I’ve been carrying around an idea for a feature for a long time – it’s a superhero comedy of remarriage, a/k/a “what the world needs now.” With my writing partner on vacation, I thought the dog days would be great to dive in and start drafting. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been able to suss out its bones. The hours I’ve devoted to it have put me in touch with a lot of the characters in very useful ways, but mostly I’ve been too daunted by the next level of detail – the outline – to even keep myself in the chair working.
I watched Kick-Ass last week (Big Josh: it doesn’t suck), but left it out of my Monday Movies gig because I was short on time and I had this exercise in mind. A screenwriter’s “beat sheet” is a list of significant moments – less detail than a list of scenes, more detail than three-act structure. I’ve been in screenwriting classes where we were asked to do ten-point beat sheets. Screenwriter Blake Snyder, known for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot but better known for his screenwriting manual Save The Cat!, compiled a fifteen-point beat sheet, believing that the exact same beats should fall not only in the same order but arriving at roughly predictable page numbers of a screenplay. (For better or worse, his work has moved from observation to prescription.)
Below the fold, I’ll read the Kick-Ass screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (downloadable via Simply Scripts) and see how it matches up to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a/k/a the BS2. Each beat says what page Snyder believes you should find it on in parentheses next to it, and I’ll indicate in my discussion where it actually falls. The rule of thumb for translating screenplay pages to screen minutes is 1 page = 1 minute and I’ll indicate how far apart the film and the screenplay get.
(I’m not going on record saying that this or all movies should follow the BS2 exactly — I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons of Scott Myers’s Narrative Throughline and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as well, both of which could be used to look at the structure of this and many other movies. I have not been trying to internalize this horse pill. Also if you have my copy of The Writer’s Journey I’d like it back.)
Back when he crapped all over comic book movies Josh K-Sky and (and I, in the comments) neglected to mention A History of Violence, David Cronenberg’s brooding gangster film. I only recently got around to reading the graphic novel by John Wagner (recently reissued by Vertigo), and it’s one of many examples of what was apparently once called Bluestone’s Law (after pioneering film critic George Bluestone): only bad books make good movies; good books make bad movies.
In general, Bluestone’s Law as I understand it secondhand is based on the idea that deviation from the original is more respected when the original is not beloved. We’ve largely gotten past that whole problem of “deviation” when it comes to novels, but we haven’t with comics, and I think it might be instructive to consider why.
Most people, I think, still see comics and movies as really pretty similar. Comics are the closest one can get to a movie on the page, goes the subconscious expectation. Both tell stories with dialogue supported by visual depictions of action, and comic book authors have adopted many visual storytelling tricks from movies. Comic book scripts and movie scripts even look a lot alike, and many TV screenwriters have dabbled in comic book writing.
The fact that their comics have not generally been very good should give a hint, though, that the visual support to dialogue works pretty differently in movies and in comics.
Art in comics must be very simple. It has to convey an action in a space maybe two inches tall by two inches wide. Artists will pack only as much into those small spaces as can be intelligible.
But within those limitations it can be extremely evocative. It activates the imagination when done well, leading us right into the “vivid and continuous dream” that John Gardner names as the action of all good fiction. We see movement and emotion in our heads.
Because that movement and emotion is linked to specific visual cues, however, we believe mistakenly that it’s all there on the page. Beloved comics get transferred to the screen by directors who want nothing more than to reproduce what everyone loved so much in print, and they sit there, visually dead.
When comics do work on the big screen it’s usually because directors find ways to make them look great there. Vince Locke’s art in A History of Violence the book is forgettable, so Cronenberg was free to go his own way. Harvey Pekar works with different artists in every story, so Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini were similarly free in American Splendor.
Which brings me to James Gunn’s Super, just out on DVD, and its contrast with last year’s Kick-Ass. Like Kick-Ass, Super is based on the idea of an ordinary guy dressing up as a superhero.* Unlike Kick-Ass it was not preceded by a comic, and when I try to imagine it as a comic I can’t see it translating well.
Rainn Wilson plays The Crimson Bolt, aka Frank D’Arbo, a guy who finds himself adrift when his wife abandons him and returns to heroin. A vision from God and some late-night Christian superhero TV convince him to become a costumed hero, and when he visits a comic book store to do research on heroes without superpowers he accidentally picks up Ellen Page as a sidekick, Boltie. Because he doesn’t have powers he settles on hitting his villains with a wrench. Or shooting them when necessary.
