The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Character Writing”

Can Batman Be A Better Character?

If you’ve clicked on this post or follow The Shelf Is Half Full, chances are you are a pretty big comic book fan. And if comic book sales, t-shirt sales and movie ticket sales are any indication, it probably means you are a pretty big fan of Batman. After all, Batman and his mythos have jumped from the pages of comic books and become ingrained in pulp culture for the better part of his seventy-five years of publication. He’s been the subject of live-action and cartoon TV series as well as animated and live-action movies. His image and his symbol have become a marketing juggernaut, and even casual fans would find it easy to relate his secret identity, the city he works in, and the name of everyone from his villains to his butler.

Which begs the question: is Batman really all that great of a character?

Batman

Okay, before you come at me with torches and pitchforks; yes, Batman is an awesome character. I am a fan of Batman, I think he’s awesome. But just because I like something doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye when a character has some flaws. And sadly, Batman’s long history has shown us that the character has some major flaws. These aren’t the types of flaws that make him endearing either, but I’ll explain that in a minute. This of course, isn’t Batman’s fault; he’s simply a fictional character after all, and as at the mercy of whoever is in charge of writing for him at the time. And while there have been many, many good writers who have done right by the character, there’s also quite a few poor or at the very least misguided writers who have done some damage to the character as well.

This is not an article meant to be a character assassination of Batman. The purpose of this is to talk about some of the problems I have with the way the character is written and show examples of how it can be done better. After all, comic books will continue and there will be new writers for Batman, and I hope that anyone who takes on that challenge thinks a little more carefully about how to approach the character.

Detective

1) Batman Is Often Too Angry and Brooding

The Problem – We all know that Batman was born out of tragedy; Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a young child and he vowed vengeance on all criminals. That’s all well and good, and it does help define who Batman is. However, I feel that certain writers dwell too much on these aspects of the character; they characterize Batman as a rage-fueled sociopath without compassion or mercy. Writer/artist (and I use this term loosely) Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for redefining Batman in the 1980’s with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns but that isn’t always a good thing. Much like Miller himself, that Batman is fueled by hatred, self-righteous rage, and is generally an all around unpleasant person to be around. And don’t even get me started on Miller’s atrocious All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder comics where Batman is a sexist, homophobic S.O.B. who calls Robin “retarded”.

Sadly, crappy writing like Miller’s has become a large part of Batman’s identity, and some people have latched onto it. That’s why we’re getting a movie in 2016 where Batman wants to make Superman bleed. Ugh…

The Solution – To me, Batman’s story isn’t about someone who is consumed by grief and rage. That’s a sad and honestly pathetic take on the character and I’d like to think that Batman is a better hero than that. I believe that most humans prefer heroes who overcome tragedy and move on, becoming stronger, not people who dwell endlessly on the problems of the past. It’s okay for Batman to feel sad or angry just as it’s okay for anyone else, but he should also be allowed to feel happy or content once in a while. Batman: The Animated Series portrayed a Batman who was just as quick to throw humorous one-liners as he was to throw punches, and I don’t think anyone would say that show ruined Batman by allowing Bruce to smile and make jokes. Even Chris Nolan’s super serious Dark Knight trilogy shows that Batman has a keen sense of humor and is capable of making friends.

Balance is the key; I’m not suggesting that Batman be the 1966 Adam West version (though there’s certainly room for that), but he doesn’t need to be the brooding monster that Miller wrote his as. Somewhere between the two extremes should be the goal. Most of my favorite Batman stories tend to show a lighter side of Batman.

Tower of Babel

2) Batman is Often Too Arrogant and Self-Righteous

The Problem – Bruce Wayne is a very smart person with a mostly black and white view on morality. These aren’t necessarily bad traits; they give him the edge he needs to be a determined and successful crime fighter and detective. But you know, even geniuses screw up from time to time, and they often screw up in epic ways. Unfortunately, many writers believe that because Batman is the smartest person on the planet that he should have a contingency plan for everything. You know who else has contingency plans for everything? Lex Luthor. Doctor Doom. Just because Batman is brilliant doesn’t mean he should behave a like a mad scientist. Some writers also have an annoying tendency to show that Batman is more clever, better prepared and smarter than anyone he’s working with, including the Justice League. Sorry, I’m just not buying that, and any time I read a comic where Batman calls one of his heroes an idiot I want to find the writer and tell them to stop making Bruce such a pompous jerk.

