Tag Archives: Fantastic Four

Expository Conflict

Othello really hits the ground running. The first time we see the titular character in Shakespeare’s play he’s on trial in a war room. Now, it’s important to note that this is his introduction, this is when we learn who he is.

The easiest way to clue the audience in would be to just give us an infodump. Have people go “This is Othello, the Moor, who’s a general, and married to Desdemona, a senator’s daughter” in some fashion. No, it’s certainly not the most elegant way to disperse information, but, well, it works.

Thing is, exposition is boring. Really boring. No one wants a huge lecture in their story, especially if it comes right at the top. Which presents a unique problem for Shakespeare in Othello, how can he bring the audience up to speed on an unusual situation without boring the audience five minutes into his play? Simple: He turns exposition into conflict.

Conflict occurs when there’s disagreement. They can argue, they can fight, they can spend all day undermining each other. Conflict is also usually quite interesting. Two people going “as you know, such-and-such is whatever” is boring; an argument over whether such-and-such is whatever, however, keeps the audience interested. Now there’s tension over the exposition: Is it true? Who’s right? What’s gonna happen when one of ‘em is proven wrong?

And that’s what the first act of Othello is. He’s put on an informal trial and forced to prove he is who he is. We don’t hear the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him just out of the blue, rather their story is the explanation and evidence for his elopement. It doesn’t feel forced or out of place, and it’s interesting. Othello’s reputation is on the line and we want to see what happens next.

Exposition has to be interesting. Having it happen in conflict raises the tension and makes us pay attention. Compare two characters getting to know each other over coffee versus an interrogation. This is something that Lost does very well. Not only are all the characters strangers (and thus all serve as audience surrogates as they learn things about each other), but the mystery island setting has everyone tense and suspicious of one another. Secret agendas, angles, and hidden pasts make getting to know the characters exciting by itself.

It’s helped along in earlier season by flashbacks which further flesh out the characters. Once again, these flashbacks, which are basically just exposition, are made interesting through conflict. Charlie’s Dad doesn’t tell him he’s irresponsible, we see Charlie being irresponsible and butting heads against people close to him which in turn affects how we see him in the present. There’s also an arc to the flashbacks which helps invest us in the proceedings.

This is, of course, something that Fantastic Four did fantastically wrong. So much of the movie felt like pure exposition with no conflict to push things along. Reed meets a pre-evil Doom and the two simply, well, coexist. There’s no clash of worldview or rivalry of genius, they’re just there. I’m not asking for a Shakespearean trial; a competition for Sue’s affections would be insulting, but at the very least would be more interesting that what was essentially a series of “I’m smart,” “So am I,” “Cool, let’s science,” “Yes, let’s science.”

Stories have to introduce their audience to a new world. Could be a world inhabited by friends who work at a brewery or where a Moor in an interracial marriage is on a Venetian war council; could also be a world where a kid is able to create an inter-dimensional teleporter. No matter what there’s gonna be something the audience doesn’t know and will have to learn (seriously, if you’re doing an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood you’re still gonna have to tell us why she’s going to her grandmother’s). Exposition happens. It always happens. The trick is to make it work, and not bore us with it. So let’s keep Othello on trial.

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Learning From (Others’) Failure

You can learn a lot about storytelling from taking in great stories. Let The Last of Us teach you about immersive storytelling. Don Quixote effortlessly plays with the characters’ relation to the narrative. Learn how to have a bunch of different character arcs in motion from The Avengers.

Bad stories can also teach you a lot, especially bad movies. I’m not talking so-bad-it’s-good stuff like The Room where the movie fails so hard it creates an entirely new form of entertainment; I’m talking about ones that are just plain bad. Watch Twilight to learn how a passive main character makes for a boring book. If you lose sight of your protagonist’s arc you end up with the muddled mess that are the Hobbit movies. The Big Bang Theory shows you how to write punch-down humor at dated stereotypes.

And then there’s the new Fantastic Four.

Which teaches you how not to tell a story.

There’s a lot wrong with the movie. The grievous mishandling of Sue Storm. The oddly conspicuous absence of Ben and Jonny for chunks of the plot. The total lack of agency from everyone up to and including the protagonist. The utter abandonment of what could have been great themes. The fact that we don’t see the titular four in the same shot until over an hour into the movie. The arbitrariness of the supposedly-emotional beats. But it’s all rooted in a fundamental ignorance of storytelling.

