How I Would have Written ‘Black Panther’

As I’ve said before, the more I think about Black Panther the worse the writing in the film gets. As a side effect, I found myself thinking about how I might have done it instead, had I been in charge of writing it. The result was the following rough outline, which I now present to you (by the way, I don’t know how much this fits with the ‘Black Panther’ comics, but from what I’ve seen of the comics, I don’t particularly care).

black-panther-concept-art

We open on darkness, a child’s voice says “Papa, tell me a story.”

The voice of T’Chaka then begins narrating in a kindly, fatherly manner:

“Many, many years ago, a mountain fell from the sky in a blaze of fire. Its arrival was so terrible that for many years no one dared approach it. But in its fall, ten pieces of it were thrown off and scattered among the tribes. And wherever they landed, they brought strife and violence, for they were worth more than all the gold and gems in the world. Warriors fought one another like beasts for them, and all the land was in woe.

Then, one day, a great warrior, seeing the chaos, said to himself ‘I shall take these fragments back to the fallen mountain, so they may trouble us no more.’ For years he travelled the length and breadth of the land, winning each piece by defeating the ten greatest warriors in the world.

At the end of that time, he had all ten pieces and was the richest man there ever was. He could have used them to rule a mighty empire. But he kept to his vow and, taking the precious fragments, climbed to the summit of the fallen mountain.

Upon the summit, he met Basth, the Panther Goddess. She was so struck by his courage and his honesty that she said to him: “Of all the men on the earth, you are the first who has touched my heart. Therefore I shall marry you, and give you all this mountain for my dowry.”

The warrior and the goddess were wed, and founded their city about the slopes of the Fallen Mountain. The goddess taught him how to use the mountain’s bones to make tools and weapons, and by her craft she wove it into a suit of armor modeled after her beloved panther, and the ten fragments became its claws.

Thus they brought order and peace between the five tribes, and Wakanda was born.

For many, many years, the warrior and the goddess ruled over the five tribes in peace and justice. But the warrior was mortal, and so grew old and, in time, died. Basth was inconsolable with grief, and returned to the sky to mourn her lost love. But before she went she took her son and the leaders of the five tribes to the top of the mountain to give her final command.

“All this land, from the river to the white peaks, is Wakanda,” she said. “It is your forever, my children, and none shall take it from you. But I warn you: never, never seek to expand its borders beyond these limits. For your own land is enough for you, and your own treasure enough to guard. If ever you attempt to become a cruel empire and rule over your kin, this mountain, and all its treasure, will be taken back to the sky.”

Then the goddess departed, and ever since then, her descendants have ruled Wakanda and guarded its treasures, and shall do so until the sun falls.”

We now see the jungle at night. A cloaked platform is hidden among the trees, from which M’Baku, a skilled warrior and a giant gorilla of a man, is peering along what looks to be a blowpipe at a line of vehicles wending its way through the forest.

“I make five,” he says.

“Six,” comes the answer. We pan up to see the outline of the Black Panther crouched on a tree branch, watching the convoy.

Another figure in a horned mask, wearing scale armor, sits in the tree beside M’Baku. This is Eklabu. He orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle, but Black Panther orders them to wait until the convoy crosses the border into Wakanda.

We see from the vehicle point of view as they cross a rickety bridge over a raging river into Wakandan territory, rolling over the border gate and ignoring the signs forbidding entrance. They draw further into Wakandan territory before Black Panther orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle.

M’Baku affixes a small cylinder to the end of his pipe, takes aim, and blows. We then see that the ‘blow gun’ is actually a rail-gun. As soon as he puts the little stone suspended in the cylinder into motion by blowing it, it is swiftly accelerated to just below the speed of light. It hits the lead vehicle with the force of a bomb.

The convoy stops in a panic and the mercenaries get out, armed to the teeth. Then Black Panther swoops in and begins expertly disabling them. He doesn’t kill them, only rips their weapons apart and knocks them out. Eklabu appears as well, attacking from the rear. He savagely tears into the men, brutally massacring them by stabbing and slicing with his spear or simply beating them senseless with his super-human strength and agility. One of the mercenaries throws down his gun and tries to surrender. Eklabu picks him up and bashes his brains out against the side of the truck so hard that he dents the fender (we only see the resulting blood-stained impression).

Black Panther furiously orders him to stand down as Okoye, his Amazonian bodyguard and her troops appear from the bushes. Black Panther checks on the human cargo, tells them they are now safe, and orders Okoye to take them back to their homes before leaving with Eklabu.

Back in the forward base hidden among the trees, T’Challa and Eklabu both take off their helmets. T’Challa angrily rebukes him for his savagery, while Eklabu answers that the men were scum who deserved to die.

T’Challa: “Not when they are trying to surrender!”

Eklabu then angrily points to the suffering going on all around them while they sit in their borders and do nothing.

Eklabu: “Right across that river people are being slaughtered and enslaved, and we do nothing. Then they travel two miles out of their way, suddenly it matters to us.”

T’Challa says their duty is to protect Wakanda; that is the purpose of the royal family. Furthermore, once they start trying to fix other people’s problems, it will never end, and they are liable to only make things worse. We learn here that they are cousins, and that Eklabu’s father was killed during a mission that went bad during a war in the Congo.

The argument escalates, and finally Eklabu snaps “you are not king yet.”

They return to the capital, where we meet T’Challa’s mother and sister. His sister, Shuri, is a tall, extremely dignified young woman; every inch the daughter of a king. She, we learn, rules Wakanda in her brother’s absence.

Everyone treats T’Challa with immense respect bordering on fear. He carries himself as a king at every moment and his people bow reverently whenever they see him.

T’Challa next visits the armory, where he meets Zurai, their lead scientist. He is a venerable, gray haired man in charge of a scientific team. He is also grooming his rebellious daughter, Nakia, to one day take on the mantle. Nakia is a cute, sunny young woman with a great love for western culture. She also is the only one who can tease the king and get away with it, which she proceeds to do by pestering him about whether he got Iron Man or Captain America’s autograph. T’Challa takes it in stride, smiling benignly on her and humoring her. During this time, Zurai describes the Wakandan power grid, which is formed by the resonance of all the vibranium throughout the country, creating an infinite supply of energy.

As T’Challa leaves, we see Nakia gazing longingly after him, only for her father to smack her upside the head and remind her that the king will not give a thought to the likes of her. She answers “doesn’t mean I can’t give a thought to him.”

We next get another scene of T’Challa and Eklabu, in the latter’s chamber where they seem to reconcile. T’Challa tells him that he needs his support, as guarding the borders will be Eklabu’s duty, and that he is open to the possibility of taking a more active role in the world, especially after what he saw with the Avengers, but only if they can find a way that will not jeopardize Wakanda. The cousins then share a moment of levity.

The next day is the coronation, wherein T’Challa assumes the throne. This takes place at the summit of the Fallen Mountain (not in some stupid waterfall arena), where legend has it the warrior first met and wed Basth. The five tribes and the Royal family, together with certain dignitaries (including Zurai and his daughter) are assembled, and the high priest reads out King T’Chaka’s achievements before offering T’Challa the throne. He then asks whether any one wishes to dispute T’Challa’s right to be king.

To everyone’s shock, Eklabu does so. He announces that T’Chaka murdered his father, that he saw it happen as a boy, and that “twenty years with a murderer on the throne is long enough.” During his description, we see a flashback to him as a boy hiding behind a corner while T’Chaka and his father argue. Suddenly there is a gunshot, and when Eklabu emerged he found his father dead.

T’Challa is enraged and the ceremonial combat begins. The two savagely beat on each other using their superhuman speed and power, with Eklabu pouring out all the anger he’s kept bottled up for two decades against T’Challa and his father. It finally ends with T’Challa being thrown off the cliff, presumably to his death. Eklabu then assumes the throne, promising to restore the dignity of the throne.

