How do writers get their readers to identify with their characters?
One method is to make the character as basic as possible. This way the reader can fill them with their own details. Have you ever played a role playing game where you get to select your character’s class, hair, and armor? This is taking the default option: the bland blonde fair skinned male human, the rice cake of warrior classes. This option keeps the character so empty, the audience has no choice but to fill him with their own back story.
Are you feverish from franchise fatigue? Do you suffer from sequelitis? Has nonstop nostalgia left you feeling nauseous?
Are you stricken with sickness at the silver screen? Are the prevailers of popular pictures only pitching placebos? Are you missing the mystery at your marquee, the thought at your theater, the brains at your box office? Do you require a remedy for all these reboots, an antidote for antiquated archetypes, an inoculation from adaptations?
You’ll have to get sick before you can get better. You’ll have to subject yourself to something that insults your intelligence so completely that you won’t be able to suffer through another installment. You’ll have to let Lucas and Spielberg fire you up, before you can burn that bridge. You’ll have to watch in quiet awe as they…
A Screenwriting Professor’s Prophecy
When the market crashed, our screenwriting professor decided to put his curriculum on hold for a day. The giant notepad, which usually featured terms like, “Drive, Goals” and “Conflict,” had a graph on it. Drawing in a deep breath, he searched his eyelids for the right words. “This is a hard industry to break into. It’s about to get a whole lot harder.”
Our professor had a vision of the future; a time when the average theater-goer had less change rattling around in their pocket. A time when seeing a movie would be reserved for special occasions, when there was a big title to draw a crowd. With everyone tightening up their belts, they’d be less likely to take a chance on something they’d never heard of.
He foretold the death of the original premise. He saw a marquee filled with familiar titles; a handful of franchises with annual entries. He saw each of us sitting on stacks of unrequited spec scripts. He saw the image of the lone screenwriter cracking his knuckles at the typewriter, replaced by a committee in a boardroom.
Soon, the studios would make sure that everything on their docket was a tentpole picture, a safe bet blockbuster, a for certain sure thing. Production costs were too high to gamble with. A few box office bombs, would unseat studio dynasties. Risk had to be eliminated. It wasn’t enough to have bankable actors, audiences had to be built in.
Shaking his head, our professor paced the room. “The only properties studios will take chances on are ones that have been proven in other mediums: comic books, young adult fiction, romance novels, Mattel action figures, and boardgames.”
We had a harsh truth to face: our career making masterpieces were bets no one was going to take a chance on. Battleship had a better shot at making it to the big screen than our coming of age flicks.
With his eyes clenched tight, my professor saw the battlefield of art and commerce. He saw commerce raising art’s severed head, atop a mountain of slain pitches.
Gone would be the days of the breakthrough independent feature. Art house theaters would play blockbusters. Indie would go from a production method to a genre, a flavor of romantic comedy, where every title had animated box letters, and every trailer had a soundtrack with a glockenspiel and an ascending choir.
The independent studios would disappear back into the lots from wince they came. For those of us who wanted to write the next Swingers, the next Clerks, or the next Pulp Fiction, we were shit out of luck.
Hollywood didn’t need us anymore. It had all the stories it would ever tell, and it would tell them over and over again.
As harsh as this truth was, our screenwriting professor felt a responsibility to tell it. Sadly, his prophecy came true.
Déjà vu at the Drive-In
Franchise fatigue doesn’t just put the audience to sleep, it costs the medium its credibility.
For every remake, reboot, and reimagining, the world is denied the next great series. For every sequel, prequel, and betweequel, there’s an original premise that will never get green lit. For every spinoff, alternate timeline, and interwoven TV tie-in, there’s a universe that we’ll never get to explore.
For every screenwriter whose brought on to put in a draft on a franchise feature, a personal project gathers dust. For every property acquired in a bidding war, a piece is passed on for it’s lack of attachments. For every fresh spin on a familiar story, a script reader is forced to put a five star screenplay on the blacklist.
