“The Defenders” Review

I’ve watched each Netflix Marvel series as it was released, all the way from Daredevil’s season one. I stand with the majority opinion on all of them: both seasons of Daredevil were awesome, Jessica Jones disappointed, The first half of Luke Cage was outstanding (and the second half was lackluster), and Iron Fist was a DISASTER.

 

To say I started The Defenders with mixed expectations is an understatement. And the series provided more or less what I expected (with a few big exceptions that I’ll tackle in the spoiler section).

 

First, the good. The team-up does service to each character individually. Some people say that the first couple of episodes were slow, but I found them interesting because they did a great job showing how each hero got involved in the central conflict. Each character brings their baggage into the group. Some are reluctant to join up; others outright refuse.

 

The dynamics between each set of heroes is treated differently, and the best part of the series to me was watching them pair up in different ways and what happens when they do. It even hints in places why each character needs the others in their life, something that the Avengers doesn’t really do.

 

Charlie Cox is by far the best part of the show. He gives the best performance in whatever scene he’s in. It’s as if he’s never stopped being Matt Murdock. This is a performance that should continue forever, that should win awards.

 

Sigourney Weaver does a great job. Some of her small expressions speak volumes; as I watch her, I continually wonder why she’s not all over the place in Hollywood and on TV.

 

A lot of characters from each individual series return. They don’t hesitate to give these characters important parts in the plot, significant character development, or sometimes gruesome deaths.

 

Most of the action is decent. Nowhere near Daredevil’s perfection, but not as sloppy as Iron Fist.

 

Now the bad.

 

The basic plot is decent, but it’s executed lazily. A mystery that’s hinted at for so long that by the time the reveal happens, we don’t care. The threat to the city is vague for most of the series, which makes the driving tension sputter. Characters are sometimes driven by the needs of the plot rather than internal motivations. Some of the lazy writing in the last couple of episodes made my jaw drop.

 

It’s very easy to split the show up into “These two episodes are about this, and these two are about that, and…”, which goes back to a lack of complexity in the writing.

 

While most of the action was competent, a couple of fights had so much shaky-cam and quick-cuts I couldn’t tell what was happening.

 

Finn Jones has improved a bit since Iron Fist, but that’s not saying much. He still spends much of the series reminding me of Mr. Furious from Mystery Men.

 

And last, it feels like we’ve moved completely into a comic book universe. Similar to Gotham, whose first season felt like a crime procedural with the occasional supervillain, and the second felt like a comic book show from Gordon’s perspective. (Or similar to the second half of Luke Cage, which transitioned from a gritty crime drama to a comic book show.) It loses something unique to the Netflix Marvel shows in the process.

 

The Defenders is worth watching for anybody who’s into the Netflix Marvel shows. It falls solidly beneath the Daredevil seasons in quality. If you’re not already into these shows, I’d suggest you start with Daredevil, which remains some of the best “television” I’ve ever seen.

 

SPOILERS BELOW!

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The MAIN main problem, since we’re talking spoilers, is that the entire series is about the Iron Fist being a liability. If he had made a strong showing in his own series, this wouldn’t be a problem. As it is, this takes an already-annoying character and forces us to ask why they want him in their group. Which we should NOT be asking about a character whose main purpose is fighting the villains they’re currently dealing with! I’m not saying that I agreed with Stick’s idea… (though I was surprised that option three hadn’t occurred to anyone else before then?)

 

I did love Luke Cage smacking Danny down about his privilege. It ultimately doesn’t come back up after that episode, but exploring those themes would make Iron Fist more interesting.

 

Elektra had nice character progression throughout much of the series–even if amnesia as a plot device needs to burn in a fire. But then she makes the heel-turn, from Dragon to Big Bad. Uh, writers? You know the difference between a twist and a slap in the face, right? Ask Shyamalan if you’re confused. You need to hint at this. You presented “she’s struggling over what the moral choice is”, when you needed to bring back “she likes killing, and that’s scary”.

 

And then–THEN! Daredevil trying to convince Elektra. Three problems with that. One, you’ve shown her radical descent into mustache-twirling villainy. We don’t care anymore. Two, he struggled with this for a whole season before, and has had eight more episodes to deal with this. WE DON’T CARE ANYMORE. And Three, you’ve established that anyone at the bottom of that hole is dead when the bombs go off. So who cares whether he convinces her? They’re both dead literally within moments. He’s dying for literally no reason.

 

Oh, and then Daredevil surviving? When next we see him, I expect Doctor Strange-level magic at work. And I still call shenanigans. Plus, it adds to the “pointless” part from above.

 

Lastly, all the legal troubles go away. I understand they wanted A) the Hand still exists and wants to cover up what really happened, or B) Hogarth is just THAT good. But here’s the thing: DESTRUCTION OF POLICE PROPERTY. OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE. Let’s leave out DOMESTIC TERRORISM, because the only person who knows for a fact that they’re the ones that planted the bombs (Misty Knight) is on their side now. Still, that’s what, 15 years worth of felonies that there’s hard evidence for? And kidnapping, since Matt isn’t going to show up to take responsibility for his part. You don’t sell “Wow, it went away! That’s weird/creepy/ominous” well enough for it to feel like something other than lazy writing.

 

The Diner: Post Ten (Scene Two)

(I just noticed that my blog hates the screenplay formatting I’ve been doing. I’ve already been manually re-aligning dialogue to center. I’ll see if I can work out the rest of the issues by the next post.)