Late that night, the distraught Nakia sneaks out of the city to try to find T’Challa’s body. She is caught by M’Baku, who turns out to have the same object. They search, but find nothing. Then, all of a sudden, T’Challa himself comes crawling out of the forest, incapacitated by a spinal injury, but alive. He wants to challenge Eklabu at once, but the others remind him that, one, the ceremony is over and he has no right to do so, and two, he is no state to try even if he could.

T’Challa thus decides to leave Wakanda to heal and plan his campaign. Nakia insists on going with him, as does M’Baku.

We cut to the palace where Eklabu finds Shuri standing by a window. He walks up to her and expresses his surprise that she remains. She comments that her place is beside the throne. When Elabu asks whether it isn’t a risk for her to remain within his reach, given his hatred of her father and brother, she answers “to be killed by you would put me in better company than to rule with you.”

His claws (he’s wearing the Black Panther suit) start to come out at that, but she then adds that he would not dare lay a hand on her. He’s surprised, then laughs that he is the king and can do what he likes.

Shuri: “And I am a princess. Do you think the people of Wakanda would stand it if you raised a hand against a member of the royal family?”

He grins. “I am the Black Panther. What could they do?”

Shuri smiles and begins describing the composition of the wall he is standing behind, before concluding “Do you know how much resistance that would provide to a rail gun aimed at your unprotected head? None at all.”

This disturbs him visibly, and she adds “A king only rules as long as his people will allow him to. Perhaps you should have thought of that before you killed my brother.”

Eklabu retreats to his chambers, where he prays and has a vision of his father. He discusses the future, and his father agrees that Wakanda will not be easily swayed to break its long isolation. Eklabu says he will give them no choice, and declares that he’ll take all of Africa before he’s done.

T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku flee Wakanda and end up in a neighboring nation call Buandi, where they find a ‘doctors without borders’ station to have T’Challa’s spine looked at. The doctor is amazed that he is still alive and able to move with his injury. He is reluctant to operate, and M’Baku angrily orders him to obey. The doctor protests that he might kill him, and M’Baku says that if T’Challa dies, he dies.

Doctor: “Well now I’m definitely not gonna try!”

T’Challa intervenes and assures the doctor that he will be him no grudge if anything goes wrong, ordering M’Baku to stand down.

The argument attracts the attention of Everett Ross, the CIA operative, who walks into the tent and whistles in recognition of T’Challa.

Ross: “Your highness. I’m sure there’s a reason the King of Wakanda is in an aid tent, but you don’t look in the mood to tell me.”

The doctor says he wants him to perform a spinal surgery, Ross advises him to try as “He’s pretty good at surviving.”

The doctor operates, resetting T’Challa’s spine while the king refuses morphine and grits his teeth. Nakia impulsively tries to hold his hand, but he doesn’t take hers.

The surgery completed, he lies there while his superhuman cells heal his injury, and Nakia and M’Baku tell Ross about Eklabu’s coup.

Ross: “Where I come from we have elections. They’re nowhere near as civil, but people generally walk away with intact spines.”

T’Challa asks what Ross is doing there, and Ross says that he’s interviewing survivors of the latest massacre. When the Wakandans express confusion, Ross explains that Buandi is in civil war and has been for years; the rebels prey on poor farming villages and travellers, while the government forces focus on protecting such business interests as the country has and avoid engaging with the militants if possible. This, he says, is because the rebels are armed with hi-tech weaponry.

Hearing this, T’Challa sits up, wincing, but looking fierce.

T’Challa: “What kind of weaponry?”

Ross: “Funny you should ask. You, see I’m here looking for their supplier, and I have an idea you’ve met.”

Cut to an old ivory station in the jungle. Here Ulysses Klaue has his base of operations. We see him interrogating one of his workers and accusing the man of dealing under the table. His right arm a mechanical nightmare that lives up to his name.

Klaue tells the man that, in his organization, “you’re only allowed to cheat when I say so.” The man pleads, obviously terrified of Klaue, that he’s innocent. Klaue acts surprised at hearing that.

Klaue: “Oh, innocent? Well, that changes everything. I’m sorry; I had no idea.”

He turns away, feigning distress, then suddenly whips around and fires a blue laser from his mechanical palm, blasting the man to ash.

Klaue: “I’ve got no use for innocent people in my organization.”

Klaue then goes into his chambers to look over some new weaponry. Suddenly the Black Panther drops from the ceiling. Klaue, apparently unconcerned, gives a mock bow.

Klaue: “Your royal highness. This is an honor, and so soon after your coronation too! Allow me, as one who so admires the throne of Wakanda, to express my congratulations.”

Eklabu removes his helmet and asks how he knows so much. Klaue answers that even in Wakanda there are people on the bottom of the ladder who are willing to sell what they know. Eklabu smilingly asks whether he’d be willing to give the names of these people, Klaue answers that it depends on what he’ll bid for them. Eklabu asks whether he thinks he’s there to bargain, Klaue replies that, if he weren’t, they wouldn’t be speaking.

Eklabu tells Klaue that he wants the Buandi war to spill over in to Wakanda. He wants Wakandan blood spilled on Wakandan soil. Klaue laughs that he’s buying the deaths of his own people.

Klaue: “You’re a trader in death. A killmonger.”

Eklabu answers that a little blood is necessary to wake his people out of their stupor. He tells Klaue to name his price…and to throw in the names of informants as well, as “A king needs his spies.”

Klaue laughs and pours them both a drink.

Klaue: “Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?”

Eklabu: “I wouldn’t count on it.”

Klaue (toasts): “Good answer.”

We cut back to T’Challa, who is talking with Ross. Ross suggests that, if T’Challa intends to retake the throne, he might consider cutting a trade deal with the US in exchange for aid. T’Challa feigns ignorance; what does he think Wakanda has to offer? Ross says he has an idea:

Ross: “I see the king of a third world country running around in the most advanced body armor I’ve ever seen, then I think about how you’re also the only place that produces the most valuable medal in the world, and suddenly I start to wonder whether Wakanda is quite so poor as it makes out.”

T’Challa: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Ross: (Smiles) “Alright. But if you change your mind, remember the US is pretty good at changing governments.”

M’Baku: “Pretty good at taking over governments, you mean!”

Ross: “That too.”

T’Challa says that he will not sell the honor of Wakanda for his throne.

He leaves Ross and walks into the jungle, where, out of sight of everyone, he punches a tree so hard he shatters the trunk.

Nakia: “Careful! I think that one’s endangered! Can’t start our lives in the outside world by offending the environmentalists: according to the internet they basically run the place.”

T’Challa: “Do not follow me.”

Nakia: “I am sorry. I only thought…you might not want to be alone.

T’Challa: “That is exactly what I do want. I need to think…to plan how I am going to regain my throne.”

Nakia looks troubled, then begs permission to speak.

T’Challa: “I am not king, Nakia; you do not have to beg permission.”

Nakia: “But I think I should, because you are not going to like what I have to say.”

She suggests that trying to retake the throne might make things worse: like it or not, he lost the fight and so has no real claim to it anymore. As long as Eklabu keeps the support of the tribes, T’Challa would only, at best, bring civil war to Wakanda. At worst he’d get himself killed.

She shrinks back in alarm when glares at her, but then he slumps to the ground and says that perhaps he doesn’t deserve to king anyway. If what Eklabu said was true…Nakia says it wasn’t. It couldn’t be.

T’Challa: “I’ve seen, and felt, hatred like that before. It does not come from nothing.”

He asks her to leave him, and he begins to engage in fervent prayer, communing with the spirit of his father, who appears to him in a vision. T’Challa confesses how much he misses him, and that he feels he has failed.

