Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mighty Thor or mighty bore?


   Though a seminal movie in the run-up to Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Kenneth Branagh's Thor isn't exactly going to knock your socks off. The reason why is a perfect lesson for screenwriters everywhere. We're not going to cast blame on anyone here, because there were at least 5 writers involved, and it's impossible to know who finally decided on the definitive version of the storyline. But whoever did, made an almost rookie mistake.

   Basically, there's nothing at stake.

   I know, I know. Thor wants to get his powers back. And his jealous brother Loki tries to have him killed after a while and take the throne of Asgard for his own. And there are evil Frost Giants, who work together with Loki in order to kill Odin, king of the Norse gods.

   But none of this really matters. (Spoilers will abound from now on, so I say thee: be forewarned!)

   In Act 1, we witness how Thor causes a major diplomatic incident between the gods and the frost giants. As punishment, he is cast out of Asgard by  Odin and robbed of his powers.

   In Act 2, Thor is now powerless and trapped on Earth, and tries to regain his mystic hammer Mjolnir, now in the possession of secretive task force SHIELD. When he finds his hammer, he discovers he's no longer worthy of it. Oh my! What is a thunder god to do?

    Meanwhile in Asgard, Odin has fallen into the possibly eternal Odinsleep,  Loki takes over the rulership of Asgard (as he should, being the remaining heir), and conspires with the king of the frost giants to let them regain their magic doodah which gave them unlimited power in the past.

    Thor doesn't factor into these events at all.  Only when Thor's Asgardian friends, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif, come to Earth to save their pal, Loki decides to kill his brother by sending the magical Destroyer armour after him. Thor sacrifices himself for his human friends, and immediately regains his powers. He demolishes the Destroyer, and whizzes back to Asgard.

  Act 3 has arrived, and Loki lets his frost giant co-conspirators into Asgard to kill the helpless Odin. Except, when they arrive, he turns on them and kills them. And then he starts his big plan to destroy all the frost giants in order to win the love of his dad.

   Which is exactly what Thor wanted to do in act 1, and which caused his banishment in the first place. Loki wants to gain his father's love by doing something his father is utterly opposed to.

   Dumbest Evil Plan Ever, anyone?

   And what's at stake here? The fate of the evil frost giants, a blueskinned race of monsters we don't care about? Thor's life? Hardly - he's so much more powerful than Loki that it's no contest.

   The love of a comatose father who may never regain conciousness??
   And even if this fatherly love is the driving force behind everything, it's a lousy dramatic goal. Because a parent can love a multitude of children. It's not a binary thing - either he loves ME or someone else. Love can grow and expand indefinitely. And a good dramatic goal is something exclusive; something only one character (or group) can have or achieve.

   Net result: there's nothing at stake for the audience to care about. And when the stakes are non-existent, it's impossible to come up with the correct motivations for your characters to do (or not) what they do. It doesn't matter whether you have good performances, effective individual scenes, great art direction, plentiful CGI effects - a conflict without anything worthwhile at stake is ultimately meaningless.

   Witness what Thor tries to do in act 3. He now desperately wants to save the frost giants from Loki's machinations - but why? They're still evil, they haven't changed, he's had no contact with them whatsoever. Answer: it's because your hero and your villain have to have opposing goals. After all, that's what it says in the screenwriting manuals. It doesn't really matter what these goals are, as long as they oppose each other, I guess... His character arc is already complete (he learned humility in the second half of Act 2 and thus is once again worthy of his powers), so there's nothing to be achieved on that level.
   And for the people on Earth, where most of the film takes place, none of these events have the slightest importance. We're all unaware of them, and if the frost giants are exterminated - who cares? If Loki gains the love of Odin - so what?

   Logically speaking, the film's plot should have been about the relationship between the gods and the giants. Thor should have been exiled to the giants' realm in order to make amends for his crime. Getting to know the frost giants better, he might gain sympathy for them (or some of them), and thus have a personal stake in saving them from destruction.
   Or the giants, together with Loki, should have been the prime movers of the conflict, waging war on Asgard on an unprecedented scale. But that would have made it extremely hard for audiences not yet familiar with the character and his corner of the Marvel Multiverse to care about these events and characters.

  So putting Thor on Midgard (our world) is not a bad decision with regards to audience identification. But keeping Thor isolated from the main narrative thrust of the movie certainly is.