This second scene needs to give us a much deeper, more nuanced look at Liam. It has to strike a balance between hinting at his past, showing some of his home life, and reinforcing his work. I’m introducing his wife here, and hopefully making the audience like and care about her in just a few minutes.

It also has to bridge the gap between his work and the diner, so that as the scene ends, we’re about ready to start the main part of the screenplay. And it can’t clock in at much over five minutes.

Let’s see how I do!

————————————–

INT. OUTPATIENT REHAB, FRONT DESK – DAY

A small, welcoming front office, empty of patients for the lunch hour. BIANCA, a receptionist in her mid-twenties, sits behind the desk, reading a book. Liam enters from a door leading to the patient rooms.

LIAM

Ted make it out ok?

BIANCA

Yeah. His son picked him up. He was growling the whole time that you made him walk the bars twice.

LIAM

Sounds like him. What did his son say?

BIANCA

That you should have made him walk them ten times.

LIAM

So I’m not going to get sued for doing my job too well.

BIANCA

That’s usually what people get sued for, but not this time. You got lucky. Just try to be a bit less awesome next time.

LIAM

I’ll try!

 

Liam checks the time on his phone. C.U. on phone shows 11:49.

 

LIAM

My next appointment isn’t until like 1:30?

BIANCA

Taking a long lunch?

LIAM

You know how it is. Make a few calls, have a smoke, have a drink. Suddenly the whole lunch hour is gone!

BIANCA

You don’t smoke.

LIAM

I might.

BIANCA

And you don’t drink.

 

Liam’s phone rings, and he checks it. C.U. reveals a picture of a smiling woman in her mid-thirties and the name PAIGE.

 

LIAM

And I don’t talk on the phone?

 

With a laugh, Liam turns to leave, answering the phone.

 

BIANCA (O.S)

Tell her I said hi!

Liam waves bye, raising his phone as he steps out…

 

EXT. DOWNTOWN CITY STREET – DAY

 

…onto a crowded sidewalk. A lot of traffic, tall buildings, one-way streets. It could be any U.S. city. Liam starts walking as if he’s traveled the route a thousand times. Several times along the way, we see flashes of someone in a blue jacket in the background.

 

LIAM

Bianca says hi.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Hi, back! You out to lunch yet?

LIAM

Yeah. She’ll have to wait to get her ‘hi, back’. How’s your day, gorgeous?

PAIGE (V.O.)

Pretty good. Today was the Skype conference. So of course, Colin got bored with his cartoon time–

LIAM

Bored? With cartoons?

PAIGE (V.O.)

That’s what I thought! And he decided to come over and see what Mommy was doing.

LIAM

Luckily he’s as charming as I am.

PAIGE (V.O.)

More! Everyone thought he was adorable. But still…

LIAM

It’s about time to start looking for daycare for him?

PAIGE (V.O.)

I don’t know. I’d love to actually get work done. And we haven’t both had a night away in months.

LIAM

My mom keeps offering!

PAIGE (V.O.)

Yes. Yes, she does.

LIAM

(beat) Still, we don’t want him to start calling us by our first names. Mom and Dad has such a ring to it.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Yes! We’ll talk about it later. Speaking of having a night away, it’s Thursday. Are you still doing movie night with Ron?

Liam’s smile slips. His voice stays casual.

 

LIAM

Did he call you about me missing last week?

PAIGE (V.O.)

No, I just wondered.

LIAM

I think I’m going to stay home from now on. Spend more time with you and Colin.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Are you sure?

LIAM

Yeah. He can come over and we’ll watch something on Netflix if he gets lonely. Don’t worry, you can keep your Saturdays!

PAIGE (V.O.)

Oh, I know I can keep my Saturdays.

LIAM

I mean, I’d hate for you to miss book club. Or is that wine club?

 

Paige laughs.

 

PAIGE (V.O.)

It’s mind-your-own-business club.

LIAM

I don’t think I’d like that club.

PAIGE (V.O.)

It’s a lot of fun. You should try it. (beat) How was your morning?

LIAM

Not bad. I’ve got a patient who doesn’t do his stretches and then complains he’s not getting better.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Isn’t that every patient?

LIAM

Not all of them are a pain in the ass like this one. I don’t think he wants to get better.

PAIGE (V.O.)

That’s a leap.

LIAM

Who’s the physical therapist?

PAIGE (V.O.)

All right! So what makes you think that?

LIAM

This guy is no stranger to exercise. Other than his leg, I bet he could outrun me. And he doesn’t strike me as lacking in discipline, either. If he set his mind to it, he’d be walking around already, pain or no, weakness or no.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Sounds as stubborn as you are.

LIAM

What?

PAIGE (V.O.)

I said, why wouldn’t he want to get better?

LIAM

Nice save. His leg got mangled in a car accident. He was in the driver’s seat, his wife was in the passenger’s.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Oh no.

LIAM

Yeah.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Was it his fault?

LIAM

I don’t think it matters. He blames himself.

PAIGE (V.O.)

He’s been assigned a trauma counselor, right? Is he talking to them?

LIAM

Knowing him, he’s convinced them that he’s over this little speedbump. Hell, he probably tells himself he is.

PAIGE (V.O.)

And that leaves you.

Liam crosses one last street. Suzie’s Bar & Grill looks like it’s being eaten by the larger businesses on either side. Its parking lot is half-full, a mustang rubbing up against motorcycles and rusted-out pick-ups. On a sign: Home to the World-Famous Bar-B-Burger.

