, which reduces the threat level. Second, the later scene in the elevator covers this better, and I don’t think there’s any plot need to reveal this before then.
  • “That’s no MiG”. What gave it away, the lasers? Or the spaceflight?
  • “She’s trying to break out.”
  • The heroes see a steaming cup of coffee on a ship they expect to be abandoned. “We’re not alone.” I think that’s obvious to anyone older than 8. Having a character silently alert other characters to the coffee should be enough, and maybe Captain Marvel charges up her photon blaster to cue kid viewers that the threat level is higher than it was a few seconds ago.
  • “It’s firing behind it” – a close-up shot on rear-mounted lasers and Captain Marvel dodging incoming fire would probably cover this more smoothly.
  • “Species: Flerken. Threat: High.” Talos panicked after seeing the flerken, so it should be pretty obvious that the cat is dangerous.
  • “I’m Just A Girl” – If you’re going for 1990s songs that are uncreatively on-the-nose for Captain Marvel, I’d suggest Wannabe, I Don’t Have the Heart, and Frozen.

8. Scene timing: There’s an early scene with Carol and the Supreme Intelligence, but they’re probably not able to have an interesting scene at this point. They don’t really have anything to talk about besides the backstory with the Skrulls and making Carol completely emotionless, neither one of which is particularly promising. The backstory with the Skrull war is common knowledge in-setting, so we might be able to handle this more smoothly in a news blurb about a Skrull imposter getting arrested or an update in the war on the Skrulls. Alternately, it might be possible to handle this in the briefing scene for the mission to Torfa.

9. If you’re creating an alien species, I’d recommend that they either all look human or all look non-human, especially if your plot involves a human taken in by aliens. Yon-Rogg looks 100% human, and we shouldn’t have to guess whether he’s a human or not. (PS: He’s not).

9.1. Having Lawson as a Kree rather than a Skrull creates some plot holes. It doesn’t make much sense that the Kree, a warrior species with no shapeshifting capabilities, would have a critical scientist work as a lone infiltrator on a remote world where they have no other presence. It’d be in character for the Skrull, though, and it’d make sense why a shapeshifting Skrull would look exactly like a human. This feels like they were originally planning for Lawson as a Skrull but switched her to a Kree without thinking it through.

10. Captain Marvel takes place a few years after Desert Storm. If Maria is willing to threaten violence over “young lady”, I’m guessing she’s a civilian now because she got court-martialled the first time she met a Saudi. My personal canon is that she caused somebody’s son to draw a weapon to protect the tribal honor based on what he heard third-hand from somebody’s cousin who separately has a blood feud going against Western forces for backing a military commander from a family that stole his great-grandfather’s herd three generations ago. And it’s still a better love story than Twilight.

11. The challenge level is unusually low. When the threats are this weak, it considerably reduces opportunities for suspense and excitement.

  • No lasting consequences to any setbacks. For example, in classic Star Wars, losing a fight might mean a major injury like losing a hand, a major character death like Obi-Wan, or even the destruction of a planet. In Captain Marvel, losing a fight means being involuntarily transported to the next scene, but they don’t even take your equipment. These aren’t even low stakes, they’re no stakes. PS: If you ever have a prisoner who can shoot a laser through your ship, don’t let her keep anything that would let her survive in space.
  • All it takes Carol to win the fight with the Supreme Intelligence is to remember getting back up after falling off a bike, and pulling off her Kree control device. I think this neuters what should be a climactic moment. I’d recommend checking out each confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader for a classically effective progression of a hero gradually overcoming a threatening villain. More recently, I love how Dr. Strange handled a protagonist taking on a far superior foe (cleverly forcing a draw).
  • For most characters, falling out of a plane would be a major setback. No worries, she discovers she can fly. Unless you’re writing a Saturday morning cartoon, this is probably the least interesting option available for overcoming this setback.
  • Having discovered she can fly a few seconds ago, she can fly well enough to catch a salvo of warheads and a fleet of interceptors from wrecking Earth. This is not as bad as Kylo Ren losing to someone holding a lightsaber for the first time* but it’s on the spectrum.
    *I think?
  • She blasts her way into a secure facility rather than let Fury trick their way inside. This is a boldly reckless move that obviously should create some problems (e.g. the base might go on alert, Fury might become convinced she’s an unreliable partner, some records they came for might get destroyed, etc). Instead, the photon blaster actually turns out to be just a much faster way of getting through a door than picking the lock. What the hell sort of maximum-security facility is this?
  • She may or may not be able to defeat her ex-boss in melee combat. No worries, she lasers him. This shoots a potentially interesting opportunity for melee combat in the face.
  • She isn’t shown having any unusual technical background (either before or after she gets taken in by aliens), but she’s able to engineer a payphone to make an intergalactic phone call using parts she got from Radio Shack. That seems like a Tony Stark-grade technical problem, something that requires skills amazing enough that they shouldn’t be coming out of nowhere. (Tony Stark would probably also get a longer scene showing his first attempts and how it gradually gets amazing over time).
  • When they need to run from the military base, there’s a plane fueled and ready to fly. Of course there is. (Very thoughtfully, USAF/NASA armed it as well, just in case we need live rounds in a test plane, I guess)*.
  • *In case we need to shoot down space MiGs.

  • She’s able to build an intergalactic pager.
  • Virtually everybody she interacts with for more than 10 lines regards her as singularly impressive. In particular, Maria’s gushing praise for her is embarrassing and Fury naming the Avengers after somebody that hadn’t been important enough to mention before is odd.

12. Carol’s demeanor and bearing does not feel believable for a fighter pilot. Even before the Kree capture her, she’s unusually restrained in a position that’s iconically daring and bold. If your character has a personality that’s at odds with her life goals, there might be some quality opportunities there for conflict and/or personality development. At it is, she’d probably be more believable as an intelligence analyst or doctor or an accountant. E.g. if she is supposed to be unusually gutsy (like her go-kart wreck suggests), maybe give her some bold missteps along the way? As it is the closest she comes to an unusually bold move is blasting a door into a highly secure section of a military base, but the story plays it like she is taking a stealthy approach (no guards are alerted, they’re able to quietly find the records they are looking for, etc). Her boldness never really creates problems for her, which I think is a major missed opportunity. (Similarly, Maria’s threat to kick Talos’ ass is a bold move that creates no problems and is instantly forgotten). PS: if you have a main character that plays it this safe, I’d suggest against naming any characters (particularly a cat) after a Top Gun character.

12.1. In her climactic moment, she’s challenged to melee combat (by someone that’s previously bested her in melee combat) and she instead blasts him with a laser. Blasting him is entirely reasonable, but she attempts to glorify taking the easier route as “I don’t need to prove myself to you” and it’s miserably pretentious. If someone tries to kill you, you don’t need to explain why you shot them — e.g. you know Han Solo or Indiana Jones wouldn’t have wasted any time there, and they’d have been helluva more charming, maybe with a self-explanatory smile. PS: What sort of test pilot passes on an opportunity to push themselves to their limits?

12.2. Military scenes: Compare “That’s not a MiG” to this amazing scene where Ms. Incredible pilots a plane under enemy fire. This Incredibles scene is extremely tense and one of the most judicious and effective uses of professional jargon I’ve ever seen. The acting, the dialogue and the fight choreography create danger and suspense completely missing from the Captain Marvel equivalent. Secondarily, there are some really cool things going on here like subtly creating a backstory for Ms. Incredible without ever explicitly saying that she was a military pilot. I’d much rather have 4 minutes of this scene than 4 minutes of Carol being generically rejected as a stockcar racer/cadet/pilot/whatever. It advances a major central conflict, it moves the characters forward in the plot, and it’s balls-to-the-wall exciting.
PS: The Incredibles scene uses anti-missile chaff without saying what it does. Having the plane barrel engage in evasive maneuvers as it’s firing the chaff makes it easier to see that the chaff is protection against the missiles. (Also, having the chaff angle towards the missiles is a good call – this gives viewers more information about what the chaff’s purpose is than a more passive drop would have). If a rated-G audience can figure out chaff, PG-13 filmmakers should have had more confidence in their audience’s ability to figure out what steaming coffee on an abandoned ship means, and in their own ability to provide context clues to help them.

12.3. One unusual plus to aerial combat for writers is that it’s one of the only kinds of combat where combatants have good reasons to talk during the fight and can sound natural doing so. If you’ve got an opportunity like that, you can do a lot better than “That’s not a MiG.”

13. Comparing Incredibles 1 to Captain Marvel, I believe that Ms. Incredible comes across as much more competent and active than Captain Marvel, even though they come from similar backgrounds. Some potential causes here:

  • Ms. Incredible is treated as an individual in-story (e.g. no overt demographic discrimination), and the conflicts she has with other characters are more three-dimensional than anything Captain Marvel gets. E.g. contrast her conflict with Bob over how his desire to be a superhero causes them to have to relocate their family vs. Maria’s conflict between being a single parent and wanting to accompany Captain Marvel on a suicide mission. Maria almost instantly ditches her kid for a very high-risk mission because her kid tells her it’d be setting a bad example otherwise. First, caving like this is probably out of character for Maria (too soft, too squishy). 2) There are no consequences to this decision, it’s pretty gutless. One possible consequence would be that the person/people she needs to ask as potential parental surrogates are not 100% cooperative (e.g. an ex-husband that already thinks she’s not the most responsible parent). Another possible consequence would be that Maria might handle the mission a bit differently than a non-parent would, e.g. backing out on a particularly dangerous phase of the mission that she wouldn’t have as a younger pilot. (Bob not making this adjustment 100% is one of the main conflicts of the first half of Incredibles).
  • The dialogue and acting/directing in Incredibles are much better. When I’m seeing a scene executed by very good actors, I know I could never do that even if I had the script in front of me, and a great actor would make me feel silly for trying. There are very few Marvel superheroes that get scenes that are so leaden that I wonder if one of the stuntmen or lighting staff* on-set could do a better job acting than the actors actually did, and besides Hawkeye and Peter Parker all of them are in Captain Marvel. In particular, Talos’ scenes are so mediocre that I wonder if I could do better. (I am confident that I wouldn’t be much worse, and if any data analyst is feeling bold enough to publicly make a claim like that, the acting/direction is probably not movie-ready).
    *It’s not like the movie needed them for lighting. Look at how oppressively dark and washed-out the first 20-30 minutes are.
  • Incredibles’ stakes are real and the adversaries are more competent – in particular, I’d recommend checking out the scene where Rohan and his fleet watch helplessly as they get wrecked by someone that learned how to fly 30 seconds ago. In comparison, Syndrome and his agents learn and adapt quickly to heroic tactics and they’re never a joke.

25 responses so far

Jul 17 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home Review (1 star out of 5)

Published by under Writing Articles

1. This version of Spider-Man is a useless toolbox who actively avoids doing interesting things, and what he does attempt is usually wimpy and/or incompetent.

2. Unlike most main characters, his choices don’t matter much. For example, he chooses to leave his supersuit at home (but his aunt sneaks it in anyway) and he tries to choose his school trip over superheroics (itself a red flag) but Nick Fury railroads him into coming to Prague anyway. He has an unusual lack of agency over his story. Relatedly, he’s pushed into following in Tony Stark’s footsteps, but he doesn’t have any of the initiative, charm, or intelligence to make that feel believable, nor does he pursue an alternative which is interesting in any way. (He mentions a few times that he would just rather be a neighborhood Spider-Man, but he’s not proactive enough to actually do anything about it).

