Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Iron Man

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Tony Stark is a reckless billionaire arms manufacturer who gets kidnapped by Afghan terrorists that are using his own weapons. They force him to build them a new weapon, but instead he creates high-tech armor for himself. After he gets away, he perfects the armor with the help of his loyal assistant, Pepper, just in time to fight his own partner, Stane, who hired the terrorists in the first place and still wants him out of the way.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A humbled arms dealer becomes a high-tech armored superhero to confront the enemies foreign and domestic that he himself has armed.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Many: He thinks his products are making everyone free, but they’re in the hands of his evil captors. He has an impervious shell but a weak heart. An arms merchant wants to disarm the world.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 A universal tale of overcoming hypocrisy and taking responsibility for one’s actions, but with lives on the line.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 There’s actually relatively little plot, especially for a super-hero movie.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes. We zip through a lot of story quickly.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 An arms dealing billionaire and his military liaison
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 First the warlord, then Stane. Sometimes Pepper as well.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear, and ironic answer to rhetorical questions he asks about when he’d stop making weapons.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Everybody is shocked by how strongly he reacts to his captivity.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 He has to endanger everything he has, put his fortune, company and friends at risk, go against his lifelong philosophy.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Sure. Pepper and SHIELD are helping, but they’re overpowered by Stane.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 He can’t go back to his comfortable life at the end.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Very much so.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Very much so.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 The first fight in Afghanistan in the new armor. The first flight. Her removing his heart is harrowing. Post-credits scene with Sam Jackson.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Stane hired the terrorists.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Funny and kind: he cracks jokes in the jeep with the soldiers, knows their names, jokes about them throwing up gang signs in pictures. (In on the joke despite high status)
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 We meet him in Afghanistan and love his behavior there before we get any history, which is then dealt with quickly. No flashbacks, no baggage. Compare to the sequel.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Maverick billionaire playboy
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Somewhat: people pretty much have his number, but he’s more down to earth than you would think. You could argue that he always had a conflicted guilty conscience underneath, but you could also make the case that he hasn’t had any qualms until this disaster.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Developmental state: friendly-frat. “Is that so hard? That was fun, right?” Talking to his machines: “Dummy, you’re on standby for fire safety, you: roll it.” “Thrill me.” To himself: “Yeah, I can fly.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Cockiness, charm
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Sarcastic direct assault, “what are you going to do about it”-style. Cuts the other person off with a quick, witty, withering line, then smirks while they try to answer.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Just trying to stay alive at first, then trying to get his weaponry away from his captors.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “My old man had a philosophy: Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Sell the missiles to the army.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open, only slightly: that he won’t close this deal. Hidden: That he’s a death merchant.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 A literal weak heart and a figurative weak heart.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 He’s arrogant, sleazy, na├»ve, etc.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 He’s brilliant, charming, ultimately principled.
Is the hero curious?
 About scientific things, but not enough about his own life until it’s almost too late.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Live well, be smarter, be cool
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Nobody is as laid back as him. They’re all somewhat uptight, even Pepper and Rhodey.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Very much so. He verbally humiliates friends and enemies alike.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yeah, he gives a great presentation.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Very much so.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Very much so. Even in the final fight, he uses his engineering skills to figure out the right part to rip out of Stane’s suit (“that looks important”)
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 If we ignore the flashforward and take things in order, then not really, or at least Tony pretends not to be troubled by the criticisms he gets, or to have any qualms. His protests to the reporter seem genuine, but we and he realize that, deep down, he really knew better when…
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 He gets blown up by one of his own bombs in the hands of terrorists, almost killed, finds out his bombs kill kids frequently in the same way, forced to make more weapons for evildoers. (Notably, this guy was so arrogant that they had to use a flashforward structure to preview the humiliation before we get an in-depth look at his personality, pre-assuring us that, don’t worry, he’ll get his comeuppance)
