Compare – Contrast: ‘Street Fighter’ vs. ‘Mortal Kombat’

The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.

The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?

The Structure:

The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.

Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.

In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:

We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.

The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.

On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:

Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.

This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.

One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.

Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.

This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.

On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.

Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).

The Plots:

Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.

Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).

At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.

The Characters:

Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.

Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.

See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.

Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).

This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.

The Villains:

Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.

Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.

Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.

The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).

The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”

Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.

The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).

The Action:

Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).

Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).

(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).

The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.

(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).

The Behind-The-Scenes:

There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:

  • Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.

De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.

De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.

Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.

In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.

  • Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
  • Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).

Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).

  • As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.

Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.

The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.

Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).

Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.

Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.

And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.

Friday Flotsam – Mostly on Superman

1. Been adjusting lately to various life developments (yeah, I’m gonna go with that), which means I haven’t quite worked out how to fit blogging into the picture. I intend to blog more regularly going forward, but so far I haven’t worked out how.

2. Working on a post summarizing how I think Zack Synder butchered Superman and Batman. There’s a lot there, but I’m realizing that, if I want to be entirely fair, I should probably revisit the DCEU. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the Snyder films (mostly because I hated them), and in that time I’ve become a much more fervent and informed Superman fan. Watching clips now I keep thinking “that’s wrong. That’s stupid. Man, they really didn’t care there, did they?” So at some point in the future I may do a DCEU rundown as a companion to my Marvel rundown (though, as the DCEU has no real ending nor any plans for one, I’ll probably cut myself off at some point. Maybe with the *shudder* Snyder cut…).

3. Speaking of which, I also need to revisit the Christopher Reeves films. I saw them long, long ago and remember not really liking them that much, despite Mr. Reeves’ definitive performance. Mostly it was because I didn’t at all like some of the story choices (e.g. the turning back time in the first film, the de-powering subplot in the second, etc.). But perhaps they’ll play better now.

4. Honestly, one of my favorite iterations so far is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman from the mid nineties. Despite the lackluster special effects, reduced Superman powerlevel, and the oft-cheesy scripts I think Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher are among the best incarnations of Clark and Lois, especially Mr. Cain, who makes Clark perfectly the ‘normal, decent guy’ he’s supposed to be. Like, I love the detail that his fridge is full of junk food since, while he doesn’t need to eat, he likes it and so goes for whatever tastes the best because why not? That’s the kind of development onto Superman’s character that I like: thinking through the logical implications of his powers and asking how a guy like Clark would respond. Or the way he regularly calls home to his parents to discuss how his life is going. And I like the Kents’ charmingly casual approach to his powers (when Clark’s a little dubious about the cape his mother insists “It’ll look great when you’re flying”). Or, one of my favorite touches, Clark gets his job at the Planet by interviewing an old actress as she says goodbye to a theater being torn down. That’s the kind of guy he needs to be; sympathetic, open, and showing interest in and value for everyone he meets.

Miss Hatcher’s Lois is on point as well, with that delightful blend of sarcasm, self-assurance, and vulnerability that makes the character. She and Mr. Cain have fantastic chemistry and really come across as honest-to-goodness friends in spite of their chop-busting antics.

5. See, here’s what I think most people get wrong: when making a Superman adaptation, the most important thing is to get Clark Kent right. Because if you do Clark right, Superman will follow. But if you focus on Superman, you’re liable to miss the whole point. You see, Clark Kent is the real character. Even if you have Superman in costume most of the time, you have to remember that Clark is the true identity. Fundamentally, whatever crazy stuff you’re having him do, carrying a satellite into orbit or fighting psychic vigilantes on the Moon, you have to keep in mind that it’s the kid from Kansas who is doing all this (as Lois says in Superman vs. the Elite: “You can take the kid out of the cornfield…”).

4. I think another problem filmmakers run into when adapting Superman (and similar properties) is simply that they overthink things. See, I suspect that a lot of filmmakers will approach a major cultural touchstone like that and think “Since this is such a big, important property, there must be some real depth to it. It must be full of hidden meaning and subtle complexities, and if I’m going to really do this right, I have to be just as deep and complex. I have to really make this an event!”

What they’re missing is that it is precisely the simplicity of the story, the straightforward, unapologetic nature of it that gives it it’s power. The fundamental Superman story is “man has the power to save the day in every circumstance, but never takes the credit for it so the woman he loves has no idea what he does.” You can sum it up in a sentence (I just did), but there are almost an infinitude of things you can do with it.

Now, you can do things with Superman beyond that simple formula, but the point is that the Superman idea is a pretty straightforward one. The more you try to make it ‘deep’ and complex, the more you add to it, the more specificity you give it, the more likely you’re going to lose the thing that made it interesting in the first place.

To put it more simply, I remember someone saying that if you want to make a good Superman movie, just take the airplane sequence from Superman Returns and do that for ninety minutes. Which is pretty accurate.

Greatness in storytelling is not a matter of complexity, ambiguity, believability, relatability, or anything of the kind. It is a matter of a unique idea perfectly realized.

Repost: Heroes, Dark Heroes, and Antiheroes

Found this excellent post through a friend’s blog, and I highly recommend it for an insightful summary of the progress of the past hundred years or so in storytelling.

The key point, it seems to me, is this:

There’s a reason humans innately love morally upright characters, and it’s because storytelling was originally a vehicle for teaching codes of behavior and life lessons. We seek role models to tell us how to live. Storytelling now is split between that original purpose and validating attachment wounds. Validating attachment wounds may make people feel good in the moment but is specific to each generation as far as what they’ll accept and reject, while objective moral heroes stand the test of time, even across thousands of years.

And Zoomers, the ones who are surviving and thriving, seem poised to bring back everything traditional. Morality is in vogue once more, as are responsibility, family, love, and honor.

But by all means, read the whole thing.

Some Thoughts on ‘Silver Spoon’

            I have recently begun to seriously explore the wonderful world of anime and manga. And one of my favorites so far has been Silver Spoon, which I am currently in the process of reading after having finished the anime (which, unfortunately, only covers about the first half to two-thirds of the manga).

The premise is that Hachiken Yugo is a first year high schooler in Hokkaido. Despite working himself half to death, he didn’t do very well on his final exams for middle school, much to the disappointment of his terrifying father. Seeking to get away from home, he chooses the one high school in the region that has a dormitory: Yezu Agricultural School. He figures this will be a perfect fit; he’ll be the only city boy among a bunch of farmers, and the school curriculums in math, science, and so on are tiny, while agricultural textbooks are just a lot of memorization. So, he’ll get away from his unbearable home life and ensure he gets top-grades at the same time!

The one thing he forgot to consider is that this is an agricultural school, and most of the work is practical. Meaning he suddenly finds himself having to get up at five AM to do farm chores on top of studying, while he also discovers that farm life is much, much more complicated and demanding than he ever expected.

Oh, and he discovers that one of his classmates, Mikage Aki, is really, really cute.

 

See?