2.1. It’s hard to complain about being a neighborhood Spider-Man if he’d rather go on an iconically upscale Euro trip than save the world. A neighborhood Spider-Man might also spend less time complaining in general. Unless the neighborhood is NW Washington DC.

3. If your superhero would rather be on a school trip than a superhero, don’t make a superhero movie about him, it’ll probably suck.

3.1. Surrounding a superhero with faceless classmates and teachers is not a great setup. Even if they had good lines, these school characters besides Ned and *maybe* MJ are bystanders to the central plot. They don’t know what’s going on and don’t create particularly interesting social obstacles either. Instead of a scene distracting the world’s most oblivious teacher from a ****ing missile strike, maybe Spider-Man has to hide something from Nick Fury or another character involved in the superhero plot? That looks like a more promising setup to me.

3.2. The first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe after ~50% of humanity getting erased for 5 years is a high school vacation.

4. If any characters causes viewers to ask “Should you even be on this team?”, it’d be very helpful if viewers see there’s some reason to have him on the team . In this case, Spider-Man’s main role is being grossly inadequate and he doesn’t even want to be there. You’ve proably seen like 100 movies where a cop screws up a case and the hardass boss says “Gimme your badge (pause) and your gun.” This movie’s twist is that the main character tries to quit on saving the world and the hardass boss has to smile at this absolute toolbox and convince him to do his job.

5. Incompetent clownery: have we hit rock bottom yet?

  • Peter accidentally calls a drone strike on his own bus within seconds of being given the drone system.
  • Peter has two fights with elementals without realizing that they are holograms.
  • Peter could have stayed home from the water elemental fight and the outcome would have been largely the same. A more competent hero might have picked up some information which could have been useful later on and/or been more successful at whatever he attempted.
  • “Peter tingle”
  • Every conversation Peter has with Mr. Harrington or Aunt May.
  • Peter getting fooled by illusions of Nick Fury twice. Even on first viewing, Peter clearly has to be severely concussed or otherwise mentally damaged not to suspect anything when “Nick Fury” asks Peter who he told about Mysterio’s fraud. (Arguably this is worse for a character that loves movie references. If you’ve seen a movie ever, when someone asks you “who have you told about this criminal activity?” they’re ready to murder you and the witnesses. If I were trying to make Spider-Man sound non-dumbass here, I’d suggest a rephrase like “We need an ironclad case. Do you have any corroborating witnesses or other evidence?”)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal calls him awkward.
  • In a good movie, a protagonist should be able to speak with a love interest and make it interesting. In this movie, Peter concocts a half-assed plan where his friend pretends that he has an allergy in a scheme to get her to sit next to Peter. Having his friend deliver these lines somehow makes Peter look even more pathetic.
  • Arrested by the Dutch.
  • “Even Dead I’m The Hero”. Even dead, Tony Stark has more of a pulse than Spider-Man.
  • “I love Led Zeppelin!” during an AC/DC song. He’s designated himself as the pop culture guy, that’s his thing (pathetic as it is), and he can’t even do that right. Having a character fail ineptly at something he’s supposed to be really good at… I generally wouldn’t recommend this for superhero movies. (The only positive example that comes to mind outside of superheroes is Michael Scott in The Office — I think he’s comedically effective largely because he’s a chaotic mix of brilliant boss, complete mental case, and rolling HR disaster. He also gets great lines and great acting).
  • Talos/Nick Fury thinks Peter isn’t even worthy to bring up Captain Marvel (“don’t invoke her name”). That’s rock bottom, isn’t it? Is it possible to be more inadequate?
  • I’ll give a pass for an alien shapeshifter not knowing that opera is not the best way to keep teens occupied. A shapeshifter soldier surviving a genocidal war getting fooled by Mysterio pretending to be a fighter surviving a genocidal war? Oh, God. That’s like Dr. Strange getting fooled by an alien pretending to be a human surgeon that has never before met either a surgeon or a human. I would REALLY hope the writers give Strange a better explanation than “wow, his costume was amazing.”

6. Out of all of the common concepts for a sequel, “Same characters as last time, but now they’re in Europe” is one of the least promising. No surprises here, taking bland characters and taking them on a Euro vacation is actually worse than leaving them at home – doing tourist stuff does not generally make for very interesting material, and the setting is probably going to take time/space that otherwise could have been used more effectively. (In fairness to set-in-Europe sequels, “let’s refilm an animated movie in live action” and “let’s refilm a movie but with a younger cast” are probably worse).

6.1. In a good sequel, you might see dramatic themes expanded upon, interesting character arcs built upon, etc. E.g. looking back to the 2000s Spider-Man movies, I think Spider-Man 2 did a great job building on Peter’s conflict between maintaining a normal life vs. being a superhero. In Far From Home, the only theme brought back from Homecoming is “Peter Parker is still completely a joke at being a superhero, and if he got hit by an asteroid the audience would be better for it.” I’ve never seen a movie as committed to a theme as this one.

7. One bright spot: in the post-credits scene a villain took Spider-Man’s secret identity public. Hopefully this will reduce the amount of scenes where other characters have to be mentally damaged to protect the secret identity.

8. Other bright spots: the action is surprisingly competent, definitely better executed than other drone battles in Avengers 2, Iron-Man 2 and Venom. The hallucination powers are creative. The villain (pre-reveal) is notably more engaging than Spider-Man. Weirdly, he’s more believable as a fake hero than he is as a live villain given how thin his motive/plan is.

9. The fake hero setup creates interesting opportunities for hero-villain interaction. Hey, not EVERY supervillain has a daughter you can date.

10. The editing in this movie was notably weak. There were a lot of moments that stood out here, but I have to call out the villainous reveal scene as some of the worst exposition I can remember. E.g. “They called me unstable” sounds like a B-film about a mad scientist. More generally, there was a lot of wasted time:

  • Most of what happens before the water elemental fight (e.g. the fundraiser, most of Venice, and maybe the airplane scene).
  • Every Flash Thompson line
  • Aunt May’s side-romance with Happy.
  • The Netherlands scene was funny but Peter Parker desperately needed time/space to be competent. (Also, if we’re pretending that his secret identity is interesting at all, having a character get arrested and unmasked without any followup is probably bad plotting).

10.1. The editing is sloppy enough that consistency issues were noticeable during a first viewing. E.g. Mysterio gets prompted for safety concerns after launching a drone strike in his own area but Peter somehow didn’t get this safety alert when he called in a drone strike on his own bus.

10.2. If Tony Stark builds a drone strike system that doesn’t have any safeguards against assassinating a busful of kids, maybe it’d help to give it to someone less dumbass than Peter Parker. Peter Parker is not just a raging storm of stupidity, he infects the people around him. Other victims include Talos, the real Nick Fury, the love interest, classmates and teachers, and whoever signed off on making this movie.

11. The plot hinges on Mysterio setting up fake crimes to pump up his own status by beating up holograms. He carefully choreographs everything and pre-tapes footage about how the fight will look before it happens. Spider-Man making an unscripted appearance against the water elemental should have been a bigger deal. This would have been a good opportunity for Mysterio to improvise something to keep Spider-Man from figuring out that the fight was a sham. This would probably have a more satisfying outcome than “Maybe Spider-Man will spend the entire fight trying to keep a tower from collapsing but not even accomplish that.”

12. Peter and MJ figure out that Mysterio is a fraud by stumbling upon one of the hologram generators he used. It’d probably be more satisfying (and help develop their competence) if they worked harder for it. For example, thinking back to the first Avengers movie, there’s a scene where Captain America realizes that he’s being deceived when he’s introduced to an “Army nurse” pretending it’s still the 1940s. CA picks up on subtle clues that things are off (e.g. she’s wearing a man’s tie, her haircut doesn’t meet 1940s regulations, and she’s got a modern bra on). How lame would it have been if Captain America had realized the WWII setup was a sham because the nurse accidentally dropped a modern newspaper?

12.1. What might a competent hero might have been able to pick up on to suggest that something is up with Mysterio? I have a lot of ideas on this, but to start with, Peter should have an interest in Mysterio’s equipment. It’s noticeably more effective against the elementals than anything else they’ve tried, and any super-engineer should be trying to figure out how to build more of it. Peter might offer help on routine repair/maintenance (and get shut down), and maybe wonder about how exactly Mysterio is keeping a futuristic suit repaired by himself. Secondarily, Mysterio’s visual style is very flashy/Hollywood (e.g. flying around with a cape), and that’s a really odd move from an engineer who claims to be one of the survivors of a failed war against elemental invaders.

14 responses so far

Nov 06 2016

Calling All Supervillain Stories

Den Warren, (K-Tron, Metahuman Wars) is issuing a call for 3k-5k word submissions for a superhero prose fiction anthology titled, The Supreme Archvillain Election.

Each submission will be a supervillain sitting at a huge table explaining why they should be voted as the Supreme Archvillain, then they go into a story, etc. Reprint excerpts and new writers welcome.

8 responses so far

Sep 17 2016


Published by under Writing Articles

I spent 5 hours this week watching Man of Steel and taking 5,000 words of notes. It was like being trapped on an alien planet where the atmosphere consists 80% of characters telling Clark what incredible, grandiose things he symbolizes, 20% of daringly bad action scenes, 15% of grimly constipated expressions, and 15% of acting this bad. 130% lethal to humans.

And they haven't even mentioned the zombie part yet

(Much) more to follow for the masochistically inclined.

2 responses so far

Aug 14 2016

Suicide Squad review (spoilers)

1. The character introductions were lacking. Having Waller narrate the characters’ backstories to a minor character in a no-stakes infodump was probably not ideal. If Waller’s MO is that she’s ruthless and/or exploitative, would have preferred a scene with her coercing Flag to work on the project and/or why they selected these guys rather than any other high-stakes criminals available. Also, given that virtually all of the characters are total unknowns to most viewers, a smaller team would probably have helped with character development. (Failing that, if you start with a large team of antiheroes, having several deaths would probably have helped raise the stakes and establish a mood).

2. It probably would have helped if the main mission of the movie had been more shady and/or disagreeable. If a supervillain is ravaging a city, it’s not clear why the government needs a “plausible deniability” option here of unwilling gangsters with guns and bats rather than, say, asking Batman or Wonder Woman to step in. Or that having 6 minor criminal patsies would have helped explain at all why a sorceress wrecked a major city. I feel like a very messy police mission like trying to destroy a major gang and/or killing somebody that’s gone rogue and/or helping a VIP (maybe Waller) deal with a major case of blackmail would have been a better fit.
2.1. Waller’s trying to fake an answer to the wrong question. If a villain magically turns millions of people into zombies, the blame coming your way doesn’t have anything to do about who did it, but rather that you either didn’t have a plan and/or it involved sending guys with guns and bats to stop a sorceress rather than, say, asking Wonder Woman. Also, if you DID need to falsely claim that someone zombified a city, could I suggest somebody more plausible than a group of minor criminals headlined by a crocodile and a prison psychiatrist?
2.2. The blame coming your way might also have something to do with “why was somebody as incompetent as Waller within 1,000 miles of a life-or-death assignment?”
2.3. “When Enchantress started killing millions of people, why didn’t we immediately flip the kill-switch on her magical device?”