Every time we upgrade a classic, we lose a comment on our own times, viewers are denied a fresh perspective, and society misses out on a discussion it should be having.
Turning a blind eye to originality, the industry looks at dated blockbusters through VHS tinted glasses. Acting like the art form plateaued in the 80’s, they leave a generation with nothing to strive for. They recast our childhood heroes with whoever has the squarest jaw this week.
The more we pine for the past the more we fail our future. Retro worship costs us the next great light saber, the next proton pack, and the next flying Delorean.
Jump the Refrigerator
We live in an era where franchises have so many iterations that they’d rather hide their numbers behind a suffix. The prequel is now: Origins of The Beginning of the Alpha Genesis. The sequel is now: the Return of the Revenge of the Unleashed Chronicle. The threequel is now: The Salvation of The Final Chapter of The Last Revelation of the RisingRequiem. Anything after that is a variant of the original title, give or a take a “THE,” here and there.
There comes a time when every franchise, overstays its welcome. When its returns diminish. When it reaches the limits of its universe. When its curators write themselves into a corner. When an entry leaves such a bad taste in our mouths, that it will be a long time before we’re hungry for another one.
This happened when the writers of Happy Days strapped water skis to Arthur Fonzarelli so he could jump a shark. This happened when Lucas and Spielberg had Indiana Jones crawl into a refrigerator to survive a nuclear blast. It happened when the director of Terminator: Salvation grafted a CGI Schwarzenegger to a stand-in, reminding everyone of the film they’d rather be watching.
Brand recognition became a bad thing. I can’t wait for the rest of these franchises to jump their shark, to nuke their fridge, to counterfeit their Arnold.
Have Superman throw his S, have a kid with Lois Lane, and kill General Zod. Have the Dark Knight swipe his Bat-card, perk his Bat-nipples, and face plant when someone kicks his Bat-cane. Kill Professor X, give Deadpool typed commands, and katana blades coming out his hands. Give Peter Parker an emo haircut, have him build his own webbing, and take on more villains then anyone could possibly give screen time.
Give the Ewoks their own movies, Chewbacca a Christmas special, and digitally insert Jabba the Hut where he ought not to go. Count the midi-chlorians, have Vader scream “Nooooo” at the ceiling, and swap out old ghost Anakin with Hayden Christensen.
These franchises get to be the life of the party, so long as they bring something new to it, something to keep the guests coming. The problem is, the hosts keep it going too long, until someone inevitably invites Scrappy Doo, Cousin Oliver, and Jar Jar Binks to piss on everything.
Let My Heroes Retire Already
Disney just secured the rights to Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Arc taught me everything I know about plot structure. The heart ripping scene from The Temple of Doom gave me nightmares. My father and I bonded over The Last Crusade. I grew up hoping Lucas would adapt Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis game into a movie. I’m an admitted Kingdom of the Crystal Skull apologist. Dr. Jones is still my default Halloween costume, but I don’t need to see another movie in the series.
Die Hard defined action movies in the 80s and 90s. Bruce Willis brought vulnerability to the action hero. There was a message buried beneath his one liners, and social commentary beneath his catchphrases. John McClane was losing his family. The modern world was passing him by. He was an underdog until terrorists struck, and his run and gun cowboy ways saved the day. I grew up loving this character, but I don’t need to see another chapter in his story.
Terminator 2 taught me how cool swearing could be. I’ve mapped out its timeline on napkins in barstool arguments. I found dark poetry in its chase scenes, existential questions in its explosions, and benevolence in its blood drenched backdrops. Still, I don’t need another one.
Go ahead and let Indiana Jones enjoy his retirement, give John McClane his pension, and sell the old endoskeleton for scrap. Let’s move on.
My favorite comic book series was John Constantine: Hellblazer. Constantine was more of a grifter than a superhero. He fought the minions of hell by pitting them against each other, a hustler stuck between feuding mobs. He wasn’t fighting for God’s cause. He just wanted an edge on the other mug punters, to carve a path outside of Heaven’s jurisdiction.
