Sunday, 14 August 2011

5 Ways to Kill Conflict and Bore the Hell Out of Your Audience

Otherwise known as "Lessons from Captain America: the First Avenger."

Ok, so maybe I'm being a little harsh here. Captain America isn't a hateful film, just a disappointing one. Like a child born with every advantage who just doesn't bother to try.

To put it in context, I LOVE Marvel. I'm not a nitpicking obsessive, who knows the biographies of every character, artist and writer, I'm an easily pleased enthusiast. I trust Marvel. I think Stan Lee is a hero, just for creating the world he created. I love the X Men films, I loved Thor (we won't mention the Fantastic Four, best forgotten).

So I was UP for Captain America. I was READY. I trusted Marvel to deliver.

I was disappointed.


Because despite a huge budget, a stellar cast, fantastic special effects and an adoring fanbase, Captain America doesn't try. Worse than that, it forgets the one essential no film can be without: conflict.

Without conflict, there is no story. Conflict IS the story.
So why did Thor succeed and Captain America fail to deliver conflict?

At the start of Captain America we discover Steve Rogers is a puny weakling, desperate to live up to his dead parents reputation by serving for his country in WWII. He is a patriot. He's a friend. And he hates bullies.

His desperation is noted by a passing genius who decides to make him invincible. He chooses Steve because Steve is a compassionate man, who will respect his own strength and use it to protect others.

So far so good. We like Steve. We're rooting for him.

Thanks to some special serum, Steve is made invincible. He becomes everything he ever dreamed of being. Woohooo! An EXCELLENT chance for conflict.

Does Steve find his powers aren't all they are cracked up to be? Does his sudden invincibility challenge his good guy character and tempt him to do all the things he couldn't do before (sleep with women, beat up his enemies)?


Nice guy Steve segues smoothly into his invincibility with nary a misstep. It's all plain sailing, easy peasy. Say WHAT?

Missed Opportunity 1: If you're going to give your hero great power (whether physical or political) it has to challenge him.

After spending some time promoting the USA war efforts in spangled tights and with Chorus girls, our Cap is given his first opportunity to serve. He goes on an unauthorised mission deep into enemy lines, to rescue his childhood friend from the lair of Hydra.

So, does this mission go horribly wrong? Does Captain America find that his invincibility is nothing without the help of others, or without falling back on the skills he learned as a weakling or... hell, does he learn ANYTHING AT ALL?

Nope. The Cap leaps in, once more demonstrating his bravery (which we were already well aware) and rescues everyone without a hitch.

Oh yeah. Which brings me on to another key failing of the film. It's core implausibility.

Despite Captain America being just one man with a band of unarmed prisoners. Despite Hydra having an army of highly trained, armoured soldiers with super weapons - weapons that the WHOLE WORLD is quaking in their boots about, they are defeated without the US soldiers breaking into a sweat. In fact, it's a hoot. No one vital is sacrificed. No one has to compromise their moral code or make difficult choices to escape.

It's all too damn easy.

Missed Opportunity 2: If you're going to put obstacles in the way of your hero on his quest, make them REAL obstacles. They have to be HARD. They have to CHALLENGE him or her. He has to grow as a consequence. Without character development, obstacles are just pointless action sequences. They are dull.

But one thing the mission DOES do is bring Captain America face to face with Johann Schmidt, the evil head of Hydra, the Nazi Deep Science division. And Schmidt has the Captain's powers. He drank deep of the same serum when it was in its prototype stages. But in his case, it made him more evil. He's the dark twin. The embodiment of what can go wrong when the wrong guy gets superpowers. The superhero meets the supervillain. Classic stuff.

One of the WONDERFUL things about the Marvel Universe is its ambiguity. Villains act heroically and then become villainous again. Heroes become dark and are redeemed. Big questions are explored about the nature of power and humanity through these interactions: just look at the wonderful dynamic between Professor Xavier and Magneto. So is the Captain challenged by meeting his dark twin? Does he see some elements of Schmidt in himself? Is he tempted by the power Schmitt holds? It's a CLASSIC film moment - just think of Luke Skywalker being tempted by Darth Vader. It's universal, Garden of Eden, core to the human experience stuff. Does it happen here?


Missed Opportunity 3: If the duel between your hero and your villain is at the centre of your plot, they have to be three dimensional. They have to have an impact on each other - internally. Think Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Think Magneto and Professor X. Think Batman and the Joker.

Our baddie is a mere caricature. He's a Nazi, he wears shiny boots, he kills people, he has a manic laugh and a funny accent. They are polarized. And in fact, not only does the Captain not find any darkness in himself but we learn nothing either. Damn it, even Hannibal Lecter managed to gain our sympathies and he ate people for breakfast. Literally.

Now, I can forgive an easy victory and a straightforward meeting with his arch enemy once. Maybe it's setting us up for a fall. Maybe, having got all cocksure after this easy victory and the adoration which follows, our good-natured Captain will get cocksure. Maybe his new found arrogance and conviction that Schmitt is bad and the Americans are good will leave to a terrible disaster and its accompanying guilt and shame. Maybe he realises then that the potential to be like Schmitt exists in him too and he must guard against it. Maybe he then has to overcome his personal demons to win out and gain redemption....