3. The music selection was ugly. E.g. playing “Sympathy for the Devil” to introduce a shady character with semi-sympathetic goals calls out the viewers as idiots, I think. Not nearly subtle enough. In contrast, Killer Croc got the much more imaginative “Born in the USA”, rather than (God help us) Crocodile Rock.

4. June is the worst archeologist in the world. She spends less than 10 seconds in the temple before twisting the head off a priceless relic that nearly destroys the world. Whoops. Not to be outdone, she falls for the worst soldier in the world, whose superpower is playing golf without a handicap and bungling pretty much everything he touches.

5. The team selection is an odd choice: Harlequin, Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, Diablo, Katana, Deadshot, and Slipknot. Slipknot and Captain Boomerang are joke characters that contribute very little to the plot. (Seriously, Slipknot’s reason for being on the team is that “he can climb anything”). Harlequin and Deadshot (and secondarily KC and Diablo) feel like a pretty good personality fit for the movie, and the four of them dominate the memorable lines. I would have removed or overhauled CB, Katana, Slipknot, and maybe Rick Flag – they have little impact on the plot, and there just isn’t time.

6. Enchantress feels like a serious mismatch for the protagonists. Someone shootable would probably have created more interesting interactions and better fight scenes, seeing as almost everyone on the team is a badass normal. (The team’s only superhumans are Diablo, Killer Croc, and maybe Katana – not the most intuitive choice for stopping a world-ending threat).

7. Characters raise plausible concerns about Waller’s plans in a fair way (and thoroughly exhaust standard police and military alternatives). In context, it almost feels believable that serious people would agree to this crazier-than-crazy plan. (If we pretend that Batman and Wonder Woman were dealing with some other world-ending threat somewhere else, it almost makes sense). Also, in the interests of making Waller/Flag look better than “totally useless”, it might help if the problem the team had to deal with was not 100% created by Waller being a dumbass. In, say, well-executed noir movies like Out of the Past, characters create their own problems, but without compromising their competence.

8. Although this movie did as poorly as Batman vs Superman on Rotten Tomatoes, I think Suicide Squad is considerably better-executed and more entertaining. E.g. Will Smith’s attempted negotiation with Flag and Waller actually did a great job advancing character development, establishing conflicts between characters, and advancing the central plot. I don’t think there were any scenes in BVS that managed any one of those besides maybe Bruce Wayne’s very brief conversation with Diana Prince.

9. Even for a superhero movie, SS asks you to check a lot of realism at the door. E.g. 3 helicopter crashes for major characters without any deaths or injuries. Seriously, it would have been okay to kill off some of these characters. No one in this movie besides Batman and maybe Joker is integral to the success of the DC Universe moving forward. Also, Rick Flag is a notably passive, weak character – besides killing off Slipknot early, he is curiously reluctant to respond to provocations from his team. I was actively rooting for his death.

10. Several of the characters (notably KC, Joker and Diablo) are taken in an unusually gangsta direction. It feels really strange for Joker, who comes across as more sketchy than threatening. For Killer Croc, it got oddly humorous, in a non-PC way.

11. Harlequin’s background as a psychiatrist does not feel like it fits with the rest of the character.
11.1. The sexploitation was actually pretty effective.
11.2. Harlequin getting punched in the face by Batman probably got the loudest laughter from the audience, followed by Deadshot trying to negotiate in prison.

12. Villains threatening worldwide destruction generally don’t give protagonists much to work with. Enchantress felt like a sorry rehash of the most recent Fantastic Four’s Dr. Doom and Green Lantern’s Galactus, even down to the purple vortexes of death and terrible CGI. It’s much harder for characters to interact with a force that has nothing to talk about. Off the top of my head, the only superhero movies with global villains that worked out creatively very well were the Avengers series and Guardians of the Galaxy, and they relied on exceptionally interesting interactions between the protagonists rather than with the villains.

13. Most of the teammates – and Flag and (if you go as far back as Green Lantern) Waller – have a tragic backstory to soften them. I was sort of hoping for at least one character to have an unapologetic Walter White-style “I did it for me. I was good at it.” The closest we got was Harlequin stealing a purse. While that helps reinforce the character’s craziness, maybe something more important to the central plot?

14. Deadshot’s final scene with his kid (helping her with geometry) was surprisingly heartfelt and refreshingly dark. The kid isn’t just a sweet plot device, and it’s probably the closest this movie got to daring. I wish they had tried it more often (e.g. see Deadpool). For example, maybe giving characters more opportunities to do more antiheroic things than stealing a purse? Giving Diablo and Flag more of a pulse? Making Waller competent?

14.1. Deadshot shows off technical expertise in his final scene very naturally – compare how he talks about the geometry of shooting people and the curvature of the Earth to virtually every Fantastic Four conversation about science.

15. The setting is beyond weak. It’s very generic and, like every DC city besides Gotham, it’s just a soulless cardboard box to wreck. No interesting characters, no interesting places, no distinctive mood to the city… For God’s sake, it’s called Fauxcago “Midway City.” How much personality could it possibly have? PS: Would suggest checking out better noir movies for better alternatives to “dark and rainy all the time.”
15.1Adding a character from Fauxcago (maybe one of the Suicide Squad members) might have helped. The only line from a Fauxcagoan I caught was a bride complaining that her wedding was ruined. Instead of a useful suggestion here, let’s have a moment of silence where we can reflect on the loving care that’s been put into developing Gotham as a vortex of crime and despair, where a bunch of random bank robbers or ferry passengers or pretty much anyone on the street can make a masterpiece scene. Unfortunately, this is Suicide Squad, and we can’t have nice things. We get Fauxcago, and a complaining bride. It’s the setting we deserve, not the one we need.

16. The last 60 minutes of the movie (50:00 to 1:48:00) were a single, REALLY LONG mission where the characters break into Fauxcago, rescue a VIP, and ultimately defeat the villain. I strongly prefer the pacing of virtually every other superhero movie (e.g. Avengers and Incredibles), where several (much shorter) action sequences build up to a climactic confrontation with the villain. That would have also made it easier to work in dialogue into scenes than it was for Suicide Squad – e.g. look at how weirdly paced the bar scene is. (The world’s about to end, but hey, let’s talk about Diablo’s backstory!)

17. Across the movie, I counted about 38 minutes of action scenes. I think that’s about twice the average for superhero movies. Some issues here. First, it got tedious. Second, most of the fight scenes were ineffective. E.g. did we really need 3-4 separate scenes of soldiers/helicopters/aircraft carriers getting wrecked? There are so many characters that could have used most of that space more.

17.1. Most of the action sequences setting up each SS member were wasted.

  • Boomerang’s heist – there’s no emotional impact to the betrayal, and he comes across as helpless. No exaggeration here: this is probably the least interesting interaction I’ve ever seen between a superhero and a villain in any medium. Compare to the vastly better-executed heist scene in Dark Knight, which establishes Joker’s disloyalty and unpredictability and his conflict with more conventional criminal groups. I believe it’s an especially memorable scene because he makes major decisions (e.g. preemptively betraying his own men) that 99% of villains wouldn’t have made in the same situation.
  • Katana’s scene stabbing a criminal in Japan was a heavy-handed way of showing her revenge angle, and it contributed to the movie in no other way. Easily removable.
  • Diablo torching a prison yard, shown twice. Not terrible. The crown of fire is a neat touch (but seems to imply that he hasn’t changed as much after killing his family as he’s trying to show).
  • Deadshot has 3 (a sample assassination which does a good job establishing his personality, getting taken down by Batman, and an inexplicably long scene where he shows off his skills by firing at dummies for 45 seconds straight).
  • The Joker/Harlequin takedown by Batman is probably unnecessary – it covers a lot of the ground of Batman taking down Deadshot, but that scene did a better job establishing Deadshot’s relationship with his family.

18. The movie took far too long before the teammates first meet each other 45 minutes in. Virtually all of the moments in the movies that actually worked featured Squad members interacting together (or Deadshot with Flag or his daughter), and getting the Squad together much sooner would probably have helped with the pacing. If your first 45 minutes of the film give more screentime to Waller, faceless government extras, and Joker than the titular heroes, it’d really help if these side characters got more opportunities to be interesting or memorable. In comparison, most of the great superheroes movies that introduce the main case exceptionally late, like Iron Man 1 and Incredibles, used the extra time early on for scenes that were very interesting, hilarious, emotionally effective, developed the main characters, or developed critical plot elements – hell, Tony Stark’s “Merchant of Death” scene and Bob’s attempt to prevent a suicide went far on all 5. In Suicide Squad, the first 45 minutes don’t have anything that well-executed… I’d argue the closest is Deadshot’s interactions with his client, which create some character development and humor.

18.1. The odd men out here are definitely Waller, Joker, Enchantress and her brother (Incubus), and arguably Batman. Ideally, I think it would have helped to replace Enchantress/Incubus with villains that could interact with the heroes more directly, made Batman’s scenes more distinctive or removed him altogether, and significantly accelerated the setup to the squad coming together. I think Joker would be a candidate for lead villain, but I wouldn’t keep him on as a side villain because there are so many characters fighting for space. Also, overhauling Waller (more competent, more believable, more logical, more reacting to an actual problem rather than creating a problem that doesn’t exist yet, more threatening to teammates rather than maintaining no surveillance on the team, etc).

19. A point worth belaboring: Waller is outlandishly incompetent.

  • At one point, she warns the squad, “Remember, I’m watching, I see everything.” Except that she doesn’t have, you know, team microphones or anything, which might have let her hear Boomerang goading Slipknot into bolting, or Deadshot telling HQ that he was going to kill Flag and the SEALs but needed Joker’s help with the nanites. So she’s less well equipped than a Counterstrike team.
  • She appears to get off on lying for no apparent reason (e.g. goading Deadshot into pulling the trigger on a VIP security officer by telling him that the gun was disabled, and telling Rick that it was a standard terrorist attack).
  • It doesn’t seem to occur to her that trying to trick Deadshot to kill somebody for no reason in front of the victim might cause the victim (who runs security for the prison housing her team!) to become less cooperative. And she doesn’t take any precautions against it, getting completely blindsided by a major asset getting turned by Joker, or his high-risk behavior playing in a heavily criminal casino. Nor is she aware that he’s slipped Harlequin a phone, and frankly there weren’t many places to hide it. She apparently trusts that to prison security, even after trying to have one of them killed for absolutely no reason.
  • She’s not aware of her helicopter getting hijacked by Joker. The resulting surprise gets many people killed.
  • Not being able to destroy the heart remotely, or put in a verbal command to someone who can. That seems like a pretty important capability, given that she knew Enchantress could teleport.
  • She murders her own subordinates because “they weren’t cleared for any of this.” First, this serial killing feels completely unnecessary. However, if it were necessary, it might be safer to wrap it up before Flag and Deadshot can witness it. Second, she’s not even good at being bad – she shoots four people once each, and doesn’t check to make sure that they’re dead. That’s really sloppy… there’s a high risk that at least one will survive.
  • No security precautions on the second doll.
  • Her decision not to destroy the first doll after Enchantress goes rogue and/or takes over a city is a major plot hole that makes the movie significantly worse. If she’s not going to use this lever at this point, it’d probably be better not give her this lever – otherwise she’s just developing herself as weak/passive/incompetent by not using it.
  • She allows herself (and the first doll) to be taken by Enchantress.
  • At no point does she approach basic competence. The movie is jaw-droppingly consistent that she’s an active liability to everything she’s trying to accomplish.