T’Chaka answers that he is the one who failed. T’Challa asks whether it is true he killed his own brother, and T’Chaka hesitates, which to T’Challa’s mind confirms it. The vision ends with him roaring his agony to the sky.

Suddenly, he hears gunfire coming from what Ross says is the direction of a nearby village. T’Challa draws a deep breath, pushes his own suffering down, and begins running through the forest.

Meanwhile Ross is on the phone trying to get UN troops to come and help. When he fails to get through he grabs a rifle and asks M’Baku if he’s any good in a fight. M’Baku laughs and shoulders his rail gun.

We cut to the village, where women and children are being herded to one corner while the men futilely try to fight. The militants all have vibranium armor and carry powerful energy weapons. One man is seen defending his wife and children with a farm tool, which shatters against the militant’s armor. The bad guy laughs at the blow, beats the man to the ground, and prepares to decapitate him.

T’Challa (wearing a black mask over his face), comes flying in from the trees with a noise like a panther roar, dispatches the militant with a few quick blows and relieves him of his blade and knife. The other militants turn on him, and with his new weapons he begins utterly decimating them with his speed, agility, and raw power, slashing at them like a cat with his blades.

A jeep armed with a machine gun rolls up and opens fire on T’Challa, who dodges and ducks, but can’t get close enough to attack…then it blows up with a single shot from M’Baku’s rail-gun.

Ross: “…Can I borrow that sometime?”

M’Baku: (threatening growl)

T’Challa finishes up by beating up the militant leader, but refrains from killing him.

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu, together with the leaders of the five tribes, Shuri, and the queen mother are participating in a ritual honoring Basth. Suddenly, it is interrupted when a missile lands in the midst of the circle, killing the five leaders and the queen, though Eklabu saves Shuri, who escapes injured.

As the dust settles, one of the guards says that the weapon came from outside the borders, but was of Wakandan make. Eklabu says that this proves that someone has been stealing Wakandan technology, and that their borders are no longer enough to keep them safe. One of his cronies then comes forward saying that they have intelligence that T’Challa is alive and has been seen conferring with foreigners, together with Zurai’s daughter, who knows the secrets of Wakandan tech. Zurai is furious at the accusation, but Eklabu asks if he has a better explanation for what happens. With the support of the people, he assumes full control and tells them to prepare for war to avenge this atrocity and secure Wakanda against foreign treachery.

Back at the village, T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku help the villagers while Ross interrogates the militants. Nakia has a moment where she tenderly cares for a little girl who has been injured in the fight, cheering her up with a folk song. T’Challa watches with admiration.

Ross appears with the news that they now have Klaue’s base, but that it’s deep in the rebel-controlled zone where the military won’t go. He suggests that the three of them might be able to mount an attack. Nakia insists on coming as well, noting that they might need her to get around Klaue’s tech. She also repairs some of the weapons recovered from the militants.

M’Baku tries to prevent Ross from taking one, noting that only Wakandans are permitted to use them.

Ross: “Well, you know us white people: not big on respecting local customs.” (picks up the weapon).

M’Baku gets angry, but T’Challa stops him, noting that they’ll need Ross’s help.

That night, we have a tense scene of the four of them infiltrating Klaue’s camp. As they approach, they realize Klaue is about to make another shipment of weapons, these worse than before: long-range emplaced rail-guns that could be mounted on vehicles or behind fortifications. These could destroy any vehicle currently in use.

T’Challa takes out his guards one-by-one with stealth, then Nakia slips in to take down his alarm system and stop the shipment, which is being delivered by drone as added security. Klaue, meanwhile, senses something wrong and starts moving toward her position. T’Challa gives the signal and M’Baku and Ross open fire, distracting him and focusing his attention on them. Nakia succeeds, then T’Challa attacks, taking out Klaue’s guards before going one-on-one with him.

Klaue is extremely dangerous with his mechanical hand, as well as suit of vibranium armor similar to what Eklabu wore in the opening. Ross and M’Baku join in, then Nakia, who distracts him long enough for T’Challa to catch him off guard and tear his mechanical arm off.

Klaue, however, seems unconcerned, cracking jokes at T’Challa’s expense for losing his throne. He also reveals Eklabu’s falseflag attack, and that he killed T’Challa’s mother as well as the five tribal leaders, and that “Killmonger” means to conquer Africa and maybe the world. He also reveals that Eklabu has blamed T’Challa for the attack and for selling Wakandan technology to the outside world, meaning he’ll be arrested and executed if he tries to return.

T’Challa is furious and ready to kill Klaue, but he then plays his final hand: he’ll give T’Challa a recording of his meeting with Killmonger in exchange for one hour’s head start. And, he says, considering Killmonger will start his war in the morning, they don’t really have time to search for it…or to go after him.

M’Baku asks what’s to prevent them from taking the deal and killing him anyway.

Klaue: “Oh, I have much too much respect for the throne of Wakanda to think you’d do that. A king would never go back on his word, would he?”

Furious, T’Challa accedes to Klaue’s deal. Klaue gives him the recording and then disappears.

They then have to decide what to do about it: T’Challa must challenge Eklabu for the throne, but he fears whether he is truly worthy of it, given the history of his family. Moreover, Nakia points out that, with the five chiefs dead, Eklabu basically runs the government alone, and that they may have a fight to even get to position where they can use the recording against him. Ross offers the support of the CIA in exchange for vibranium, but T’Challa refuses.

Ross: “Well, not to play the white savior, but Eklabu has an army. An army that you claim is the most advanced in the world, while you have yourself, a girl, and a great ape.” (M’Baku glares at him) “I mean that in the best possible way. Let us help you!”

T’Challa refuses, saying he cannot bargain for his throne with foreigners, growing angry.

T’Challa: “You don’t care about Wakanda. You are just like all the rest of your people: only after what you can get.”

Ross: “I don’t care about who sits on a chair in the most isolated country on Earth? You’re right; I don’t. Why should I? What have you people ever done that I should care? At the moment, what I’m after is some way to convince my government that stopping this war, which is claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people, is in our best interests, and if we had an ally in the region, an ally who supplies extremely valuable technology and resources, that might be a reason. But I don’t suppose that matters to you.”

T’Challa lunges at him in anger, but Nakia stops him. He then demands to be left alone.

As the others leave, Nakia becomes upset and confesses to M’Baku that she’s afraid no matter what happens: if T’Challa fails, he’ll die. If he succeeds…she doesn’t finish, but he understands and gives him a comforting bear hug.

Meanwhile T’Challa prays once more, communing with his ancestors for guidance. He has a vision in which he sees, not his father, but an upright, elderly woman (in an ideal world she’d be played by Eartha Kitt). This, it turns out, is Basth herself. T’Challa admits to her that he is uncertain what to do and whether he is even worthy to be king.

Basth: “It is not the armor that makes you the Black Panther: it is what is beneath the armor. In here.” (she places her hand over his heart) “If anyone can stop you from being a king by taking your throne or your crown or your armor, then you never were one to begin with. But I don’t believe that for a moment.”

He returns to the present and declares that, by the next sunset, he will be on the throne or in the ground of Wakanda. Nakia and M’Baku volunteer to go with them, as does Ross.

T’Challa: “I told you I don’t want help from the CIA.”

Ross: “You’re not getting it. You’re getting help from a friend.”

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu gives a speech to his army as they prepare to conquer Buandi and the neighboring regions, declaring that T’Chaka was a murderer and T’Challa is a traitor, and that because of them Wakanda has no choice but to abandon its traditions and expand to remain safe.

Afterward, Shuri catches him and tells him he is a liar; that her brother would never betray Wakanda. Eklabu asks whether you can truly know anyone, and she answers “people like you cannot.” Eklabu responds that no one will question the king who rescued their beloved princess from her traitorous brother.