 

LIAM

Well–

PAIGE (V.O.)

You’re not Spider-Man, you know. Swinging around saving everyone.

LIAM

I always thought Superman was cooler.

PAIGE (V.O.)

You were wrong. Look, if you’re sure about this, tell someone. Make sure it gets back to the psychiatrist. But it’s not your job to fix his brain.

LIAM

I’ll just tell them my wife sent me.

PAIGE (V.O.)

What was that?

LIAM

I said, you’re right.

PAIGE (V.O.)

Nice save!

LIAM

No, you’re right. My job is to fix his leg.

PAIGE (V.O.)

My sweet man.

LIAM

I know, total sweetheart! Worried about this poor guy with a dead wife.

PAIGE (V.O.)

I was being serious! Some guys just go to work, punch in, punch out, go home. You care about people. That’s why I love you.

LIAM

Just one reason?

PAIGE (V.O.)

Goof.

LIAM

I love you.

PAIGE (V.O.)

I love you!

LIAM

I’m here. Talk to you when I get home.

PAIGE (V.O.)

See you then! Have a good day.

LIAM

You, too. Bye.

Liam ends the call, but he doesn’t go inside. Instead, he checks his messages. A C.U. reveals an already-read message from RON, from 8:30 a.m.

 

RON (TEXT)

Meeting tonight? Call me.

 

Liam calls Ron, looking as if it’s the last thing he wants to do.

 

—————————————————————–

Sorry! I meant to have everything until he gets into the diner as one post, but this topped five pages and reached a pretty natural stopping point. I have a good idea of what’s coming next, so hopefully I’ll have the next part done within the week.

A few things you might have noticed.

I have Liam talk to his wife about a patient. According to what I found, as long as they don’t provide identifying information, a healthcare professional can talk about a case. I tried to avoid him giving away information without it being an awkward conversation.

You might also notice that the Diner is no longer a diner. Talking with a friend, I decided that a Bar & Grill would fit better thematically (and allow for a plot point later!). The Diner was such a snappy name, too. I’m keeping it for the project name, even though it’s obsolete.

The person in a blue jacket? I wonder who that could be.

The Diner: Post Nine (Scene One)

Now that I’m actually going to start the screenplay, the form of these posts are going to be a bit weird. I think I’m going to have each post start with my intended purposes for the next few pages of screenplay, followed by a first draft, and ending with my thoughts on what I succeeded/failed at in that draft.

This is going to be a first draft. Unpolished, full of plot holes and contrivances despite my best efforts. I’m likely to state what I plan on doing and then immediately fail. But hopefully this will give you some idea of what my process is like.

I don’t have time to do the hours of research I might need. So you’ll see some vague language and even some flat-out errors that I would correct in later drafts. For instance, just to start us off, I’m aping screenplay format as seen in some of my favorite dialogue-heavy scripts (The Dark Knight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, anything by Tarantino), but I don’t actually know much about the format and will probably get an absurd amount wrong.

Things I need to accomplish in the first five or so pages: Introduce the main character. Establish his job. Try to hint at the past he hides. Establish the tone.

That just might be manageable, but I’ve spent my whole career getting good at communicating exposition through narrative. Only having prose is going to make things tricky. I guess we’ll find out how well I do!

——————————————————

 

INT. OUTPATIENT REHAB – DAY

TED, silver-haired and gnarled, struggles across parallel bars, favoring his brace-covered left leg. About two-thirds across, duct tape makes a mark on the floor. LIAM stands just beyond the tape. Liam is what you’d expect: fit, khakis, polo, tennis shoes, neat hair, shaved face. The wrinkles in his clothes, bags under his eyes, and grey sprinkled into his dark hair show at the first close-up.

TED

If I have to do this one more time…

LIAM

You know when you can quit.

TED

Once I think of a good place to hide your body.

LIAM

You’d have to catch me to kill me.

TED

Are you making fun of the cripple? You suck at your job.

LIAM

I’m offering motivation. Your leg’s dragging; let’s keep it up.

TED

(Short of breath)

Shit!

LIAM

You’re almost to me. Get this far, and we’ll call it a day.

 

A SIDE-ON CAMERA ANGLE – Ted is barely halfway to the line and Liam.

TED

You moved the line, didn’t you? Cheater.

 

Ted’s hand SLIPS and he stumbles forward a step, lands hard on his left leg. Liam rushes forward and catches him before he can fall.

 

LIAM

How many times do I have to tell you not to come in drunk?

TED

Didn’t even get to the “touch your nose” part. I might do better with the alphabet, though.

 

Liam helps Ted to the end of the bars, helps turn him, helps him sit in the wheelchair waiting for him. Liam sits in a nearby chair.

 

LIAM

What’s going on, Ted? You’re doing the stretches at home, right?

TED

All twenty of them, five times a day.

LIAM

So you might have missed a few?

TED

What’s the point?

LIAM

Well, some of them are to keep the flexibility up, and others–

TED

What’s the damn point? I’m never going to get out of this chair. I’m not even getting better anymore.

 

Ted indicates the tape on the floor.

 

LIAM

You might not.

TED

(beat)

Why would you tell me that? Even if it’s true? Especially if it’s true? Aren’t you supposed to keep me hopeful–that I’ll be playing tennis in six months? The hell is wrong with you?

LIAM

It’s not my job to lie to you. Maybe you’ll never recover. Maybe this is the farthest you’ll ever walk again.