19.1. While Rick is not as legendarily inept as Waller, he’s not exactly covering himself in glory.

  • “I don’t do luck. I do planning and precision.” Except for, you know, any sort of plan that accounts for 50%+ of your team plotting to kill you, and you having no surveillance on them even as you have SEALs within 10 feet of the plotters. If your team’s situational awareness is that bad, you might as “do luck” and randomly blow up a teammate, because everyone on the team besides Katana and KC is openly discussing killing you.
  • Flag lets HQ back onto the team even after she sides with Joker and gets most of his SEAL friends killed.

20 responses so far

Jul 26 2016

Some tips on creating city names

Published by under Writing Articles

1) If you’re mainly looking for something believable, most major U.S. cities use one of the following:

  • Surnames of VIPs, usually explorers and major political leaders (e.g. Houston, Columbus, Washington, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville).
  • Anglicized spellings of Native American terms, usually related to geography. E.g. Shikako (“skunk place”) -> Chicago and Myaamia (“downstream people”) -> Miami.
  • Southwestern cities usually use Spanish terms, usually San/Santa + Spanish name or Los/Las/El/La + Spanish term (e.g. San Jose, Los Angeles, and El Paso).
  • Some cities settled by the French use French terms (e.g. Detroit / “strait” and Baton Rouge / “red stick”), are named after French places (e.g. New Orleans) or French saints (e.g. St. Louis).
  • Some cities settled by the English are named after English cities (e.g. Boston and New Amsterdam getting renamed to New York).

2) If you’re looking for something more exotic and/or more thematic, I’d recommend starting with a syllable that has the right sound/feel and then adding suffixes from there. E.g. if I were trying to name a city that was economically wrecked and high-crime, I might start with a syllable like Bent or Pac or Mar, and then add a suffix (don, ion, ola/oma, burn, dere, atur, ville, port, er, burg, boro, rst, oma, sen, iet or whatever suits you). In this case, maybe Marburn or Bensen or Paccola.

3) Unless you’re going for a very “comic booky” feel, I recommend against combining an English adjective/noun and “City”. For example, names like “Central City” and “Star City” tend to be very generic and don’t sound like actual names. (Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, only 4 end in “City” and only 7 use a common English word besides a surname: New York City, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Jersey City, Aurora, Phoenix, and New Orleans).

9 responses so far

Jun 04 2016

Captain America: Civil War Review

Published by under Writing Articles

1. I think the movie is overrated at 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’d put it at 60-70% (notably less awful than the year’s other superhero-vs-superhero movie, Batman vs. Superman, but probably the worst-written MCU movie not starring the Hulk).


2. My biggest complaint against the movie is that it guts well-established character development for no readily obvious reason.

  • Iron Man’s the biggest offender. He spent most of his first 3 movies and Avengers 1 establishing himself as a refreshingly cocky genius notably unwilling to cooperate with soulless authority figures even when it was easy to do so (e.g. refusing to falsely deny he was Iron Man and refusing to give his technology to Congress and the military). In this movie, that not only gets completely obliterated, but he becomes the soulless authority figure, which is insult on injury. For example, when a faceless State Department employee blames him for her son getting killed while building homes in the generically Eastern European place that got annihilated during Avengers 2, is there anything in he’s done in earlier movies that suggests that he’d be on board with submitting the Avengers to faceless UN bureaucrats that he doesn’t know and has no reason to trust? I think he’d probably point out that the Avengers successfully saved the world. Hell, if he were going for something more distinctly Stark-esque, he might ask her for a thank you, seeing as they managed to save 99.99% of the people on the planet including everybody else she knew. Stark had a much more memorable response the last time someone tried guilt-tripping him.

  • In Ant-Man’s first movie, he gets arrested for an idealistic/altruistic crime and it costs him his family. His ex-wife was quite pissed that he wasn’t able to support their daughter while behind bars. When Falcon asks AM for help on an idealistic/altruistic crime, AM helps because he’s met Falcon before, and is impressed by Captain America. Okay, but isn’t his daughter a bigger deal to him than that? Also, given the circumstances of how he met Falcon before (getting sort of attacked by Falcon in the first AM movie) why would he rush to help Falcon when Falcon asks?)

  • Spider-Man’s motivation for joining Tony’s team against Captain America is exceptionally weak. Okay, he’s a high schooler impressed by Tony Stark’s star-power. Okay, but he’s also a New Yorker that was alive when Captain America helped defeat an alien invasion of NY in Avengers 1, and also when Captain America helped save the world in Avengers 2. And, also, Peter Parker might have been on the Hydra kill-list aborted by Captain America in Winter Soldier. It probably would have helped giving SM some bigger reason to want to get involved than just idolizing Tony Stark. Maybe Tony convinces Spider-Man that they’re only really interested in arresting superpowered hitman Bucky, and that they need to subdue anyone interfering as cleanly as possible. Spider-Man is much better qualified for a nonlethal takedown than almost anyone else Tony could have asked (e.g. compare to Hulk, Thor, War Machine, etc). “Hey, you probably aren’t very excited about fighting Captain America – I doubt any New Yorker would be – but you’re our best chance of arresting a super-assassin without any Avengers getting seriously hurt. You in?” I think this would have helped SM look a lot less flaky/childish than he actually did.
  • Secondarily: Vision unintentionally shooting War Machine. I see two main possibilities. One is that an android just happened to miss a shot that badly because the writers needed him to miss, which would be helluva lazy writing. I feel the only plausible in-story explanation is if Vision meant to hit WM (possibly because of mind control, maybe from Thanos’ influence over the gem), which would probably be much more interesting than “I lost focus.”
  • Maybe Captain America interfering with attempts to arrest Bucky? He doesn’t appear to consider any alternatives “let Bucky be arrested” and “defeat anyone attempting to arrest Bucky”. E.g. spending a line or two talking with Wanda and/or Vision about whether it’d be possible for them to remove Bucky’s mind control?
  • I like the villain’s goal, but it all hinges on Captain America being so fanatically loyal to Bucky that framing Bucky for another murder will create a lethal confrontation between Captain America and other Avengers. Given that this didn’t happen after Bucky committed actual murders in Winter Soldier, that seems unlikely.


3. Out of all the people that could really benefit from financial assistance, the MIT student body is probably pretty low on the list.


4. The cast was probably unnecessarily large. Hawkeye, definitely unnecessary. Black Panther, more on him later. This version of Spider-Man was not written well enough to earn his time/space in the movie. Wanda, arguable. Falcon, probably unnecessary. Of the five, I feel like Falcon was the biggest disappointment, not because I had terribly high expectations for the character (I think his main contribution is that he can eventually replace Chris Evans when he hangs up the shield), but because if he ever were going to establish himself as a character different than CA in any way, this probably would have been his best chance. (“Umm, hey, we know that you’re very close to your WWII teammate, who happens to have been mind-controlled into a superpowered serial killer, but maybe there’s a better way to help him than punching out 20+ police officers?”)


5. The writing for Spider-Man was sort of an odd choice. E.g. bending over backwards to make him annoying, and emasculating him with the scene where Iron-Man pulls him out of the fight. (Over the last 60 superhero movies I’ve seen, when a superhero gets taken out of a fight, typically he either gets knocked unconscious or his combatants withdraw or maybe he faces superior odds and withdraws himself). If you hate a protagonist you’re writing this badly, I’d recommend writing him out of the script. Maybe see Turtles Forever for another example here?) If this was the best they could do with the character, why work him into a movie that already has 10 superheroes in it?


6. Waukanda felt goofy. It’s not the first time a fictional country has been introduced into the MCU (Sokovia in Avengers 2 was a fairly generic setting that mainly showed up to get blown up, and blowing up an actual country might have been too dark). The mix of Waukanda’s 19th century government (king as actual head of state) and very advanced technology might have felt less goofy if it had been established in a separate Black Panther movie rather than in an ensemble movie. Also, I think Thor/Asgard has already covered a lot of this ground, but Thor actually has the fantasy background to make it work.

6.1. Black Panther is a martial artist, a billionaire heir, randomly a jet pilot, apparently a master investigator (he found Bucky quite easily), and driven to revenge by the murder of a parent. If the writing for a character rips off Batman that badly, I’d strongly suggest not making him look like this.
Black Panther's costume: also a Batman ripoff

6.2. Unfortunately, they didn’t rip off the stellar lines that Batman typically gets, and personality and character development were sort of missing. With so many characters fighting for time, this probably wasn’t the best opportunity to introduce him. I hope his standalone movie in 2018 will be much better.

6.3. In Marvel’s defense, it wasn’t the worst Batman movie this year.


7. Tony Stark’s creative contributions have been waning over time. I think he had maybe 3 very clever lines in the movie. Weariness doesn’t seem to help him very much.


8. Ant-Man was probably the MVP of the movie in terms of personality and writing, though his role in the plot was negligible. Also, I had previously been skeptical that his powers would allow him to contribute much in combat in a superhero ensemble movie, but he actually contributed more to the fight scenes than most of the other characters.


9. Bucky is hard to care about – he’s less of a character than a mind-control plot device to be fought over. I think Manchurian Candidate, Jessica Jones, and even the pilot episode of Alphas handled mind-control much more effectively, generally from the victim’s perspective. Here’s the introductory scene of Manchurian Candidate.

10 responses so far

Mar 24 2016

Batman Vs. Superman is worse than you’ve heard

Published by under Writing Articles

This is the worst Batman movie since Batman & Robin ~20 years ago. The writing was sub-cartoon grade. If you didn’t enjoy the latest Fantastic Four movie or Man of Steel, I would stay far away from this one.

24 responses so far

Feb 21 2016

Inactive Protagonists

Are there any circumstances under which a highly inactive protagonist would be more promising dramatically than a more active protagonist? E.g. a main character that is weakly unenthusiastic about participating in the plot*, or opts to do nothing in situations where almost every protagonist in the genre would have taken some sort of move (like a superhero story about someone that develops superpowers but doesn’t want to be a superhero/villain or otherwise interact with superhero activity).


*Weakly unenthusiastic: not all that promising. In contrast, I think someone who’s being coerced into doing something but actively rebelling/sabotaging is helluva more promising.

9 responses so far

Feb 03 2016

Incompetent Protagonists

Under what circumstances (if any) would it be possible to make a grossly incompetent main character likable and engaging? Are there any cases where making the main character consistently incompetent would make a story more interesting?

26 responses so far

Jan 27 2016

How Disney writing has changed over time…

God, how many hours of counting character lines must have gone into this? Thanks, researchers!

