Okay. These past few years, I’ve set out to become a dedicated storyteller. In doing that, I’ve started to look at prose books, comics, and movies/tv shows in a new way. Part audience/Part practitioner.
Just as background: my tastes run towards what you would call classical story-telling. Good ‘n Evil, Character Arcs, Subtexts, good conflict, high-concept metaphors where I can find them, and resolution. Like that.
So, what happens? Well, these days, like some sort of fiction-sniffing hound, I find myself looking for what the shows aren’t doing as much as I am for what they are; this is especially true if they aren’t landing for me. It almost always comes down to a lack of storytelling. When that happens, I ask: What crutch are they using, rather than just telling the story?
Just to kick things off, here are a couple of my most despised Storytelling Avoidance Mechanisms (StAMs).
StAM One – Grimdark.
Look, I saw Chernobyl Diaries at a hotel. I was super-excited by the trailer. The opening premise was good. The characters were introduced nicely— aaaand then?
Well, then the characters were all methodically slaughtered, one-by-one. Except for one, who was captured by unknown figures, and then killed, for reasons that are never explained. Roll credits.
The core messages of grimdark stories are: people are bad and there’s no point to anything. But, this nihilism isn’t presented as a Kafka-esque, Paul Tillich-worthy rumination, wherein we explore our spirituality in the face of existential dread at the universe’s meaninglessness. No, mostly, it’s presented by killing everyone with a maximum amount of gore.
Now, before someone tries to paint me as a mamby-pamby, I would hasten to mention that I started reading Stephen R. Donaldson’s First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant when I was about nine—including the protagonist’s rape scene—that is, the protagonist was the rapist. (Yes, you read that right). And, for sheer grimness, I defy anyone to show me an author who matches Donaldson’s work in the Second or Last Chronicles of same. So, I’m not necessarily turned away by dark themes.
But, even still, through all of that darkness and despair (and there’s plenty), ultimately, those books are (believe it or not) stories about redemption. Even for Covenant.
This is all to say: you can have grimdarkery and still tell a story.
StAM Two – WIBCIs (pronounced “Wib-Keys”)
WIBCI stands for “Wouldn’t it be COOL if?” Most modern comic crossover events (Justice League: Endless Winter and Dawn of X being notable recent exceptions) follow this pattern. The plot, such as it is, is basically whatever thin construct is needed upon which to hang the big action set pieces. The question Wouldn’t if be cool if heroes fought other heroes? begat Secret Wars, for example.
This is also a handy way to figure out why the DC movie universe doesn’t work, especially as compared to the MCU. If you just read the final script for Marvel’s The Avengers, I am willing to bet that you’d have an amazing, enjoyable read. Joss Whedon’s character interactions alone are worth the price of admission.
Now, were we to read a transcript of the final script filmed in Batman v. Superman? Or Justice League? I mean, would they even be coherent, internally? Would the stated motivations of the characters actually propel scene 1 to logically lead to scene 2, and so forth? Often, the answer would be ‘no’.
And the most offensive superhero WIBCI of all is when they combine it with StAM1 and betray the essence of the character, entirely: Wouldn’t it be cool if Batman became a cold-blooded killer? Oh! Oh! And, and, wouldn’t it be cool if he did that killing with a BIG GUN? Yeah! Awesome!
Wait— what about Superman? He can be a killer, too, natch; but, hey! Hey, what if we make him a selfish, mopey asswipe? (And that, kids, is how you get Man of Steel.)
This, of course, just makes me angry, and a bit sad for the young fans who’ll never get to know these characters for what they really were intended to be.
Look, I get it. You want to make your mark as a creator? Well, we have these StAMs here…so, Bingo! Let’s make the heroes act like villains! And they have the fight each other! Wouldn’t that be cool? says the objectivist.
But—for me, at least—it’s a little bit like when a singer is supposed to sing the National Anthem, and they try to ‘make it their own’. Sigh. Just sing the song.
Seriously, you can add your flourishes, sure. But sing the damn song.
After all, I’m pretty sure it works.
It even tells a story. If you step out of the way and let it.