 

Liam gestures to the parallel bars.

 

LIAM

If you quit, you know EXACTLY what’s in your future. You don’t have to wonder. That makes it really easy to quit. That’s why I can’t give you hope. You have to decide if you’re willing to risk it.

TED

If I quit I’d never have to see you again.

LIAM

Like I said, quitting is easy. Are we done for the day?

TED

(Reluctant)

No. Wheel me back around.

 

Liam smiles.

 

————————————————————-

How did I do?

I feel I established most of what I needed to in the first scene. Who our main character is, what his job is, what the tone is. We see him convince someone to hang on to hope, touching on some of our themes. I establish that we’re going to touch on some serious matters, and that this story is going to be character-driven. But I put banter in as a way of lightening the mood, something I’m going to try to do to some degree throughout the piece.

On the other hand, I didn’t quite manage some things. I didn’t hint at his past other than some visual cues that he might not be as perfect as he seems. I’ll have to work in the first real clues in the next scene or two. In addition, Liam’s monologue is a bit heavy-handed. After a few passes, that’s the best I’ve got for now. Obvious, but it does what we need for the characters.

How do you think I did?

Next part will be a bit longer, unpacking the rest of the starting state for Liam. There’s a lot more we need to do before we get to the diner!

The Diner: Post Eight (Outline)

The last part was all about the ending. This part is developing an outline to get there effectively.

I’m going to use 7-Point Story Structure. Here’s a link to an article explaining it wonderfully: http://www.critiquecircle.com/blog.asp?blogID=280

HOOK

Liam is a physical therapist, currently helping someone who’s nearly given up hope for recovery. In the process of encouraging the patient, he sidesteps questions about his past. He goes out to lunch.

PLOT TURN ONE

Teresa sits down on the other side of the table. She flashes a gun and says she’ll kill Liam at the end of the lunch hour. 12:00

PINCH ONE

After establishing this isn’t mistaken identity, Teresa starts small talk. She takes his phone after an ill-made attempt to call for help. 12:10 p.m.

MIDPOINT

Teresa’s questions get more personal. He starts to suspect red herring. He has a chance to grab the gun, but chickens out. He sends a message somehow; waiter knows he’s hostage. 12:30

PINCH TWO

The cook and waiter try to stop Teresa, and she takes them hostage as well. ( The cook had a gun behind the counter. Teresa shoots the cook non-fatally; the gun falls not far out of Liam’s reach.) The rest of the diner evacuates. Teresa also shoots down red herring. She lets/makes Liam call his family and say goodbye. 12:55

PLOT TURN TWO

Teresa reveals why she’s doing this. Mystery resolved. He grieves with her. He starts talking about memories with her loved one, and she breaks down. She grows angry. She insists it’s his fault. (However, him empathizing with her, confronting the past, makes her unable to hate him; she can’t kill him.) Time’s up. 1:00 p.m.

RESOLUTION

Teresa takes waiter hostage, makes Liam pick up cook’s gun. Liam kills Teresa to save the waiter. Changed by this experience, he goes back to make peace with his past.

This is just an initial outline, and it’s likely to change. But for right now, it’s enough of a foundation to start on. That means that the next part will be starting the actual screenplay! The first few pages (the first scene, in particular) is next.

Do you have any questions about the outline? What do you think about how it’s shaping up so far?

The Diner: Post Seven (Brainstorming the Ending)

Okay, I lied. I realized that figuring out a solid ending is going to take a post all its own. This is the place for it, so that we can outline backward from the end.

Let’s start at the end, as is proper. What does the climax to look like? What do I want the hero’s end state to look like?

Ugh. You know what? I’m tired of dancing around the main character not having a name. So I’m going to jump to Google, and search popular baby names around the time that he would have been born. Scrolling halfway down, I find Liam. There are a couple of actors with the name, but it’s not something I see in fiction much, so why not? I’d like to pretend my process is more complex, but that will do for now. Similarly, let’s call our villain Teresa.

There are really only four answers to this multiple choice question. A) Liam dies. B) Teresa dies. C) Both die. Or D) Neither die.

I’m telling a story revolving around a mystery between two characters. If both characters involved die, the mystery didn’t matter. So C is out. I put serious thought into saving them both, but I feel that I’d be breaking a core promise of the premise if no one died at the end of the lunch hour. Option D is out.

Now we have to ask: What tells the better story? A, or B? A, or B? Sorry, couldn’t resist. I think option B is much more traditional. Predictable, even. Hero lives, villain dies. It might still be seen as breaking the promise to the audience. But to be honest, I feel that our characters and themes demand option B. If Teresa lives, then what? Are we adapting a Cormac McCarthy story, where the meaninglessness and the lack of resolution is the point?

Teresa’s entire character is built around having no future left. What would happen if she lived through the lunch hour? I suspect that she’d commit suicide off-screen rather than be taken in by police. I’m not that nihilistic. I’d rather fall into saccharine than be needlessly bleak. And besides, that means that choosing option A is also choosing option C.

Liam also has the potential for meaningful character growth. He’s the one that can take away something from this incident.

Teresa dies, then. But how?

She could kill herself when she realizes that she doesn’t hate Liam anymore. Her hatred was all that gave her something to live for, and we’ve established that it’s likely she will ultimately self-destruct. But that strips away all agency from Liam. Liam has gone through the whole movie to get here. As the main character, his actions should determine where this ends.

Liam kills Teresa.