One response so far

Aug 07 2015

Preliminary Review of Fantastic Four

  • The new Fantastic Four movie runs like an ill-conceived first draft. Personally, I think it deserved a 30% on Rotten Tomatoes rather than a suspiciously low 9%. It’s notably less awful than Green Lantern (26%).
  • Fill in the blank: “One thing most of the main characters share is ________.” The first thing that came to mind for me is petulance. It’s a weird direction for Dr. Doom. Other justifiable answers include insanity, mood swings, daddy issues, a lack of action scenes, unbelievably weak dialogue, a complete lack of fun in their lives, poor acting from normally okay actors, a shocking lack of energy and initiative, a director that thinks they’re in Chronicle, and a studio that thinks they’re in an X-Men movie. It is still better than Green Lantern in every way, and a better love story than Twilight.
  • Another weird direction for Dr. Doom is having him act like a Human Resources killjoy against a romantic rival. “It’s not professional. That’s not what it looked like…” He’s previously been kicked off the team for lighting the project’s servers on fire, so maybe this isn’t the most fitting or most interesting way for him to conflict with Reed over Susan. E.g. he’s brash enough to launch a renegade, drunken space mission. Maybe he could get brave enough to ask her out at some point?
  • Writing advice from 2009: “Tip: [If you’re using a super-scientist] get him out of his lab as much as possible.  Field research is more interesting and has more storytelling potential than lab research.” The Fantastic Four spent maybe 5-10x as much time in a lab as they did in the field. The stakes on their lab research were alarmingly low. Okay, it’s great that Reed Richards is really interested in finding out a way to make teleportation possible, but I think he’s the only one riding that train. It’s a train-ride with 5 minutes of combat and 90 minutes of quasi-adolescent angst. You don’t want to be on that train.
  • Writing advice from 2014: Don’t work anywhere with a containment unit. They have never, ever contained anything and are a leading indicator that everybody involved is about to die in a fire.
  • I liked the darker direction they took with the relationship between Reed and Ben, but I’m not sure what the plan was for the Human Torch and the Invisible Woman. They contributed so little to the movie in their time on screen that their roles either needed to be totally overhauled or (if this weren’t an already-established franchise) cut altogether.
  • If a high school friend woke you up in the middle of the night and asked if you want to go into space even though you have zero training, no relevant experience, no applicable skills, and a crew that is all drunk out of their minds, you have nobody but yourself to blame when it goes to hell. And keep in mind that Ben is supposed to be the sensible member of the team. (One way to resolve this would have been having Reed work Ben into the project more quickly — e.g. Reed could insist that Ben be added to the program because Reed trusts him a lot more than Victor). Also, maybe giving Ben some rarer skill and/or more meaningful interaction with Reed than lending a screwdriver.
  • Pattern recognition and uniform-making, really? Susan Storm is like half a step below a Bond girl.
  • There were something like 4 writers and 10 editorial staffers credited. I watched the movie ~5 minutes ago, and I can’t remember any line that stood out in a positive way besides maybe “You would have been too busy to notice.” This is not the stuff that 50%+ ratings are made out of.
  • Visuals and audio effects were pretty solid. Oddly, The Thing sounds a lot more human than TDK’s Batman does. And his CGI looks a hell of a lot better than it did in his first movie. Some other reviews mentioned that The Thing doesn’t wear clothes, but given that he’s a pile of rocks, it feels like a nonissue. Out of all the changes this movie desperately needed, the wardrobe is not top-30.
  • I feel like Susan Storm and her father showing up at Reed’s high school science fair (apparently at random) could have been handled a lot better. Personally, I would have cut the high school science fair and had them be contacted by the Baxter Foundation after nearly destroying the world. Once you’ve nearly blown up the world, a high school science fair is a huge step down.
  • The attempts to work in comic book catchphrases and the team name were notably clumsy. I’ll check my notes, but off the top of my head, I don’t remember another Marvel-licensed movie struggling like this. Having “It’s clobbering time” come from an abusive brother is the bizarrest use of source material I’ve seen in any movie (superhero or otherwise) in a long time.
  • The goofiness level was unintentionally high. E.g. the “CONFIRMED KILL COUNT” running during the video recap of The Thing’s combat operations, a video recap that the Army apparently outsourced to ISIS gornographers.
  • Writing advice from 2011: “…the organizations are almost always callous and/or sinister secret agencies that bend over backwards to make their conscripts hate them. If I could offer some human resources advice, I’d be very careful about unnecessarily antagonizing your workforce, especially superpowered combat specialists that don’t want to be there. Also, have you tried not hating your subordinates?”  Uhh, yeah, that is still good HR advice, it turns out. Also, not rehiring known psychopaths that have previously set your servers on fire and darkly wonder about whether humanity deserves to be saved.
  • If you’re a science teacher and your brightest student has been working on a teleportation project for years and manages to pull it off at your high school science fair, disqualifying him because “that’s not science” is, umm, a bit backwards. This is why the only scientists that come to New York City are supervillains and/or useless… For everyone else, there’s everywhere else.
  • I feel like the Thing’s combat operations (which happen almost entirely off-screen) would probably have been much more interesting than the movie they actually showed. And also probably a better love story than Twilight.
  • The product placement was annoying bordering on obnoxious, but once the box office returns come out, this’ll look a lot wiser in retrospect. [UPDATE: Probably the smartest decision the filmmakers made, actually.]
  • I watched it Friday evening (6PM) on opening weekend and the theater was at 40-50% capacity. The correlation between Rotten Tomatoes ratings and a superhero movie’s box office success is very strong.

6 responses so far

May 21 2015

Exercises for developing authorial voice

Published by under Writing Articles

The most important thing in writing comic books is finding and honing your own unique voice. A unique voice makes your writing exclusive and authentic. Authenticity connects with readers.


Many comic book writers have trouble developing their own unique voices when they are starting out. Fortunately, there are a few exercises you can do to develop your voice and improve your writing.


Study Another Writer’s Voice

Studying other Writer’s voices will make it easier to identify and develop your own voice more clearly. Picking a comic book you really like and aping the style makes a fun writing exercise that will help you do this. Everyone has their own style of writing comic books. Good writing styles are practically invisible. Aping a comic book’s story will help you see the style and better understand the writer’s creative decisions.


What do I mean by aping a comic book? I mean tell your own story, but with the beats of the comic you’ve chosen to ape. Plug your characters and concepts into the other Writer’s story beats. He uses five panels, you use five panels. He uses a caption, you use a caption. He does thought balloons, you use thought balloons.


You will be more comfortable writing in your own style once you’re comfortable with another writer’s style.


Take Inventory

Take an inventory of yourself to identify your voice so you can accentuate it. Ask yourself some pointed questions:

  • What are three adjectives to describe your personality?
  • Who is your perfect reader? Describe who he is in detail and then write everything just for him.
  • What are five or more books and blogs you enjoy reading? How are these similar? What is it about them that’s compelling to you?


Ask other people what they think is unique about your voice. You can find out a lot about your voice in reviews.


Look at Your Writing

Free-write something. Just write something you enjoy without doing any editing. Then, look over what you wrote and ask yourself if this is the kind of writing you’re publishing. Is this the kind of stuff you would read? If it isn’t something you would read, then change your voice to make it something you would enjoy reading. Do you like what you’re writing while you’re writing it? Does it feel like work to write? If it does feel like work, then there’s a good chance you need to change the way you’re writing.


Do you feel afraid or nervous before you publish? If you aren’t feeling vulnerable when you’re putting your work out into the world, it might be time to work on making your voice more personal. Try to write dangerous stuff. You want to be scared of what people will think when they read your work.


Finding Your Voice is Important

A unique voice can help you in many ways. Most writers who don’t write with a unique voice burn out eventually. Your unique voice is what makes people fans of your work. Finding your voice is important for writing comic books. However, it’s even more important to continue developing your voice once you’ve found it. Try these exercises and see what you find out about your voice.

4 responses so far

Dec 07 2014

The Suit Chafes: Using Sensory Details to Enrich Your Story

Published by under Writing Articles

Comics are a visual medium, and that can be an advantage over prose when it comes to storytelling. The motion and force in Wonder Woman’s punch, the adorkable grin on Ms. Marvel’s face, that gorgeous two-page spread of Gotham City: these are images that can be harder to get across in writing. But don’t get discouraged, novel writers. Prose has its own advantages, and one of those is that it can be much more immersive than comics through the use of sensory details.


Touch, smell, hearing, taste: use them right, and it can deepen your reader’s experience, making them feel like they’re right there with your characters. This isn’t central to your story. A solid plot and well-rounded characters always come first, but when you’re revising your second or third (or tenth) draft, look for places where you can enrich your description with sensory details like the examples below:



  • Your heroine is wearing some kick-ass leather boots. Are her feet sweaty and gross inside them?
  • The wind on that tall building your hero is perched atop of is probably cold and biting against his face.
  • Does your villain wear gloves? The sense of everything he touches is going to be dulled by their fabric.



  • What’s the evil corporate executive cologne like? Is it way too much?
  • Your superhero team’s base is on a space station. That’s cool, but the recycled air probably smells stale and awful.
  • A mugger is in an alley. Does the alley smell like old beer? Vomit? A dumpster full of rotting food from the Italian restaurant next door?



  • Does the femme fatale’s husky voice make your hero (or heroine) shiver?
  • Has your villain been punched in the head so hard that it sounds like his ears are stuffed with cotton balls?
  • Your mad scientist is in her laboratory. The humming of computers, hissing of Bunsen burners, or squeaking of lab rats could make up the background noise.



  • The coppery taste of blood might be your heroine’s first clue that the last punch left her with a nosebleed.
  • The villain’s minion has just been knocked face-first into the dirt. Did some get into his mouth?
  • Your hero has been captured and bound, and the ball gag tastes rubbery.


Small details like these can make the world of your novel feel more real to the reader—which is important when that world is populated by mutants, aliens, and men and women in colorful tights. Sensory details alone won’t make a good story, but they can add another layer to already good writing.


BM adds: Kristen Brand just wrote the superhero novel Hero Status.

2 responses so far

Apr 05 2014

Captain America 2…

Published by under Writing Articles

My expectations were far too high — with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of ~90% at the time I saw it, I was expecting a really excellent movie. There were a lot of competent moments but personally I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to theaters to see it.

In Scott Pilgrim, there’s a scene where Chris Evans (Captain America’s actor) parodies a really bad action star. Captain America 2 gave him so little to work with that I feel he came off like the bad action star.

Some notable issues with the movie:

  • In terms of genre, the first CA movie was an unusually fun summer action movie. I found it very exciting, although the level of seriousness was not notably high (i.e. it’s mainly a movie about stopping Nazi/Hydra researchers from taking over the world). This movie took itself far more seriously than the characters were able to support. Iron Man or James Bond might possibly have been able to make a conspiracy/thriller movie work without it feeling silly. With Captain America, it was like a pretty goofy take on Person of Interest.
  • Generally, I think the key factors separating a good superhero movie from a great one are almost always comedy and character development. (There are exceptions, most notably Dark Knight, but I don’t think we’re looking at one here). Unlike the first Captain America movie, this movie had virtually no humor and I found the characters less interesting.
  • I felt the villain selection was unusually ineffective. Personally, I would have recommended using a different enemy team than Hydra and taken out the Winter Soldier altogether. (Everything about the Winter Soldier felt overly like a comic book, which is probably not the best fit for a thriller with political aspirations).

39 responses so far

Dec 16 2013

A Criminal Profiler’s Guide to Superheroes

Email: “One of my protagonists is a detective looking for superheroes/vigilantes. What sort of traits might tip him off?


Here are some trends that come to mind for American superheroes.


