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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Blake Snyder

The summer superhero blockbuster season is well underway: Avengers 2 landed in May, Ant-Man follows now in July, and Fantastic Four hits in August. That’s only half of 2014’s six films, but 2016 will make up the difference with a record eight. There was a time when I thought the superhero film genre had an artistic future. But after Heath Ledger’s Oscar for playing the Joker, Warner Bros. and Marvel has dedicated themselves to reproducing largely the same formula-driven commercial product.

So to analyze the nature of Hollywood superheroes, I’m calling in two experts from opposite ends of the literary spectrum: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the most acclaimed novelists of Russian literature, and Black Snyder, a third-rate screenwriter that Sylvester Stallone once likened to a flatworm.

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I read Crime and Punishment in A.P. English as a high school senior—and I even finished it (a dubious honor my adolescent self did not award Moby Dick). I started The Brothers Karamavoz in college while working graveyard shifts as a warehouse security guard, but after totaling my Toyota on a sleepy drive home, I quit both.

Snyder started his career writing episodes for the Disney Channel’s Kids Incorporated before going on to pen Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, a comedy Roger Ebert called “moronic beyond comprehension” and which its star, Sylvester Stallone, declared “one of the worst films in the entire solar system,” insisting “a flatworm could write a better script.” And yet when a good friend of mine—a former script reader for a California production company—wanted to collaborate on a screenplay, he handed me Snyder’s Save the Cat!

The how-to screenwriting guide explains why the Sandra Bullock comedy vehicle Miss Congeniality is a better movie than Memento. It comes down to formula: Miss Congeniality hits all 15 beats on The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, while Christopher Nolan’s directorial debut “is just a gimmick that cannot be applied to any other movie.” If Snyder were a poetry professor, he would lecture about the superiority of sonnets to free verse, while defining the greatest works of literature by the uniformity of their iambic beats.

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Rodion Raskolnikov, Dostoyevsky’s pawnbroker-murdering philosophy student, would classify Snyder as “ordinary.” Raskolnikov explains: “men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them.”

In other words, Hollywood spec writers play by the rules. And Snyder understands those rules well. He divides the universe into ten idiosyncratic genres. His “Dude with a Problem,” for example, includes Die Hard and Schindler’s List, while “Superhero” goes beyond Batman Begins to claim Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind—and probably anything else starring Russell Crowe. Snyder’s ur-Superhero is Gulliver surrounded by Lilliputians: “a Superhero tale asks us to lend human qualities, and our sympathy, to a super being, and identity with what it must be like to have to deal with the likes of us little people.” So Batman, Frankenstein, and Dracula are all Superheroes “challenged by the mediocre world around them,” because it’s really “the tiny minds that surround the hero that are the real problem.”

Raskolnikov would agree. His second category, “extraordinary” men, “all transgress the law,” because “making a new law, they transgressed the ancient one, handed down from their ancestors and held sacred by the people.” So “all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it.” The rut-dwelling Lilliputians, meanwhile, will try to “punish them or hang them (more or less), and in doing so fulfill quite justly their conservative vocation.”

Snyder fulfills his Lilliputian vocation for Christopher Nolan when he shouts “screw Memento!” and dismisses all the “hulabaloo” because of its low box office revenue. That was in 2005, the year Batman Begins premiered, and three years before Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight. Raskolnikov warns that “the same masses set these criminals on a pedestal in the next generation and worship them,” and sure enough, Synder lauds Nolan’s caped crusader for following “the beats down to the minute.”

Or does that means Nolan is a Superhero who overcame his Gulliverness by conforming to the Lilliputian Beat Sheet? Either way, he, like Bruce Wayne “is admirable because he eschews his personal comfort in the effort to give back to the community.” That, says Snyder, solves the problem of “how to have sympathy for the likes of millionaire Bruce Wayne or genius Russell Crowe.” They save the cat.

And Raskolnikov agrees again. His “extraordinary man” has “an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep” if overstepping “is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea,” and idea which might be “of benefit to the whole of humanity.” That’s how he rationalizes killing and robbing that nasty old pawnbroker. He argues (faux hypothetically) to a cop: “Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

It doesn’t matter how the cop answers, because a real Gulliver wouldn’t have asked a Lilliputian for his opinion. That’s Raskolnikov’s downfall. He’s reading from the wrong page in Save the Cat! He wants to be a Superhero (“An extraordinary person finds himself in an ordinary world”), but he’s really just a Dude with a Problem (“An ordinary guy finds himself in extraordinary circumstances”). Worse, his circumstances are self-inflicted. He fell for Snyder’s Superhero formula because it “gives flight to our greatest fantasies about our potential.”

Raskolnikov fails to be “a man of the future,” but Nietzsche (who ranked reading Dostoyevksky “among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life”) took that “extraordinary” character type and renamed him the ubermensch. After Jerry Siegel adopted it, DC completed the circle by calling Superman “The Man of Tomorrow.”

But Dostoyevsky is no origin point. After explaining his theories, even Raskolnikov admits: “there is nothing particularly new in all that. The same thing has been printed and read a thousand times before.”Or as one of Snyder’s studio execs told him: “Give me the same thing . . . only different!”

That, sadly, is the state of the Hollywood superhero.

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Iron Patriot from IM3

The culminating twist of Iron Man 3, declared Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, “signals both the making of Iron Man 3 and, with any luck, the possible unmaking of the genre.” It was an early review, so Lane had to be coy about specifics, but a few weeks and a few hundred million box office dollars later, we can take the spoiler gloves off and just say it:

“This war is not a means to any end but rather is the end in itself. Not only is it the end itself, but it is also its own fuel: it is precisely this endless war – justified in the name of stopping the threat of terrorism – that is the single greatest cause of that threat.”