Meanwhile, T’Challa and his friends are preparing to cross into Wakanda. The plan is that Nakia, together with T’Challa, will slip into the palace to broadcast Klaue’s recording, while Ross and M’Baku keep the army from leaving Wakandan territory.

Ross: “Two of us against the most advanced army in the world?”

M’Baku: “Those are the odds I’ve always dreamt of!”

T’Challa and Nakia slip quietly into the city. As they infiltrate the palace, with her hacking the security panels and him subduing guards, she asks what will happen if the army leaves Wakanda. T’Challa says that, according to the legend, Fallen Mountain will be taken back to the sky. She asks if he believes that, he says “I would rather not risk it.”

The Wakandan army begins advancing to the borders, with numerous ships, vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers. M’Baku hands Ross the rail gun to cover him while he goes and plants mines to slow them down.

M’Baku: (handing him the gun) “Twist, aim, and blow. Can you do that?”

Ross: “I think my primitive savage brain can just handle it.”

M’Baku: “You certainly have wind to spare.”

T’Challa and Nakia slip into Fallen Mountain as a back route to the palace. As they do, Nakia notices something strange about the vibranium. They pause for her to examine it, and she realizes that it’s growing unstable:

Nakia: “Large amounts of vibranium form an energy resonant network; a natural power grid.”

T’Challa: “Right, I know that.”

Nakia: “Well, as long as the vast majority remains in one place, the grid is stable, but if too much moves too far at once, it…it’ll overload.”

T’Challa: “Overload? What do you mean? How bad?”

Nakia: “Give me a second…” (she does some quick calculations, then looks up in shock) “If the army goes a mile past the river, the crater will reach the Indian Ocean.”

T’Challa (stunned) “Why haven’t we known this before?”

Nakia: “No one’s ever tried moving this much vibranium away from the mountain at once! It’s only been bits and pieces. But this…”

They look at each other, then T’Challa gets on his communicator and tells Ross and M’Baku to stop the army at all costs.

Ross: “You said to try to avoid killing anyone…”

T’Challa: “Doesn’t matter now. If they cross the border, the mountain will explode.”

Ross: “Are we talking firecracker, nuke…”

Nakia: “It’ll blow Africa in half!”

(Beat)

Ross: “Okay then,” (aims the rail gun) “No more playing nice.”

T’Challa and Nakia reach the main communication chamber, but there they are caught by Okoye and her guards. T’Challa tells her that Eklabu has betrayed them, and that he has proof. She hesitates, unsure whom to believe the Eklabu himself appears in his Black Panther garb.

Eklabu says he expected as much from T’Challa, though he didn’t expect him to try to fight the whole of Wakanda with only four people. Shuri then suddenly shows up and hits Okoye with a tazer, correcting him that it’s five.

This sparks a fight, with Shuri, with a little help from Nakia, taking on the guards with her own physical powers (as she too is a descendent of Basth) while T’Challa clashes with Eklabu. Their fight spills into the throne room, where T’Challa grabs a spear from a rack. T’Challa tries to warn Eklabu that his plan will destroy Wakanda, but Eklabu will not listen, accusing him of merely wishing to steal his glory.

T’Challa: (contemptuous) “You sit on that throne, you put on that armor, and you think that makes you a king?”

Meanwhile, M’Baku and Ross struggle to survive and keep the army too busy to move. They are pinned down and seem about to die. They clasp hands and declare it has been an honor.

Eklabu, with the Black Panther suit, has a crucial advantage and gets T’Challa on the ropes.

Eklabu: “What a pathetic king you are.”

T’Challa: “But I am a king.”

With Shuri holding off the guards, Nakia puts in the data disk and projects it onto the shield surrounding Wakanda, so that the entire population sees it. The army pauses its assault to watch. The broadcast distracts Eklabu, allowing T’Challa to get the drop on him and tear the helmet off. The fight resumes, with Eklabu enraged by the sudden overthrow of his plans. He pins T’Challa against the throne and tries to tear his throat out with his claws, which T’Challa barely holds off.

Eklabu: “If nothing else, I will kill you and your bitch sister!”

T’Challa, in a sudden burst of rage, reverses the attack, grabs Eklabu’s head, and slams it into the throne, knocking him out. He then picks up the spear and prepares to kill him, when Shuri and Nakia come in. He sees their faces, then looks at the throne, which was cracked by the impact, and throws the spear away. Okoye and her guards come in, see the scene, and bow, beseeching forgiveness. T’Challa orders them to take Eklabu into prison and remove his armor.

The next scene is T’Challa, once again wearing the Black Panther armor, standing on his balcony overlooking his people. He announces that he has returned to claim the throne and asks if any disputes his right to rule. The answer is a cheer.

T’Challa greets M’Baku and Ross, who are bruised and bloodied, but alive. Ross says he hopes Wakanda and the United States will enjoy good relations in the future. T’Challa agrees, then comments that perhaps it is time their isolation comes to an end; if they cannot expand their own borders, they can at least share their bounty. He tells M’Baku that one of the tribes (from which he hails) appears in need of a leader, and he needs a general. M’Baku grins in appreciation and bows.

T’Challa adds to Shuri that, once they have settled things here, he may be away more often than not, as there is much to be done in the surrounding countries.

T’Challa: “Perhaps it is time the Black Panther becomes a sign of hope for more than just Wakanda.”

There is then a scene of T’Challa visiting Eklabu in the dungeon. He tells Eklabu that he now knows what happened: T’Chaka didn’t kill Eklabu’s father. He caught him selling Wakandan weapons to rebels the Congo, hoping to make a better life for the people there. But when T’Chaka revealed that those same weapons were being used to commit atrocities, Eklabu’s father killed himself out of shame before his brother could stop him.

Eklabu: “He may not have pulled the trigger, but he drove him to his death.”

T’Challa: “Your father chose his own path, as have you. I hope, in time, you will think better of it.”

He leaves him and goes to watch the sunset from the top of Fallen Mountain. Nakia joins him, complaining that she’d been waiting for hours and it’s cold up there. He asks why she thought he’d come, she says because she knows how he likes to brood, and that there’s no better spot in Wakanda for it.

Nakia: “I brood up here myself sometimes. Or listen to my ipod. Actually, mostly that, but some brooding.”

There is a pause. She comments that he’s king now. He agrees.

Nakia: “It’s funny; when you were deposed, all I wanted was to help you take back the throne. Now, I almost wish you hadn’t.”

T’Challa: “Oh? Why not?”

Nakia: “Well, a king wouldn’t even look at someone like me.”

T’Challa: (surprised) “You don’t know many kings, do you?”

Nakia: “Only one. That’s more than enough for me.”

T’Challa: “The way I see it, a king can look at whoever he wants.”

He pulls her close and they kiss in front of the Wakandan sunset.

 

Establishing Morality

In addition to establishing setting, character, and plot, it is important, when writing a story, to establish morality. That is, to make sure the audience will consider your protagonists to be on the right side and your antagonists on the wrong. It needs to feel that the protagonists deserve to win.

Obviously, this is not the case in every story: you can have one where both sides are wrong, or the protagonist is a villain, or so on. Only, if you do that, you still need a reason why people should care what happens.

For a simple example of this being done well, I offer the episode Rooting for the Enemy from Milo Murphy’s Law. The idea of this one is that Milo – a middle-school boy cursed with absurdly bad luck – decides to help out his school football team by rooting for the other team, ensuring that his bad luck rubs off on them. It’s a funny premise, but the problem is that this does look a little like cheating. By imposing his abysmal luck on the opposing team, isn’t Milo unfairly influencing what is after all just a game?

The show sidesteps this in a clever and amusing way: they establish that the opposing school is already cheating, since they’ve been purposefully failing all their best football players for years until their team is basically made up of “a group of angry adults.” Not only is that cheating, but it’s a lot meaner than anything Milo does, putting his team in an impossible and rather dangerous position. So, when Milo plays unfair, he does so to redress a much worse unfairness that the other team has done.