Over its 25 year run, Constantine got his nearest and dearest killed, betrayed his allies, and watched his sister get carted off to hell. He used sex magic, attempted suicide, and murdered those who’d crossed him. He was an anti-hero we couldn’t help sympathizing with. He wore a cocksure smile in the bleakest of times. He quipped in the face of evil. He flicked off the devil.
DC ended the series when they revamped the New 52. Hellblazer was rebranded as Constantine, a young mage who battled spandex clad baddies alongside Batman and Superman. Warner Bros plans to return John to the big screen in Justice League Dark, while NBC plans to bring a different interpretation to the small screen. The synopsis for the TV show makes it sound like a clone of Grimm, that might as well be called Johnny Demon Hunter.
I own all 300 issues of Hellblazer, many of which cost me a pretty penny. I’ve modeled my hair cut after the character’s trademarked blond spikes, but as far as I’m concerned he is done. These new iterations are just wearing Constantine costumes. They don’t care about the old fan base.
They’ll swap the snarky sacrilege for Catholic iconography. They’ll trade John’s light hearted quips for a chip on his shoulder, turn him into the squinting brooder that all heroes inescapably devolve into. They’ll never capture the downtrodden charmer audiences fell in love with. To them he is just another property to cash in, another title to throw at the wall in the hopes it will stick, an echo of an idea, handed to desperate writers, who just don’t get it.
I say, put him out of his misery.
Nostalgia Needs to Die
Old characters are always reintroduced to new audiences, but their spirits fade with every reproduction. They’re modernized, made younger, more attractive, more likable, and more vanilla. Their jagged edges get soldered off. They bear but a passing resemblance to their counterparts. Superman sulks as Metropolis comes crashing down on its citizens. A jet black Robocop fights soulless drone bots, while Khan’s wrath is reduced to a starship crashing into the shore.
The heroes that are allowed to age get taken places they were never meant to go. Indiana Jones shares the screen with martians, the Terminator’s gut spills over his robot frame, and John McClane looks so very tired. Their stories have been mishandled and they’ve lost their luster.
Drag a property through the muck too many times, and it turns toxic. It spreads a contagion over a crop of coming attractions. It contaminates its spin-offs and bogs down its tie-ins. It ignores its own continuity and insults the audience.
There will come a time in every series, when it’s too risky to put out another entry, when an unknown low budget property is a safer bet.
I’m nostalgic for the good old days, before the majority of movies were made to capitalize on my nostalgia.
My generation has come of age. We’ve taken our place as a key demographic, but please Hollywood, stop pandering to us. Stop trying to sell us our childhoods back. Stop catering to our adolescent selves and give our adult selves something to chew on. Stop giving us what you think we want, and give us something we don’t yet know we want. Bring the wonder back. Surprise us.
INSERT TITLE: The following is based on actual events. All
dialogue is quoted verbatim. All action is presented exactly
as it happened.
EXT. COFFEE HOUSE – NIGHT
The seats overflow with PATRONS, young and hip, their faces
lit by smartphones and tablets.
There’s heavy foot traffic. A rainbow of skinny jeans and
bandanas. Every face is a pin cushion full of piercings.
Every arm is a blur of sleeve tattoos. One side of the
Patrons’ heads are shaved. The other sides are bleached or
DRIVERS lay on their HORNS. The gridlock stretches across
the windows. A SUBWOOFER blares. The bass sends ripples
through the coffee cups.
A fist SLAMS down on the metal. A tray lifts up, ashes burst
into the air. They land on an iPad on the other end of the
table. It’s owner lifts it up to his face.
DREW, unshaven, unkempt, looks like he’s been 29 for a long
time, blows the ashes from his precious tech. He reaches
into his pocket, produces a keychain light, and checks the
ports for signs of damage.