There are a couple of problems with that. First, Liam is unarmed while Teresa has him at gunpoint for the entire movie. We can write around that; he got her gun, he hid a knife, etc. But the core problem is, why? He could kill her to defend himself. But we’ve established throughout the entire story that he’s trying to save her, to save them both. It might be within his character to kill her in a selfish bid to save himself–depending on whether you believe people are capable of real change–but that would mean that he’s rejected the entire point of what’s happening and turns the story back to pointlessness.

Here’s where setting comes in. If Liam is a regular, then we’ve gotten small talk between him and employees at the diner at the very beginning of the movie. Assuming that the hostage situation isn’t revealed for a while, we get to know at least the waiter through a few more interactions. Teresa could take said waiter hostage (side note: If the waiter is a hostage for the climax, let’s make him a guy to shake up a stale plot element), and force Liam to choose.

This does a few things. Some good, some bad.

First, the bad. If handled poorly, it can feel like a cop out. Sure, make the villain cross a moral line she hadn’t been willing to for the rest of the movie, all so we won’t feel too bad about the hero killing her. So we have to establish that she’s willing to do this at some point. Or maybe make it clear to the audience (but not to Liam) that she’s bluffing.

Now, the good. Liam has been running in the name of self-preservation for the entire story. He’s just learned that his inaction might have cost two lives, and set these whole events into motion. Liam taking action could be the culmination of his entire character arc, and could realistically lead him to being a better person at the end of the film than at the beginning.

If we make the waiter young, teens/early twenties, in college or something, this last choice could represent both of the important choices made throughout the film. The kid is potential. You know, children are the future.

Sorry. I think I threw up in my mouth a little. Liam kills Teresa to save the waiter. It’s tragic, everyone cries, but Liam walks away changed for the better. Maybe even get a denouement where he checks to see if his druggie friend way back when actually died and tries to make amends. He’s fully accepted his past, and can truly move on, instead of only pretending to.

Now that we have the ending, the next part can start to build an outline. Sorry for pushing it back one post. I know that outlining is almost as interesting as showing your math.

The Diner: Post Six (The Red Herring)

Last post, we solved the mystery!

Technically, we invented the solution of the mystery, so that we can start working backward. But solving the mystery sounds cooler.

In this post, we’re going to choose the red herring that keeps the mystery from being too easy for the reader (and hero) to solve.

But first, what is a red herring? According to dictionary.com, a red herring is: “something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.” These are smoke and mirrors that keep the audience focused on the wrong thing. These allow us to surprise even the savvy viewer.

Typically there are a number of these false trails in a story. We can have a handful of quickly–discarded suspicions acting as red herrings in the first act, the first logical assumptions that the main character might leap to. However, because of the nature of our mystery, we need a strong distraction. This is why we’re going to dedicate an entire post to red herrings.

First, the small misdirections. What might be the first suspicions of our character when a gun is shoved in his face? He might think that this is a joke, that the gun is fake. Then he will likely suspect that the woman sitting across from him is a lunatic, and that this might be entirely random. The woman’s demeanor will probably dispel both of these thoughts.

What next? Maybe he’ll think she’s scaring him so that he’ll give her money, and is only making it clear that she is willing to kill him so that he won’t make a scene. Knowing our villain, the suggestion that she’s just after money may anger her. In any case, she will make it abundantly clear that this isn’t the case.

Will he think that she has the wrong guy? She can correct him about that quickly.

It’s only after dismissing these that the character will start looking in what seems to be the right direction.

Keep in mind, this is the answer that we want the audience to believe we’re leading to for the majority of the movie. In order to make our red herring work, we will need its resolution to be almost as compelling as the true answer. It will be under many of the same constraints. It can’t be a misunderstanding, and it can’t make our hero monstrous. It can’t be something so prominent in the character’s mind that it’s the first answer he would jump to–but at the same time, it has to be something he’d suspect before the true answer. It also has to reveal something significant about the character. The revelation of this event must also lead to real character development, and will change the way that the main characters interact.

We also need to take the real reveal into consideration. Because the real answer deals with his job, let’s make the red herring concern something in his personal life.

What does our character’s home life look like?

He’s a guy in his mid-thirties, he’s had this job for a good five years and probably spent six or seven years in college before that. I want him to have friends and family, possibly even be married and have a kid or two. This is a man who still has his whole life ahead of him.

To be honest, right now our guy is pretty boring. He’s too perfect. I’ve attributed nothing but positive qualities to him, in an effort to make him sympathetic despite what we might discover about him later. But now it’s time to start putting in some flaws, some room for him to grow over the course of the story. This red herring is a good place to do that.

If the red herring is going to have meaning and power, then it needs to be something central to the character, something that defines who he is today. The decisions he’s made in his life have been a result of this event.

Because the real reveal is settled very much around who the character currently is and takes place relatively recently, I should balance that out. Let’s set the red herring many years ago, and let’s present that version of the character as the furthest thing from what he is today.

The current version of the character has a career, an education, a support system, and hope for the future. He helps people for a living. What’s the furthest thing from that? Jobless, ignorant, alone, lost. Hurting people without regard for anyone but himself.

Our hero was an addict.

Like suicide, addiction is a serious issue that is all-too-often used for cheap emotional punch by writers. Millions of people suffer from it; I can’t imagine many families don’t have someone that struggles with it. I know my own family has. However, like suicide, addiction not only fills the needs of the plot, but it can drive character development and help explore the themes of the movie from a different angle. It feels like it fits and it feels like I can say something worthwhile by featuring it in this story.