Here’s the thing: Story is king. Yes, it’s a frustratingly patriarchal term (“story is everything” doesn’t sound quite as good), but the sentiment is there: story’s the most important thing. There are vital ingredients for story to ‘happen,’ which Fantastic Four just doesn’t have.

The first, is character.

Duh.

For a story to happen, you need people with goals and fears and all that. The Lord of the Rings would hardly have worked if Frodo’s only characterization was that he was a Hobbit. Conversely, The Insider is so tense because of Wigand’s conflict between doing what’s right on a big scale (whistleblowing the tobacco industry) and keeping his family safe. Both of these devote time to building characters, giving us moments that highlight not just what they’re doing, but what they want and why.

Character down, we need conflict. Say John McLane asks Hans Gruber to let the hostages go and Gruber just says “yes.” There’s no story there. The protagonist needs obstacles in their way to keep the audience engaged and asking “how’re they gonna get past this?” These conflicts also allow chances for characters to show who they are (McLane really cares about his wife) and for them to make interesting choices (McLane chooses to soldier on even when the feds won’t help him). These conflicts, that happen because of character, get us as the audience invested and interested in what happens next. When they payoff comes, it’s earned and catharsis happens.

It’s honestly quite surprising how little character there is in Fantastic Four. No one has much of a goal — Johnny and Sue are literally kind of just there — and when we get hints of one they hardly affect, well, anything — Ben would like to be changed back so he works for the military until he decides he’s okay as he is. Reed’s characterization can be summed up as “very intelligent” and presumed antagonist Victor is “very intelligent and maybe a little anarchistic.” Characterization is never allowed out: nearly every conversation is pure exposition. There’s no banter, no subtext, no verbal conflict (Reed and Victor never disagree while working together, Johnny and Ben say maybe four lines directly to each other), it’s nothing but explanations about what’s going on.

That character is done in such broad strokes may be forgivable, were the characters given anything to do. But they aren’t. There’s never any conflict until Victor reappears and decides to be evil in the final thirty-odd minutes. In fact, Reed — the protagonist — only makes three clear decisions. First he decides to use his teleporter/transporter himself. Second, he decides to escape from the government base. Finally, he decides to fight Victor since, well, they’ve all been sucked into the other world and might as well. Only the first one is earned, and that’s only because we’ve spent the first half of the movie watching Reed work on the damn machine. To call Reed and the others boring is a disservice to boring characters: they do nothing, have no opinion on anything, and hardly react to the plot. He’s as bad as Bella Swan, and he’s the best character the movie has to offer.

We crave for stories. We want narrative to happen, characters to be introduced, conflict to break out, and resolution to give us closure. Fantastic Four does none of that.

Nothing happens.

No one changes.

It just is.

And that is terrible. Don’t do that.

Please.

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Why I Take Issue With Johnny Storm Being Black

So y’know that new Fantastic Four movie coming out next week? It caused a bit of uproar when casting was announced since Michael B. Jordan’s playing Johnny Storm, a  character who, in the comics, has been white. This is further complicated by the fact that his sister, Susan Storm, is being played by Kate Mara, who is rather obviously white.

This ‘race lift’ given to Johnny Storm has caused quite the hullabaloo. In an apparent case of trying provide a quick and superficial overcorrection a lack of diversity in super hero films they went and changed Johnny’s race, rather than having a different superhero join up. Making things even more convoluted is that his sister’s white, meaning either one’s adopted, their parents remarried, or are a very rare quirk of mixed-race parents.

Which, y’know, is fine. Representation is a big deal; it’s always great to see different sorts of people on screen. Marvel’s comics have been taking great strides to diversify their heroes, Ms. Marvel’s a Pakistani-American teenager, we’ve Spider-People of all a variety of race and genders, Sam Wilson took over as Captain America; it’s cool for the movies to follow suit (even if Fantastic Four isn’t part of the MCU).

The issue is that it’s just Johnny who got his race changed. And it has to be Johnny; not Reed ‘cuz he’s the main character, not Ben because he spends most of the movie rocky, and especially not Sue because she’s the love interest. Johnny being black — and only Johnny — belies a much more systemic problem in pop-culture in general. And it’s not the tendency for casts to have a token minority (though that is an issue too).

There are a few things central to the Fantastic Four’s mythos: they get their powers from a scientific project, Doctor Doom is their greatest foe, Ben and Jonny are somewhere between rivals and friends, and Reed and Susan are lovers.

And that last one is where things would get hairy if the siblings were both now black.

