Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Re-Imagine Your Expectations; Or Godzilla and back again

By Jay Stringer

I have a few different ideas I want to talk about today. I'm not sure that they weave together into a coherent post, but we'll find out together.

It all starts with Godzilla. And there be mild spoilers here.

I finally watched the film at the weekend. I had a lot of fun with it. It's not a perfect movie, there are things that can be nitpicked and really it takes too long to show us the big G -for a while it treats Godzilla like the shark in Jaws, whereas really G is the hero- and it gives us a little too much of a human story that we don't really care about past the first 40 minutes. There are a few times when it has an identity crisis about whether to go all-out as a Godzilla film, or to try and be something else. But it's well directed, tells it's story, and doesn't lose sight of the end.

I went in wanting a modern take on a proper old-school Godzilla movie, and I got it. You know the ones? A cheesy but cool film where some monsters turn up (from the past, or from outer space, or from monster island, or whatever) and start destroying things, and then Godzilla turns up like the grumpy hero that he/she/it is, and saves the day.

Reaction among my friends has been split 50/50. Half got a kick out of it the same way I did. The other half hated it. And here's where I get to the first point I want to talk about; expectation.

I've learned since getting published that audience expectation can be as decisive as the quality of the work itself. For Godzilla, the friends who hated the film are the ones who didn't really go in wanting an old-school Godzilla movie. Many of them have never seen one. What they wanted was what the trailers seemed to promise; a tense and scary epic film starring Bryan Cranston and a monster. I can completely understand why people would get that impression from the trailers, but in truth that film is not a Godzilla film. (You could make an argument that the U.S. edit of the very first film in 1954 could be remade that way, but that's not the film we're getting here) The Cranston portion of the film is really only there as exposition. It's set up. A way of easing a modern audience into the cheesier, looser, Godzilla film that follows.

I went into the film thinking, the trailers looked cool, but they didn't really look like a Godzilla film. Some friends went in thinking, those trailers look cool, I want to see that.  I walked out happy, they walked out angry. I'd argue that, to a large extent, the actual quality of the film was a smaller part in that outcome than our expectations.

I've learned that there are some readers who simply won't like my books. Maybe they're the readers who don't like swearing, or they like long action sequences, or they want clean resolutions and clear morals. Maybe they're the readers who go into books with a world-view that is different to mine, or they go in with an assumption of what my world view is.

And I also learned; that's fine. There are plenty of books out there for those readers, and I will write plenty of books that aren't for those readers, and there's more than enough room for both of those to be okay. But I try as much as I can to let those readers know up front. I'm vocal in some of my views online, I talk about things that are key to the books, and I embrace bad reviews, because they help to show some readers that I'm not for them. In a perfect world, every reader on the planet would buy and embrace what I write and I'd be able to earn a living doing it. In the real world, I feel bad at the thought that some readers who are really not looking for the kinds of books I write, may end up committing hours or weeks to reading my books and not enjoying themselves.

I recently tried watching Game Of Thrones. I stopped somewhere in the middle of season two. I can't recall exactly where. I have no real drive to go back and continue. Thing is, I don't blame the show for it. It's well made. There's a lot of hard work and passion gone into it, and I can see why so many of my friends love it. It's simply not for me, and that's not really the fault of the material.

Expectation is a buzz kill. Expectation can kill your enjoyment of something far sooner than the quality of the work. A story, a really good story, can take it's whole running time to get it's point across. It can take until the final act to really pull it's trick and show you the brilliant idea that it's been hiding away. But you know very early on whether it's the kind of story you wanted it to be. And that can make or break your experience.

Bringing this back to Godzilla, there's another idea I want to talk about. The idea of "re-imagining" something. One of my friends who didn't like the film said that he knew what an old-school Godzilla film was, but that he'd hoped this new film was a re-imagining of Godzilla. If you want a re-imagining of Godzilla, go watch Cloverfield or Pacific Rim. Both do that job in different ways.

I think we've let this concept run away with us. We rarely really want something to be re-imagined. We want something to be captured, to be distilled. If we're going to see an adaption, or a reboot, or a sequel, what we want is a story that gets what is good about the character. Re-imagining something has become a byword for "making needless changes." At this point, my friend pointed to the Chris Nolan Batman films as proof that re-imagining is whats needed, but here, I'm convinced, is actually proof of what I'm arguing.

If your only concept of Batman is what you've seen on the screen, then I can understand it's easy to get the idea that Chris Nolan came along and did something completely new. He re-imagined the hell out of it, if "it" is limited to Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney all looking stupid. But if you've read the comics, you know that what Nolan did was to distill. He captured ideas, tones and images that already had a proven track record on the page, and he fashioned them into two very good films. He simply understood the concept in a way that the previous filmmakers hadn't. He understood what worked on the page, and found a way to express that on the screen.

When he did decide to re-imagine was with the third film. And that was an unholy mess that simply failed to understand the character of Bruce Wayne, that actually failed to understand the character they had set up so well in the previous two films.

The Marvel movies have been working (mostly) because they get the characters and they bring them to the screen. They're not making pointless changes. Whereas DC/Warner Bros are now trying to turn every character in their stable into a version of The Dark Knight, Marvel are saying, Captain America is a noble boy scout, Iron Man is a bit of a dick, and hey, here's a talking raccoon from space with a machine gun.