Strong Associations

  • They’ve had a loved one(s) murdered by a stranger. That’s pretty rare in the United States. Only about 2,500 U.S. murders are committed by strangers per year. If we rule out intergang violence and drug deals gone bad (because most people in a Uncle Ben or Martha/Thomas Wayne situation are not gang members), we’re probably looking at about 500 murders per year that might be of interest to police looking for superhero origin stories, and probably less than 10-15 a year in any particular city.
  • They’ve had a loved one(s) kidnapped by a stranger, sometimes repeatedly. (For example, are there any Metropolis supervillains that haven’t kidnapped Lois Lane at some point?) Normally, it’s EXTRAORDINARILY rare for someone to get kidnapped more than once by a stranger. I doubt it’s happened in U.S. history. It should certainly raise a lot of questions about why so many major-league criminals have an interest in kidnapping this particular journalist rather than any of the other major journalists in town.
  • Most superheroes are 1) extremely physically fit but 2) do NOT work out regularly at a gym or at home. If the investigator has access to credit card records, he can look for purchases of gym membership and/or fitness equipment. Most superheroes won’t have any. (If Clark Kent started bench-pressing thousands of pounds at a gym, it would raise a lot of questions, and any fitness equipment specialized enough to help a superhero train is suspicious enough that they probably wouldn’t keep it at their residence).
  • Most superheroes don’t have any kids or pets. First, there’s the time factor. Being a superhero is a major time commitment. There could also be security issues if a kid sees anything interesting or mentions to a stranger that his parent(s) disappear every night.
  • Superheroes will give off lots of signs of combat experience but almost never have any military experience. (Even Captain America had only 1-2 years before getting iced). These signs may include paying a lot more attention to exit routes, habitually glancing at anyone entering the room, and avoiding turning his/her back towards an entryway or window.
  • Adult superheroes are almost always college-educated. In contrast, 70% of U.S. adults don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
  • If you interview the coworkers/boss of a superhero, certain traits will probably crop up. They’re brilliant, but hard to work with. They have major absenteeism issues and frequently come into work tired or with (poorly explained) injuries, and they NEVER follow orders or a chain of command.  Despite their many failings, superheroes’ coworkers will unanimously agree that they are exceptionally competent at their job. (Bruce Wayne is virtually the only exception here — most superheroes are too proud/lazy/careless to pull off a dummy act).
  • In most cases, everyone that knows a superhero well will agree that he’s unusually courageous and altruistic, but has issues with punctuality and reliability. A lot of people that know him will attest that it’s hard to get him on the phone and/or that he sometimes disappears during work.
  • Everyone that has observed this person in a life-or-death emergency will agree that he was unusually collected, even if he’s normally sort of bumbling (e.g. Clark Kent).
  • They won’t own any guns, no matter how bad their neighborhood is.
  • Most superheroes don’t have a criminal record, but will be surprisingly familiar with police capabilities and tactics. For example, in most cases, the police can get a suspect to unwittingly give a DNA and fingerprint sample by offering a soda (or paperwork to fill out). These techniques will certainly not work with a superhero. However, a superhero will never insist on having a lawyer present, which will come across as highly unusual for a suspect that otherwise knows what he’s doing. (In-story, superheroes might not get a lawyer involved because they think it’ll make them look suspicious and/or afraid and/or because they really hate defense attorneys. (Not surprising after how many times Lex Luthor has gone free on a technicality). However, the main reason writers avoid having lawyers present is because they almost always make interview scenes less interesting… it’s basically a lawyer’s job to keep its client from saying anything interesting).
  • Superheroes are generally extremely sensitive about their medical records. Even the identity of their general practitioner will be a closely-guarded secret because the doctor is almost always an active collaborator that knows what’s going on. It would be very hard for a superhero to hide the truth from his doctor because routine x-rays will show an extensive history of broken bones and the superpowers may cause their bloodwork or DNA to be highly unusual.
  • We can rule out virtually everyone who has an unprestigious job. In-story, this might be explained because a vigilante that’s flashy enough to create a gaudy persona is probably an attention-seeker. Also, prestigious jobs tend to be more helpful for a superhero than an unprestigious job would be (in terms of resources, access, training/skills/education, etc).
  • Superheroes tend to value money quite a bit less than the population as a whole. Most superheroes could be wealthy if they wanted to be, but most don’t care that much about it. Even billionaire superheroes tend not to be that personally involved in the day-to-day operations of their company.
  • If a superhero suspect has a personal connection to a supervillain, follow up on that. People that know a superhero are far more likely to become a supervillain. In particular, the easiest way to become one of Spider-Man’s villains is to meet Peter Parker.  (Green Goblin is his best friend’s father, Lizard employed him as a teaching assistant, Venom is a rival at work, Dr. Octopus once taught him at a science camp, Man-Wolf is J.J. Jameson’s son, etc).
  • Most superheroes have exceptionally good reflexes and reaction times. If the investigator has access to insurance or police records, it’s unlikely a superhero has any routine accidents on his record. If there are any accidents, it’s probably because the driver was doing something outlandishly daring/reckless.
  • If a superhero has the ability to fly or teleport or run extremely fast, he probably drives and/or takes public transit much less than normal. “Your credit card records indicate that you haven’t purchased gasoline or refilled a public transit card in the last 3 months. How do you get to work?” If he claims that he made all of his gas station purchases with cash (yeah, right), then the investigator can check the speedometer on his car. If he claims that he pays cash for public transit, the investigator can ask routine questions about public transit (e.g. “which stop do you usually get off at for the Daily Planet?”). In addition, if I were looking for a superhero that could move especially fast, he probably won’t have any records of taxi usage on his credit cards.
  • If a superhero does not have flight/teleportation/super-speed, his credit card records will probably show he travels less often than normal because it’d be logistically difficult for a hero to get back to the city quickly in case of an emergency. Also, the more time Peter Parker spends outside of New York, the more likely that someone will notice that there are no Spider-Man sightings while he’s away.
  • We’re probably looking for someone that isn’t at home most nights. If you check his credit card records, there probably won’t be any purchases over these hours-long absences.
  • We can probably eliminate anyone that can be easily tailed and/or put under surveillance. Most superheroes have situational awareness bordering on the supernatural and are mobile enough to disappear around any corner or through any fence.

Weak Associations

  • Superheroes are generally romantically dysfunctional. There are a few superheroes that make a long-term relationship work (frequently because they date/marry other superheroes), but more often it’s a Bruce Wayne or Punisher situation where the character is a pathological loner or divorced by murder.
  • We can safely rule out anyone that’s been divorced. In-story, one explanation might be that the significant others of superheroes are in so much danger that they don’t usually make to the 7 year itch, or that they’re so dysfunctional they can’t find anyone to get married to. Alternately, most superheroes are desirable enough (e.g. generally wealthy and intelligent, athletic, altruistic, and interesting) that significant others might not start to wonder if there are better options available.
  • We can safely rule out anyone that’s had an affair. Betraying someone that generally knows life-or-death secrets is a really bad career move.
  • We can safely eliminate anyone that’s poor, and I’d look especially closely at billionaires. In-story, the explanation here is that someone who is ludicrously wealthy probably has more resources (e.g. gear, vehicles, training, healthcare, etc) and probably more ability to spend tens of hours each week on unpaid volunteering.
  • Most superheroes are 15-40, particularly 20-35. In general, most superheroes have had unusual success in their chosen day-job at an early age.
  • I’d take an especially close look at scientists, journalists, and corporate moguls.
  • Generally very talkative/outgoing, but secretive.
  • Some people close to the hero may suspect the person is having an affair or otherwise hiding something because he lies so often (and perhaps so implausibly) about so much (e.g. where he is, why he misses appointments, why he’s been injured, whatever).
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably religious, even the ones that personally know gods. In contrast, most Americans attend religious services regularly.
  • Most superheroes aren’t noticeably politically active. In contrast, most American adults are registered to vote with a particular political party.
  • Nobody’s ever seen him sweat or show any signs of fear.
  • Generally has lived in a particular very large city his/her entire life. In particular, most Americans don’t attend college in their hometown, but most superheroes do.
  • Probably attended a very respectable university in a city (e.g. Empire State or Gotham University). In real life, the United States only has a few of them (U-Chicago, Columbia, maybe USC and Rice). There’s going to be so much strangeness surrounding these few elite urban universities that it’d be impossible to miss — e.g. Dr. Connors turning into a lizard monster.
  • Even within the city, most superheroes do not move very often. (If there is a secret compartment in the house, moving would be very inconvenient). If a superhero does move, he does not use a moving company, even though he probably earns enough that it’d be unusual to do it himself.
  • Superheroes tend to be significantly more attractive than the population as a whole. In particular, most superheroines could pass as models.


“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Version:

Almost every adult superhero will meet at least at least 5 of the following:

  • They’ve had a loved one murdered by a stranger.
  • They’ve had a different loved one kidnapped or seized by a stranger.
  • No divorces or infidelity.
  • They’re exceptionally good at their day job but have trouble following orders.
  • No criminal convictions. In the rare cases there were any convictions, there’s probably a bizarre philanthropic angle to the crime.
  • They’ve graduated from college (usually a prestigious one) and have a prestigious or glamorous career.
  • They will not give police any medical information (e.g. medical records or a saliva swab) because it might be incriminating.
  • They’re exceptionally physically fit, but not a member of a gym.
  • There is evidence they’ve seen a lot of combat, but they don’t have any military experience.


41 responses so far

Sep 28 2013

Prisoners Was Really Good, But…

Published by under Realism

Prisoners was highly entertaining and I think the writers did a good particularly good job portraying the families going through the kidnapping of their daughters. However, basically everything the police did in the movie was exceptionally Hollywood, so much so that it nearly turned the movie into an idiot plot. If you’re the sort of person that would be distracted by characters habitually acting stupidly to put themselves in suspenseful situations, this movie may not be for you.Pro tip: ace detectives should not hunt alone for serial killers. There must have been SOMEONE in his unit that was good enough to keep up with him… and have Thanksgiving dinner with him.


I think the best decisions in the writing/direction were in what they DIDN’T show (e.g. the kidnapping, the 911 call, the relative lack of emotional outbursts from family members, the way the movie ended, etc).


Anyway, the movie was extremely entertaining. If you like Homeland or Dexter even though they play really, really loose with realism, you’d probably find this movie very entertaining.


10 responses so far

Sep 17 2013

Why superheroes & supervillains need each other

Published by under Writing Articles

The rivalries between superheroes and supervillains represents the battle between good and evil as a whole. It could be said that, without villains, there would be no heroes. Supervillains provide the opportunity for comic book characters with superpowers to become superheroes, as opposed to just regular everyday super people.


But would supervillains even exist without heroes to fight against? The answer is probably not. Heroes tend to either be born with their powers or gain them accidentally. Crime suddenly becomes a difficult way to make a living in whichever city they are based in. The simple solution would be to start a new, crime free, life. But with criminals being criminals, this never happens, leading to them taking often unethical steps to acquire comparable superpowers.


If superheroes create supervillains, then supervillains definitely keep superheroes relevant. Take Batman for example, without the Joker, a villain only he could handle, his uses would be limited. He could be replaced by a stronger police force or something to that effect.


Villains give their counterparts the chance to shine, heroes are pushed to greater accomplishments. Nobody wants to watch or read about an allpowerful hero who destroys all of their opponents quickly and easily. Having this happen can make the hero come across as a bully. Having a strong villain to test their wits against creates suspense and keeps the reader coming back for more.


Facing adversity allows our heroes to grow as characters and truly become superheroes. It is no coincidence that all of the most popular superheroes have become synonymous with their villains. Batman would be nothing without the Joker and Spiderman would be nothing without the Green Goblin. At the same time, the opposite is true.


Superheroes really do need their supervillains, and vice-versa.


Mark Enright is a comic book enthusiast and writer for GB Posters, a retailer of high quality posters.

116 responses so far

Jun 27 2013

The Comic Book vs. The Superhero Novel (Or: The Hulk Is People Too)

Tony Stark has a drinking problem. And a broken heart. Peter Parker is a nerd. Superman has daddy issues. And Bruce Wayne? Where do you start?


