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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: superhero formula

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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How is it I can look at the poster for the recent Somali pirate film Fishing Without Nets and register “Jolly Roger,” even though the two crossed guns look almost nothing like a pirate flag?

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Superhero emblems are the same, altering every line and curve of their evolving designs, while somehow remaining recognizably the same:

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I remember how confused I was the first time I saw the crew of Captain Blood hoist their flag and it wasn’t the standard skull-and-crossbones but instead a jawless skull and two crossed but living arms with a sword in each fist. Sure, it’s close, but imagine if Joe Shuster did Superman’s “S” in calligraphy. Or Batman swapped his chest emblem for a diagram of an actual bat.

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I was probably seven at the time and so didn’t know the Captain was Errol Flynn in his breakout role. I didn’t know the 1935 film was a remake of the 1924 Captain Blood. Fans grumbled about Andrew Garfield replacing Tobey Maguire’s too-recent Spider-Man, or Sony rebooting Fantastic Four after a mere decade. But that’s been standard Hollywood practice since the teens. When Flynn traded in his pirate hat for Robin Hood tights, they were still warm from Douglass Fairbanks who’d torn them off Robert Grazer who’d yanked them from Percy Stow.

Hollywood is a roving pirate ship. They plundered Captain Blood from Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel. A decade had passed and swashbucklers were back with the box office booty Treasure Island shoveled in. They dug Blood up for name recognition—always safer to parrot than invent. Russell Thorndike jumped aboard too. He conscripted his own 1915 Scarecrow (vicar by day, masked smuggler by night) and sent him sailing into his piratical backstory. Doctor Syn on the High Seas floated five more book sequels, plus a 1937 film and a Disney mini-series I somehow never saw.

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I also haven’t seen Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips yet, but the inspired-by-real-events tale of low sea piracy adds to my bewilderment at the genre. I blinked in disbelief as my family and I rolled through Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean, where jolly animatronic pirates endlessly chase buxom animatronic women in acts of slapstick rape. If we can romanticize 17th century pirates into heroic outlaws, will 23rd century Hollywood will do the same for terrorists?

Any yet that Jolly Roger—probably a corruption of the French “joli rouge,” a warning that your attackers will kill you whether surrender or not—is a symbol of fun. I used to wave it as I sat in the stands of Three Rivers Stadium cheering the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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It doesn’t help that the KKK’s Black Legion added skulls and bones to their robes as they terrorized the port of Detroit in the mid-30s.

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They wanted to be superheroes, same as any vigilante. Herman Landon’s 1921 gentleman thief dubbed himself the Benevolent Picaroon (that’s Spanish for pirate), and Charles W. Tyler’s Blue Jean Billy Race launched her modern pirate career in 1918, both harbored in Street and Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. Even Batman demanded a turn on the high seas. Chuck Dixon and Enrique Alcatena rebooted him as Captain Leatherwing in a 1994 Elseworlds. The pairing seems playfully discordant, but Wayne and Blood were already the same character type. Ask them to fill out the following questionnaire:

1. Do you have a penis?

2. Is it white?

3. Are you highly respected?

4. Ever been horribly wronged?

5. What’s your catchy alias?

6. How comfortable are you working outside the law?

7. Got a nifty disguise?

8. What’s your signature emblem?

9. Can you supervise one or more loyal sidekicks?

10. Are you really all about the greater good?

11. Do you love thwarting that pesky government official always bugging you?

12. Are you into girls?

If that list isn’t familiar, it should be. It’s the original superhero formula:

A (1) white (2) man of (3) high status is (4) wronged and so assumes an (5) alias as a (6) noble criminal with a (7) disguise and (8) emblem, and, with one or more (9) assistants, fights for the (10) greater good while thwarting a (11) law enforcement antagonist and courting a (12) female love interest.

Batman answers yes to all twelve plot points—if you count Commissioner Gordon, who Bruce was clearly hoodwinking in his first episode. Bruce’s forgotten fiancé, Julie, vanished along with writer Gardner Fox, but she was there in 1939 too. The rest is easy: Mr. Wayne is very wealthy and very white, was terribly wronged with the murder of his parents, goes vigilant in a bat-emblazoned leotard, while dodging police bullets and warring on criminals. Oh, and he picks up an underage sidekick and overage butler too.

Batman didn’t invent the formula. He plundered it from an ocean of predecessors. Lots of rich, pissed-off white guys like to play dress-up, while stomping on bad guys, flicking off the government, and man-handling the ladies. Look at Captain Blood. That’s just the name a noble physician assumes after he’s unjustly convicted of treason and sold into slavery. He has a crew of not-quite-as-noble escaped convicts for assistants as he flaps his Jolly Roger like a cape. That naval commander in Jamaica is always hounding him, but the commander’s daughter is smitten anyway. And of course when the citizens of Port Royal are left undefended, it’s Blood who rushes to their rescue.

Blood and Batman served aboard the 1930s Mystery Men, an overflowing ship of masked do-gooders   captained by the Shadow with his pirate flag of a laugh, the original MWAHAHAHA. The 20s roared with a dozen more, all high scorers on the 12-point pirate scale. The 1914 Gray Seal is only missing Bruce’s murdered parents. The equally motiveless Zorro scores another eleven. Go back another decade and the Scarlet Pimpernel is righting the wrongs of the French Revolution, while Spring-Heeled Jack carves his “S” on his enemies’ foreheads. Personally, I prefer signature letters on the hero’s unitard.

There’s just one ingredient missing:  Superpowers. Bruce is very down-to-earth in the godlike company of Superman. Blood and his shipmates are all flesh-and-blood too. But Superman is just an extension of question nine. He absorbs his assistants, giving himself the strength of countless men. A superhero a one-man man-o-war. The Hulk’s high status comes in the form of Dr. Banner’s intelligence, but otherwise he’s a formula white guy wronged by a gamma bomb and the Cold War that detonated it. With the help of his teen confidante, Rick Jones, he eludes the U.S. military while dating the General’s daughter and committing violent acts of do-goodery. If he had an “H”-emblazon cape, he’d score a twelve.

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 Spider-Man wronged himself but loses a point for unrespectable nerdiness. Convert status to mutant giftedness, and you have an armada of X-Men. Even the convention-sinking Alan Moore is onboard with his wonder woman Promethea. Sure, her assistants are dead versions of herself, and her pesky law enforcement officer is Christianity, but she’s an eleven, which goes to twelve if you count her male incarnation.

Captain Blood’s formula flag is still sailing.

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