There’s going to be a romance between Reed and Sue, because of course there will be. But a mixed race couple simply isn’t something that you usually have in a movie; especially if it’s between a white man and a black woman. Fantastic Four wanted to make someone a minority but also keep the romance subplot.

Which really bugs me. Because the whole Johnny-is-black-but-not-his-sister-Sue thing smacks of a fear of having a mixed couple in a major movie. It’s something I find really frustrating. Look, I’m biased; I’m the son of a couple who got married when interracial marriages had less public approval than same-sex marriage did in 2011. It’s one of those things that I want to be more present in pop-culture because it’s something very present in my life. It’s 2015; c’mon, let’s get with the times already. The President of the United States is the product of a mixed-race relationship!

Seeing a movie bend-over-backwards narratively to ensure that the white protagonist’s love interest isn’t black is incredibly frustrating. It’s not director Josh Trank’s fault, or even that of studio Fox: it’s systemic.

At the end of the day, I think I’m disappointed more than anything else. There was a chance here to, even in a small way, shake things up a little bit. ‘cuz I’m cautiously eager to see this movie, and I’m glad that they’ve taken steps to make Susan Storm’s powers more practical/offensive than in the last film. I also really liked Trank’s work on Chronicle. I guess I just wish if they were gonna switch a character’s race, they took the next logical step and did the same thing for his sister.

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The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

I’m on vacation. As such, here’s an essay I wrote for class during my Spring semester. We were assigned seven movies and had to compare the lot of them. Hence writing about The Parent Trap. Enjoy.

The buddy movie is one of the most prolific genres in cinema. With movies as diverse as the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, recent blockbusters like The Avengers, and animated films such as Toy Story; chances are everyone’s seen some variation of a buddy movie. One of the things that keeps the genre timeless is the myriad of buddies they can feature. We could have four characters who start out as friends and have their friendship tested, or they could be rivals who learn to work together. Alternately it could feature a pair of old friends who decide to roam the world together, possibly saving it in the progress; or two people with opposite personalities and a common goal. Point is, these different character dynamics are what make the genre unique.

At its basest the buddy movie genre allows for two characters to work together towards a similar goal. Such is the case with The Parent Trap. Annie and Hallie, the long-lost twins, are essentially the same character, though in English and American forms. The first portion of the film focus on them meeting, disagreeing, and coming to terms with each other whereas the remainder of the film follows them as they strive to reunite their parents. Here the characters compliment each other, their shared goal and similar personalities allow them to work together perfectly to achieve this goal.

Of course, that’s just one personality. Things get more interesting when more personalities are in play. The ancient Greeks put forth the theory of the four humors; that is that personalities could be divided into four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The definition of these fall on different ranges, being extroverted and people-orientated, extroverted and task-orientated, introverted and task-orientated, and introverted and people-orientated; respectively. Writers — and viewers — can use these to identify the roles characters have in a group. Take Sex and the City as a key example. Carrie, the main character, tends to be introverted and focused on her work (within the film she’s not seen as being terribly outgoing). Samantha on the other hand, is much more extroverted and focused on the people around her, as seen by her frequent flying from California to New York to visit her friends as well as her constant interest in the people (particularly men) around her. Miranda and Charlotte fall between choleric and phlegmatic respectively. When the buddy movie features an ensemble of four, each character will usually embody one of these temperaments. These contrasts allow for tension to build between the characters and conflict among them which, in addition to the central conflict, makes for an interesting story.

The titular foursome of Fantastic Four fit these roles with near perfection. Reed Richards is the cool, collected, melancholic leader of the group; he wants to create a machine to reverse their transformation. Ben Grimm too is task-orientated, though tends to be more outgoing and fulfills the role of the choleric. Johnny Storm is even more extroverted than Ben and lives for the attention of people around him so he clearly is the sanguine member. Lastly, Sue Storm is the mediator of the three focused more on the team themselves and falls under the heading of the phlegmatic. The Fantastic Four fit the temperaments and with it conflict is born.

Johnny, the sanguine, is eager to embrace his powers and go public with them. Reed, however, wants to not only make sure they’re safe but to reverse them. Here we see the tension between Johnny’s people-orientated nature and Reed’s tendency to pursue tasks. This same dichotomy is where a measure of the romantic tension between Reed and Sue stems from: his want to finish his machine and undo the effects of the cosmic storm and her want for him. It’s when Reed pursues her — and momentarily abandons his focus on the task on hand — that strain between him and Ben develops. Many of the film’s key moments, the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge and the fight outside the stadium, for example, are born out of the tension between these personality types. It’s only when they learn to work together that they are able to beat the villainous Victor von Doom and truly become heroes.