For now, the needs of the plot. Why does this fit?

We can set this long ago, before he became a physical therapist, before he even went to college. It can be a turning point in the character’s life, something that remains meaningful even after it’s revealed that it’s not the key to the entire plot. Because it can happen years ago, the specific event that serves as the red herring can be unclear until the moment that this backstory is revealed. And it’s easy to believe that an addict may have done something that got someone killed.

Where he’s at now can stand in stark contrast to where he once was. Who he is now becomes an achievement, and the strength of the character becomes something to admire because it feels earned. But at the same time, it can start to suggest character conflicts that bring this character to life.

Can you hold a position in a medical field if it comes out that you were an addict? Is this character hiding his past, hiding from it? Is he, then, defined by his past every bit as much as the villain? Is learning to accept and move on the lesson he learns from this story? Might this be his arc?

Perhaps he did hurt someone as an addict in his late teens/early twenties. Whether meaning to or not, he might have been responsible for the loss of a life. The guilt of this moment could have driven him from his addiction, could have motivated him to get his life back on track. Having hurt someone in the past, it may have become the force that pushed him into helping people for a living.

To take it a step further, what if he made the mistake that constitutes the true answer to the mystery because of this part of his past? What if him wanting to blend in made him unwilling to stand up for the patient? Him being defined by his past is what set this entire plot into motion. This idea helps to make the red herring feel natural and allows the plot to maintain cohesion, rather than feeling as if we only introduced this to trick the audience.

I like this. The main character now has a weight of history behind him, something to hide, and a character flaw, all in one. But what one event could have changed his life so drastically?

It’s not murder. It wouldn’t take him a half hour of discussion to suspect that was the problem, and even years later, it would be hard to forget. He didn’t actively cause the end of someone’s life. Much like the real answer, he let someone die through inaction.

This character is increasingly defined by fear. It would fit with his character to have run away from a problem rather than helping. The first thing that comes to mind is that one of his addict friends overdosed. In a panic, instead of helping, he ran. Instead of reporting it to save his friend, he saved himself from possible repercussions, told himself that his friend survived, but never wanted to know for sure.

I feel this manages a fine balance. He did something terrible. Something that changes his life forever. But it’s not something that immediately makes us lose all sympathy for him. And because he never knows for sure that the person died, he doesn’t carry the full weight of it. He thinks he’s moved on from it, even though we can see that it still shapes many of his thoughts and actions.

With any luck, this slowly-revealed backstory will be flashy enough to distract the audience while I sprinkle hints at the truth throughout the story. Either way, I think these work well together, and all help with character and theme as well as plot.

Both of these resonate through who this character is, and he hasn’t really moved on from either. The events of the movie, should he survive them, will teach him to accept his mistakes and their consequences, and allow him to move on.

Now that we have some idea of the characters, mystery, and setting, it’s time to work on plot. My next few posts will be building an outline.

 

Why Moana is Broken (and How to Fix it!)

Out of all the movies that I regretted not being able to see in theaters, Moana was not one of them. I’ve seen most main Disney movies, and I like more than half of those I’ve seen. I actually love a few of them. But while I enjoy many kids’ films unashamedly, I rarely have that much to say about one.  I tend to wait until they’re out on DVD or on Netflix, or when one of my nieces or nephews absolutely needs to watch it while I’m over.

However, as it turns out, Moana is one of the few movies I have a lot to talk about. And a lot of it isn’t great.

This is going to be full of spoilers. Moana is on Netflix and DVD, so I feel ok about that. Also, disclaimer. All of this is personal opinion. If you disagree with me on every issue here, that’s fine. In fact, it’s awesome! Leave your opinion in the comments to let me know!

I want to start by talking about what the movie does great.

It is a gorgeous film. Every person working on the visuals deserves a round of applause. From the hair, to the skin textures, to the facial animations, right down to the water, everything is perfect.

Within five minutes, I liked Moana as a character and was rooting for her. I loved that she is set to take over as the chief after her father, and gender is never brought up as an issue. I love that she legitimately cares about her people and we see her learning to take care of them.

The character design is good, and the voice acting is great overall. The reveal at the end–that both the demon that acts as antagonist for the last twenty minutes and the goddess they’re trying to revive is one in the same–is Epic Fantasy-level awesome. Overall, the movie had a fun, adventurous tone that was perfect for the story.

And last, I loved the underlying themes. Many Disney movies nudge at a key question from adolescence, but never really try to explore it. “Who am I?” Moana is actually trying to say something meaningful here, by expanding a usual one-liner into the main theme for a whole film. It’s a great basis for a kids’ movie.

I don’t think the movie is atrocious, insulting, or a complete waste of time. Not by a long shot. I just have problems with it that I have a lot to say about.

Why Moana is Broken.

The primary problem I had is this: Moana felt like it had certain emotional and plot beats shoved into it whether they fit or not. Examples are below.

1) The father almost burns the fishing boats to keep Moana safe. Uh, dude? You’ve established that your people survive on coconuts and fish. Now they’re having trouble finding fish. YOUR PEOPLE ARE STARVING. So your answer is to burn the boats that they are using to search for fish? This was lifted from The Little Mermaid, where Triton overreacts when he learns of Ariel’s hoard of human artifacts. Except, Triton wasn’t knowingly killing his people by doing so. And he still comes off as a jerk! Note that this isn’t Frollo from Notre Dame. This is a reasonable man and a good leader. This beat was to drive a wedge between Moana and her father, proving that she has to go on her own.