   And it wouldn't have been difficult to put Earth in peril. Have the frost giants decide to invade Midgard in order to get to Asgard. Have the destruction of Earth be a key component for the success of Loki's plan. Hey, if everything else fails, take your mortal friends and lovers along with you to your magical divine realm, and put them in danger there. Or - for a stronger Norse mythology feel - have the war with the frost giants be the first step towards Ragnarok, the end of everything - the final battle between the gods and their enemies, where Loki will betray his kinfolk and side with the Very Big Bad Evil Guys, and the entire universe will be shattered - and yes, that includes all of us, folks.

   Now, I don't think that no one ever brought up these points during development. I'm pretty sure they must have been . But somewhere along the way the decision was made to go for this 'low impact' version of cosmic superhero storytelling. We'll probably never know why - but I'm willing to bet budget concerns were involved.
At least The Avengers got it right.  But Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2 should and could have got it right too.



Sunday, August 12, 2012

The paradigm is a-changing - and not for the better

  More and more screenwriting experts are claiming that 3-Act Structure is dead, and/or that the original Field-inspired paradigm is no longer valid. Rumors of the 3-Act Structure's demise have been greatly exaggerated. But the way the paradigm is being implemented in many mainstream blockbusters has changed, indubitably.

   Unfortunately this change is not resulting in better storytelling. Quite the contrary. What's happening nowadays? Films, on average, are shorter than say ten years ago. They used to be 120 minutes, while now 100 minutes seems to be the new norm.

  This change in length means that the original distribution of major turning points (all together now: end of Act 1 page 30, midpoint page 60, end of Act 2 p. 90, focus points on pages 45 and 75, thirty pages for your third act which includes the crisis, its aftermath and the climax and resolution) is no longer valid. As we're now working with 100 instead of 120 pages. However, act 1 still takes 30 pages. The midpoint, which should now be around page 50, is still firmly ensconced on page 60. Focus point 2 (which coincides with the Dark Night Of The Soul-segment from the Save The Cat-model) is still at page 75.

  But that's when things start to give way. The third act is of necessity shorter than it used to be. Which is fairly weird because this is where we want to provide the biggest oomphs, the most powerful emotional impact, the most riveting revelations. Yet there's simply not enough time to actually give these essential elements their due.

  The second half of act two has also been truncated. You no longer have the 'luxury' of 15 pages to take you from page 75 to the act break. So you're forced to compress your storytelling so you can get to the act 2 break quicker (I would guesstimate that the break now often falls between page 80 to 85). Which means your entire Act 2 climax needs to be rushed.

  The problem we see more and more nowadays is that writers tell more than half of their story at the 'traditional' pace, intended to provide enough story material for a two-hour film. And then they have to rush through what should be the most impressive and memorable parts of the script(and the film) in order to get everything finished on time.

  The saddest thing is that this changing structure is not something discovered and developed by writers in order to improve the quality of their storytelling. It's mandated by economic concerns - shorter movies mean more showings a day and thus more dollars flowing in per diem.

   If you want to see this structure in action, watch Thor (2011). End of act One (exactly after thirty minutes): Thor is banished from Asgard and stripped of his might by Odin. Midpoint (60 minutes): Thor gets his hands on his hammer, but he hasn't yet learned his lesson, and remains powerless. Focus point 2: Thor's Asgardian friends reach him on Earth but his evil brother Loki sends The Destroyer to kill Thor. And then, things get hazy - Thor dies, Thor is resurrected, defeats The Destroyer, zips back to Asgard to defeat Loki and stop his utterly pointless Evil Plan, reunites with his father, and mourns the loss of his whiny Midgard-bound lady love Jane Foster - all in roughly twenty minutes. Which in practice means that none of the Big Moments have any real impact on the viewer, because there's  not enough time to set them up and to have them resound with the audience.

   Perhaps we should redraw the Post-Field Paradigm (Field's paradigm augmented with various and sundry elements from other major dramatic writing theorists) so that it now consists of two thirty minute acts, and two twenty minute acts (and yes, this would kill the three-act model if it were to become dominant in the marketplace). Or, perhaps, a 30 minute first act, a 40 minute second act and a 30 minute third act to cap things off. Which means that the middle of the story would lose importance, and story density would inevitably be reduced. But structural points could be redistributed in such a way that this new paradigm might start to deliver satisfactory screen stories on a regular basis.

   Or we could just go for a 25/50/25-page 3-act model instead of a 30/60/30-page one, and keep everything as it is. Only told faster.

  For the moment, everything is up in the air. Until the next guru comes along...