This device also serves to one, give Milo a reason to be at the game in the first place (the team specifically asks him to stay away, as his bad luck inevitably spoils their chances, but since they’re obviously going to lose they give him permission to come this time) and two, put his team into a position that would require Milo’s intervention to extract them.

Now let’s look at an example of this done badly: the episode The Mysterious Mare-Do Well from My Little Pony (yes, My Little Pony has its share of bad episodes). The premise is that Rainbow Dash, after receiving praise for saving ponies in need, becomes even more self-absorbed than usual, to the point of being arrogant and careless. Her friends then show her up by creating a masked hero who is better than her at everything, forcing her to confront her bad behavior.

The major problems here are one, that the other ponies never tried simply talking to Rainbow Dash about her behavior, and two, that Rainbow didn’t do anything wrong. The worst you could say is that she was getting careless and rude, but she was still helping people. Also, Rainbow becomes seriously depressed and upset over the situation (she has a history of emotional fragility), but still the others don’t simply tell her what’s going on and even rub it in her face at one point, which is frankly a lot meaner than anything Rainbow does (all the more so because, when they do tell her what’s happening at the end, it takes her all of two seconds to agree with them, meaning the whole rigmarole was unnecessary). It’s jarringly out of character for them to behave this way, and frankly our sympathies are entirely with Rainbow Dash. The episode failed to justify the actions of the ‘good’ characters relative to the actions of the ‘bad’ character.

The Milo episode works because the writers recognized the potential moral pitfall and carefully turned what could have been a liability into an asset, making the story stronger and raising the stakes. The plot device of the other team cheating by keeping their players into adulthood both provides the conflict and justifies Milo’s actions. One side is cheating in a way that could cause real harm, so Milo rectifies it by arguably cheating to help his friends.

The MLP episode doesn’t work because the writers failed to establish the conflict to the point that it would justify the heroines’ actions. This could have easily been solved by simply having a scene of Twilight confronting Rainbow Dash and having her blow her off and by having another scene where Rainbow Dash’s self-aggrandizement actually caused real problems, rather than just being annoying. Those two scenes would have pretty much salvaged the episode by putting the morality of the story on firmer grounds.

The point is that basic moral rules are as important in creating a good story as anything else. If the characters’ actions don’t fit the reaction we’re meant to have to them, the story won’t work.

Multilevel Motivation:

Today I want to talk about a characterization trick I’m going to call multilevel motivation. This is where a character’s actions are driven by several different and often conflicting motives at the same time, creating a more psychologically complex and realistic storyline.

Let me explain with an easily understood, but very well done example: the episode What About Discord from My Little Pony.

Brief summary: Twilight emerges from a weekend alone to find that her friends have apparently had a fabulous time with the local trickster god, Discord, and are bubbling over with shared jokes and stories of their escapades. Twilight’s confused by this, since, except for Fluttershy and maybe Pinkie, none of her friends have ever gotten along well with Discord, as he’s kind of a jerk. She naturally suspects that something is up and sets about trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Now, let’s take this apart: Twilight tells her friends that her motive is to better understand their bonding experiences so that she can use that knowledge in her friendship studies. To that end, she has them go through the whole thing again with her watching so that she can figure out what they found so enjoyable. At the same time, she’s suspicious of Discord, since he seems to be acting slightly out of character and she knows he likes to cause trouble. So she wants to find out what he’s up to.

But there’s a third thing going on, which is simply that she regrets having missed the good times and is jealous that her friends now have these experiences and jokes that she can’t share in. This is the motive that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, even to herself, as it conflicts with her values and role as a princess, but which is the real driving force behind what she does in the story.

So, in summary, there is the motive she claims to have, the motive she thinks she has, and the motive she actually has. That creates an engaging internal conflict, as she wrestles with feelings she thinks she ought not to have, and instead of putting them aside she claims an alternative motivation that she feels could satisfy her actual needs without having to acknowledge the feelings she’s ashamed of. Since it’s still not one that would go down well with her friends, she works up a plausible alternative, which perhaps she wishes was the actual motive.

All this works in to make Twilight an interesting, three-dimensional character. It shows her struggling with natural, human feelings that conflict with her morals and role in society and trying to find a way to deal with it. She does so by telling herself that her real feelings are something different and more altruistic.

But that’s not all: there is a similar and parallel characterization going on with Discord, who also has a multilevel motivation. The end of the episode reveals that he specifically arranged for the others to not let Twilight know about their upcoming fun weekend, purposefully cutting her out of it.

He claims his motive was simply to let Twilight alone and not bother her. It’s not very convincing, and almost no one believes him. He then all-but says that his real motive was to teach Twilight a lesson about the need to face and acknowledge her less savory emotions (with the added nuance that this is a lesson Twilight legitimately needs to learn). That’s the motive he thinks he has, and perhaps actually does make up part of his actions. But, at the same time, the actual motive is simply that he likes making trouble and jerking Twilight around. Like with Twilight, this showcases Discord’s three-dimensional characterization: though now a good guy, he still has the habits and instincts he had as a villain, which keep bubbling out subconsciously. Thus, he still wants to torment and trick Twilight, but she’s supposed to be his friend and he is honestly trying to turn over a new leaf. This is his way of trying to have his cake and eat it: to still indulge in his favorite vices while telling himself that he’s actually trying to help her.

So, the episode sees Discord and Twilight wrestling with their respective flaws and dealing with them by trying to tell themselves that their real motives are something more honorable. Only their actual motives can’t help but shine through and their fake motives can’t bring the satisfaction they want, forcing them to confront the reality of their behavior (and just to make it more nuanced, Discord never actually acknowledges his true motives, leaving us the audience to discern them from his behavior and our knowledge of him). It’s a psychologically complex set up centered around two very interesting and engaging characters.

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You see how it works? The character have selfish, but understandable motives, ones that conflict with their own values, so they try to convince themselves their real motives are something quite different, while maintaining yet a third motive to the people around them in order to try to make the other two motives work out to the same conclusion. It brings their interior conflict into focus, further fills out their characterization, and creates some interesting character based drama.

 

 

Making a Character Prodigiously Powerful Will Not Make Them Interesting

So, I was watching the trailer for ‘The Last Jedi,’ where Luke is telling Rey that he’s only seen her kind of power once before, that she’s amazingly in tune with the Force and so on and so forth and I thought “Man, I am tired of the heroes in these kinds of stories being amazing prodigies.”

Now, I’d like to unpack that a little. First of all, yes, in an adventure or fantasy story the hero ought to be special or extraordinary in some way. Otherwise there’s no point in talking about them. But something about this particular instance annoyed me, and I tried to compare it to some other instances I know about.

First there’s the preceding films, ‘Phantom Menace’ and its sequels, where, again, Anakin was repeatedly built up as Jedi prodigy without equal, and it struck me as similarly annoying (though there it was so buried in an avalanche of other bad storytelling techniques that it was kind of hard to notice).

So, latter ‘Star Wars’ films all have this plot element, and I find it annoying in each case. The originals, however, didn’t have it. Luke had potential and was attune with the Force, but nothing indicated he was anything unusually powerful: the issue was that he had aptitude, and was apparently the only chance for the Jedi to continue. Likewise, Han was a tough, clever outlaw, but not a master warrior or genius strategist. Yet, as we all know, Luke and Han were much more interesting and engaging characters than either Grey – sorry, Rey – or Anakin.