Oh, wait, sorry, that’s not Iron Man 3. That’s Glenn Greenwald on Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the twelve-year-old foreign policy franchise formerly known as the War on Terror has another two decades of sequels left in it.

What I meant to write is completely different. That Iron Man 3’s supervillianous corporate  technology genius invented his own Osama Bin Laden to mask his R&D and drive up government demand for his ever-expanding arsenal of military products, locking American and the rest of the planet in a self-perpetuating cycle of unwinnable war. But that’s just a movie. The kind that now pretty much defines the Hollywood blockbuster. Director Shane Black even goes the extra metafictional mile and includes the villain’s blue screen movie studio, the same corporate tech keeping Tony and his pals alive.

Iron Man and War Machine without the CGI

“From here on,” writes Lane, “the dumb-ass grandeur around which superheroic plots revolve can no longer be taken on trust.” Greenwald thinks the same about Obama. The war on terror, like the Hollywood superhero, will never end on its own because so many “factions reap a bonanza of benefits from its continuation.” Black lifts the edge of the curtain, but that glimpse will hardly unmake or even marginally slow the onslaught of forthcoming productions. Captain America 2 is shooting in D.C. as I type. That’s D.C., our nation’s capital, and so not technically a Warner Bros or Marvel Entertainment branch office.

The modern superhero movie first took flight in 1978 with Superman: The Movie (the subtitle says it all), with the total number of productions tipping just over forty in 2001. How many since 9/11?  Fifty. In less than half as many years. So, no, 9/11 is not the box office superhero’s origin story. It’s merely the transformative accident that doubled his powers. Like the Golden Age’s Blue Beetle. When his comic book incarnation debuted in pre-war 1939, the Beetle was just another mystery man in a domino mask and fedora. Listen to his first radio broadcast a worn-torn year later and the guy’s ingesting the power-inducing 2-X formula from his pharmacist mentor.

Novelist Austin Grossman recently told my Superheroes class that when he started writing his supervillain-narrated Soon I Will Be Invincible in 2001, he had to ask himself, “Am I just writing about a terrorist?” Austin’s brother, The Magicians author Lev Grossman, penned his own superheroic response, “Pitching 9/11.” The short story is a sequence of failed pitches for adapting 9/11 to screen. Here’s my favorite:

“Lonely, misunderstood Dominican elevator repairman (John Leguizamo?) finds himself trapped by fire after the second plane hits. In agony from the heat and smoke, near death from asphyxiation he jumps from the 83rd Floor. Instead of falling he hover in midair, then rockets upward. The trauma of the attack, and of his impending certain death, has awakened latent superpowers he never knew he had. A handful of others have undergone similar transformations—they hover in a cluster over the collapsing buildings, like so many swimmer treading water. As the roof sinks away below them into nothingness, they choose colorful pseudonyms and soar away together in formation to take vengeance on evil everywhere.”

Lev’s other pitches include scifi thriller, Discovery Channel documentary, and a filmed performance piece, but superheroes are the ready-made absurdity 9/11 was meant for. Diverting the path of an airliner? That’s a job for Superman. The pre-emptive prequel would star Batman. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, President Clinton was so annoyed with the lack of options for taking out Bin Laden he said to one his generals: ‘You know, it would scare the shit out of al-Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp.’”

Substitute “ninjas” with the superhero team of your choice and you’ve got your very own dumb-ass grandeur plot.  But according to Blake Snyder (a friend leant me a copy of his Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need), the Superhero genre isn’t just about “guys in capes and tights.” It’s what happens when an extraordinary person is stuck in an ordinary world. In addition to Bruce Wayne and the X-Men, Russell Crow’s Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind are his go-to examples of misunderstood Gullivers shackled by Lilluputians.

I’m more than a little skeptical about Snyder (he argues Miss Congeniality is a better film than Memento), but he has a point. Especially when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Superheroes soared after 9/11 because Hollywood cast America as the planet’s mightiest super being and the rest of the word population as those moron Lilluputians willfully misunderstanding him. Weren’t they listening when Bush Sr. explained New World Order?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was the lone superpower, to be loved and respected by a planet of grateful mortals. When some of those ingrates go and topple the Fortress of Solitude, what choice does America have but to declare a War on Lilluputianism? “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this war,” laments Greenwald, “has no purpose other than its own eternal perpetuation.”

But then in his own superheroic plot twist, Obama, days after his Assistant Defense Secretary was arguing for an unlimited renewal of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, declared: “This war, like all wars, must end.” The Associated Press boiled the President’s 7,000- word speech down to a sentence: “Barack Obama has all but declared an end to the global war on terror.”

Congress is balking of course. And so is our Democracy’s fourth branch of government, Hollywood. While Obama declares war on perpetual war, Marvel has two superhero franchises in post-production (Wolverine, Thor), three filming for 2014 release dates (Captain America, Spider-Man, X-Men), and another four announced for 2015 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Ant-Man). Throw in the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show that premieres next fall, and the superhero war isn’t dialing back—it’s surging.

But all those capes and tights flying across our screen have been an inverse shadow of real troops on the ground. So what happens when we finally leave Afghanistan? What happens if the drone war on al Qaeda really does die down? I’m no pre-cog, but the pop culture tea leaves are telling me 2015 will be the last big year for dumb-ass superhero grandeur. Though I wouldn’t underestimate Hollywood’s shapeshifting powers either. Both Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness were already in theaters, literally blowing up their representations of the U.S. drone armada, when Obama dropped his own policy bomb of a speech.

Box office superheroes will endure. Just scaled back to their pre-9/11 levels, where they belong.

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