And let’s get into another thing that comes out of this line of thought that Batman is the best there is at everything. One of the key aspects of Batman’s character is that he doesn’t kill. I am entirely in support of this: Bruce’s entire life was changed because of murder and he should be opposed to killing. Bruce also believes that it isn’t his place to be the judge of criminals and he shouldn’t execute them. That’s fine, that’s noble, it gives him a code to live by. But let’s just set aside the fact that Bruce should probably have killed Joker by now because the scales really don’t add up. If Bruce really believes that killing will be the step that drives him over the edge, fine. I’ll allow that. But man, it really annoys me when he tries to enforce his beliefs on other people; other than Superman and Flash, most of the Justice League is willing to make a judgment call of when it’s okay to kill someone. Batman has an annoying tendency to say that they shouldn’t under any circumstances. That’s just self-righteous and short-sighted, and Bruce should trust his friends to make their own calls.

The Solution – This is one of my biggest problems with Batman and sadly, one of the easiest to fix. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to not make Batman a self-righteous and arrogant jerk. I think that from time to time, Batman’s should make decisions that don’t necessarily live up to his standards, as we all do. And that includes his killing rule. In Hush, Batman nearly killed the Joker after his friend Thomas Elliot was killed, deciding it was finally time to put an end to Joker’s killing. In the movie Under the Red Hood Batman admits to Jason Todd that he thinks about killing Joker every day. In Born to Kill, he straight up tells a criminal named Nobody that he is going to kill him for attempting to murder his son Damien. In all of these instances something happened to keep Bruce from actually going through with the kill, but showing that the intent was there humanizes Bruce and shows that he isn’t always bound by his code; this actually serves to make his no-killing rule more meaningful because of genuine temptation.

Vulnerable

3) Batman Never Fails

The Problem – One of the things that annoys me most about devoted Batman fans is their insistence that he is the smartest, most resourceful hero there is and thus is impossible to beat. These are the people that claim that Batman would beat Superman in a fight because he’s so much smarter than Clark, so much better prepared and so much more ruthless. And despite the insane impossibility of this situation, some writers like to go that route, including Frank Miller. You know what a character who is so smart and so brutal that he can beat Superman with ease is? Every bit as invulnerable and therefore every bit as boring as Superman. This is what I like to call “God Mode Batman”, and yeah, every once in a while it is fun to see Batman go into this mode, just like its fun to see any hero at their best.

But take a look at the picture above and tell me that honestly that you aren’t more invested in a Batman who is pushed to the brink of death, with seemingly no escape. A Batman who has all the odds against him, and has to use his wits and his heart and his will to fight back and survive? Yeah, you can’t. Vulnerability creates tension and drama, and that is the essence of good storytelling.

The Solution – Fortunately, this one is more a problem with fans than writers. Most good writers know the basics of storytelling call for the hero to be in peril or at the very least in danger of failing to save others. The best Batman stories are always the ones where he is pushed to his mental and physical limits, the ones where he almost dies because, well, he’s human. Those are the ones that make us connect with the character and root for him to succeed. Heroes should always be more human than godlike. Even if they almost always win in the end.

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From the Rescued to the Rescuer – Princess Leia

The Star Wars trilogy is a series of films that is primarily focused on character arcs. While there is a broader story going on with the Rebel Alliance challenging the might of the evil Galactic Empire, these movies are not meant to be broad history of that conflict. Instead we see the war through the eyes of a select few group of characters, primarily Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Han Solo. However, today’s article is not about any of the men in Star Wars, but on the lone female presence in the movie: Princess Leia.

This really should be obvious, but if you are one of the poor souls who has not yet seen these movies, there are many spoilers to follow. Why are you reading this instead of watching those movies already?

Princess Leia

If there is one criticism I have against the original Star Wars films it would be the lack of female characters. The original film has Luke Skywalker’s aunt Beru and Return of the Jedi has Mon Mothmaand The Empire Strikes Back… maybe it has some female civilians in Cloud City? I don’t honestly remember. My point is that these movies do not have an overwhelming female presence. Fortunately, it does one of the best female characters in a major blockbuster film series. Princess Leia Organa is not treated as inferior to her peers or as eye candy for the male audience (usually…), but is a fully fleshed out character with her own set of skills to contribute to the adventures of everyone else. I kind of view her as analogous to Wonder Woman: clearly the only female presence on the team, but also enough of a personality that she never feels like the odd one out.

I have previously discussed that the basic structure of Star Wars follows classic medieval tropes: knights, wizards, castles, that sort of thing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Leia’s character: she is named Princess Leia and is placed in the position of being the damsel in distress. While this trope was played out even then, Leia manages to subvert this by.. well, not being in distress. More like a damsel in dire straights. She isn’t stupid, she isn’t weak, she doesn’t show fear. She shoots a stormtrooper in the beginning of the movie (right after we’ve seen these things mow down rebel fighters like they are nothing), so we know she can handle herself. Darth Vader has her tortured but she doesn’t give any information; even when her home planet is destroyed by the Death Star she doesn’t give away the actual location of the Rebels. The fact that this woman is captured and held hostage is more a mark for the Empire than it is against Leia.