The result of all that is a truly charming, hilarious, and heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale of a boy growing to maturity in a completely alien environment. It reminds me in some ways of All Creatures Great and Small, the British show about the life and times of a young vet in Yorkshire, only Yugo starts out as a complete newcomer to farm life, even to the point of being surprised at how big the cows are dawhen he first arrives. We, the audience, get to experience all that growth and learning and the shattering of preconceptions along with him (the artist, Hiromu “Fullmetal Alchemist” Arakawa,  grew up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, so the details of farm life have the ring of authenticity to them). Over the course of the story, he grows attached to one of the pigs (named ‘Pork Bowl’) and then has to deal with sending it to be slaughtered, he joins the equestrian club (mostly because Aki is in it) and learns how to deal with horses, spends the summer working on a dairy farm, makes home-made pizza (since he’s the only one at school who lives within delivery distance, he’s the only one who knows what it’s supposed to taste like), and organizes the school festival. During the course of all this, he not only learns about farm work, but becomes one of the most popular boys in school and something of a natural leader for his outsider perspective and willingness to do just about anything for anyone.

At the same time, though, he struggles with massive confidence issues (courtesy of his perfectionist father) and with trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He soon discovers that he’s quite literally the only person in his class who doesn’t have a plan for his life, and though most of his classmates’ plans involve simply taking over their family farms, he nevertheless is jealous of their apparent security. Though this, he eventually discovers, is much more uncertain than it first appears.

One of the first things that struck me about this series was how, well, nice everyone was. This is the first school story I can recall where there are no ‘bully’ characters: everyone in Yugo’s class is decent to him in their own way. It takes almost eighty chapters before one of them develops any kind of rivalry with him (and it doesn’t really hurt their friendship), and even longer for anything like a school bully to appear (from a rival school at a tournament, and he gets hilariously sent packing almost the moment he appears). Yugo’s father is the only really antagonistic character present, and he has very little screen time, though…well, more on him later.

But though they’re all decent people, there’s plenty of character and conflict to be had among them, and they all have flaws, but the flaws are presented as just a matter of being human. For instance, there’s the domineering, egg-shaped Tamako, who is extremely blunt and at one point announces to her parents that she loves money more than anything and is planning a takeover of their farm. In any western story, this would mark her as a villain; here it’s played entirely for laughs as just part of her eccentric charm (“We must crush her before she grows too powerful!” “You are welcome to try!”). Or there’s Tokiwa, the heir to the poultry farm, who is both the worst student in class (he’s thrilled when he gets a 10 out of 100 score on his math test because “I never got double-digits before!”) and has an unfortunate tendency to spread rumors based on very little information, resulting in Yugo being hauled before the dean twice on rumors of illicit sexual relations with his classmates (“I was talking about a pig!” “…You got a pig pregnant?”). Again, this is played entirely for comedy, as there was no malice in Tokiwa’s actions and the misunderstanding is cleared up as soon as Yugo is able to explain himself.

As the latter indicates, Silver Spoon is as, well, frank as I find a lot of Japanese fiction to be. It isn’t really crude, but they don’t shy away from either the reality of farm life (poops and live births abound, and we visit a slaughterhouse in one chapter) or of adolescence. There’s a bit where Yugo is told about how you can tell the age of a cow because the younger ones have smaller udders while he absentmindedly eyes Aki. Another bit has her asking him to help her find a bra: “it’s big and black…” Turns out it’s a cow bra (to prevent her from treading on her udder) But the interesting thing is that, to me at least, this sort of thing feels ‘cleaner’ than the sexual content found in most western stories, maybe because here they mostly play it for a joke, as an honest depiction of what teenagers are like, while in western fiction there’s often a degree of either self-importance (“look how daring I am!”) or crudity about it that makes it feel, well, more adolescent. I had a similar reaction to the sexual humor in Naruto: when Naruto is transported at the idea of spying on the girl’s side of the bath and then has nightmares of what Sakura would do to him if he did, it feels like the joke is about how teenagers think about sex, rather than being itself an excuse to talk about sex. It’s an interesting tonal phenomenon that I’d like to explore further (ugh, there’s no way to make that sentence proof against misunderstanding, is there?).

Another thing that has struck me about a lot of anime that I’ve seen; the characters often feel much more distinct and human than a lot of their western counterparts. They’re less likely to be built to a ‘type’ (the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, etc.) than to simply be constructed as individuals. Like Aki’s childhood friend, Ichiro, who plays baseball and often rubs Yugo wrong. He’s not a ‘jock,’ he’s a young man with very specific goals from a specific situation, and how that situation and those goals play out forms a crucial subplot.

Likewise, the story follows its own beats, and part of that is that things don’t work out according to a formula. The above mentioned subplot involves a game of baseball with the future of several beloved characters riding on it coming down to one final play…which they don’t make, leaving them to have to face up to failure and heartbreak and try to figure out where to go from there. Pork Bowl is indeed turned into pork despite Yugo’s attachment to him, because that’s what pigs are raised for. Bad things happen and you can’t always do anything about them is practically a theme of the story, though also that you might be able to do more about it than you think you can.

All this leads to one of the big moments of the series, where Yugo proves himself a hero, not by saving the day or averting disaster, but simply by insisting that he will always being there for someone, whatever happens and however much it hurts.

On a practical level, the fact that the story is willing to break the audience’s heart, to show things not working out even when they had to work out means that we’re hooked with every subsequent challenge and crisis, because we know there’s no guarantee that it will have a happy ending. Yugo’s team might lose the equestrian tournament. Yugo might not get the loan to start his business. Aki might not pass her college entrance exam. Nothing is guaranteed, however badly you want it, which means you just how to read on and to find out what happens. Much like life.

He ends up eating that pig

By the way, the romance here is fantastic. Like everything else, it feels very honest and very sweet, as Yugo and Aki develop an easy-going, familiar attachment while he struggles with a massive crush on her that is complicated by his confidence issues. She soon realizes that she likes him as well, but is a little clueless about romance and is dubious that someone like him – a comparatively well off, educated, and intelligent city boy – would seriously be interested in a book-dumb girl from a debt-ridden family farm. This leads to a lot of delightful moments, where he way overthinks things and she misses the point entirely (such as when her roommates have to explicitly spell out the fact that him asking her to go somewhere, just the two of them, was him asking her on a date. This after her acceptance resulted in his feelings being shown in one of the most over-the-top and hilarious splash-pages you will ever see). But also the way he steps up and tries to look out for her, to encourage her, to be there for her lets us appreciate that they do really make a wonderful couple (among other things, he teasingly tries to get her to not worry about the thick rural accent she self-consciously tries to hide).

The most pressing obstacle is her hilariously overprotective father, who scares Yugo almost as much as his own father (at one point he imagines them having a kaiju battle). The very first time they meet, he takes one look at Yugo and shouts, “I DO NOT APPROVE!” (this long before Yugo has even worked up the nerve to ask Aki out). Yet, he’s shown to be otherwise a very good, if grim, man, generous with his stock and listening honestly to his daughter when she tries to talk to him about her life.