That's a whole other film I must be talking about. Because in THIS film, the Captain doesn't screw up once. Not really. Okay, okay, so he loses his best friend who nobly dies saving Captain America's life.

What's that? Yes you heard me, the best friend gets it.

YEAY! An opportunity for real torment. Surely THIS is the opportunity the Captain gets dark and vengeful, before having to face his personal demons and win out and be good again. This is IT!


Missed Opportunity 4: Life changing experiences have to change your hero's life. Come ON. If you are going to put in an opportunity for loss and grief, you have to show the impact of the loss and grief.

Captain America tries to get drunk and can't. He's sad. He feels guilty. He's even more determined to get the bad guy. HE WAS DOING THAT ANYWAY! Nothing has changed, nothing at all.

Okay, okay. Calm down.

We're coming up to the final curtain. The Captain has gained superpowers, delivered countless (successful, of course) missions, faced his arch enemy, lost his dearest friend.

Of course none of this has changed him or challenged him, but we'll forgive that. Because there is still a chance.

This is the showdown.

He's facing Schmidt. Schmidt is his dark twin AND has extra powers thanks to an Indiana Jones-esque bit of Norse occult magic. This has GOT to be good. So does the Captain defeat Schmidt but get tempted to take the Norse magic for himself - in order to do good for the world, of course? In the moment of conflict, does he see a grain of humanity in Schmidt and recognise that he could have ended up the same way... does he hesitate? Does Schmidt become more human, more likable, so that we CARE about his death?

Nope. Of course not. Because that would be CONFLICT. And this film DOES NOT DO CONFLICT.

Missed Opportunity 5: At your resolution, give your hero something to resolve INTERNALLY not just EXTERNALLY. External conflict is fine, but unless it is accompanied by heart-twisting, emotion-engaging internal conflict, we don't really care.

In fact, the story doesn't really pick up until the last five minutes when Steve wakes up in the future, disorientated and challenged. And that's the end of the film. So what have we been watching for the last 2 hrs 40 minutes?


You heard me. One big long info dump, coloured in by some nifty (but not especially original) action scenes and some fairly good romantic chemistry.

The biggest conflict in Captain America is when the Captain is forced to stay in America promoting bond sales instead of fighting with his chums and he has to wear tights.
Not meeting his dark twin. Not the death of his friend. Not even his love interest.

Potential points of conflict are NEVER used to impact upon him. He has no internal conflict.

It's a shame. One big long missed opportunity. However, it does give me hope for the next Avengers film, because now we know the backstory the main event should be GREAT!

So what have we learned?

If you don't want to bore the hell out of your audience, insert some conflict into your story:

1. Let your hero be challenged by his own strengths and core values. Let them be called into question. Let him have to learn something.

2. If you are putting in external conflict and obstacles, make them real. If you know your hero will win every fight, you lose interest in the outcome of the fight. If you know your hero will win every fight, but at some personal cost to himself, the outcome of the fight becomes interesting. How long can he go on for?

3. If your hero faces a villain, don't make your villain a caricature. We don't care about caricature. Your villain gives your hero an opportunity to explore something about himself. Let him explore it.

4. If your hero faces life-changing experiences, let them have an impact on his life. Let them change how he reacts or what he does.

5. At your resolution, ensure that your hero is resolving an internal conflict, as well as an external conflict. Make us care.

Want to read more writing lessons courtesy of the movies? Follow the link to find out about world-building, universality and character development.


David A Ludwig said...

Eh, I'm willing to forgive a lot there because I like Captain America so much and what he represents (namely what my country claims to represent). Ultimately I think the problem with the film is it is just info-dump to set up for the Avengers movie and doesn't stand on its own the way the others have.
I think all of those conflicts were there, we just didn't get to see them because of the time being given to setting up for the Avengers.

Meg McNulty said...

Ain't it enough to make you cry? Such a missed opportunity! They should have had you writing the script :)

Still, I CANNOT WAIT for the Avengers! I have watched that clip on youtube where they unveil the cast about four times!

David A Ludwig said...

Eh, they're probably glad I wasn't writing the script. I would have said "Avengers can do its own damn set-up".
Movies other than the one you're there to see get the teaser after the credits, no more.

Meg McNulty said...

I MISSED the teaser after Thor - can you believe it? Could've cried! Left the cinema before the credits finished rolling *weeps*

Unknown said...

I've finally gotten to read this! It was in my google reader when it was first posted, but some glitch wouldn't let me see it and then I forgot.

I loved this movie primarily because of the girl-boy story. I also LOVED the costumes and sets.

But I agree with you. Even though I did enjoy the movie, I was disappointed that it all seemed to be about another movie. It was good, enjoyable, and a decent way to pass a couple of hours, but it could have been brilliant.

Meg McNulty said...

The romance was great that's for sure! But it ALL could have been great *weeps*. However, hopefully that means the Avengers will be superb.