Cool Story, Bro

B-b-b-b-bonus post!

More wisdom from the notorious TJIC on his early writing false starts:

I always thought that once I had a premise (a guy who punches and fuses atoms; an anti-gravity drive; etc.) I had a story,
but no,
the STORY comes when you have a character and a conflict.

– Travis Corcoran, @MorlockP on Twitter

When he said this, I had something of a revelation. It has been mentioned several times now in relation to Game of Thrones, Marvel movies, live action anime adaptations etc. that entertainment no longer has good stories, only a series of spectacles . You have your Cool Battle Moment where every brush stroke of the source material is recreated in live action (and copious CGI). Then you have set up for next Cool Battle Moment. Narrative structure? Character arc? Whatever, man, don’t you know that Joseph Campbell stuff is played out?

The result is three hours of unsatisfying empty calories for your brain. Sure, they got that pose EXACTLY how you remember it. Captain America is WORTHY! So why doesn’t it feel as magical as it did the first time you saw him heft Mjolner overhead in your favorite comic? Maybe you’re just older. You’ve lost the magic. Or maybe it’s because the screen is telling you “he earned it,” but you never saw him do so.

You saw him win some fights, certainly. You saw him choose his friend over his title and shield. But Cap was already supposed to be bigger than all of us, the one who would stand alone against the entire world on principle. And we really don’t see any additional growth after he decides that his principles are bigger than the government of his country in Winter Soldier. Civil War is just Cap being Cap, the same guy who stood up to his bosses when they were wrong also stood up to his friends when they were wrong. Then, two movies of punching interspersed with vaguely motivational speeches. So the big reveal just feels… empty. He hasn’t grown in, bare minimum, two movies, more realistically three (no, shaking hands with the friend with whom you got into a fight is not character growth, not when that was already in character from the start). So the big, flashy payoff is either for nothing at all, or it is so far removed from the character growth that it feels disconnected.

The character arc played out, but the films kept going. He may have had new problems, but he didn’t have to grow or change to overcome them. Tony Stark? His isn’t an arc, it’s a wheel. He’s either not taking things seriously, and his irresponsibility causes disaster, or he’s overcorrecting for his previous disaster and causing a new one. Incidentally, this is the problem with a lot of sequels: they don’t feature new growth in the protagonist; instead, they retread the prior conflict that has already been resolved once. We won’t even discuss Fat Gamer Thor somehow hefting his old hammer.

Sometimes the problem isn’t lack of character or conflict, but an overabundance. Take GoT (please!). No lack of characters. Say what you will about GRRM, he has a huge cast. No lack of conflict, either, he has that in spades. And that’s the problem: too many stories fighting for attention. How many POV characters does he use? Nine? I lost count. Sometimes on different continents, with entirely different supporting casts and almost entirely unconnected stories. One character will have rising tension, only to be left hanging while two others, WHO DON’T KNOW THAT SHE EXISTS, resolve some romantic and sibling issues. No one story dominates. The overarching threat from book one, chapter one (“winter is coming”) seems entirely forgotten for stretches longer than some entire books. Like the college drunk who couldn’t make up his mind, GRRM has mixed twenty different liquors into a red solo cup. Some of them are very nice, and would be enjoyable on their own or with one or two others. But all of them together is just a dirty bar rag, and a nasty hangover.

(Before anyone brings up War and Peace, Tolstoy himself did not consider it a novel, and marked Anna Karenina as his first.)

I was going to write something especially cutting about the Ghost in the Shell live action movie here, but the worst thing I can say about it is that even as a fan of both the original and Stand Alone Complex, I couldn’t tell you the plot of the American live action film. I saw it. I remember feeling like I should have set a $25 roll of singles on fire, and chased my wife around the parking lot with it. It would have been over sooner, and we both would have had more fun. The was just nothing there to care about. Recreating scenes from the original anime didn’t just feel hollow, it felt like false advertising.

I’m starting to feel like a broken record here: stories, people, we’re here for the stories. This shouldn’t be as difficult as you’re making it, but some motherfucker’s always trying to ice skate uphill. I’m going to go watch a good comic book movie. No, the sidecar dog in the header doesn’t mean anything. He’s just a dog, in doggles, in his sidecar. Peace out.

I don’t know where I’m going
But I sure know where I’ve been
Hanging on the promises in songs of yesterday
And I’ve made up my mind
I ain’t wasting no more time
But, here I go again
Here I go again

– Whitesnake, Here I Go Again

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