Yugo’s own father is somewhat of a different matter; a brutally demanding, imposing figure with extreme perfectionist tendencies, who expects his sons to excel and is not shy about expressing his anger (in a cold, dismissive fashion) when they don’t. We get a sense of the kind of life Yugo had when he’s staying with Aki’s family over the summer and accidentally gets lost in the bear infested woods. When he finally calls them from another farm, his only thought is that they’ll be furious with him for missing out on work; the idea that they were more worried about his safety never entered his head. At one point Yugo compares his father’s attitude to a farmer’s toward livestock; deliver results, or you are worthless. More amusingly, when Yugo’s father visits the school, the students immediately assume he’s a Yakuza and begin using his picture as a warding charm.

Yet, even Yugo’s father isn’t simply a caricature. He’s a very unpleasant figure, but he shows flashes of humanity, as when, upon receiving Yugo’s business proposal in the mail, he immediately sits down to go over it rather than simply rejecting it out of hand (he does reject it, but he gives it his full attention first). Or when he tries to avoid seeing his son after watching him compete in an equestrian tournament, knowing that he would only ruin the moment for him. Likewise his mother, though rather weak, is shown to be honestly concerned for her son and hurt that he never calls or writes them while at school: something Yugo’s classmates criticize him for.

In summary, the characters are played as human, with all that implies. They’re sometimes over-the-top and eccentric, but they have real emotions and reactions.

Another favorite character is the school principal; a tiny, cartoonish little man who seems to appear all over school, and yet who nevertheless proves a font of real wisdom and sage advice, as well as an effective teacher. His speech to the graduating first years, regarding the titular silver spoon, is a beautiful piece of work, dealing with the meaning of both agriculture and learning. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of genuine wisdom to be had throughout; about looking reality in the face, but not giving up on your dreams, about accepting that there are things you will never perfectly understand, but you should always try to understand, about hardship and maturity and dedication. It’s also a fascinating look into where our food comes from, and the hard, grinding, often heartbreaking work that goes into it (the insight into cheese-making is just one example). Characters discuss questions of efficiency versus animal welfare, but they don’t come up with pat answers; only saying, “these are the things we have to work with” and inviting both each other and the audience to decide for themselves. Actually, that’s another bit of wisdom it offers; don’t be afraid not to have answers, as long as you’re still trying to understand.

This sort of mature thinking, rich characterization, honesty, and intelligent plotting, blended with humor and charm, is something to study and treasure. It’s just a wonderful piece of work, and I’m not even done with it (actually, I don’t know if the manga is finished). This is the kind of writing that I’d like to aspire to, and I highly recommend it.

The Nuances of How Superpowered Characters Are Received at Home

The irreplaceable Caroline Furlong has another insightful essay in her series on writing superpowered characters; this one is on how they should be viewed in their own world. In it, she hits several points of nuance that the vast majority of modern writers (especially those working in Hollywood or in the comics industry) seem incapable of comprehending: such as that maybe, just maybe, ordinary people have reasons apart from unthinking prejudice and bigotry for fearing a man who can destroy a city single-handedly:

The main reason they must not do this is simple: power of any kind will, if used for selfish motives, corrupt the wielder and lead him/her to the Dark Side. The mild illustration of a teenage couple breaking up due to the machinations of jealous peers should make this clear. Let us say that the girl in this relationship hears a false rumor about her boyfriend making fun of her with his friends, while he is lied to and told that she is cheating on him with another boy. In many situations like this, after breaking up, the two do all sorts of petty things to avenge themselves on one another for the “betrayal” they experienced.

Even without the addition of extraordinary powers, we can see that the odds of this scenario having a happy finale are not good. But take a step back and ask yourself this, future writers: “What happens if the girl discovers she is a pyrokinetc (a fire manipulator and/or generator)? What happens if the boy realizes he can move things with his mind, hear the thoughts of others, and/or compel them to do something? What does their desire to gain vengeance on one another for these perceived betrayals look like then?”

The probable answers to these inquiries are unpleasant, to say the least. If the girl has pyrokinetic powers, she might decide to use her gift to cause bodily or financial harm to her ex-boyfriend. If the boy is telepathic and telekinetic, then he could force his ex-girlfriend to walk off a bridge downtown as “punishment” for her infidelity. These are horrific uses for paranormal gifts, but they illustrate the temptations that these one or two enhanced characters will face in such a situation.

She then goes on to explore ways different stories have explored that mistrust and uncertainty in clever and creative ways. Definitely read the whole thing! 

For my own part, I would make it a rule to never play the ‘unthinking bigotry’ card, much less the ‘they fear what they don’t understand’ one. For one thing, it doesn’t ring true to me (even the most absurd bigotries have some rational basis), and for another, I think it is a very dangerous mindset to encourage; if people adopt it, it leads them to shut their ears to what others actually have to say and to slap the ‘bigot’ label on anyone who says anything they don’t like. Thus, ironically, this mode of attacking prejudice only encourages it. Far better to give the justification a fair hearing and show why and how it is wrong, or at least how it isn’t the whole story, then to dumb things down to pure, unthinking resentment. Besides, exploring ideas and settling true from false makes for a much better story than just “these people are good and innocent; these are evil and ignorant, and that’s terrible. Be grateful we are not like them.”

 

Do the Powers Make the Hero?

The Irreplaceable Caroline Furlong writes an excellent piece about whether the superhuman powers of a hero is what makes him a hero worth rooting for, or not:

Due to the numerous ways extraordinary faculties can be introduced into a tale, there are several conditions that an author must consider when creating powered protagonists. In today’s post, we are focusing on the most important one: whether or not strange abilities make the lead character a hero. Is it his special powers that make the sci-fi/fantasy protagonist a champion? Or are the forces that he wields less important than the character himself?

The answer to the first question should be no, because a protagonist who is only memorable for his special talents or whizz-bang gadgets is not a character. He is, rather, a prop; a device that demonstrates the author’s cool ideas in a series of happy (or unhappy) accidents. No one enjoys watching a prop being moved around the stage by the play’s director, even if he is honestly trying to save the show. They will feel sympathy for him, but nothing else. In the same manner, no one will respect or admire a writer who cannot create characters who are alive.

In order to illustrate this fact, let us compare Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: The Dark World, which each have Rey and Thor as the respective lead characters. In the sequel Star Wars films Rey commands nearly cosmic Force powers; she can use the Force with almost no training whatsoever. Thor, on the other hand, is – well, the god of thunder. He can raise storms at will, he is the strongest Asgardian still living, he can survive explosive decompression and hard vacuum, and he is relatively indestructible.

Read the whole thing!

As a side note, I really love this poster of Thor: the Dark World. It really captures the sense of the heroism and adventure that Thor ought to be about.

Related image

On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

Nanowrimo Sample

Nanowrimo is in full swing and I’m actually on a path to completing it this year! I thought I might share the first chapter that I’ve come up with, just to see what people think. Keep in mind that, as a first draft written more for speed than precision, anything or everything in it is subject to change.