2) Gramma dying. Was she sick? For the time until now, she’s been the healthiest, most active character excepting maybe Moana herself. Sure, she has a line about her death as a hypothetical future. But this is essentially the same thing as if Mulan had killed off the grandma to drive the plot forward. Like, what? This is taken from any number of deaths of mentors/parental figures that drives the plot in Disney films. Frozen, for example. Except it’s established there that they’re journeying overseas, a situation where deaths happen literally all the time. Gramma’s Cause of Death was Plot Contrivance. (Or possible Stingray Attack. Those things are treacherous.) This beat is naked emotional manipulation of the viewer, and it’s a lazy plot contrivance to have A WOMAN’S DYING WISH convince Moana to set out. Some moments that would be legitimately touching later on are fruit of the poisonous tree.

3) Coconut dudes. It doesn’t advance the plot or develop the characters, and really brings up troubling questions as far as the setting goes. Also, Moana is superhuman for like thirty seconds for no reason, and that’s never brought up again. This honestly feels like someone dictated exactly where an action beat needed to go.

4) Maui’s hook not working. Why doesn’t it work? Yes, by context, his confidence is broken, and that lack of confidence breaks the magic. Here’s the thing, though: As far as I could tell, his confidence was broken BECAUSE his hook didn’t work. So yeah, why? Oh. This is a beat to add tension to the crab sequence (note on that below). Coming from a Fantasy writer, YOU DO NOT BREAK YOUR MAGIC SYSTEM’S INTERNAL LOGIC FOR A STORY BEAT! Similar to Gramma, the character development that springs from this means nothing to me because this is stupid.

5) Maui in the climax. Maui getting angry and leaving is fine. It’s a tad weak, sure, but it works. But why does he come back? Nothing in his circumstances have changed, as far as we can tell. He came back because this is where the climax’s unexpected rescue beat happens. (Honestly I think this beat might have worked, except the groundwork isn’t laid for it. Nothing hints that he’s conflicted about leaving.)

This is just speculation on my part. Maybe the writers added each of these moments in the final draft and are incredibly happy about them. But it doesn’t feel that way. The moments I mention not only don’t feel natural, they feel like the movie is trying to write AROUND them. They open up the majority of plot holes and logical/emotional disconnects I had with the movie.

Disney is infamous for restricting writers and proscribing what their stories can be. It’s wrecked a handful of movies, and it’s the reason that Disney films have rarely broken away from the formulas of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Their big hits in the 90’s are still, to this day, how they define success. After all the risks Frozen took, Moana feels like a huge step backward in this department.

There are a few smaller things that feel really forced, rushed, or badly-executed.

Moana has two mentor/inspiration characters: Gramma, and the ocean. (And yes, when the ocean is proven to be sentient and take a stand in the plot, I consider it a character.) She really only needs one, if that character is properly handled.

“You’ve been told all our stories…except one.” Really? Who all knows about this? Just you, Gramma? I’m guessing the dad does, too, but Moana doesn’t seem to think so. If it’s just you, how do you know this? And if you disagree with the decision to hide this story, why not share it publicly? As the Batman Forever meme goes, “It just raises too many questions.”

Ghost Gramma isn’t established as a real possibility, and it just feels lazy. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us had someone we lost return to us to offer guidance at key moments?

The ocean is incredibly inconsistent on whether it will help Moana and how much help it offers. I know some of this is played for laughs, but again, breaking the magic system to get a laugh is a no-no.

The father’s arc has no resolution. The mother works, because she’s consistently a bit player. The relationship with Moana’s father is a main part of the first act, and then it’s GONE. Also, his hidden, tragic backstory? Is not for Gramma to tell.

The village needs more time. Maybe we spend a few more minutes there in the opening? Maybe the climax gets the original island involved, somehow?  I’m not sure, to be honest. But the more invested we are in the village as a character, the more we see its people suffering, the more powerful the primary motivation becomes.

That’s a lot of problems. But now that we have them tallied, the fun part can begin.

How to Fix it!

I make some pretty drastic changes here. But it’s all in good fun, right? Let me know what you think?

First is the problem of having two mentors. Gramma is doing more as far as emotional development goes, but she’s also the source of a lot of these problems. Meanwhile, by its very nature you can’t have an emotional connection to the ocean, and yet it is there throughout Moana’s whole journey. How do we reconcile these two things?

Kill Gramma. No, not like she gets killed in the movie as is. I mean she needs to be removed completely from the movie.

Hear me out. Gramma was easily my second-favorite character in the movie. She’s awesome. Wise, funny, and kind. But a lot of fundamental flaws revolve around her. If necessary, we can move some of the lines, the understanding, the peacemaking between father and daughter, to the mother. The mother gets more fleshed out, and the moment when she helps Moana pack is more powerful.

We’d have to move the narration off on another character for the opening. I pick the father. His fear and resentment toward the ocean can come out a bit, getting us into the conflict even as we’re worldbuilding. (Also, during the narration, establish that the hook is damaged, to establish that conflict early.)

So, who reveals the secret of Moana’s ancestral past? The ocean. This could be as simple as a low tide revealing a pathway. Or it could be as dramatic as the ships being on the bottom of the water, and the ocean literally opening up to reveal it. Either way, this builds on Moana’s relationship with the ocean, explores the ocean being an active participant in the plot.

The second big change… Have the father go after Moana.

