Monday, February 20, 2012

Best of 2011, Runners-Up / Storyteller’s Rulebook # 122: Only Reveal Ironic Backstories

Long-time readers may remember that I ended 2010 with five entries about my favorite Hollywood movies of that year, though I failed to do so at the end of 2011. The problem, of course, was an itty bitty baby that kept Betsy and I home most weekends, starting in June.

But between screeners and normal DVD releases, I’ve now caught up on most of the movies I wanted to see (Still not seen: Tree of Life, Moneyball, Mission: Impossible 4, a few others) So I figured, as long as we haven’t gotten to the Oscars yet, there’s still time to talk about last year’s movies, right? So let’s get to it!

Today we’re going to start with three runners-up, Thor, Captain America, and X-Men: First Class, all co-produced by Marvel Studios, which, like its Disney teammate Pixar, has shown a remarkable amount of brand-wide quality control. None of these movies was anywhere close to perfect, and each had at lest one moment that drove me crazy (I mention one here), but ultimately they were all very entertaining.

Rather than do what I normally do in these pieces and point out how they display pre-established Storyteller Rules, let’s mint a new rule from scratch that all three of these movies exemplify: Find an Ironic Backstory.

Lots of gurus such as Syd Field insist that you know everything about your characters right down to where their parents went to school. That’s okay, I guess, but usually, you’re never going to use that stuff. Before you come up with all that, you first need to ask yourself: When, if ever, am I going to reveal this backstory, and why?

If your hero became a cop because he came from a long line of Irish cops, or became a preacher because he was always the most pious kid on his block, you don’t need to tell us that. We can guess. The best reason to reveal a backstory is if it’s an ironic backstory: if your cop comes form a long line of college professors, or your preacher used to a gang member, for example.

Marvel Comics’ superheroes always did a great job at this. As opposed to a DC hero like Green Lantern, who took a small step from hotshot flying pilot to hotshot flying superhero, Marvel heroes tended to take much wider leaps into greatness. Let’s look at these three examples:
  • Captain America is the most typical example. The strongest and boldest man in the army has a surprise backstory: he was the weakest and sickliest kid in the country, but then some smart generals saw his potential and gave him a sci-fi whammy that turned his life around.
  • The original Thor comics had a similar dynamic, with Thor’s secret identity being a crippled doctor named Don Blake. The movie eliminated that secret identity, but it still made use of ironic backstories: This is ultimately the story of two brothers competing for their father’s love, so how does it begin? Thor is the cocky asshole who has contempt for all of his father’s rules, while Loki is humble and lovable.
  • X-Men: First Class pushed a similar dynamic to the extreme. In this case, we’ve already seen the original trilogy, where Professor Xavier was a saintly father figure and Magneto was a marauding terrorist. So now we get their backstories: Xavier is a swinging ’60s cad who uses his powers to get laid, while Magneto is a righteous Holocaust survivor on a quest for justice.

In each case, these ironic backstories give these heroes an embarrassing secret that affects everything they do. There’s a hidden gap between their private self and their public self. That irony adds subtext to every scene, which adds fuel to the whole story. In tomorrow’s pick, we’ll look at a great use of an ironic backstory in a non-superhero setting.

1 comment:

JD Paradise said...

You won't see this, but in case you or anyone else does...

From Firefly/Serenity, Shepherd Book is a great example of this; when Mal says "You're going to have to tell me how a preacher comes to know so much about Operatives", he says "No, I don't."

Or something like that. But man, what a hook; Book became 10x more interesting, and he was already interesting.