The Sun Spark

Chapter One

            The meteor streaked across the night sky, turning it from black to silver as it sped towards impact.

Theoan Ilokar watched it fall as he rode out from his father’s farm. It was a strange meteor, he thought; too slow, and falling at an odd angel. Yet it moved much too fast to be a descending ship, and besides that it was traveling north to south, in the direction of the desert where no ship would be landing anyway.

Meteors, he knew, were the tools of Veiovis, the King of the Gods and master of the stars. Veiovis used them to alert his people that great events were about to take place, or to mark the changing of dynasties. They also could serve as his most terrible weapons of vengeance, but that he reserved only for the most irredeemably wicked of creatures.

As he sped off into the night, heading south into the wilderness on his skimmer bike, Theoan wondered what this particular meteor might portend. He doubted very much it signaled anything concerning Uanmu: the desert planet and all its inhabitants would hardly merit such a display from Veiovis. There was nothing there except for some scattered farms, like that of his father, and a couple of small settlements. It was far removed from the power of any of the three great nations of Metia, Alaxdria, and Saedemon, and nothing of any importance ever happened there, unless you counted the machinations of the drug trade as being important.

Perhaps that’s it, Theoan thought. Perhaps the gods mean to put an end to the trade. Though I don’t suppose Veiovis would consider it to be worth casting a meteor to herald that.

No, Theoan suspected the meteor was a sign for someone who was only stopping at Uanmu briefly; perhaps some great lord or mighty warrior who, for whatever reason, had paused on this most desolate of worlds on his way to more important places, where there were wonders to find and glory to win.

Theoan sighed to himself. He would dearly love to be able to leave this world and seek adventure and honor amid the suns, to see the great nations and their glorious planets. But, though he suspected his father would allow him to go, it was difficult to find any opportunity. Few ships came to Uanmu, except those connected with the drug trade, and Theoan would sooner stay on this world the rest of his life than soil his hands with that. The more respectable ships, when they came, tended to be small traders stocking up on supplies before venturing off to distant colonies, with neither the ability nor the desire to take on passengers. True, there were a few sky liners that would stop off on Uanmu to pick up and drop off travellers, and he could board one of those, but then where would he go and what would he do? Theoan didn’t know anyone outside of Uanmu, nor did he have any clear idea of what he meant to do if he ever left.

So he had to be content to slack his thirst for adventure with hunting trips to restore the family’s scant supply of meat. Livestock was in short supply on Uanmu, and difficult to keep alive. Theoan’s father had attempted to raise cattle once and had lost the entire stock before the end of the season, so the family relied upon hunting for their meat.

Theoan was secretly glad of this, though ashamed of himself for being so. He loved hunting and loved the opportunity to journey and explore the wilds, if only for a short time. It gave him a respite from the tedium of farm life.

He rode for about thirty miles, well away from any settlements of man, and parked his skimmer beside a great boulder that gleamed ruby-red in the light of Koina, the great, red, solitary moon of Uanmu, which lit up the world in a rusty twilight. Hunting, travelling, and much else was best done at night on the desert world; the sun, Vulmen, was fierce and no friend of man, sun though he was.

Theoan dismounted, but before he shouldered his pack or his rifle, he opened a small compartment on the side of the skimmer and took out three yams, the freshest they had, a small earthen bowl, and a tiny box of incense. He found a flat stone beside a tangled thorn bush and on this he set the bowl and three yams, then tossed a pinch of incense into the bowl and lit it with a quick blast from his hand torch. He knelt and bowed his head as the sweet scent rose into the night air.

“Oh, Aytea, mistress of the wild places, huntress most fair and free,

As I honor thy law and as reverence I thee,

What thou givest to thy hunting beasts, give, lady, unto me.”

He stayed a moment before the makeshift altar, hands clasped in prayer, then rose and, leaving his gifts to the lady of the wilds, he took his pack and his rifle from the skimmer and set off into the night.

Theoan always made sure to offer proper obeisance to the lady of the flashing hair before each hunt. She, he knew, was less friendly to man than most of the gods, preferring the wild beasts and open places and resenting man when he invaded her territory and violated her law. But for that very reason, she was generous to those who honored her and kept her commands. Theoan never set traps, never killed mother or young, and had never once come home empty handed.

There were tales of hunters who had pleased Aytea so much that she permitted them to catch a glimpse of her, beautiful beyond mortal imagination, racing through the wilderness with her hounds at her heels, her flashing hair streaming out behind her like a banner. It was an honor not to be asked for, but only accepted, but Theoan couldn’t help hoping that, someday, the goddess might consider him worthy of it.

For tonight, though, he would be content if could only bring home a supply of meat for another week or two.

He soon struck a game trail and followed it south and east, across the rocky, thorn-strewn wilderness, past dry streams and tangled, bare thickets. Insects fluttered about his ears, or else scurried into cover as he past, some of them nearly as high as his knee. He went with care to avoid stepping on anything venomous, but long experience had taught him how to be cautious without sacrificing speed, and he made a good pace.

Nevertheless, as he traveled further south, he began to grow a little uneasy. He was now very near the edge of the northern plateau, and the Uan might be about. The desert people were sofia – they had language, understood signs, and practiced religion – but they were certainly not civilized. They were mostly pacified by now, and could even be seen in the streets of Kath trading with men and other creatures, but out here, far from any retribution and near the desert where men could not follow, they were liable to be dangerous. Theoan’s father, who had been among the first settlers of the planet and had helped to wrest control of the plateau from the desert people, said the Uan, though they accepted their loss, regarded it as temporary. The “sky people” they said would leave one day, and the Uan would take the “cold lands” back.

The vast majority of the surface of Uanmu was uninhabitable by man; an endless desert of silver sand, baked to a blazing point by the fierce rays of Vulmen. It was said that, down by the equator, the heat was so intense that life of another sort flourished, and that there were whole forests of heat-loving fungi growing out of land burned nearly to glass, though no man had ever seen them unless it was from the sky.

However, in the far north there was a vast plateau rising thousands of feet above the level sands, and up here it was cool enough for more familiar creatures to, if not thrive, at least survive. Here there were deep springs of water that periodically welled up here and there to form small streams or pools, about which clustered spiky thickets or bushes. These could lie dormant for years and years, only to spring to sudden life again when the water returned, so that different regions would become green at different times, and it was beyond any art the men of Uanmu possessed to predict when or where this would be. Theoan had seen time-lapsed images taken from space of green patches flashing and failing on the surface of the plateau like sparks flying from a motherboard.

The chief game animals were the colbucks; shaggy, horned creatures about the size of a small horse that roamed about the plateau in small herds seeking the spots where water and green had briefly returned. The trick was to pick up their trail and follow it until you found water, and then wait. Sooner or later they would come.

The only question was whether Uan would come first.

