Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
Last month’s big tentpole movie was Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s a big, massively expensive film produced on a grand scale and designed to initiate an entire series of movies featuring characters from DC Comics. Like most of the people who saw it, I hated it.
There’s a lot in the movie to dislike: it has a bad story, a bad screenplay, bad direction, choppy editing, ugly production design and cinematography, poorly designed and executed CGI sequences, and several really bad performances. I disliked all of these things, but what made me hate the movie – really hate it – was its sensibility.
This is one unpleasant movie – grim, violent, humorless, and completely devoid of fun. Worse, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a deeply cynical picture whose theme – expressed perfectly in a line spoken by one of its characters – is “Nobody stays good forever.” This miserable theme is demonstrated time and time again in scenes in which both Superman and Batman kill people; Superman is portrayed as a passive, listless character when he’s not being a murderous jerk: Batman stabs criminals with knives, shoots them with guns, and brands them in ways designed to get them brutalized and murdered in prison; Superman’s parents urge him not to help people because it is pointless to do so and tell him he doesn’t owe the human race anything because people suck and Superman listens. This approach is not only incredibly bleak and depressing, but it also directly contradicts the core themes of the material the film is adapting – the seventy-five-plus years of Superman and Batman in comic books, movies, and on radio and television.
The concept at the core of the Superman character – that underneath our flawed and all-too-human exteriors are amazing beings who can do amazing things – is wonderfully inspirational and aspirational (if we let our true selves out, we too can be super). And so is the concept at the core of Batman -- that no matter how difficult our origins are, if we persevere and apply ourselves, we can transcend our pain and make an incredible difference in the world. These seemingly simple notions are so powerful and resonant that they have transformed two characters initially conceived as nothing more than funny book filler into honest-to-goodness cultural icons and sustained their popularity for nearly a century. These core concepts are inherently optimistic, idealistic, and uplifting and there is no way to do a satisfactory adaptation of either Superman or Batman without embracing this optimism, idealism, and uplift. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sure does try -- in scene after scene that downplays, rejects, and sometimes openly ridicules the positive heroism that is the essence of its two titular characters.
So why do it? Why make a movie that declaims the characters and themes it ostensibly means to celebrate? The answer, I think, is fear – the fear of looking foolish.
As I said, it’s impossible to do a satisfactory adaptation of Superman or Batman without embracing the positivity that is at the heart of both characters. And there is no way to do that well without sincerely believing in that positivity. And, as we all know, sincerity makes you vulnerable – it is you putting yourself on the line and declaring openly: “This is what I truly believe!,” a stance that can make you the target of ridicule, especially in our too-hip-for-the room modern world so full of snark and sarcasm (often misidentified as “irony”) and so suspicious of and even hostile to anything even remotely heartfelt. In such a world, to sincerely embrace anything positive or optimistic is to leave oneself open to accusations of being naïve or simplistic or lightweight or insubstantial. I think the makers of Batman v. Superman were afraid of appearing to be naïve or simplistic or lightweight or insubstantial, so they not only rejected the characters’ core idealism but also imposed a grim and dour “seriousness” on the material in the belief that this would make them and their movie appear hip, complex, weighty, and “real.”
In some people’s eyes, perhaps they succeeded (although I would argue that there is nothing more naïve or simplistic than the notion that for something to be serious, it must be grim and dark and somber. In terms of its themes, one of the most serious movies ever made is Billy Wilder's The Apartment. It's also one of the funniest). However, the result of their effort is a totally worthless movie -- because a film based on source material that is optimistic, idealistic, and uplifting that rejects optimism, idealism, and uplift is totally worthless; a movie about comic book superheroes – colorfully clad characters possessed of amazing powers, abilities, and gadgets -- that isn’t fun and lacks humor is totally worthless; a film adapted from a medium originally meant for children that children can’t see because it is so dark and so violent is totally worthless.
There is nothing worse in movies than fake uplift, forced optimism, and formulaic inspiration. But when these things are genuine – when filmmakers really commit to positive material, the results can be incredibly powerful. One of my most treasured movie-going experiences was seeing 1978’s Superman: the Movie in a theater for the first time. There was a young boy about 6 or 7 sitting in the row in front of me with his mother. Like the rest of us in the auditorium, he was enjoying the film immensely, but as the narrative built up to the Man of Steel’s first appearance he began moving closer and closer to the edge of his seat with fervid anticipation. As Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent ran into a revolving door and began his transformation, the boy began bouncing up and down with barely contained excitement. And when Superman finally emerged and flew up into the air to rescue Lois Lane from a crashing helicopter, the little’s boy’s eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open in pure amazement. “Mom!” he exclaimed with awe, as enraptured as any human being I’ve ever seen before or since. “It’s SUPERMAN!!!”
At that moment, that little boy believed – he really believed – in Superman and all he embodies and represents. And so did everyone else in the audience and in every audience that saw the picture because the people who made it really believed too. Director Richard Donner, screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, actor Reeve, composer John Williams, and the rest of the production team had embraced the source material and its inherent positivity fully and without reservation. They didn’t mock it; they didn’t disdain it; they didn’t impose darkness and seriousness upon it. Instead, they celebrated it and the result was what co-star Marlon Brando called “a f**king Valentine” -- an entertainment that was spectacular and thrilling and funny and romantic; cheerful, uplifting, and inspiring.
It wasn’t a sure thing -- sincerity was as big a risk then as it is now. The ‘70s were not exactly an idealistic time – in the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, a bunch of assassinations, an energy crisis, and a recession, viewers of that time were a pretty cynical lot. The makers of Superman: the Movie were worried they were going to be laughed off the screen. But they also knew there was no other way to do a movie about the Last Son of Krypton properly than to respect the character’s inherent optimism. It was a gutsy thing to do and it resulted in a bona fide classic that is still the best movie of its kind. They set an example that the makers of the best superhero movies – Spiderman 1 and 2, Batman Begins, and the Marvel series – followed and that the makers of Batman v. Superman did not.
But imagine if they had – imagine if instead of trying to be cool and making a movie whose theme is nobody stays good forever, director Zack Snyder, screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, and the rest of the B v. S crew had made a movie about characters dedicated to being good in a world in which people believe nobody stays good forever. Imagine if they actually liked their film’s two heroes and gave audiences something to believe in rather than something to scorn. Imagine if they had made a movie to counter the cynicism of the times rather than submitted to it. Imagine what a wonderful movie that would have been.
So why am I writing about this topic in this column? Because, I read too many specs in which the writers fail to embrace the essence of their subject matter – scripts that darken positive material in order to appear cool, scripts that tack unearned happy endings onto grim material in order to be commercial, and so on. The results are as worthless as Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice because a script that isn’t about what it’s about ultimately isn’t about anything.
If you’re going to write well, you need to be brave and choose subject matter that you are really passionate about and that you really believe in, not just stuff you think is commercial or edgy or cool. And then you must be fearless – you must go all in and fully embrace your material no matter how corny or dark or unusual or weird it might be. Aim to produce work that fully expresses the heart and essence of the piece. Aim to give the world Krypton, not Kryptonite.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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