Are there other cases? Let’s consider the other major pop culture stories. The Harry Potter series actually avoids this as well. Harry was never portrayed as an extreme magical prodigy, on par with the likes of Dumbledore, Tom Riddle, or even Snape. He was pretty consistently played as being talented, but not extraordinary: he had natural talent in flying (which he himself points out isn’t especially useful) and was especially skilled in defensive magic, largely because he’d been through a crucible of extreme circumstances almost from day one. The point of the story was that his friends and his fundamental decency were ultimately more powerful than raw magical might.

Obviously in The Lord of the Rings the whole point was that Frodo and his fellow Hobbits weren’t anything extraordinary. Aragorn was, but it wasn’t really his story. Even when we focus on him, he’s not the ‘audience identification’ figure: we’re more meant to admire him as a paradigm than to identify with him.

Then there’s Avatar the Last Airbender. Now, in that one, Aang is uniquely powerful, which works because that’s the premise of the story, and the progression is watching him undergo training to make the most of his vast potential. On the other hand, all his friends are prodigies as well; Katara and Toph are presented as being among the greatest benders in their field, and Sokka is a brilliant strategist and inventor. Now, I love Avatar, but this, I think, is actually one of the few major flaws with the series: the fact that all the greatest Benders in the world are either under eighteen or over fifty: there are no middle-aged or in-their-prime masters on screen. That kind of hurts the suspension of disbelief.

As for My Little Pony, Twilight is presented as a great magical prodigy, but the story isn’t about her magical prowess: it’s about her learning about friendship, at which she’s explicitly portrayed as being below average to start with. Likewise with her friends, Rainbow Dash and Rarity are both played as being naturally very talented, but still needing a lot of hard work and training to reach their full potential, which is ultimately achieved only through a lot of time, sacrifice, and effort. Starlight is also a natural magical prodigy, but this is actually played as a bit of a liability, since her first instinct is always to use magic to solve her problems. Since, again, the point of the story is virtue and friendship, not magic.

Now, Phineas and Ferb is premised on its titular pair being extreme prodigies. But there are two things about that; first, it’s required by the premise and is obviously exaggerated to the point of being ridiculous. In the second, despite the title the show is really more about their sister, Candace, whose character arc involves her jealousy towards her extraordinary brothers and her own sense of inadequacy. Thus, the entry point of the show is still an identifiable figure.

Less well known, Larry Correia’s Grimnoir trilogy, with its X-Men-meets-Ray Chandler set up (Chandler himself is actually a minor character), also has a preternaturally talented cast. But there, it feels earned. The characters have almost all had intense, harsh lives and extreme training to augment their powers. Like, Jake, the main protagonist, is a WWI veteran who did hard time in a brutal prison, in addition to being naturally intelligent. Another character, Heinrich, grew up in the zombie-infested ruins of Berlin, where he’d have to develop extraordinary abilities to survive. There’s really only one character who is presented as a preternatural prodigy – Faye – and then her extreme talent is a plot point with a large part of the series taken up with trying to find out why she’s so powerful.

That, I think, is the main thing that separates the instances that work and the ones that don’t: if it feels earned. With Rey and Anakin, and some others, it doesn’t feel earned: we’re simply told that they’re uniquely powerful and talented, and that therefore we should be invested in their story. But the trouble is, they’re boring characters: there’s no reason to care about what happens to them. Luke, Han, and Leia were great characters in their own right, and were fun to watch. All the other characters I mentioned were also great, fun, interesting characters in their own right. That, I think, is the other thing that I find annoying about the latter Star Wars films and a lot of other contemporary stories: that it feels like a cheap ploy to try to make boring characters seem interesting.

I remember on one writing advice site I perused a while back, one of the principles offered was ‘Superpowers will not make a boring character interesting.’ If the character’s personality, story, and arc aren’t engaging, then assuring us that they’re a genius or a prodigy or amazingly powerful won’t change that.

As you can tell, I’m not looking forward to Last Jedi: I really just don’t care anymore. I didn’t like Force Awakens very much, and it’s gone down in my estimation upon reflection. I don’t buy that this is really ‘what happened next’ in the story: it just feels like they’re rehashing the same plot, only with duller characters. And the assurance that Kylo and Rey (AKA dull and duller) are the most powerful Force users ever only makes it seem even more boring.

In short, I don’t care what happens to these people.

Writing Only Leads to More Writing

My goal at the moment is to write a sellable essay every day. Initially I was worried about whether I’d have enough material, but then I quickly discovered that essays are like bacteria: they multiply and divide exponentially!

So, I was working on a piece about Jimmy Stewart for CatholicMatch. While making my point, a phrase came to mind: “the gifts of manhood.” That naturally raised the question “well, what are those? Mightn’t people be interested in reading about that?” So, I marked that down as another essay. Before that I did a piece on the need to respect all art forms, which led to an idea about the difference between ‘higher and lower’ and ‘better and worse,’ which then led to an idea about equality and inequality. So, two possible essays right there!

I don’t buy the canard “war only breeds more war” (that would explain the endless Civil Wars that have rocked the US and the repeated wars with Japan and Germany after WWII), but it seems writing only breeds more writing.

Great Humor, Great Morals, and Why Having Your Heroine Be a Music Box for an Episode Makes for Good Writing

So, this week’s episode of My Little Pony was pretty fantastic (full disclosure: I actually saw it a week or so ago. You see, since FiM is produced in Vancouver, Canadian audiences get to see episodes up to two or even three weeks before the rest of us. The magic of the internet, however, allows some leeway to this). It was pretty much everything the show does best; strong writing, great characterization, solid moral lessons, and some fantastic humor. Season Seven has been mostly strong so far, about on par with the previous season, but I think A Royal Problem is the best one since the season premier.

Among the many, many reasons to love My Little Pony is the fact that it remains remarkably creative, even in its seventh season. Just as an example, this episode had Twilight magically project herself into a music box so as to keep in touch with Starlight on her first mission. So, we have our protagonist as a tiny, mechanical ballerina for most of the episode: who would even think of something like that? This leads to a lot of great gags (“I’m here if you want to talk. Or listen to music!”), culminating in a frustrated Starlight chucking the music box – Twilight and all – into a drawer.

Even better, it’s a gag that fits within the established universe (Twilight’s already projected herself into a book and talked to someone as an illustration a few seasons back) and serves only to enhance what made the character funny in the first place (Twilight’s freak outs are always hilarious, but when she’s a three-inch golden ballerina figure, the fun is doubled). The humor builds on the character and doesn’t feel forced, even in such a ridiculous situation.

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“The one and only thing that I am here to bring is music!”

Finally, from a story perspective, this device also serves the purpose of 1). Giving Starlight someone to talk to, 2). Keeping Twilight involved in the story, and 3). Emphasizing why Starlight, of all ponies, was the best choice for this particular mission even as it seems to be spiraling out of control, and 4). Providing a means to showcase Starlight’s second-guessing and self-doubts, furthering her character development.

All that from what is, at best, a tertiary element in the episode.

Oh, and speaking of great morals, the episode’s climax involves Princess Celestia coming face-to-face with the manifestation of her own darkest desires and temptations. This creature (called ‘Daybreaker’) declares herself to be “everything you want to be” and taunts Celestia with the fact that she could quite literally do anything, if only she stopped caring about other people so much, especially her sister.

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The Mare Mystique

So, a strong female character is rebuked for not making the most of her abilities and is told she can “have it all” (the phrase is actually used) if she would only forget about her obligations to her family, nation, and morality. Said character’s triumph comes in forcibly rejecting this temptation. All in an episode about appreciating the different roles we all play in the world and not assuming you have it worse than anyone else.

Man, this show is awesome.

Why Guys Like ‘My Little Pony’

Recently, after hearing it praised again and again, I watched the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. To my slight amazement, it quickly became one of my favorite animated shows. I mean, I have very broad tastes in entertainment: I can view a romantic comedy, musical, or a Disney cartoon with as much real interest and enjoyment as a John Ford film, an action flick, or a horror movie. I would think nothing of watching Aliens and Emma in the same day. Even so, I didn’t expect to fall in love with a show about magical talking ponies directed at grade school girls.