Contrast that with Man Of Steel, in which they decided to re-imagine the character. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen.

Love or hate Superman, there are certain things that the character is about. He's a hero because of Ma and Pa Kent, not because he has super powers. The powers should make him a tyrant. A dictator. A God. He's not a spoiled billionaire like Bruce Wayne, who can afford to be whatever he wants. He's not a bullied geek like Peter Parker, who suddenly becomes more powerful than the bullies.
He's a farm boy who wants a quiet life. What makes him Superman is that he had normal, decent, parents who instilled ethics and responsibility in him.

Kevin Costner in Man Of Steel should be the most important figure in the film. He should be the father figure who says to Clark, you can do great things. When that tornado hits in the movie, the real Jonathan Kent would be saying, now is your time, you can save EVERYONE. Instead Costner spends the whole film telling Clark to hide, to not be special, to not stand out. He's a scared coward of a father, and as a result there's no real reason for Clark to be a hero. And, if you've seen the film, you'll see that he isn't. He leaves Pa Kent to die. He levels an entire city. He wanders the globe listening to moody music and being broody, because the filmmakers decided to take a selfless and inspirational figure like Superman and re-imagine him as a self-centred coward.

Don't re-imagine. Capture. Distill.


Gerald So said...

One reason popular characters stay popular is they are re-invented from generation to generation. They start with classic character traits, but each new set of writers tries to show those traits in ways that resonate with the audience for whom they are writing.

I understand why MAN OF STEEL didn't work for you, but it did for me. From my perspective, Jonathan Kent was doing his best to raise an alien child. The only way he knew to do that was to raise him as a human. Yes, he tried to hide things about Clark that would cause the other kids and townsfolk to alienate him, but somewhere along the line, Clark still learned to respect Earth life to the point of defending it against annihilation.

I like that Clark went on a journey of self-discovery. It's true Jonathan held him back when the tornado hit, but that may have obscured the idea that Clark wasn't ready to be a hero yet, that he needed to learn how and where to best use his abilities.

John McFetridge said...

“... it treats Godzilla like the shark in Jaws.”

This is a good point and it’s why my expectations were a buzz-kill.
Because Jaws is a really good movie about the tensions and conflicts between the people of a small town in 70s America that may actually be a metaphor for much bigger conflicts going on at the time. It presents the characters and their issues as complicated with no easy answers. The mayor is the “bad guy” but he’s the only one who doesn’t want to cut open the shark and have, “The Kittridge boy spill out all over the dock.” And he later changes his mind. Lots of people in town don’t want to close the beaches. They argue with each other.

Then they have to make a deal with a guy they don’t like to go and slaughter something that not everyone even agrees is a threat.

People tell me I’m reading too much into Jaws, but it really hit a nerve that a so-so movie about a shark had no business hitting. So, I think all the subtext was intentional. I think the story about delivering the bomb is in there for a reason.

But we don’t expect our summer blockbusters to have anything to say anymore.

Although I thought Godzilla did a nice job with the nuclear bomb stuff.

Steve Weddle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Stringer said...

Gerald; thing is, I disagree over the reinvention. The times these things really work do not involve reinventing the character. They involve getting to the heart of what works about the character and then presenting it to a new audience. The times when people decide to reinvent or 'fix' a character are where they fail.

For all those reasons, while Man Of Steel certainly has enough action to pass as a bombastic action movie experience, Superman and Clark Kent never appear on screen.

If Snyder doesn't think Superman can work in the modern day, he shouldn't make a Superman movie, he should make something new. But WB wants the brand recognition to get bums on seats, so they use the name and the iconography.

Brands, which brings me to...

John; completely agree with your take on JAWS. Though I'd add in the more-on-the-nose stuff about the shark being a reminder of all that we don't control.

JAWS will be remade at some point, and it will totally lack the subtext you've mentioned, because it's not going to be the priority; it'll be the brand name they care about.

The need to repackage and sell a brand every few years means Hollywood don't want, as you say, their films to be about anything. Which robs so many of them of any lasting power.

I wonder how much is also down to the film makers simply not knowing how to do it. There are clearly messages in Godzilla -the reminder that the world can put us in our place at any time (timely, with the planes and boats that have been going missing aswell as climate change) and that we should work WITH nature rather than against it- but there's no confidence to simply let the subtext do it's job, instead films have to have a serious-voiced professor to get a monologue telling us all the things that a better storyteller wouldn't need to say.

Gerald So said...

I think we agree on the concept, Jay. We just don't agree that it worked in MAN OF STEEL. I saw enough of what I think is essential to Clark Kent/Superman; you didn't.

Steve Weddle said...

Changing things up is great.

I liked Azrael as the new Batman and Ben Reilly as the new SpiderMan. Sorry they let those go.

Kristi said...

I read something recently and it said flat out "People will not like your book."
On the cusp of having my debut mystery come out, I'm reminding myself of this -- you can't take it personally.

Stringer Belle said...

Kristi, my view is that if everybody likes your book you are doing it wrong. The best art gets people worked up one way or the other. Looking forward to reading your debut mystery.

I LOVED the human story in Godzilla. I hadn't watched the trailers because DON'T CARE so my expectations were basically... Jason and the Argonauts? Or whatever that cheesy shit with the plastic monsters and no actual plot that you watch is? The film certainly exceeded those.

As for Man of Steel, well, even my brother hated THAT tedious piece of crap.