If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then I’m about to compare JM Bell to Jesus Christ incarnate, because this entry is basically “What Can Superman III Teach You About Writing?” without any useful pedagogy.
If you haven’t checked out Bell’s “What Can So-And-So Teach You” series over on Start Your Novel, you should check it out. Bell offers lean, well-researched cuts of delicious insight on how to be a better writer. I serve up heaping slabs of snark with a side of sarcasm gravy. I am the Fuddrucker’s to his Morton’s Steakhouse. So pull up a chair, stick your napkin into your collar like some kind of animal, and prepare to chow down!
As this post might imply, I recently watched Superman III. Yes, on purpose. Now, I know what you must be thinking: why? The truth is — heresy alert — I prefer the campy idiocy of Richard Lester’s film to the bloated, galumphing Donner films (that would be I and II). I realize that among comic geeks, this admission places me in good company with Stalin and Pol Pot, but that’s a cross I’m willing to bear rather than sit through the original Superman again.
Not that Superman III is actually any good. In fact, it’s terrible. (This is just the kind of blistering insight you keep coming back for.) It has writing lessons to offer, but nearly all of them are outstanding examples of What Not to Do. And while I realize that bagging on Superman III for being crappy is like calling out Milli Vanilli for lip-synching at this point — it’s basically taking the low career point of a bunch of people who are now mostly dead and saying “hey, mostly dead people, your past work sure did suck!” It also dates me rather badly, but that’s inevitable at this point. Y’damn kids!
But, being wildly unfair and obvious never stopped me before, so let’s get started, won’t we?
Not one to keep the audience waiting, Richard Lester chose to disappoint everyone right away by starting Superman III with a bunch of slapstick. You know, mimes, flaming penguins, people getting hit with pies — basically an all-star lineup of unfunny sight gags. You think I’m making that flaming penguin thing up, don’t you? Nope. Now, I didn’t love Superman Returns by any means, but at least that movie had a good sense of how to begin — with a high-speed flight from Krypton to Earth.
The lesson here being, don’t start your story with something that sets entirely the wrong tone.
Gus Gorman, The Funniest Murderer-Genius
Last week, when I was asking around for blog post recommendations on Twitter, the inimitable Angel King (@KingsElementals) recommended I do a piece on schizophrenic characters and how to avoid them. Cool, well, here’s my quick guide.
1) Watch Superman III.
2) Observe the actions of Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor)
2) DO THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYTHING THAT WRITER DID.
I hope you appreciate all the hard work I’ve put into this tutorial.
But seriously, Gus Gorman is a terrible character in almost every sense of the word. He’s funny (if you consider Richard Pryor funny), but he makes no sense at all. We first see Gus as an unemployed nincompoop who can’t even hold down a job mopping floors. Then, in the space of a few minutes, he becomes a sort of computer savant who manages to program computers without knowing anything about them. Since computers in movies are magic (see below), his genius is established by him typing things into a terminal in plain English like “DO AMAZING UNBELIEVABLE STUFF.” And then the computer does it. Damn, that Gus Gorman is brilliant!
Now, I can forgive that, because the movie itself is so goofy and clearly doesn’t give a tinker’s damn for verisimilitude. What I can’t abide is Gorman casually trying to assassinate Superman halfway through the movie by synthesizing Kryptonite. Gorman makes a big green chunk of Kryptonite, walks right up to Superman, and hands it to him. When Superman doesn’t die, he calls his boss in mild bewilderment. SUPERMAN, Y U NO DIE?
Now, the story has already established Gorman as an unsuccessful janitor, so it’s not really a surprise that he should also be an unsuccessful assassin of superheroes. But then, in the third reel, Gorman goes berserk when the super-computer he designed — which was built specifically to try to kill Superman — attempts to kill Superman. Gorman takes an axe to his own creation, crying out “stop it, you’re killing him!” Um, yeah, a-hole, maybe because you designed it to? That’s been your whole arc. And what leads him to change his mind and give up his dream of super-homicide? Nothing, really.
This is Crap Characterization 101. Gorman has one motivation through most of the movie, then changes his mind for no reason other than the story calls for it. A good character has clear goals and sticks with them unless some important catalyst turns him from his chosen path. Protip, “because it screws up my story otherwise” is not a valid catalyst.
Computers “R” Magic
I don’t expect much from Hollywood computers. Actually, scratch that — I do expect almost everything from Hollywood computers, and that’s pretty much the problem. Hollywood computers are wizards. The Eighties loved pulling this kind of crap — WarGames being a prime (although entertaining) example.
My favorite part of Superman III (aside from the “Shoot Superman With Rockets” video game built into the defense system, complete with Atari 2600 Pac-Man sound effects) is the bit in the middle where Lex Luthor Lite (Robert Vaughn) tells Gus Gorman that since weather satellites can predict the weather, it should be a simple matter to make the weather satellites change the weather. And then Gus agrees, and then that’s what they do.