Gun

One of the defining aspects of Leia’s character to me is her reaction to her rescue; she constantly points out the flaws in the plan Luke and Han have concocted, but doesn’t sound like she’s whining. The tone is of somebody who knows how to pull off a rescue mission and is having to deal with two numbskulls who don’t. She convincingly assumes command of the group by showcasing her intelligence and willingness to risk her neck.

Leia’s role as a leader is expanded in The Empire Strikes Back where she is the one who gives orders to the Rebel pilots during the escape from Hoth. It’s clear that she is comfortable leading an army, which makes Empire perhaps the movie where she is at her weakest. Not in a bad sense, but when she’s stuck on the Millenium Falcon with Han Solo she doesn’t exactly have a lot of resources to work with. She’s got a cocksure loose canon pilot who’s routinely shown to care more about himself than anyone else, a prissy protocol droid, a wookiee who she can’t understand, and an entire Imperial Fleet on her tail. Staying true to the dynamic of their relationship from the first film, she doesn’t view Han as being overly competent until she’s around him long enough for him to show that he can be capable when he wants to be.

Empire

Empire is an example of developing a character during quieter moments; Leia doesn’t have to stay strong in the face of her enemies as much in this sequel, so we get to see her be a little more emotionally vulnerable. And I don’t mean emotional weak, I mean open and exposed; real. She’s obviously used to taking action and tries to help Han however she can even though most of the situations are out of her control, and it’s also clear that she’s more used to being a leader than a partner. Leia is authority, and Han challenges authority, which she finds both frustrating and attractive. Han and Leia’s romance is one of the more organically created ones in Hollywood history. The characters don’t seem fated to be together, the just get thrown together through circumstances and get to know each other and find that they actually like each other.

While Leia started as a strong damsel in dire straights in Star Wars, she becomes a more fleshed out, human character in Empire Strikes Back. Which is really the general goal of this movie on the whole. The first movie introduces the archetypes and gives us a bit of a glimpse into the characters, but is more about telling the story of an adventure. Empire is the middle act where characters are developed, given layers and humanity, and consequently the stakes are raised because we now have a strong emotional attachment to the characters. Leia’s defining moment in Empire is when she makes an attempt to save Han Solo from the bounty hunter Boba Fett, firing helplessly at his ship as the man she loves is carried away to some distant planet. She may never see him again, and that is a powerful moment that sets up Leia for greatness in the third act.

Someone Who Loves You

Return of the Jedi is something of an uneven film, with some glaring weak points in the narrative but arguably the greatest thrills and most emotional resonant moments as well. It is also where we get to see Leia at the height of her “action heroine” capability. She sneaks into Jabba’s palace as a Bounty Hunter to save Han Solo; the woman who was rescued is now the one doing the rescuing. This whole first act is so utterly brilliant because we never have a scene where the heroes discuss their plan, so we don’t even know there is a plan at all until the pieces fall into place. We never see Leia dress up as a hounty hunter; we just assume that some bounty hunter has captured Chewbacca and wants money from Jabba. Then the bounty hunter frees Solo from the carbonite, and we still don’t know until that glorious moment when reveals who she is.

And seriously, everybody talks about the gold bikini, but this is the real moment where every Star Wars fanboy fell hopelessly in love with Leia. She rescued her beloved when there was no way for him to escape, risking her life to do so. In short, she’s a dashing hero who has come to save the day. I don’t really know what it feels like to be a girl who falls in love with some handsome knight in shining armor, but I have to imagine it’s pretty similar to how we feel when Leia takes off her helmet and kisses Han. Is it emasculating? Maybe? Who cares? Leia is freaking awesome.

Bikini

But okay, let’s talk about the bikini. The infamous golden bikini. Now there is clearly an argument to be made that this is a wholly unnecessary thing in Return of the Jedi and reduces Leia to being a sex object. It gets worse when one considers the extreme lack of other women in these movies. But to me, this was never really a huge fanservice moment; there’s not a lot of sex appeal in seeing this awesome hero reduced to slavery at the hands of the despicable Jabba the Hutt. Within the context of the story, it’s more unsettling than anything. My most distinct memory of Leia in this outfit is not when she’s sitting there like this (though I do love her looks of annoyance and disgust), it’s when she turns the leash around on Jabba and strangles him, killing off a major villain who has made life a living hell for the person she cares about most.