These are our heroes. And we learn about their addictions and predilections, their agendas and vendettas over the course of hundreds of issues, creating a tableau of identity that evolves over the span of years, or even decades. But in any one issue we are given only a snapshot of their character, another piece of the puzzle that we have to thread together ourselves, week by week.


Not so in a novel. The novel is a tapestry in itself. All the threads already stitched together so the reader can unravel it, page by page.


It doesn’t take a genius (or even a writer) to figure out how such a dramatic difference in form can impact a superhero narrative. What’s interesting, however, is exploring how authors of superhero novels can use the boon of all those extra pages to revise, and sometimes even pervert the norms of comics as a genre.


The comic book, by its very nature, is plot driven (which is not to immediately suggest that many novels aren’t). This is simply a matter of real estate. Geniuses that they are, comic writers and artists are capable of cramming all the conventions of good story telling into cramped panels, but when it comes to the more nuanced issues of theme or character development they often must engage in a type of literary guerilla warfare—a hit and run of suggestions and asides, because as soon as you turn the page, somebody’s going to have to “do what they do best.” Action is paramount, and for every moment of pathos where our hero reveals his innermost fears, desires, etc. there are three more where he opens up a can of Snikt-brand whoop-arse. This is to be expected. It’s what gives the genre its returning weekly audience.


A superhero novel, on the other hand, has fewer limitations and a much wider repertoire of conventions to draw from; after all, the history of the novel and the sheer number of books vastly dwarfs its glossy-covered counterpart. This allows for a multiplicity of purpose that can be both daunting and exhilarating to a writer.


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17 responses so far

Jun 24 2013

A Writer’s Review of Sidekicked

Sidekicked is a superhero novel about a sidekick who’s got just enough superpowers to get everybody killed and the various forces trying to screw him (e.g. a possibly nefarious superhero/spymaster, a squad of supervillains hell-bent on revenge, and whoever named him “The Sensationalist”). Here’s what writers can learn from it and how it could improve your writing.


The team dynamic was unusually believable and three-dimensional. In particular, the conflicts between the sidekicks and their sort-of-spymaster boss were more satisfying because both sides of the conflict were somewhat likable and sympathetic. Instead of just having the kids fight with Hardass Drill Instructors, for example, the spymaster instead grilled them during debriefings about various decisions and mistakes. It raised the stakes for their superheroics (e.g. not noticing that someone reeks of mind-control chemicals and/or explosives could make for a really bad day).


–I love the idea of a team leader bringing in an outside superhero because he thinks the team is lacking in some way. It’s a very promising way to create a dramatic conflict between the team and the new guy (and perhaps between the team and the leader). It also helps develop the character more quickly than just randomly adding someone because the team wanted an extra person.


The characterization was not very groundbreaking… For example, the main character is generally a stereotypically ordinary teen who gets relatively few opportunities to make decisions that any other young superhero wouldn’t have made in the same place. Generally, I’d recommend giving your characters more opportunities to stand out from the crowd because it’ll help make them more memorable. For example, this main character gets a kickass scene with a cop car and is unusually gutsy when confronting a deadbeat hero. Both are a great start.


The main character’s voice/dialogue is interesting enough that I think most readers can let his personality slide. E.g. “[If my identity got leaked] I’d have to tell my parents everything… even about mixing nitroglycerin in the bathroom sink.”

 “At least ten weeks [until my arm heals up],” Mike said… “I asked [our boss] if we could just chop it off and get me one of those cybernetics jobs like Cryos has?”…

Cryos has this killer cybernetic arm… It was pretty awesome. If Mike got one of those, I’d catapult myself down the stairs until my own arm broke off.


–The story was usually most interesting when the superheroes were improvising. For example, mixing nitroglycerin in your parents’ sink is far more memorable than mixing it up in a secret lab that is actually suited for mixing nitroglycerin. Hot-wiring a police cruiser is more interesting than having a Batmobile, especially given that the “driver” can’t actually drive and the “hot-wirer” is an electrical superhero with explosively imprecise powers.


–I can’t speak for the target audience (grades 3-7), but I felt like the non-superheroics elements could have been incorporated in a more interesting and coherent way. For example, right after a terrifying supervillain breaks his gang out of prison, I would not recommend cutting to an uneventful flashback of a middle school romance. I’d recommend instead incorporating that sort of information into scenes which somehow develop the central plot moving forward, so that it feels more coherent with the hunt for the supervillain. For example, see how X-Men: First Class used a romance between Mystique and Beast to advance a critical plot arc about mutant self-acceptance or how the romance between Bob and Helen in The Incredibles influences their major decisions.


Refreshingly non-stupid for a work aimed at this target audience. I’d feel a lot more comfortable using Sidekicked than Captain Underpants in a (say) 4th grade classroom.


I think the book skews considerably older than the target audience. If the author had removed all of the lines where the characters’ age or grade were mentioned, I would have guessed the main characters was 16-18. It doesn’t have any of the focuses I’d associate most with tween audiences (e.g. an emphasis on fitting in and/or being socially acceptable, academic angst like too much homework or a nasty teacher, and low-stakes conflicts with siblings or parents).


The book has fun with superhero tropes without getting too ridiculous. For example, although a few of the side-villains were a bit wacky, it never felt at all like the work was either aimed at idiots or written by someone who sort of hated superhero stories. For example, in introducing a new side-villain, the main character helpfully notes that “I have no idea what his deal is, though anyone who dresses up like a bumblebee and carries around a rocket launcher is obviously several eggs short of a carton.” In comparison, if a superhero’s facing off against (say) Sticky Glue Man, the villain probably feels so pathetic that 1) there’s no danger, 2) it doesn’t matter whether the hero wins, and 3) both the heroes and the villain lose the reader’s attention.


The dweeb vs. jock conflict could be fresher. Fortunately, it’s a pretty minor plot arc, and the target audience probably isn’t old enough to have seen hundreds of these stories yet.


I like that the character’s superhero name only comes up a few times, especially given that the name is a bit hard to use in conversation (“The Sensationalist”). The name isn’t a huge deal, so I wouldn’t recommend spending hours on this when you’re writing your own manuscripts, but here I would have recommended something a bit shorter, perhaps Keen or Sharply.


CHICAGOANS DO NOT USE THE PHRASE “WICKED COOL.” For your handy reference, here are some phrases you’ll hear in Chicago but not Boston:

On the plus side, Kid Colt sounded a lot more believable (to this Chicago-area layman with very little exposure to Western or Southern accents).




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5 responses so far

May 25 2013

Setting as a Character

New writers have a tendency to focus so much on their character development that they forget that the right setting can be just as important. Setting provides a picture for a reader, without which your characters are flying through nothingness. Action and drama mean very little without interaction between the characters and their environment so, in the right circumstances, a well-established setting can become a character in its own right. Think of Hogwarts, where the staircases are just as likely to move as the people walking on them, a flying car that saves the protagonist from his enemies and the hidden caverns and passages which not only help move plot along but which often interface with the characters too. It is this intelligent use of setting that sets your work apart from average writers and makes your work truly readable and re-readable.


“I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”

–J K Rowling


Setting can be magical without the presence of magic though. If you’ve ever visited the ancient ruins of a castle, you will know that age brings with it a sense of history and stories unknown. So as your character stumbles across a castle in the night, a hundred feet tall all around, its harsh grey stone covered in green and gold lichen which reflects the moonlight and all but one window dark, you are able to bring about a sense of age and vastness, a sense of mystery and majesty. Similarly, if you’ve ever found yourself in an exotic plant store, there is something about the bizarre, unknown vegetation that demonstrates you don’t need a tree that takes a swing at you as you pass to give a fantastical element to the setting. In the shade of leaning palms, your character finds escape from the arid heat. Winding your way along an isolated trail in the Amazon rainforest, the flora and fauna hold a great deal of surprises, distractions, obstacles and dangers which can be relevant to the progress of your story. Familiarity is what causes something to become clichéd. As long as you stay fresh and thoughtful about your setting then you won’t fall into this trap.


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7 responses so far

Mar 05 2013

Real Superhero Power of Technology Infographic

We live in a world where technology has taken over our lives and it has got to the point where it is saving lives but where did this notion of technology saving lives come from, the answer is superheroes. Many people think of superheroes as a comic book character but there is more to them than meets the eye. Have you ever studied the abilities and power they have? If not, then this infographic below will show you what the real value of their powers and abilities are and how it can influence life in the real world.


From DC Comics to Marvel characters, these characters have influenced the growth of technology. The U.S army for instance has looked to them as role models when developing super human soldiers. The “Iron Man” soldiers are just one form of technological advancements and as you shall see in this real superhero powered infographic it has been a wise investment. Much research goes into developing powered technology and armour suits and this has inspired the medical community to develop products that will help those with disabilities. Superheroes have even influenced the digital world we live in, no one would have thought that Tupac would return from the dead through a hologram, but he did through the inspiration of the Green Lantern from DC Comics.


The world incorporates many super humans and through some real training and parkour movements you could be the next superhero.
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4 responses so far

Jan 27 2013

The 5 Least Promising Scenes for a Superhero Story

1. Bank robberies with faceless criminals that never had a chance of accomplishing anything. If you’re mainly including this scene to give the superhero(es) a chance to show off their powers, I would recommend reevaluating whether anything is at stake and whether the scene actually contributes anything to the story. For example, Dark Knight’s opening bank robbery does a really good job developing the Joker and the main antagonist-vs.-antagonist conflict, even though the main character is not at stake.


2. Any scene featuring more or less helpless antagonists. If your superhero’s opponents cannot challenge him, there’s probably very little at stake, which means that the fight will create very little suspense. Some possible solutions:

  • Give the hero stronger opposition. For example, if your hero’s superpowers are incredible enough that he can only be challenged by someone with superpowers, it’d be worth considering a plotting element which makes it easier in your universe for low-grade antagonists to get superpowers or some sort of threatening capabilities. (For example, perhaps criminals can buy a temporary super-serum or a Hulk-grade hunting rifle).
  • Change the scene so that it’s harder for the character to use his powers (e.g. characters with fire-based powers should probably be careful if there are innocent bystanders and/or volatile chemicals present).
  • Give the character(s) problems which his/her powers can’t effortlessly solve. For example, it’d probably be more interesting to see The Thing deal with a hurricane than a guy with a gun. The gunman probably isn’t challenging. Alternately, the hero might be in a situation where the character can’t openly use his superpowers because they’d blow his secret identity.
  • Weaken the character’s powers. For example, a faster-than-sound character could probably defeat an average bank robber with little (if any) difficulty or drama. A character that could merely run at ~60 miles per hour would have to put more thought into it, particularly if hostages are involved.
  • Temporarily reduce the character’s capabilities. For example, perhaps the character is injured or temporarily has lost access to his/her superpowers (like during an eclipse in Heroes).
  • Increase the cost of the character’s superpowers. Please see #2 in How to Keep Your Story’s Superpowers Extraordinary.


3. Confrontations between protagonists which hinge on a protagonist(s) being irredeemably stupid. Particularly with protagonist-vs-protagonist conflicts, I’d recommend making both characters at least somewhat sympathetic. For example, in The Dark Knight, both Lucius and Batman have a likable reason to oppose each other on the use of a cutting-edge tracking system. In contrast, if one (or worse, both) sides are wildly dumb and/or childish (e.g. see Batman & Robin), the conflict is more likely to make readers want to brain everybody involved and throw the story in a fire.