I’m sure there’s a great story to be wrestled out of the conceit of surveillance equipment being able to directly manipulate the things it observes. Since parking garage security cameras can watch you park their car, it should be a simple matter to make them drive cars themselves! Watch for my upcoming screenplay, P2 II: Killer Kameras, starring Rachel Nichols’ ample cleavage against a murderous cadre of Prius-driving electronics.
Granted, the lesson here is a tad feeble, perhaps something like “please do basic research and do not make your Commodore 64 into an omnipotent sorcerer.” Unless your story is about a Commodore 64 which is actually an omnipotent sorcerer. That plays Archon. Against itself. And is patched into NORAD somehow. And then tries to checkmate… the world! HOW ABOUT A NICE GAME OF CHESS?
Plot Sagging? Just Add Kids! Better Yet, Don’t
I don’t have much against cute kids in movies. I recognize them as something of a necessary evil. No superhero ever scored big points with audiences by saving asthmatic octegenarians from runaway wheat threshers. But there are limits to my patience, and the “cute” kid in Superman III scampers right past those limits and triumphantly spikes the ball in the End Zone of Annoyance.
For a cute kid to work in a story, he shouldn’t be completely worthless. By which I mean, he should be able to go five minutes without breaking something expensive or wandering obliviously into an obvious deathtrap. The kid in Superman III, Ricky, is pretty much without redeeming virtues. He’s a terrible bowler. He lies to his friends about Superman showing up for his birthday party, then sulks when his birthday party is turned into a town-wide parade. Lana Lang takes her eyes off him for five minutes and he runs directly into the path of running farm machinery, nearly getting himself violently hay-baled and forcing Clark Kent to break cover in the middle of his nice picnic. Great, now his feast of unlabeled dog food is ruined.
Later, Ricky knocks over a bunch of stuff and then goads Evil Superman into a murderous frenzy with a torrent of high-pitched whining, which is arguably the only positive act he commits in his fictional lifetime. Does Ricky learn anything from this? Does he even show signs of rudimentary sentience? No. He continues to be a clumsy imbecile until the final moments of the film.
I could probably write an entire post called “Unlikeable Characters: That Little Bastard Ricky From &%^$! Superman III“, because Ricky is a great example of how to write a character no one will empathize with. In general, the point of a “cute kid” archetype is to either amuse or garner sympathy when they’re endangered somehow. If your audience is praying aloud for their violent dismemberment by the time they get to the “endangered” part, you’ve blown it.
One Good Character, One Outstanding Moment
So we’ve firmly established by this time that Superman III does plenty of things wrong. There are, however, a couple things it does awesomely right — much as it pains me to admit it.
First, the character of Lorelei, the bubble-headed, poodle-haired arm-candy of Lex Luthor Lite. She’s flighty. She’s dopey. She’s dumber than a bag of hammers — except that she isn’t. Where Gus Gorman is presented as a hapless dolt who is somehow a genius (just take the film’s word for it and don’t ask questions), Lorelei actually is a genius pretending to be a hapless dolt. We discover this through a couple key moments of dialogue, where the story reveals that Lorelei’s brain-dead blonde act is just that — an act — without hanging a lantern on it. The movie doesn’t do as much with this concept as it could, but it’s still a nice touch, and for me, one of the only genuinely funny things in the movie. (Which is still not very funny, but it’s better than the concentrated, Neil Hamburgerian anti-humor of, say, the opening credits.)
Last but not least, I’m going to talk about the movie’s crowning moment: the junkyard fight between Superman and Evil Superman. I won’t lie — this sequence is awesome from beginning to end. It’s Superman kicking his own ass. It’s Superman calling himself names and tossing himself into a car-crusher. Why wasn’t the whole movie like this? I mean it. Why isn’t the entire movie made up of the junkyard fight? Ninety minutes of Superman clouting himself in the face. I’d watch it. Of course, I watched the movie as-is, too, so we’ve established my standards aren’t high.
My favorite moment in this sequence comes early on, when Evil Superman lands in the middle of the wrecking yard and starts screaming in agony as the employees look on. Does anybody try to help him? No. They clear out at top speed, because they have the good sense to know that when Superman shows up at your workplace shrieking like a banshee, you better clear the hell out.
What I love most about this scene is its simplicity. We don’t get any Zack Snyder-style slow-mos with gravelly voice-over explaining why this battle is important, or its psychological implications. There’s no monologue. Clark Kent just chokes his alter ego to death and then goes back to taking care of business. The way it ought to be.
Howard Hawks once said that to make a good movie, all you needed was “three good scenes, and no bad ones.” Well, Superman III has bad scenes falling out its wazoo, and I’d argue that the junkyard fight is the only good scene in the whole flick, aside from the supercomputer turning Lex Luthor Lite’s hag of a sister into a killer cyborg for twelve seconds. An audience will forgive a lot if you give them one spectacular, memorable sequence.