At last Theoan found what he had been seeking; a wide, still, muddy pool surrounded by thick thorn bushes and stunted trees in full leaf, all dyed red by the moon. The pool, however, was only about a hundred yards from the Burning Road: the pass that lead down out of the plateau to the desert. No man ever went that way, for the desert was death; the Uan had made it in ages long past, and though they didn’t often use it after they had lost control of the plateau, Theoan didn’t much like being so close to it. But he must hunt, and since Aytea had decreed that this was the hunting ground, he would trust her and do so. Still he took care to position himself facing the road and with a boulder at his back.

Once in place, with a good view of the pond, Theoan laid his rifle on his knees and waited, listening. A hot wind blew up from the desert, rustling the trees and spreading a burning smell across the land. A few insects and small mammals scurried about in the underbrush. Theoan gazed up at the stars and suns blazing overhead picking out the ones he knew. There was Argea, the sun of Alaxdria, the nearest of the three nations. And Delo and Faunit and Mistu, which held the forested world of the Nelians, and, faint and golden, Vergina the fair about which spun the blessed world of Achaea. He could identify them, though he had of course never been to any of them, and he never ceased to marvel at the idea that he could lie here on the outskirts of the galaxy and look across lightyears of the Kenon – the empty void of space – upon these great and famous places.

So he sat and waited and thought of the places far away that he could see as mere points of light. Slow hours crawled by and Koina passed across the sky, rose to her height, and began to descend.

At last, as the night wore on to its end, he heard what he had been waiting for; the soft ‘flump-flump’ of the colbucks’ padded feet upon the stony ground and the low chuffs of their breath as they came down to the water to drink.

In the red light of Koina, he soon saw them; a herd of about seven; three juveniles, two females, one adolescent male, and one old, dominant male with great backward-sweeping horns.

That would be the one. As the colbucks plodded down to the brink of the pond and began to drink, Theoan very slowly lifted his rifle and aimed at the old male. But he did not fire; the others needed their water, and he would allow to drink before he took his prey. To remember the needs of the beasts whom you do not hunt was part of the Law of Aytea.

So he waited, but the herd had hardly begun to drink when the young male, who was acting lookout, suddenly stiffened in alarm. For a moment, Theoan thought they had scented or seen him. But no; the beast was looking to the right; toward the pass. A moment later, it gave a great bark of alarm and the whole herd leapt off as one, thundering out of sight into the bushes. They were fast creatures in spite of their bulk, and the echoes of the warning bark had not faded before the whole herd had disappeared.

Theoan lowered his rifle, cursing his ill luck. If he himself had made some mistake and so lost his chance, that would be one thing, but the herd hadn’t spooked at anything he had done. It had been something else; perhaps another hunter, one clumsier than he?

If so, Theoan thought angrily, rising from his place and making his way around the pond to investigate. I’ll give him a lesson!

He soon circled the pond and came to the Burning Road, where he paused to listen and look. He saw no sign of living creature, whether beast or sofai, but he heard, coming up the pass, the sound of footsteps upon the rocks.

A man, then, he thought after listening a moment. And making no more effort at stealth than a ship taking off…but what’s he doing in the pass anyway?

Immediately before him, the road turned a sharp bend behind a ridge as it went down into the pass. Impatient, Theoan strode forward and turned the corner, where he found himself face to face with the interloper in the dull red light.

He froze.

For a moment, he thought his hope had been granted and that here, beautiful beyond mortal thought, was the goddess herself. But the thought lasted only a second, for he saw that the girl before him was swaying, weary and near fainting, which showed her to be but mortal. She staggered forward, her dazed eyes on him, and she seemed to be trying to speak. But before she could articulate a sound, she stumbled and pitched forward in a faint.

Theoan recovered from his shock in time to catch her. She was unconscious now, her head fallen back and her face turned unseeing to the sky. She was pale, dirty, and exhausted, and still Theoan thought he had never known beauty until now.

She was slender and lithe of frame, her skin as clear as starlight. Her long, shining hair rippled down past her waist, and her face was soft and lovely. She was dressed for travel, in a pale dress belted at the waist and covered over with a grey cloak that fell back from her shoulders in her faint.

Theoan touched her forehead and felt the fever. Hastily, he carried her to the pond and bathed her in it, scooping some of the water into her open mouth. She swallowed, which he took to be a good sign.

Suddenly, there came a long, keening cry. Theoan looked up sharply. About a quarter mile off he could see a low hill, on which, silhouetted against the star-filled sky, was a squat, insectile shape. A moment later it was answered by another cry, this one from much farther off.

They couldn’t stay here. With luck, they might make it back to the skimmer before the Uan were on them, but only if they left now.

Theoan slung his rifle and pack over his shoulder, then lifted the girl lightly (Theoan was a strong young man, and the girl was light and slender of build) and set off at a run back up along the trail.

But whether the Uan had been content to drive him off, or whether their calls had not been meant for him at all, Theoan saw no other sign of them that night. His skimmer was standing where he had left it, though he noticed the offering to Aytea was gone. He briefly wondered whether she had guided him to that particular hunting grounds specifically to be ready to find this girl. But that was no matter now.

He stood the bike up and stowed his pack and rifle, then took his seat, gently holding the girl across his lap, and switched on the engine. As usual, it sparked once or twice, then died. He tried twice more, gently cursing the machine in his impatience, before it caught and the repulsor engine flared to life. He pulled a lever and the stands retracted, leaving the bike suspended about two feet off the ground. A moment latter, they were skimming across the land, rising over rocks and hills, taking the fastest route back to his father’s farm.

***

Theoan looked nothing like his father, Anchises. Anchises was a thickset, rather short man with a swarthy face, a heavy beard, and thick black hair. His son, on the other hand, was tall and lithe of build, with sandy brown hair and his face was finely lined. He had taken after his mother, more than his father, though he now could but dimly remember her as a distant image of beauty and gentleness in his early youth.

His younger brother Ergen more closely resembled their father, both in looks and temperament. He too was of a broad, swarthy construction, though taller than his father. Now all three were gathered about the unconscious form of their strange guest as Anchises applied salves to her forehead.

In the lamplight Theoan could see that, if anything, he had underrated her beauty under the moonlight. More than that, her face, though pale and sickly from the heat, was kind and noble as well as beautiful. Yet he also saw that she was young: barely older than he was. Say, nineteen or twenty at the most. Here, surely, he thought, was a lady of some great family; someone of importance in the galaxy. He was staggered to think that their humble house in the wilds of Uanmu was hosting such a guest.

Ergen, however, was frowning.

“You say she came out of the desert?” he said. “What was she doing there?”

Theoan remembered the ‘meteor’ he had seen.

“She must have crashed out there,” he said. “I saw a ship go down, or at least what I think must have been a ship. Looked like a meteor at first.”

“That’s odd. What made it crash, I wonder?”

“Hopefully she’ll be able to tell us soon,” said Theoan, looking a question at his father.

“She’ll be all right,” the old man grunted. “She’s just got a touch of the heat is all; lucky for her she landed at night, else she’d be a dried husk out in the sand.”

Indeed, even as he spoke the girl stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, and one hand went to her breast. Suddenly, her dark-blue eyes snapped open and she sprang up as though in alarm, leapt off the table and backed away from the three men, but she stumbled with the effort.