Now, my taste is fairly unique, and like I say, I have extremely cosmopolitan views when it comes to fiction: if it’s done with quality and care, and has an at least decent moral premise, I don’t care what the premise is. But I’m not alone when it comes to this show: it has a huge male fanbase, and many of them are thoroughly obsessed with it (I wouldn’t call myself a ‘Brony’ because I just think it’s a good show, but there’s a lot of other shows and stories I’m more interested in). That raises the question of why? What’s the appeal?

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Yes, raw cuteness is a factor.

Part of it is sheer quality: it’s simply a very well done show with appealing animation, great characterization, intelligent writing and often gut-bustingly hilarious humor. The leads are not only all likeable, but remarkably vivid, three-dimensional characters with believable passions, virtues, flaws, and foibles, sketched with great care and skill and brought to life by some wonderful voice actresses.

Despite being aimed at younger audiences, the show actually tackles some rather complicated themes in surprisingly intelligent fashion. For instance, an early episode featuring a conflict between settlers and natives allows both sides to make good points and ends by suggesting that the natives have ultimately benefited from the spread of civilization. How many kid shows – or, heck, adult shows – do that?

So, it’s a good show; miles better than anyone would expect. But it’s still a show aimed at little girls, and there are a lot of good shows out there: why do so many grown men, like me, find it so appealing?

I don’t think we appreciate how girls come across in a lot of media, especially stories aimed at girls. There’s a sense that the story is of girls triumphing over men, and where the ideal man is one who is supportive, but otherwise content to take a secondary position. See Kim Possible, for instance, or Zootopia or Moana on the big screen. I like all those stories to a greater or lesser degree (for what it’s worth, the ranking would go Kim, Zootopia, Moana), but many of the themes found in them trouble me.

The thing is, this sort of thing is fine once in a while, but become disturbing after seeing it time and again, especially in conjunction with other, more virulently misandric attitudes that we hear all around us, from movies, shows, books, teachers, people in the news, and on and on, all talking as if women were in competition with men, that men are stupid slobs who need to just get out of the way of women, that women need men like a fish needs a bicycle.

‘Unisexuality,’ the idea that men and women are and ought to be fundamentally the same, is a very popular idea these days. We live in a time where it’s actually considered good advice to write female characters exactly the same as male characters, and considered a compliment to say that there was nothing to distinguish the heroines from the heroes. I think, having been raised on horror stories of male sexism, that most people believe it to be a compliment to women to portray them as being basically the same as men, with only trivial or superficial differences. This has become more or less the standard practice of our day; female characters are to be written as male characters, only with an extra dose of resentment from being ignored and oppressed by men. Would Moana have been fundamentally different if the lead were a young man instead of a young woman? How about Rogue One, or The Force Awakens? How many times do we have to hear the heroine complain about the male characters trying to protect her, or not listening to her, or treating her different because she’s a woman?

After a while, this ceases to be original or charming and just becomes annoying. Female characters who aggressively reject being feminine, who treat the men in their lives with brittle resentment unless they fully support them, and who are fundamentally no different from the male characters except for having a nicer shape and a chip on their shoulder eventually become a chore to sit through, even if we don’t want to say anything about it for fear of appearing sexist.

In such a world, finding a show about a group of intensely and cheerfully feminine characters who don’t act like that, who are mostly focused on their own lives, but who show no animosity towards the men around them, and who, by and large, bypass the whole question of feminism, and who are also visually appealing, well-written, and funny, comes as a breath of fresh air. Even guys who agree with feminism must get tired of it after a while and want to spend time with girls who have better things to worry about.

That’s exactly what My Little Pony gives us; intensely feminine characters who are interesting in their own right without feeling like they’re trying to one-up us guys. The characters aren’t just self-possessed, confident, and brave, but they actually have real personalities and interests that they care about for their own sakes, rather than being preoccupied with how they are perceived or what social message they’re sending. In short, it’s a series that embraces normal human emotions about the sexes; that men and women are different, and that they generally like each other that way. It does this simply by allowing its female leads to be unapologetically feminine.

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Plus it has stuff like this. That helps.

For instance, you could argue that, say, Rainbow Dash is an atypical feminine character, since she’s obsessed with sports and winning, but the way she’s written is that she cares about excelling for it’s own sake, not for the sake of being a ‘woman who excels.’ Significantly, she has just as much admiration for men who excel as for women. Besides which, Rainbow’s a tomboy, but she’s still feminine; she enjoys gets dressed up for a fancy party, coos over adorable creatures, and occasionally showcases her nurturing side. The point is, she’s still clearly a girl, even though she’s a highly competitive athlete.

Another thing I don’t think we appreciate enough is how much guys like girls as girls: that uniquely feminine flavor to personality, attitude, and perspective. It’s at once mysterious, amusing, and charming, but in the rush to make girls ‘strong’ I think a lot of female characters have lost their particular girlish charm. So, when it is used, it has all the appeal of relief.

This particular appeal stands out especially strong here, where the characters are completely de-sexualized (not that that’s stopped some people in this day and age, but never mind that now). They’re cute, and we accept that they are meant to be attractive ‘in context,’ but it’s their personalities that are the main source of their appeal. The sheer girlishness (not to be confused with ‘girliness’) of the characters, untainted by either the bitterness of feminism or the crudity of sexual desire, stands out in all its beauty.

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It also has John de Lancie. That helps too.

In other words, the show gives its male fans something they don’t get very often in today’s world: a chance to spend time with unashamedly feminine girls who are perfectly comfortable in their own skin and who don’t have any kind of grudge against their male counterparts. The male characters are almost all relegated to secondary roles, but that’s simply because that’s the kind of story it is, not because they’re being deliberately sidelined or subordinated. The heroines get along fine with their male co-stars, unless there’s a real reason they shouldn’t.

For instance, when, in an early episode, Applejack argues with her brother about whether she can handle the harvest herself while he’s recovering from an injury, it’s not because he’s a boy and she’s a girl, but because she’s stubborn and proud, while he’s more level-headed and practical. Amazingly enough, the whole ‘sexism’ issue is completely bypassed in favor of a more universally applicable lesson about not letting pride lead you to bite off more than you can chew. This isn’t just more enjoyable, but it’s better writing, making Applejack a three-dimensional character with believable flaws rather than a bland ‘strong woman’ roll-model. Again, the show gives us well-written and cheerfully girlish female characters without imposing tedious feminist shibboleths.

The show gives us this, plus engaging and well-crafted storylines, plus vivid and memorable characters, plus intelligent writing, plus some side-splitting humor, plus catchy music and appealing animation.

No wonder it’s so popular.

Confessions of an Unemployed College Graduate

Today’s post is up at The Federalist.

A sample:

My experience is not unique. There are thousands of college graduates in my shoes today. In fact, I’m better off than most: thanks to my wonderful parents, I don’t have any student debt weighing me down. I was also fortunate that the school I went to included a Great Books program, which is where I first truly learned to think.

 

Having learned that particular skill, I’ve concluded it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to go to college. Oh, I’m grateful for many things—the aforementioned Great Books program, the friends I made, and so forth. But looking back, I can’t avoid the conclusion that if I had learned to think a little sooner I would have realized that I shouldn’t have gone to college at all when I did.

I would have been better off going into the military or getting a job right off the bat. That way I would have had the kind of skills necessary to find the kind of jobs I want. College, for me, was unnecessary. Many people have to go into debt to attend a school where, instead of teaching you to think logically, they teach you how much the world owes you. It’s a liability.

Read the whole thing here!

 

Another Illustration

Another way of demonstrating my idea from the last post: the ‘Princess and the Dragon’ motif (Chesterton used this to describe melodrama in Charles Dickens).