Have him face his terror of the ocean to, in his mind, save his daughter. Make this conflict a cornerstone of the movie. Promote him to a main character. Not only does this allow him to have his full character arc, but he serves a HUGE purpose in the story. He’s a living embodiment of her doubt, the pull to go back to the village and delay the inevitable rather than face the problem head on.

He catches up, they argue, the storm washes them both ashore. Give him that moment of fear that he’s going to lose his daughter like he lost his friend (Though we only see his panic; we haven’t learned about his backstory yet.). And then…Maui.

If her dad is a representation of her doubt and the pull toward home, Maui is the lie she tells herself–that she can solve this problem without changing who she is. If she just does A, B, and C, she can let him do the dangerous part. Because HE is the hero, not her.

The action beat with the coconut dudes can serve a purpose here. The father is injured. Now he can’t physically force her to turn back, but if she doesn’t, he might die. She either has to turn back, or step up in a big way. He is the village, metaphorically speaking. And after deciding to continue, she has to leave him behind, to climb the cliffs and enter the realm of monsters.

In the fight to reclaim the hook, the hook takes some hits. It starts showing some more minor damage. We see the cracks in Maui’s bravado here, as he expresses worry about the hook. When they return to the boat, her father has gotten worse. They collectively debate whether to return home. Maui exposits how terrifying Te Ka is, how impossible getting past her is.

But they’ve all come too far. Now the only hope is returning the heart and reviving the goddess; as the goddess of life, she can heal Moana’s father. And Moana uses the “hero” persuasion on Maui.

Note here: The “hook not working” bit is completely gone. I’ve replaced a problem that was out-of-nowhere and had no influence on the plot, with a problem that foreshadows the lowest point in the movie and furthers already-established conflict.

The “Maui teaches Moana to sail” sequence is fine. It’s awesome, in fact. It’s a great way for them to bond. Her father gets development as well, watching her master sailing in a way that his people never have, watching her come alive by exploring her love of the ocean. Things are looking up.

And then disaster strikes. Very similar to what we have before. Except for three changes that make a HUGE difference.

One: We’ve been establishing throughout the movie both that Maui’s hook is fragile and that he ties his own worth to the hook. This makes the punch stronger when the hook is incredibly damaged, one hit away from shattering. Because she drove him on KNOWING about these things, his anger toward her feels more justified than it does with her making a miscalculation in the heat of the moment.

Two: Her father is dying.

This failure leaves very little hope for him to be saved. He tells his tragic backstory about losing his friend in the water. The ocean has been helping her all along, but it can’t help her here. She pleads for help, but all she hears is the water lapping at the boat. She throws the Heart into the ocean. Her father continues to speak, bringing her back to his side. He’s proud of her for doing what she believes must be done. Even if they’ve failed. She’s choosing who she is. And he’s proud of her.

Her father falls unconscious. She turns the ship back toward the home island.

The ocean throws the Heart back.

Her father represents her doubt, what she was, and the village at stake. Maui represents the lie she tells herself, that she can go back to her old life after this, that she doesn’t need to step up and save the day. But the ocean represents the truth of who she ultimately is, who she needs to become to save everyone, and what can be their future if she succeeds.

Here’s where I have to be careful. The theme is “Who am I?” and the answer is “Who you choose to be.” I can’t undermine that by having the ocean MAKE Moana keep the Heart, MAKE her turn around and try again. This is the single key moment in the film, the moment when other influences fall away and Moana makes a CHOICE.

What the ocean is doing is making sure Moana has that choice. She threw the Heart before in anger, not in decision.

She raises her hand to throw it again. Pauses. Looks down at her father. Looks at the Heart. Looks at the water. Looks behind them, toward Te Ka still terrifying in the distance. She turns the boat and starts back toward Te Ka.

Notice change three? No Ghost Gramma. No one swoops in at the last second to make her feel better. This is the darkest moment of her life. She is the one who has to claw her way out of it.

After a little while, the ocean throws up a wave to speed her forward. Maui swoops in earlier, before they’re in range of the mad god.

“You said you’re nothing without your hook.”

“I’m already nothing if I choose not to try.” The line change (along with some minor tweaking earlier in the movie) lets Maui shift priorities in a realistic and meaningful way. Having him come back sooner helps recover from the darker low point, and can help shift us back to adventure.

Moana enters this attempt more resolved, and more angry. (Maybe she’s even decided to help fight Te Ka? Flinging water somehow?)

The climax largely happens as is. (I’d like to shift things a bit so that the boat, with Moana and her father on it, and Maui are both in danger when Moana realizes the truth about Te Ka.) Te Ka is reunited with the Heart, reverts to Te Fiti.

Te Fiti saves Moana’s father. He is a symbol of the village, of what needs to be saved, and saving him has turned into part of the drive for the quest.

Te Fiti does NOT make a new hook for Maui. He entered the battle knowing that it was a potential cost of his choice. Taking that consequence away makes his sacrifice, and therefore the end of his character arc, hollow. (He DOES, however, get to return to the island a hero.)

The movie ends with Moana putting the shell on the top of the island and setting out to sea–and teaching her father to properly sail.

This isn’t perfect. There’s quite a bit undefined, still, and things might need to be reshuffled here and there to keep pacing and tone right. Not to mention, I completely left out the humor, which makes the above read like a Greek tragedy! But here’s my fixes for the main plot points I had trouble with, and even a few minor gripes.

The chicken is still completely pointless, though.