“Woah! Easy there, lady,” said Anchises. “You’re safe, no need to worry.”

The girl was breathing hard, one hand still clutching at the front of her dress, looking from one to the other. Her eyes came last to Theoan.

“You,” she breathed. “I saw you, did I not? In the desert?”

“Well, not quite. In the wilderness, rather, but I guess you came from the desert,” he answered. “You fainted, and the Uan were about, so I brought you here.”

It seemed to take her a moment to process what he had said.

“I see,” she said. “Then I owe you a debt.”

She looked around at the three of them and inclined her head. Her hand at last relaxed and drifted down to meet its fellow across her stomach.

“Thank you, all of you,” she said. “I apologize for my ungraciousness just now.”

“No need for that, m’lady,” said Anchises. “Natural enough; waking up after a faint to find you’re in a strange place. But you ought to sit down; you’re not near well yet.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling her forehead and swaying slightly. Anchises guided her to the couch, where she sank gratefully onto the rough cushions. They gathered respectfully about her, waiting.

For the first time, the girl looked around at the place she had woken up in. It was a low-ceilinged, wide, stone room, with no windows, only a flight of steep steps on one corner running up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a table set with three chairs in the middle of the room, a set of two beds set in the wall at one corner and a third, larger one opposite them. At the other end of the chamber was a work bench and sink, and in the center of one wall was a small shrine, with plinths set with idols of Aytea, Pellinor the Valiant, god of war, journeys, and heroic deeds, and Chloem the Bountiful, goddess of farming and harvest. Beneath the three was a bright model of Vulmen, the sun of Uanmu. A spear, telescoped all way down, hung on the wall beside the shrine, next to a badly battered buckler.

The girl seemed to take comfort from what she saw, for she smiled and turned her face back to her hosts.

“Please sit,” she said. “I am not so great a person as that.”

They did so.

“If you please, m’lady,” said Anchises. “I’m sure we’d like to know just who you are and how you ended up in a place like this.”

“As to the latter I’m not quite sure myself,” she said. “Since I do not know where I am.”

“You are on Uanmu,” said Anchises. “About twelve miles south of the port of Kath.”

“Uanmu!” she exclaimed. “I might have known, but that is far out of my way. As to who I am, my name is Nata, and I am daughter to one of the humbler lords of Metia. My father is attached to our kingdom’s diplomatic corps, but he is aged before his time and is unable to travel, so I took his place on an envoy to Achaea. The mission on which we embarked was of tremendous importance, not only to the Achaean League, but to the galaxy as a whole, and it was thought to be kept a great secret. But, alas! My ship was waylaid by pirates and driven off course. The villains finally caught up to us in this system, and I was forced to flee. I…I do not know if any others escaped. I sought to land near the cities that I could see from the sky, but the escape craft was unresponsive and I crashed in the desert. You who live here must know well what I experienced in travelling from the downed craft to the head of the long pass up into the hills. I believe it is only by the help of the gods that I am yet alive. And, of course, by your help,” she added, smiling on Theoan, who felt his heart leap at the radiance of her smile, and still more at her words.

“I think we have the Lady of the Wilds to thank for that,” he said. “She led me to where I might find you.”

“Many thanks to her, but you are the one who cared for me and bore me back here,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Theoan, my lady. Theoan Ilokar. This is my father, Anchises, and my brother, Ergen.”

“Pardon me,” she said turning to Anchises. “I ought to have asked you first. I suppose I am not quite recovered.”

“No worries, m’lady,” he said. “Now, I guess you must be starving after all that. We don’t have much to offer you, I’m afraid; not much grows here, but what we have you’re welcome to.” He turned to his sons. “You two get supper on; best we have, understand?”

They nodded and hurried to the storeroom to get the yams and melons and the few bits of salted meat that still remained from Theoan’s last hunting trip. These Ergen, who was far the better cook, set to frying while Theoan prepared the table and got out one of their precious flasks of wine. Meanwhile, Anchises sat talking to Nata, and Theoan’s eyes kept drifting to that end of the room. Her beauty seemed to increase rather than diminish every time he looked at her, possibly because she was now awake and animated and seemed to be fast recovering from her faint. She was talking to Anchises about his farm, inquiring about Uanmu and its situation and history, and seemed perfectly at her ease. Every time she moved her head, the lamplight seemed to glitter off of her long, honey-colored hair like the sun on rippling water.

She glanced his way, and Theoan abruptly realized he’d been standing still, staring at her, for several seconds. He hastily returned to preparing the dinner. As he turned back to the counter, he saw Ergen throwing him a rather stern look, and he felt himself growing red with embarrassment.

Soon everything was ready, and when they had poured out a libation for the gods they set to. Nata was evidently starved, for though she maintained her poise and grace, she ate ravenously and complimented them on their cooking in a most gracious manner. As they ate, Nata continued to ask Anchises, and now the other two as well, about Uanmu. Theoan tried hard to eat and not to look at her more than was necessary.

“I came with the first wave of settlers, ‘bout twenty-odd years ago,” Anchises said. “That was just about the time of the Darien War, and we were looking for somewhere out of the way, where we could manage our own affairs and not get caught up in the League’s problems, begging your pardon. Anyway, Kath was the first place we founded, and we had a stiff job keeping the Uan off. They didn’t have much use for the plateau, or the ‘cold lands’ as they call it, but they weren’t gonna give it up without a fight. Savage they are, and I don’t think they know what fear is. We lost a lot of good people in that fight, but in the end we won out. Helped that they didn’t know about shields, so we could hit ‘em from a distance, else I don’t know if we could have done much.

“Anyway, in the end we beat them badly enough that they acknowledged our rule of the plateau in exchange of us swearing that we wouldn’t touch these certain places that they count as sacred. These were mostly high rock places we couldn’t get to without a jetpack anyway, so it wasn’t much to us.

“Only, just after we beat the Uan, that’s about when the cartels showed up. Suppose we should’ve seen it coming; a functional space port out in the middle of nowhere, far from League authority, naturally it’s gonna attract an unpleasant crowd. So, about a year after we secured our land from the Uan, we found we were under the heel of the drug dealers. Our great campaign for freedom didn’t amount to much in the end.”

“Then why do you stay?” Nata asked.

“It’s our land,” said Anchises. “Lot of good people died for it, and we don’t mean to make that go to waste. Besides, the cartels don’t bother us farmers too much; they all stay in Kath and Maut and places like that. They buy our wares and we each mind our own business for the most part. Won’t pretend we like it, but we get by.”

“I see,” she said. “Now, as for me, you have been exemplary hosts, but I must be leaving at once. My mission, as I have said, is vitally important, and I am already delayed. Which is the nearest space port?”

“That would be Kath,” said Anchises. “But I think you ought to stay at least another day. Still surprised you survived the desert at all, even at night.”

“No, I am afraid I cannot do that,” she said. “But I am all right, really; your care has been excellent and I am perfectly well to travel.”

“Well, that’s for you to say, lady, but what do intend to do?”