Phase One: meet the princess. The hero encounters the princess and falls in love with her. But he cannot court her because there is some kind of threat over hanging her or some kind of obstacle in the way of their relationship.

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Phase Two: the Dragon Emerges. Now the threat manifests itself. The ‘princess’ may be forever removed from the hero’s reach. Desperate measures are required, because if he fails, he will lose his true love for all time.

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Phase Three: the Marriage. The hero has successfully slain the dragon, removing the threat to his beloved and destroying the obstacle that kept her from him. He is now free to marry her and live happily ever after.

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A hopeless courtship, through a desperate battle, to finally claiming his true love against all odds. That is the pattern of melodrama.

Three Phases of a Good Story

Great stories, or at least a certain kind of story, work by proceeding along the following path: from false order through disorder to true order.

Before I go any further, I’m by no means an expert; this is just my personal observations and ideas, for whatever those are worth, presented for consideration.

As I said, false order through disorder to true order. What do I mean by that?

A story starts in apparent peace: things seem good, or at least tolerable. The community is intact, its institutions standing firm. Yet there is a problem; the protagonist’s life is, in fact, built upon sand. The problem is not immediately before us, but sneaks in, as it were, from around the edges. The community is in fact threatened or undermined by secret or exterior forces.

Then comes disorder. The threat manifests itself, no longer being hidden, but open. The institutions crumble or prove impotent and the protagonist is thrown upon his own resources. It no longer becomes possible to restore the integrity of the community from within, but requires unusual effort and atypical behavior to solve the problem.

Finally, the problem is solved and true order is established. The threat that undermined the apparent order has been removed, the fault lines have been filled, and the institutions are reestablished, having been purged of their impurities.

To take an example: consider the Harry Potter series (Spoilers ahead). We begin with false order: the wizarding world seems a wonderful, magical place; a haven from the stultifying world of the Dursleys. It is where Harry’s friends and interests all reside. There are threats, but they are external: Voldemort is in hiding and his followers have to act by cunning and secrecy. The institutions stand firm: Hogwarts, the Ministry, and so on all seem strong and safe.

Yet even now there is hidden disorder, not only in the continuing threat of Voldemort, but also in the structure of the wizarding community itself, which we begin to understand is rife with corruption and bigotry.

Then comes disorder. Voldemort returns. The Ministry is torn by corruption. Hogwarts becomes, not the triumphant heart of the wizarding world, but a fortress under siege. Harry and his friends are increasingly forced to work outside the normal patterns of behavior and even outside the law. Finally the community collapses entirely with the fall of the Ministry and Harry becomes an outlaw, culminating in a full-on battle royale.

But, at the end, true order is restored. Voldemort and his followers are defeated, the wizarding community is rebuilt on more humane grounds, having been partially purged of its imperfections by the war, and Harry and his friends take their place as hardworking citizens. The wizarding world is what it was supposed to be from the beginning.

Another example: Pride and Prejudice (again, spoilers). We meet the Bennet family, things are in a semblance of order. The family is not especially happy (with an ill-matched parental pair and three “very silly” youngest sisters), but they are respectable, reasonably well-off, and the household bumps along well enough. They are an integral part of the community and are generally well-liked and respected among their neighbors. Yet, this pleasant existence is built on a foundation of sand, as Mr. Bennet’s estate is entailed on the male line, and the family has no son. Once he dies, the estate will pass to his obnoxious cousin and the fate of his daughters will be shaky indeed. Thus, one of them has to marry. But this brings us to the other faultline under the Bennet household: the fact that at least half of it is very stupid, thoughtless, and ill-bred. When Jane, the eldest and prettiest of the daughters, falls in love with a rich and easy-going man, the rudeness and stupidity of her mother and younger sisters cause the man’s friends to quietly remove him from her company.

So, the Bennet daughters have to marry, but the foolishness of their mother and of some of their sisters make it unlikely. At the same time, there’s the hidden danger of Mr. Wickham; a charming, but completely amoral young man who has lately become acquainted with the young ladies.

Then comes disorder: Lydia, the youngest daughter, elopes with Wickham and lives with him for a time without marrying him. This threatens to cast the Bennet’s out of all society forever, and certainly to dash their hopes of marrying well. In the face of this threat, ordinary concerns fall by the wayside. Mr. Bennet rushes to London in a wrath, and, unbeknownst to him, so does Mr. Darcy: the fabulously rich, but socially-awkward young man who has fallen in love with Elizabeth, the second eldest Bennet daughter, and who is Wickham’s old enemy. Darcy hunts up and down London, dealing with the lowest kind of scum, until he traps his enemy and, to save the Bennets, takes him under his financial protection under the condition that he marry Lydia.

Finally comes true order: Jane and Elizabeth, against all odds, marry the men who have always loved them, being thus set up for life and ensuring the family fortunes forever. The threat of the entail is destroyed, Wickham is effectively neutralized, and the insipidity of Mrs. Bennet no longer matters.

A final example: Toy Story (still Spoilers). At first, everything seems idyllic. Woody is Andy’s favorite toy and the de-facto leader of the bedroom. He’s respected by his friends, and, apart from some minor bickering, they all get along fine.

But there is a hidden fault line in the arrangement, and it comes from Woody himself: he’s become so used to his exalted position that he doesn’t really know how to live without it. Unfortunately for him, that question is forced on him when Andy become infatuated with Buzz Lightyear, a flashy new action figure.

For a while, the community holds, though in a strained form. Then Woody’s jealousy leads him to go too far, sparking a crisis that drags both him and Buzz far from the safety and familiarity of the bedroom and threatens them both with destruction. Woody’s personal failures have brought disorder into his life and the lives of all his friends.

The only way they can restore order turns out to involve not only facing their own flaws, but also breaking the rules of being a toy. At the beginning, part of the life of a toy means returning to your proper place and freezing whenever a human comes near. Now, however, they not only break that rule but actually show their ability to move and speak. The institutions of the toy community will no longer avail them and they have to look to their own resources to restore order.

Finally comes true order: Woody has learned his lesson, he and Buzz have reconciled, and the toy community is stronger than ever, with no more fear of being replaced. The faults that threatened the stability of the community have been identified and corrected.

This pattern obviously doesn’t play out everywhere, but I come across it more often than not. It’s very useful in terms of reader investment; the first phase gives us a chance to get to know the world and see that it is something worth preserving. It makes us care. We care about the wizarding world because, with Harry, we see it as a fun, glorious escape from the boring and humdrum world of the every day. We care about the Bennet family because we like Elizabeth and Jane and we sense the real love that exists between the sisters and their worthiness to come through in the end. We care about Woody because we see how much Andy loves him and vice-versa and because we sympathize with the fear of being displaced by someone else.

The second phase threatens the thing we’ve come to love. The wizarding world might be turned into a nightmare and all the colorful characters destroyed. The Bennet family may be ruined forever and the beautiful, worthy elder sisters condemned to a life of spinsterhood. Woody and Buzz might be lost forever, depriving a nice little boy of his two favorite toys. The threats have become real and require our protagonists to stretch themselves and grow in order to escape. It rests on them to avert the disaster and save the thing we love.

Finally is the satisfaction of true order: having passed through the storm, our heroes are permitted to come to rest in a world freed from the threats that destroyed their initial contentment. Harry and his friends grow up, marry, and raise their own families in a world freed from the dangers they had to face. Elizabeth and Jane each end up with a wonderful man who not only loves her passionately, but who is wealthy enough to support the rest of the family if need be. Woody and Buzz become friends and assume joint leadership over the other toys, who have learned from their experience and no longer fear being replaced. The thing we love has been preserved, and we are assured that it won’t be threatened again, at least not in the same way. The problem has been solved, the community restored. All is right with the world.