3.1. “I hate you because I’m one-dimensionally evil and/or stupid.” Common offenders: abusive parents, bullies, and Jim Crow stand-ins (e.g. more or less every non-mutant in X-Men). If you have to demote characters to mind-numbing unlikability, I’d recommend doing so sparingly. For a potential solution here, I’d recommend checking out how Homeland and The Wire treated mostly unsympathetic antagonists (terrorists and drug dealers, respectively) with some degree of human empathy. It made them feel more believable and the conflicts against them more satisfying.


4. Any scene where the main character does the same thing(s) 95%+ of other superheroes would have done. Give your characters more chances to be original. For example, in a particular scene, is there anything the superhero does or says which is really unique? If not, I’d recommend reevaluating the character development (so that the characters have more unusual traits to act on) and/or reworking the plot so that the characters have more chances to demonstrate these traits.  For example, if you have a superhero who is uncommonly loyal to his friends, you could make his/her loyalty more memorable by developing friends that many superheroes would not be loyal to. In Point of Impact, the main character is a fugitive that risks his life breaking his dog’s corpse out of an FBI-guarded morgue. The scene develops the character very effectively–he risks himself for honor in a way that almost no protagonist would have and it establishes how isolated he is (the dog is the closest thing the protagonist had to friends or family).  


5. Any funeral scene so generic that 95% of the words could apply to 95% of superheroes. E.g. “Captain Awesome was a great hero who risked himself for us on so many occasions” while teammates sob about how hard it is that he’s gone. Boohoohoo, nobody cares. I’d strongly recommend moving towards more distinctive scenes–e.g. you can focus instead on teammates/friends/family sharing memorable stories showing us what kind of person the fallen superhero was, and that would help readers genuinely care on their own that he’s gone. I’d recommend staying away from eulogies, especially by faceless extras–it’s generally not the best approach to making your funeral scene memorable.

5.1. Any funeral scene where the character isn’t actually dead*. Personally, I’d probably lean towards a quick rejection on an unsolicited manuscript here–the scene (and the death arc in general) is probably a waste of time. Also, this is very cliche–see pretty much every comic book funeral. For best-selling superheroes, it’s sort of justifiable because actually killing the character would leave millions of dollars on the table. Most unsolicited manuscripts don’t have that excuse.

5.2. Undoing death. Unkilling a hero means that death doesn’t actually matter, which tends to ruin action scenes. If death is temporary, there are no stakes to losing — it doesn’t matter whether your characters win or lose a fight. That’s much less interesting than characters that actually have something to worry about. If you want to kill a character, please be brave enough to make it stick. Alternately, just take it out. As a last resort, if you’re absolutely committed to resurrecting a character, I’d recommend setting some hard limit (e.g. the destruction of the time machine or whatever was used to unkill the character) so that readers know that this cop-out was absolutely just a one-time thing and will not happen again.

Exception: The readers know the funeral’s not real. E.g. characters holding a fake funeral to convince an enemy that the hero is no longer a threat. This is more promising because you’re not asking readers to be emotionally invested in a supposed death which won’t actually go anywhere.

20 responses so far

Jan 08 2013

Infographics on Historical Travel Times

Published by under Research and Resources

Especially if you’re interested in historical fiction, I’d recommend checking these infographics for a better idea of how much harder it was to move hundreds or thousands of miles before railroads were widely available.

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4 responses so far

Dec 07 2012

Writing Experiment: Merge Two Extremely Counterintuitive Characters

Which two of your characters would be hardest to merge into a single character? How would you go about doing it?

Some possibilities which come to mind:

  • Can you use one character’s motivations (why he/she wants to do something) to add something to the other character’s goals (what he/she wants to do)? Sometimes a really counterintuitive motivation can open up fresh plotting possibilities. For example, if Character 1 is a cop trying out for SWAT because he’s suicidally brave and Character 2 became a forensic accountant because it was a safe career path might be merged into a cop trying out for SWAT because… he wants to stay safe. What convinced the cop that SWAT was his safest option? For example, maybe an unknown person or people on his unit are trying to get him killed–it’s probably more interesting than someone deciding to join SWAT for a more standard reason.
  • Do one character’s personality traits interact with the other character’s personality traits and/or goals in an interesting way? For example, applying Batman’s isolation and/or dearth of empathy to Superman might make Superman feel like more of an actual alien rather than essentially a human with superpowers.
  • Which elements of the characters’ background would you change for the merged character? What would you keep?

If you need help coming up with characters to merge, here are some possibilities…

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17 responses so far

Nov 17 2012

What Makes a Hero?

In Skyfall, M remarks offhandedly that “orphans always make the best recruits” as secret agents. She doesn’t explain, but I would infer that she means that commitment matters more than anything else in her line of work, and that a person with a family won’t be as fully committed because they somewhere to leave to and may have been raised with more inhibitions than someone with a harder upbringing.


In your story, are there any traits or demographic characteristics which are unusually important for your heroes (or villains)? In particular, if you have a team of heroes, what are they looking for when they choose members? (For example, what should a superhero team be looking for besides superpowers? If a team takes random people off the street on life-or-death missions because they happen to have superpowers, does that strike anybody involved as desperate and/or crazy? If not, why not?) If you have a main hero, does he/she have the trait in question? If not, how does he/she get around that?

11 responses so far

Nov 10 2012

Tips for Writing Superhero Ensembles and Superhero Teams

1. I think the most important aspect is to develop your characters beyond one-dimensional cliches. Generally speaking, a few interesting characters will excite readers much more than many not-so-interesting characters would. Unless you’re doing children’s television, I’d recommend against a Power-Rangers-style setup where the members on a team have a single trait. For example, if your team consists of characters who have nothing going on besides a single trait/archetype (e.g. a hothead, a curious scientist, and an immature joker in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), it’s probably less promising than it could be. In contrast, Tony Stark had all of those traits and I think it both made him a deeper and more interesting character while enhancing his dramatic possibilities with other characters (especially in Avengers). For example, Tony Stark’s curiosity combines with his lack of restraint when he decides to cattle-prod Bruce Banner to see if Banner has the Hulk situation under control. Batman’s preparation and paranoia come together in Justice League when he pulls out Kryptonite against a enemy and cryptically says he had it on hand as an “insurance policy.” In contrast, I think there are only two types of scenes between Raphael the hothead and Leonardo the hardass leader (scenes where they hate each other and scenes where they don’t). There’s only so many ways you can have characters act out a single trait with each other.



2. Another problem I’ve seen occasionally is where large superhero teams cut the roles too fine. I’ve seen 3-page synopses for stories which have (say) 8+ characters and half of the characters only get a line of description along the lines of “Avatar has fire powers and defends the base” or “Gridley is incredibly intelligent and is the team’s hacker” or whatever. I would recommend making your characters more versatile than that. For example, pretty much any superhero can defend the base–if base-defense is plot-relevant, just rotate that task among the notable characters or delegate it to a faceless extra that won’t take much space, but please don’t just randomly insert a character that will take space without actually getting to be interesting (or at least develop more interesting characters).

For example, let’s say a team has a scientist, a hacker, a soldier, an explosives expert, an outdoorsman/hunter, a negotiator, and a criminal. I think the most intuitive (though not necessarily best) approach would be to merge some of the characters (e.g. a scientist/hacker, a soldier with a background in wilderness recon and explosives, and a silver-tongued criminal). However, you can mix and match pretty much any of these archetypes into more promising combinations. For example, you could have a criminal scientist, a USAF hacker, a survivalist that knows far more about bombs than he can admit to, and a negotiator that enjoys coercion and/or blackmail far too much. Or a scientist that’s fascinated by explosions, a military hostage-negotiator (or a special forces operative with really good people skills), and a frightfully competent hunter/poacher who’s been coerced by the authorities into helping them catch the antagonist, etc.  Hell, if you wanted to, you could probably combine most of all of those characters into 1-2 characters (e.g. a spy with both electronic and physical skills whose main job is tracking down a target and either convincing him to defect or eliminating him).


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86 responses so far

Nov 02 2012

What to Do When You Discover That Your Story Is No Longer Original

Did Hollywood or a well-known author just ruin your day by releasing a story that looks strikingly similar to something you’ve been independently developing for years? Here are some ways you can develop your story in a different direction.


1. Focus on unusual character traits. There have been a LOT of superheroes that are brilliant scientists, but Iron Man’s protagonist has a very unusual combination of traits. Whereas most scientist characters struggle with something like shyness, Tony Stark is hyper-charismatic and his main flaw is impulsiveness/recklessness.


2. Give the main characters unusual goals and/or motivations, preferably which tie into unusual decisions. For example, in most national security thrillers, if a character gets framed for a major crime, the character’s quest will center on proving his innocence and/or getting revenge on the people that have framed him. In contrast, Point of Impact’s protagonist is a backwoods hermit who responds to a framing in a very unusual way. His first move is to break into an FBI-guarded morgue to recover the corpse of his dog (who was killed at his house when the criminals were planting evidence against him). The protagonist’s sense of honor causes him to jeopardize his chances of succeeding at the main plot over a point of honor that wouldn’t matter much to most protagonists.

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27 responses so far

Oct 19 2012

12 Writing Prompts/Situations

Published by under Writing Articles

1. A character is disappointed in a role model (who may or may not be part of the conversation).


2. A character tries to act more knowledgeable about something than he/she actually is.


3. Character A tries to convince Character B to do something that Character A would never do himself.

3.1. A character tries to convince a more powerful character to make a major sacrifice and/or concession, but lacks the ability to force the issue.


4. A character tries to act more enthusiastic than he/she is. Is the other person (or people) in the conversation mainly enthusiastic or unenthusiastic? I’d recommend going with whichever one feels less intuitive.


5. One character sees himself as much closer to the other than vice versa. Bonus points if it’s something besides an unrequited romance.


6. A character makes a hasty decision. Compare and contrast to a separate scene showing the same character making the same decision with more forethought. Bonus points: the decision is hard to plan for (e.g. breaking up with somebody).


7. A character tries to hide his/her actual reasons for something, preferably in a conversation with someone suspicious enough to dig at the truthSuggestion: if the suspicious person explicitly accuses the deceptive character of the actual motive, don’t have the deceptive character instantly admit it. Milk more drama out of it than that.


8. A character tries to trap somebody else into doing or admitting something. 


9. Imply that a character is uncertain about a plan/decision. Preferably the circumstances make it difficult and/or risky for the character to openly voice these concerns.


10. Bitter and/or violent enemies engage in a conversation, preferably in a situation where violence and/or threats are not viable. For example, the villain in Iron Man reveals his murderous betrayal to the protagonist at a charity gala as photographers are taking pictures. The limitations there were more dramatic than if the characters had been free to scream at each other in a more private setting.


11.Protagonist A tries showing off in front of Character B, who happens to be much better at the skill/trait in question. Perhaps the protagonist is trying to impress a third character?

11.1. Character B has to save Character A from making a fool in front of a third character, but has to avoid ruffling A’s feathers. For example, if a boss starts using (broken) French at a cocktail party to make himself sound cultured/learned, telling him he’s playing the fool might be problematic.


12. A character grossly underplays or overplays something (e.g. brushing off a catastrophe or playing up a minor inconvenience for leverage).

6 responses so far

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