All the way to the bloody climax Gunn rides the line between comedy and despair. He lets the actors play their roles with absolute seriousness, and doesn’t ever try to undercut how messed-up and deluded Frank is supposed to be. He and Boltie are crazy people, and when he bashes a guy in the head for cutting in line at the movies, it’s appropriately horrifying.
In the same moment, though, the violence is undercut by a slapstick visual tone. Not Three Stooges slapstick where the violence doesn’t hurt, Troma slapstick, where the gore is extreme and doesn’t feel quite real.
That specific tone simply wouldn’t work in a comic. I’ve tried to imagine some of the most arresting images in Super as comic panels, and I think they’d either be unleavened horror, or else that nasty, mean-spirited visual slapstick that characterizes most of Mark Millar’s work (including Kick-Ass) and Garth Ennis titles like Crossed. There simply isn’t enough space in a panel for most artists to enact that uncomfortable middle ground where Super lives. All of which means that while Super may be a far better movie than Kick-Ass, I’m not sure it’d be half as good a comic.
*It’s weird that in neither of these movies do the protagonists bother to learn about the Real-Life Superhero movement. The Kick-Ass 2 comic book series offers something along these lines, but in this day and age it’s hard to fathom anyone doing non-Internet-based research, as Rainn Wilson’s character does in Super, and when they did wouldn’t they immediately stumble on the RLS phenomenon? Plus both movies assume RLS’s would be vigilantes, whereas in truth they seem to be motivated more by an endearing concept of heroism. Less crimefighting, more soup-kitchen fundraising.
A few months ago I complained about how the Kick-Ass storyline turned out and worried about the movie getting screwed up by following the comic too closely. Tonight I went and saw it and it was surprisingly good, even though it’s one of the more faithful comic-book adaptations I’ve ever seen. It did a much better job than the comic of setting expectations early and letting us know exactly what kind of story we were in for. It also did a little bit more with the idea of trying to dress up and be heroic without superpowers.
The action choreography and direction were particularly strong. As one of the people I went with pointed out, the action speeds up and slows down, Matrix-style, in a way that’s deliberately reminiscent of the way comic book action moves across panels. We see blurs punctuated by frozen frames, and it works.
A few words of warning. First, it’s gory. (I overheard one moviegoer say on the way out of the theater: “That was more violent than Quentin Tarantino.”) Second, it’s just an action movie. Don’t go in there expecting anything more.
That said, pace K-sky, it doesn’t suck.
The last issue of the first Kick-Ass story arc just came out, and since the movie release is only three months away, it’s worth looking back over the book’s first two years (yes, only eight issues in almost two years) to try to figure out why this story I loved so much at first went off the rails.
The premise was fantastic: a nerdy kid with no training or special abilities decides to put on a costume and go out and fight crime. In his first real altercation he foils a mugging, taking on three guys at once. He also gets beaten so badly he ends up in the hospital. But someone records the fight on a cell phone, uploads it to YouTube, and Kick-Ass the superhero becomes a national sensation. Of course in his secret-identity life, in which he still goes to high school with his costume on under his clothes, he’s busy pretending to be gay so that girls will deign to talk to him.
I thought this would be a story that took the desire to be special seriously, and let the kid be special in a real way, in a real world. (See, for example, the true story of Master Legend, a guy who lives in Orlando, dresses up in a superhero costume, and goes out to fight crime. He also rustles up donations of supplies for the homeless, launches a campaign to educate them about a staph epidemic, and helps force the state government to relocate endangered gopher tortoises out of the path of a freeway. He is simultaneously ludicrous and, in a deep sense, a hero.)
But instead Mark Millar ended up using his fake superhero as a backdoor into a plot involving real superheroes, a Punisher-type character and his ninja ten-year-old daughter. As soon as they made their entrance the tone shifted and we got several straight issues of slapstick violence, culminating in this issue 8 bloodbath. (There’s an onomatopoetic joke involving shooting a guy’s penis off and then splitting his head with a cleaver, for instance.) Maybe I should have known Millar’s intentions didn’t lie in the direction I wanted from the tag line on the cover of issue 2: “Sickening Violence…Just The Way You Like It!”
From the previews it looks like Kick-Ass the movie follows the comic’s storyline pretty closely. For once I wish the screenwriters who wrote the adaptation had decided to diverge more. I don’t think Mark Millar would have cared—Wanted the movie had only the vaguest of resemblances to Wanted the comic book.