“I must find transport to Achaea,” she said. “Can such a thing be found in that city?”

“I suspect so,” said Anchises. “There’s usually a liner or two coming in on their way to better ports. Only, you should know that Kath isn’t the sort of city where anyone should go alone, especially a young lady like yourself. I’ll have my boys go with you.”

“Thank you,” she said, though she looked a little uncertain. “If you think it is best…”

“It is,” he said. “I’d also recommend you wait until nightfall; travelling during the day isn’t the best idea, and you’ll be less conspicuous at night.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve already lost too much time, and my errand is an urgent one. Day or night, I must be going as soon as may be.”

“If you say so. In that case, we best get started. You just wait here and rest, m’lady, and we’ll make ready to start.”

The journey to Kath was not far; a matter of twelve miles or so (none of the settlers would dwell farther than a night’s journey on foot from the settlement), and so their gear was light; water rations, cooling packs (which they always took whenever they traveled anywhere), a few small tools, and of course their ‘Peks’ – Personal Energy and Kinetic Shields – which just about every civilized person wore if there was the slightest chance of trouble. These shields didn’t guard against fists or blades, but could repel energy blasts or projectiles, at least below a certain size, which was certainly a comfort, especially since the Uan could use rifles.

Once they’d gotten on their gear, the brothers ventured upstairs (their rooms were underground as protection from the heat) to prepare the skimmer, which needed to have its sidecar put on if all three of them were going to ride it. They’d done this many times before, and it wasn’t a long job, though with the sun up and the hot wind in through cracks around the door, it was more unpleasant than usual.

Just as they were finishing, Anchises came up, alone. He had his spear in hand, still telescoped down.

“Before you go I want a word with you two in private,” he said. “First of all, you’ll take this just in case,” he handed the spear to Ergen. “Take your rifle too,” he added to Theoan.

They looked at him in surprise.

“You think we’ll run into trouble?” Ergen asked, accepting the spear automatically.

“I don’t know what to think, except that I suspect she isn’t telling us everything,” their father answered.

“She said herself she wasn’t,” said Theoan. “But so what?”

“I don’t mean that,” said Anchises. “I mean something about her story doesn’t ring true to me. Why is she the only one to get away from the ship if it was attacked?””

“We don’t know if she was; others might have landed elsewhere.”

“Ain’t likely; escape craft tend to hone in on each other and stick together unless they’re told not to. If that was the case, why? If not, why’s she the only one who got off?”

“What are you saying?” asked Theoan.

“Only that there’s more going on here than she’s telling or that we know,” said Anchises.

He frowned, looking back down at the trapdoor.

“I don’t necessarily think she’s lying or doing wrong,” he said. “But she is dangerous. The sooner she’s gone, the better.”

How to Write Stupid Characters

Writing my Flat and Complex Characters post, describing the flaws in how Launchpad is written, it struck me that a major problem with him and similar (again, Soos from Gravity Falls) is that their stupidity is done in a very lazy way: they simply say or do whatever is most inappropriate or most idiotic, and yeah we laugh, but it’s not very interesting and doesn’t make for engaging characters. Again, the characters are just being clowns, just trying to make you laugh.

I remember Roger Ebert wrote something that’s always stuck with me. Commenting on A Fish Called Wanda he said, “It’s not funny to watch someone being ridiculous: it’s funny to watch someone do the next logical thing and have it turn out ridiculous.”

Just having people do stupid things for the sake of doing stupid things may get a laugh, but it won’t make the audience want to come back.

So, what’s an example of a stupid character written in a smart way? One of the best is the evil Doctor Doofenshmirtz from Phineas and Ferb.

Doofenshmirtz_Portrait.jpg

Now, this is a very, very smart show, and it’s full of very smart characters: characters who trade jokes about the Trojan War, or existential philosophy, or advanced physics (one song contains the lyrics: “sometimes photons behave like a wave, but they’re particles when you reflect ‘em”). Even the muscle-headed bully is multi-lingual and quotes Voltaire. About the only genuinely stupid major character is Doctor Doofenshmirtz (Candace is a debatable case, since she’s more immature and obsessive than actually stupid). But even Doof’s not just a complete idiot oblivious to the world around him; he’s what we might call stupid in a smart way.

In the first place, there’s the just the fact that Doofenshmirtz is functional. He’s an idiot, but he can take care of himself and understands basic concepts and doesn’t need to be practically led by the hand by the other characters (contrast, say, Andy from Parks and Recreation). That’s another way of saying that his stupidity is limited. It applies in certain situations and not in others. Actually, he sometimes makes fairly astute observations, like when he comments on the pointlessness of making resolutions you have no intention of keeping, or when he points out that Perry’s latest escape makes no sense. And, as noted in a previous post, some of his gripes are completely legitimate (e.g. he built a functional laser canon for his childhood science fair, yet lost to a baking soda volcano).

But more important is the fact that Doof’s stupidity is comprehensible. You can follow his thought process, which is usually fairly reasonable except that he’s missed a glaringly obvious factor. For instance, at one point he recounts how he once tried to take over the Tri-State Area with an army of robots. Since he always puts a self-destruct button on everything he makes, he decided the best way to prevent anyone actually pressing it would be to put it somewhere no one could possible reach; the bottom of their feet.

You can see the logic there: no one could reach the self-destruct button there, which means his robots would be practically unstoppable…except for the obvious problem (“And…march!” *BOOM!*).

Or when a new building blocks his view of the drive-in theater across the street, Doof decides to invent a machine to teleport the entire building to a random location…rather than moving his chair to the next window (if he did that, the lamp cord wouldn’t reach, you see).

In other words, Doof‘s stupidity tends to revolve around severely overcomplicating things and missing the obvious. Likewise, he tends to obsess over silly or minor things, like blinking street signs or pelicans, or the kid who beat him at shadow puppets as a child.

A few things to note about all of this. First, allowing for the subjectivity of humor, it’s rather deeper and more sophisticated comedy than just having Doof say or do something idiotic. Because most of us can recognize Doof’s mindset: we’ve all overreacted to silly things, or made simple problems way too complicated because we missed an obvious factor or didn’t want to have to do some specific chore. Doof’s stupidity is something almost all of the audience can relate to, which both makes it much funnier and makes Doof himself a more engaging character.

Relating to that is this brand of stupidity makes sense with regards to Doofenshmirtz’s personality. He’s established to be an emotionally-stunted eccentric genius. Thus, overcomplicating and missing the obvious fits his mind perfectly, as does his obsessive pettiness. Even the fact that he can simultaneously be stupid enough to forget the existence of boats and brilliant enough to bend reality to his whim is consistent with his characterization.

Thus, Doofenshmirtz’s stupidity isn’t just comedy, but fits his character as it’s been established. It’s not the sum-total of his personality, only one notable element that harmonizes with all the rest and influences his reactions in an understandable way.

So, to sum up, a smartly written stupid character has a recognizable thought process, his stupidity fits his established character, and it can’t apply always and in every situation, nor can it be the entirety of the character.