Removing one character from the foursome creates a different dynamic, one which website TV Tropes dubs the Power Trio. In this set up the three characters contrast and compliment each other, often (but not necessarily) with each one embodying one aspect of the Freudian ideas of the id, ego, and superego. The id is wild and impetuous, frequently jumping headfirst into situations; the superego is the id’s foil, rational and willing to look before leaping. The ego exists between them, balancing out their extremes. It can be seen in the original Star Trek TV show, with Kirk balancing out the hyper-rational Spock and the instinctive McCoy.

This also serves as a lens to look at Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relationship in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry is clearly the id of the trio; when he accidentally makes Aunt Marge float he doesn’t think twice about leaving home and charging out into the night. We see this aspect of him again later when, upon hearing that Sirius Black betrayed his parents, he adamantly declares that he will kill the convict. On the opposite end of the spectrum, assuming the role of the superego, is Hermione. She is heavily focused on her studies, going so far as to have one of her professors procure her a time-turner so she can take a large number of classes. Furthermore, she is also the most sensible of the group, often exhorting the other two to calm down and listen to reason lest they get themselves hurt or in trouble at school. Ron stands between them as the ego. Sometimes he’ll be as headstrong as Harry, other times he’s with Hermione trying to talk down Harry from doing something reckless.

Though there’s little infighting amongst the threesome (especially compared to, say, the Fantastic Four), their differing personalities still serve to accentuate each other’s traits. Harry and Ron’s laid back attitudes sharpen Hermione’s studious nature, just as Hermione’s tendency to sit back and figure things out contrasts against Harry’s impulsiveness. The different views that Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring to the table enhance the characters and give their interactions — and by proxy their adventure — a great dynamic. It can also be seen in the key adults at the end of the film, with wild Sirius Black as the id, the mediating Remus Lupin as ego, and calculating Severus Snape the superego.

Narrowing the number of characters further results in foils; two characters who may share a similar goal but contrast sharply with each other. In Kinky Boots the tight-laced, somewhat-sheltered Charlie Price is paired up with the vivacious drag queen Lola. Their differing personalities clash on occasion, primarily over the subject of Lola’s identity. Charlie wants her to hide who she is in Northampton for fear that people will think ill of him, whereas she’s proud of her identity. The tension between their points of view and what they represent colors much of the film’s tension and the themes of acceptance and coming to terms with your identity.

Alternately, one character can influence the other. In Fried Green Tomatoes, the straight-laced Ruth becomes friends with the wild Idgie when asked to by the latter’s family. Over time, Ruth opens up to Idgie’s adventurous life and their friendship grows. Their differences help each other: it’s Idgie’s feisty boisterousness that causes her to get Ruth out of her abusive relationship with Frank; and it’s Ruth’s levelheadedness and warmth that help give Idgie a home. They’re opposites, yes, but their personalities compliment and strengthen each other, making for a compelling dynamic.

Another common incarnation of the buddy movie is the buddy cop movie. The conceit usually incorporates two police officers of contrasting personalities and, frequently, different races who have been ordered to work together. Films like Rush Hour, Men in Black, and End of Watch have done this to great commercial success. Lethal Weapon too was a commercial success and is unquestionably the quintessential example of a typical buddy cop movie.

Like other buddy twosomes, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtagh are opposites. Riggs is young, white, impulsive, and somewhat suicidal. Murtagh is middle-aged, black, reserved, and has a wife and kids to worry about. What Lethal Weapon, and other buddy cop movies, does is accentuate these differences to near extremes and forces them, by virtue of orders from their chief, to work together. This handy trope explains why the two opposites have to be together and provides the catalyst for the inevitable fights between the two.

And fight they do. From their initial meeting, Riggs and Murtagh find themselves at odds with each other. Something as non-dangerous as dealing with a jumper displays their different approaches: Murtagh stays near the car and tries to talk him down whereas Riggs climbs up to the jumper, cuffs themselves together, and jumps off onto the inflatable bag with him. This conflict amongst the cops compliments their struggle against the antagonists. It’s only when they are finally able to reconcile their differences and work as a team that they are able to defeat the bad guys, as we see in the iconic moment when Riggs and Murtagh shoot the villain Joshua together.

The buddy movie is a genre as diverse as its characters. Different combinations, be they based off the four temperaments, embodiments of Freudian ideas, or plain old opposites provide interesting dynamics that add an additional layer to the conflict and tension not usually found in other, single protagonist films.

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