Posts Tagged Thor

A Writer Re-Reviews: Thor (and Captain America)

Yes, I know, I’ve already done a review of Thor.  However after viewing it again last night, I wanted to revisit my earlier review and look more into  the actual failing of the film by looking at another movie that succeeded.  There are a number of examples I could choose from, but let’s stay within the comic book genre, even within the Avengers lead-up films, and pick Captain America: The First Avenger.

What am I looking at in both films?  The traditional three-act structure of a movie.  And I want to specifically talk about how it’s typically used in the superhero origin story movie, which both of these movies are, and how both deviated from that structure.

In most super hero origin movies, the acts are as follows:

  • Act One: Establish the person behind the hero.
  • Act Break: Person gets super powers.
  • Act Two: Person learns how to use powers.  Villain origin story.
  • Act Break: Villain directly threatens hero.
  • Act Three: Hero works to defeat villain.

This certainly isn’t every superhero origin, but just to go back to the first Avengers movie to see how it’s done cookie cutter (but well).  In Iron Man, Act One focuses on the background of Tony Stark and his time in captivity, Act Two is after he emerges from the caves and works to improve his suit and life for down trodden middle easterners while Obadiah Stane gets his own suit put together, Act Three is the big showdown.  It’s a standard formula that both Thor and Captain America tweak.  In one it worked, in the other it didn’t.

So how did the three act structure fail Thor?  The big tweak to the structure is the flipping of the traditional first and second acts.  Act One focuses on Thor having all his powers in Asgard and Jotunheim.  Act Two focuses on him trying to be just a brawny dude on earth, learning to be a hero and not just someone with a bunch of awesome powers.  The problem here is that it means his entire character arc happens not over the course of the entire film but over the course of only the middle act.  This is where the film falls apart, by giving too little time to too important of a part of the story.  It also means that the Asgard section feels padded in order to get to the right time code for the break into Act Two.

So how did the three act structure get massaged to work better for Captain America?  Well, it’s right there in the Act Two bullet point.  Typically within a three act structure, Act Two introduces the secondary characters within a movie.  In the superhero origin movie, those secondary characters tend to include the villain of the piece.  Captain America instead presents the villain fully formed, from the beginning.  He’s given little bits of back story, but not an entire origin in the way of Green Goblin in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  By treating him as an established character, by having him exist before the Captain, it does several things at once.  First, it gives the character action in Act One, breaking up the typically slow alter ego introduction section of an origin movie.  Second, it gives the Captain some focus to his actions after getting his super powers, instead of having him just show off his powers in ways that ultimately won’t connect to the main plot.  Third, it frees up time in Act Two for more plot development, and for more of what we want to see out of a super hero movie: ass kicking.

Now.  I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend that Captain America is some awesome paradigm of film.  It’s not going to to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  All I’m saying is that we have two Marvel movies that played with the traditional presentation of three acts within the super hero origin story.  And that’s great.  With the sheer number of super heroes being optioned into films, something needs to be done to keep the films from looking and feeling like the same script adapted for a different power set.  But with experimentation comes successes and failures, and that’s what came out of the 2011 Marvel releases.

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A Writer Reviews: Thor

Recently I read Blake Snyder’s classic screenwriting instruction manual Save The Cat.  The book is perhaps best known for introducing the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, or BSBS for short, a formulaic approach to writing screenplays that can be used to analyze the seemingly most unformulaic of movies.  Even Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is given a Beat Sheet breakdown in the sequel Save The Cat Goes to the Movies.  These books have been revitalizing my interest in screenwriting, and I’ve been trying to get into the right mindset for going through the Beat Sheet.  However, it takes a lot of concentrating on a movie, which is something I’m not very good at.  Oh, I’ll catch all the plot elements and am usually not the person wandering out blinking into the sun asking what a character’s motivation was.  No, when I mean concentrating on a movie, I mean being able to break it down to base elements, run it through the beat sheet, and start recognizing where the act breaks are, where the midpoint is.  I have to see a movie several times so that I can turn off the part of my brain attempting to be entertained and turn on the part that can look at plot.

And therein lies the problem with Thor.  I went to see it over the weekend, and was able to start Beat Sheeting the movie, especially using two of Blake Snyder’s favorites the “Whiff of Death” moment and the “Break Into Three”.  There was something that was simply failing to engage me about the movie.

And it all started to come back to writing, and the fact that there are some universals when it comes to writing, whether it be for the page or for the screen.  The first and foremost of these is “show, don’t tell.”  Throughout the movie we are constantly being told what a brilliant scientist Natalie Portman’s character is.  But that’s really it.  We’re being told this without there being any moment in the movie where her knowledge is called on to solve a problem.  She is allowed absolutely no chance to participate in the story other than being Thor’s chauffeur and love interest.  This is, mind, the biggest name actor that the movie had going for it, and the clear number two character in the work, but she’s not given anything to actually work with to prove that she earned that Oscar she won a few years ago.  Now I’m not going to say that Oscar winners are never allowed to do fluff pieces after bringing home their trophies, but it’s a clear disappointment when an actress recognized for her talent is given such a one dimensional character.  And all because we’re only told she is such a great scientist without ever being shown it.

Character development.  Characters have to grow and change over the course of any narrative.  Hopefully all of them, but at the very least the protagonist.  And this is not one of the failings of Thor.  Through the movie Thor transitions from being a head-strong warrior who doesn’t care about consequences to being a more level headed and caring leader.  Which is great, and it’s the transition that the character needs to make.  However, the problem comes in when the impetus for change feels insufficient.  The path that he takes is such a short one that, as an audience member, I don’t feel like I’ve journeyed it with him.  And this is a problem with a lot of super hero movies, the films have to try extra hard to make the audience identify with a character so much different than they are.  It’s why Superman never really works on the screen, because he can’t be made as compelling as an audience wants.  And it’s part of what happens for Thor.  There’s nothing about the transition he makes that’s compelling, because it all has to be done so quickly because the movie has to fit in all the required elements as well.

Ah, the required elements.  It felt like no one had their heart in the necessary “I’ll join The Avengers” scene that got tacked into the movie, as Thor walks up to a guy who had spent a good part of the movie holding him hostage and tormenting him and saying what amounted to, “hey, if you guys are forming some super hero team that I would have no way of knowing about count me in!”  I could almost hear Kenneth Branagh gritting his teeth through the filming of that.

In the end the movie simply suffers.  It suffers from telling not showing.  It suffers from poorly laid out character growth.  It suffers from being filmed as an obligation towards The Avengers.  It’s fun to watch, certainly.  But it doesn’t really hold up in any way, and will probably go down as the weak link in the build-up to next year’s The Avengers, barring some complete collapse on the part of Captain America.

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