Lazy Writing and Lack of Consequence

Something I’ve noticed about a lot of contemporary films is that they seem to have an almost childish inability to consider real-world consequences. I’m not talking about complex things that the average person wouldn’t think of; I’m talking major factors about how people behave or how the world works.

Let me illustrate with two particularly egregious examples from two popular films.

The first is in The Force Awakens. Midway through the film, the ‘First Order’ activates a weapon that destroys an entire solar system in one shot, wiping out the New Republic (we’ll leave aside the question “so, the Republic ruled over a single solar system and had no assets, presence, fleet, etc. anywhere else?”). Now, there are many, many things wrong with this, including that it’s a lazy attempt to one-up the original Star Wars, and the fact that it’s patently absurd that a small splinter group could create such a monstrosity without anyone in the galaxy being aware of it. For right now, however, we’ll focus on the consequences.

The world-building in the Star Wars sequels is terrible to an embarrassing degree, but the idea seems to be that that First Order is a relatively small, covert group of former Empire troops and officers. In any case, they do not have a great deal of power or presence in the galaxy, only in certain portions of it. They’re like ISIS, for a real-world comparison.

Now, imagine that ISIS got hold of and detonated nuclear weapons in, say, New York, Washington, and London. Millions of people dead, the world rattled. What do you think the reaction would be from the world at large to this kind of monstrosity? The rubble wouldn’t even have begun to settle before half the planet came roaring to their doorsteps. No nation would dare harbor them, and it would only be a matter of time before they were wiped off the face of the globe.

In The Force Awakens, the universe at large apparently ignores the event, leaving the couple-hundred survivors of the Republic to go after the First Order with a fleet of twelve small ships.

You see what I mean? The Force Awakens was written with absolutely no idea of how people and nations actually behave in the real world, or even with the idea that they’re a factor at all. It’s a child’s perspective: whoever has the biggest gun can do whatever he wants. The big kid can demand your lunch money simply because he’s big and can hurt you.

Now, you might say “it’s Star Wars: it’s not supposed to be realistic.” Except that the original film actually did take this sort of thing into account. For one thing, it was conceivable for the Empire to create a weapon like the Death Star because it ruled with an iron fist and controlled most of the galaxy. But even so, the word of the weapon got out before it was quite finished and the Rebellion moved to stop it, being hampered by their own comparative smallness.

What’s more, the film makes it clear that the Death Star is a gamble for the Empire. We learn early on that there is, or has been, an Imperial Senate, which could make trouble for the Emperor if it found out about his plans. Later some of the Imperial officers are shocked to find that the senate has been dissolved and wonder whether they’ll be able to maintain control without it.

So, the original Star Wars, often seen as a simple adventure for children, had a better sense of how the real world works than The Force Awakens.

Now another example: Black Panther (yes, I do rather like picking on that film). The plot of that movie is kicked off (about two-thirds of the way through) when Killmonger returns to Wakanda and takes the throne from T’Challa. We won’t discuss how stupid it was for T’Challa to even accept the challenge in the first place, nor question how our hero managed to lose to a guy who had never trained with the weapons they were fighting with. Let’s just pick up at the point where Killmonger becomes king.

One of the very first things he does is order the destruction of the flowers that convey the Black Panther powers, thereby effectively ending the continuity of the monarchy (again, we won’t discuss how stupid the flower thing is. You starting to see a pattern?). The next thing he does is inform the high council that they’re going to abandon their tradition of isolation and lead a global war of genocide against the white race and anyone else who stands in their way, explicitly promising to kill women and children.

So, a complete outsider who has never lived in that country comes in, assumes the throne, destroys the monarchy, and announces they’re going to abandon all their traditions in favor of mass-murder of the innocents, all in the space of about a day, and no one does anything about it? He doesn’t instantly lose the support of the army, the governing council, the priesthood, or any of the civilian population; they all just go along with it except a handful of die-hard T’Challa loyalists? The only time anyone even questions any of this is when the one lady protests the flower burning until he chokes her into complying.

Again, this is a child’s view of kingship: he’s the king, so he can do whatever he wants and everyone else has to obey. That’s not how real monarchies work. If a guy no one’s heard about comes waltzing in and somehow takes the throne, then suddenly orders them to start a campaign of genocide with nothing better than “I killed this one guy you didn’t like,” he would instantly lose all authority. Assuming the military didn’t rebel against him for ordering them to commit atrocities, the council would decide that someone else actually has a much better claim to be king and depose him.

Heck, something like that happens in the film, with T’Challa’s friends going to the gorilla guy. Realistically, the entire Wakandan government should be knocking on his door begging him to take the throne and promising the support of the entire military. Actually they should never have allowed Killmonger to even approach the throne in the first place, as they guy is practically wearing a neon sign that reads “angry psychopath.”

Real-life kings can’t just arbitrarily order their subjects to do terrible things or abandon all their traditions, or destroy the continuity of the government in the space of a single day and expect their people to put up with it. Even Hitler had to work his way up to genocide through propaganda and building a powerbase, and he still had to give his people an at least semi-plausible pretext for war. Killmonger just goes in and says, “you’re going to murder the innocent because I say so,” and Wakanda is only too happy to comply, even though it’s contrary to how they’ve done things for thousands of years. Considering they’re supposed to be the most civilized and advanced nation in the world, their government structure is more primitive and has fewer checks and balances than that of an actual tribal monarchy.

You see my point: these kinds of big-budget, hi-profile blockbusters all too often read like they were written by children, with only the broadest, vaguest idea of how people behave or how the real world works. Things happen because we say they happen; if we want the bad guy to have a super-duper weapon, he’ll have it. Never mind how he would have gotten it or how the rest of this world would react to his using it. The bad guy is in charge, so he can do whatever he wants, even if it’s to effectively destroy his own government while ordering the army to commit genocide.

This is the kind of thing meant by ‘lazy writing:’ the writers want something to happen, so they simply declare that it is to be, without considering how it fits into the world of the story.

For a contrast, consider Rampage; the goofy video game adaptation starring the Rock. It’s a silly movie, but plot-wise it’s actually fairly solid. For a specific counterexample of what I mean, the entire plot is kicked off by an evil corporation performing illegal genetic experiments. Yes, that old cliché, but note how it proceeds: they don’t just get to do what they want because they’re rich (contrast Ready Player One, where the corporation had it’s own prisons), they have to do their work undercover, on the side. As soon as their secret begins to leak, they have the FBI show up and demand all their computer servers in no uncertain terms, and that’s even with their attempt at a cover story.

A lazy writer would have made them impervious to official harm, leaving our plucky heroes to take them down, maybe giving them their own private military or something equally stupid. This film presents a more realistic image of a fairly normal company run by a sociopath who runs covert illegal operations on the side, but who has to tread carefully lest the law come calling.

Rampage is a film that, for all silliness, was clearly written by adults. The Force Awakens, Black Panther, and similar films feel like they were written by children, or tossed off in a first draft because the writers figured they could rely on the other elements to carry them through.