We are constantly told that one of the reasons for the proliferation of superhero movies is Hollywood’s thirst for foreign (particularly Chinese Communist) money. Big-budget special-effects demo reels bring in more cash than thoughtful writing, or so the theory goes. On the plus side, we have seen a resurgence in interesting long-form television shows, but even these are now suffering from the growing talent deficit.
Let’s face it: writing superhero scripts is mindlessly easy and one big reason is that the characters are all essentially static. Superman is perpetually jutting his chin forward while his cape snaps in the sunny breeze. Batman is locked in time, brooding on the moonlit Gotham City skyline.
There have been passing attempts to introduce depth and personality for superheroes, but the effort always fails because they aren’t characters anymore but brands. No sooner is one story line completed before the next production begins, just as one might spruce of an investment property.
Consider the tragic case of 1989’s Batman. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as painfully shy, psychologically scarred and pitilessly vindictive has yet to be equaled. Check out the way Batman chooses not to subdue The Joker at the end but instead opts to beat him to death. It was a solid beginning and unexpectedly good. Naturally the sequels trashed the whole enterprise and that’s been the pattern ever since.
Superhero movies are like commuter trains: if you miss one, don’t worry, another will be along shortly.
This mentality coupled with the writers’ ill-formed life experiences (free of fear or adversity) has also left them incapable of understanding human development. This leaves us with only two modes of character development: static or bipolar.
Star Wars vs Soy Wars
In an earlier column I talked about the importance of fear in character development, but too all too often characters don’t actually develop at all. They start and end the story essentially the same.
One of the great contrasts in this respect is Star Wars. All of the main characters in the original films are dynamic, and this dynamism was essential to their popularity.
Because feminist nonsense is a particular irritant to me, I want to dig a little deeper on Leia in particular. She starts the series as an imperious aristocrat who fearlessly stands up to Stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Governor Tarkin alike. She not only wields a gun, she withstands torture, thereby giving the lie that Rey was somehow the first “strong female character” in space fantasy. In The Empire Strikes Back we see her as a determined battlefield commander, worried more about getting the troops out than her own safety. She literally has to be dragged away from the Hoth command post.
As a martial character, she is therefore fully formed, but her weakness is establishing human relationships, and this what she does during the course of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Interestingly, her development is the exact opposite of Han Solo’s. Solo is willing to fight for friends, but not causes while Leia is all about the cause but has no real friends.
Of course, there are several static characters in the original movies, and that’s fine. Not everyone needs a story arc and static characters heighten the contrast between their steadiness and the changes we see in others. Thus, the droids and Chewbacca remain the same, and we also enjoy that sameness. Yet even minor characters like Lando Calrissian have an interesting and complex development arc.
Contrast this with both the prequels and sequels and you see profound differences. All the characters are essentially static and the exceptions don’t develop so much as suffer a psychotic break. More on that later.
Look at the Prequel cast: Padme is a cipher, Obi-Wan is a one-dimensional killing machine, the would-be Emperor sits in the dark and cackles a lot. No growth, no development. The Sequels added the Mary Sue element which comes with the classic trope that the only thing the main character really has to learn is to become comfortable with their own awesomeness. It’s hard to be both stunning and brave, but she’s up to the challenge.
Before leaving the topic, I’ll concede that sometimes static characters can work, but only if they’re already intrinsically interesting. The original Star Trek had a totally static cast, and our entertainment came from watching the ensemble cope with challenges in their own way. We didn’t need them to develop, we just enjoyed watching them solve the puzzle of the week. Even so, the best film out of all the Treks remains Wrath of Khan because for the first (and only) time in the genre, there was a hint of dynamism with Captain Kirk. For the first time, he had to confront the sins of his past – a vindictive enemy bent on revenge, the reappearance of a former flame and – most notably – an adult son he’s never met. Stunningly, Shatner underplays the key scenes, particularly Spock’s (apparent) death.
Yet once again, all of that development was wiped out. In fact, the third movie in the series was basically an exercise in resetting the status quo, disappearing the girlfriend, bringing Spock back from the dead and killing off the now inconvenient kid.
Star Trek worked with static characters, but adding some dynamism took it to the next level. Tellingly, even in the 1980s trying to sustain that was seen as too demanding.
Character Development by Jekyll and Hyde
The alternative to completely immobile character arcs is one where they make sudden, inexplicable and radical changes. Anakin goes from irritatingly chipper to morose to sadistic faster than I can switch radio stations in my car. Seriously, it’s one thing to harbor lingering resentment over Obi-Wan’s pissant treatment, but to go from that to massacring children is a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps the most famous character development whiplash came in Game of Thrones (which I correctly predicted would face-plant on the finish line) where meticulous and long-anticipated storylines were completely junked. The fashionable term for this is “subverting expectations,” but back in the day we just called it crap writing.
If a character transformation isn’t explained, it just looks random, and random people aren’t really all that interesting, particularly if they’re making mincemeat out of the story.
Bipolar characters don’t just annoy the audience – they really piss off the actors. Mark Hammill’s anger about what happened to Luke in the sequels is entirely justified. Back in the day, there were rumors that the cast of the remade Battlestar Galactica was demanding assurances that the writers would stop with the ‘secret Cylon’ plot twist, since it wrecked all their work to establish a coherent and believable personality.
In fact, a lot of actors would prefer to have characters killed outright rather than made incoherent by terrible writing. It’s noteworthy that pathetic creeper Joss Whedon did both when faced with an actress who refused to join him on the casting couch.
Whedon is actually a good example of characters running off the rails, largely because the man has no actual experience of what happy, successful couples look like. People write what they know.
Back to the Bubble
And here we come back to the core problem of today’s storytelling, which is that the creators don’t know actual people who experience actual growth. The Cool Kids in Hollywood literally believe that they are the most moral, ethical and otherwise perfectly formed human beings to ever exist, and they create characters who act this out.
To expand on my earlier article, Hollywood characters aren’t just devoid of fear, they devoid of anything other than their boundless self-love.
Turns out, that’s really boring to watch.