Leia has plenty of other action scenes throughout Empire, but it’s this opening act where everything comes full circle. She is now in the opposite situation that she was in when the saga started. While the Star Wars movies still have a long way to go in terms of presenting a film that doesn’t have a male gender bias, Leia is an example of how to do a character well. When somebody asks me to point to strong female character, she’s one of the first that pops in my head. It’s a combination of Carrie Fisher’s acting, how the character is written, and Leia’s overall role in the universe that makes her one of the standout characters in a movie series full of excellent character development.

Comparing Transformers Characters

Most of us read, watch, or listen to some kind of storytelling media, be it books, movies, television shows, comics, original fiction, whatever. Now some people simply wish to be part of the audience; they know whether they enjoyed something or not but probably don’t think too deeply about why they enjoyed it or didn’t enjoy it. But then there are people who really get into the science of things and try to piece together what exactly makes something enjoyable to them. Being an analyst and critic myself, I fall into the second camp: I like to tear things apart and put them back together again to understand why they work.

(This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of those who don’t look deeper into stories. It’s okay just to enjoy a product that works. I don’t care how a car works, I just care that it will do it’s job. This is a perfectly valid approach to stories.)

There are many elements that go into good storytelling; an interesting setting, a compelling plot, good dialogue. All of these things matter and work together to make something good, and if one of those cogs doesn’t work the machine will fall apart, or at least not work as well as it could. But at least in my view, the most essential, crucial thing to get right in a story is having compelling characters. Which is not as easy as it probably sounds. But there are some creative writing teams that so utterly fail at this that I have to ponder if it can be easier than people think it is.

Maximals

To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at two vastly different media products that have something in common; Transformers: Beast Wars, a 1990’s CGI-animated series, and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Both the show and the movie operate on the same basic premise; there are robots who transform into other shapes (vehicles or animals), with some being heroes (Autobots or Maximals) fighting against a group of villains (Deceptions or Predacons). The leader of the good guy is named Optimus (Prime or Primal) and the leader of the bad guys is Megatron. There’s more than a few cosmetic differences, but they are essentially the same basic story.

Beast Wars is considered by most serious Transformers fans to be the apex of the series creatively, while the Michael Bay-directed films are generally regarded as well, to put it kindly, garbage. Commercially successful garbage mind you, but they are pretty much universally considered to be bad movies. And while one could point to a variety of things, from the racism to the horrible editing and pacing of the movies, those films fundamentally fall apart because of one reason: none of the fighting robots that it took billions of dollars to make on a computer have any real character. I maintain that if at least some effort was put into fleshing out these giant ugly robots, we wouldn’t care so much that they were giant ugly robots.

Prime on Grimlock

Which is why a picture like this one will never have the same emotional resonance with me as the one of the Maximals. It’s not nostalgia; Beast Wars is a show that lived and died by its characters. Every single character had a defined personality, strengths and weaknesses, fears and desires, goals they were working towards. They could play off of each other, sometimes against each other and sometimes to compliment each other. I love those transforming robots as much as I love the X-Men or the cast of the original Star Wars films. My point in this is that with just a little effort, strong character work can make even the most ridiculous ideas resonate and create an emotional response with the audience.

So what makes a good character? That’s somewhat difficult, but let me use a simple exercise to demonstrate the strength of three of these characters.

Character A is headstrong, reckless, eager to impress, doesn’t handle criticism, has an inferiority complex that he covers with cocky swagger, and generally acts like a kid wanting to impress his parents.

Character B is pessimistic, sarcastic, fatalistic, selfish, paranoid and intolerant, but possesses useful skills and can always be relied upon to get the job done and to do the right thing when it matters most.

Character C is quiet and contemplative, finds joy in simple things, is both spiritual and scientific, is fully capable of being a leader but rather be a follower who gives counsel, and acts as the wise man giving guidance.

Falcon

No, I’m not talking about those three. But I could be, and that’s the point; Cheetor, Rattrap and Rhinox are as fully realized, fleshed out and entertaining as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And just as human.

At no point did I say that these characters were a robot that transformed into a cheetah, a robot spy that turns into a rat, or a mechanic who turns into a rhinoceros. These characters have rich personalities and naturally form bonds with the characters around them. I can describe them without saying what they look like or using terms like “cool” and “awesome”. And if you think that’s just me blowing smoke because I’ve over-analyzed the show, I challenge you to watch Beast Wars, even a couple of episodes, and tell me that my descriptions of these Maximals aren’t spot on and evident by the scripts.

Then I challenge you to watch Dark of the Moon and tell me anything that you can remember about any of the characters aside from what they looked like or transformed into. And then perhaps you’ll understand what I mean about how fleshing out characters can make or break a story. Audiences need to understand, connect to and feel for the characters in a work of fiction or nothing that happens to them will have any emotional resonance. Good characters can make simple conversations riveting, but no amount of creative action or epic plot can make bad characters more interesting.

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