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 He builds the armor.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 He wants to just die, but Yinsen convinces him to do it.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 He builds the armor and escapes.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Stane isn’t happy about his new direction. For that matter, neither are Pepper or Rhodey.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 He lets Stane play interference with the company, waits for Pepper and Rhodey to come around.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 He loves flying around with the armor. He goes to the party, hits on Pepper, starts to boast again.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 He finds out that his weapons have been used again, Stane comes out against him. Then Stane takes his company, invades his house.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Goes and disarms the guys himself, then comes to deal with Stane, but it’s too late.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Stane tries to kill him, Pepper and Rhodey back him up, Agent Coulson goes from annoyance to ally.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 He literally has his heart ripped out by Stane, has to put in the heart that Pepper gave him.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 He has several spiritual crises in this movie, but yes, he does have an ultimate one here when he has to crawl to claim his old heart back.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “I’m going to find my weapons and destroy them. I’m not crazy, Pepper, I just finally know what I have to do, and I know in my heart that it’s right.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Defeat Stane, save Pepper.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Finally cares where Stane is and what he’s up to.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Pepper is already confronting Stane when he finds out.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Only Rhodey isn’t there, but that’s fine (there’s a deleted scene where he shows up to help and it’s ridiculous)
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Afterwards, when he finally decides who he is.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 He tries again with Pepper, but fails, and then tells the world who he is.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Random example: Tony has built a better chest-device to keep shrapnel out of his heart, so he calls Pepper in to reach into his chest and replace the old one with a new one.) 17/20
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 She’s just been watching Jim Cramer talking about his business tanking, so she’s worried about her job, so she feels she has to do this.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Sort of, it goes from her entrance to her exit, but he’s already very far along before he invites her down.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Somewhat, she’s been told she’s not welcome there before.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, she was otherwise occupied before he called her in.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 He yells at his robots about his desk
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 She pulls out the magnet and he starts to go into cardiac arrest.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Seems entirely like a character scene at the time, later we realize that it serves the plot. This is a classic example of a small scene that generates an unexpectedly volatile amount of emotion for both parties.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We’re on her side: we don’t know what’s going on, feel this is too much to ask. (later, when she gets too grossed, out, we switch to his side somewhat, and share his lack of patience.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 She wants him to get medical help but he just wants to rely on her.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: he needs her to replace his heart, Suppressed, they each want to admit that they’re in love.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Very much so.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 He finally admits “I don’t have anyone but you.” But she doesn’t respond and he quickly says “Anyway.”
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 He suddenly gives her much-needed compliments to get her to do it, playing on her suppressed feelings.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 She actually reaches into him, after barely having touched him before this.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 His old heart, his new heart.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 He gets her to take his heart out, she gets him to he admits his feelings for her briefly.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 He saves his heart and loses it.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: How does the device work? New: What will she do with the old heart? (We see a thought occur to her.)
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No. The transition to the next scene is actually really abrupt and awkward.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so. The army guys who are about to be killed are nicely humanized. The air force guys aren’t buffoons just because they oppose Tony. When Tony sleeps with the reporter and Pepper sneers at her, we’re on Pepper’s side, but the reporter gets to come back and prove herself right all along! We actually agree with Stane for most of the movie. We see how the terrorists feel justified.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so. Even Pepper has moral blind spots, and everybody else has tons.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very much so. Everyone’s motivation tracks.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so. It takes huge events to get Pepper and Tony to admit how much they need each other, and then they won’t admit they’ve said it later.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Stane never boasts about his plans, nor do the terrorists. There’s no awkward exposition.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Very much so. Tony never listens, period.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Both the military setting and the tech company setting. A good portrayal of how research and development of new technology actually works, and how corporate takeovers happen.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Rhodey: military, Pepper: a gently scolding mom, Stane: CEO Boosterism, Default personality trait: Pepper is professional. Stane is phony concern (“He left part of himself back in that cave. Breaks my heart.” “I wish you had left Pepper out of this. I would have liked to let her live”), Argument strategy: Pepper: nail you with one surgical question that will shut down your argument. (“What’s your social security number?”)
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Exchange with reporter outside his car packs a huge amount of character work and big theme ideas into quick sexy banter.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so. “I also take out his trash,” Pepper says to the reporter.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Even the over-educated ones.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Partial polarization: Tony is head and gut, no heart. Pepper is head and heart, no gut. Jarvis is all-head, obviously.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
At the party
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 We’ve gotten to like him and then seen him suffer before we find out who he is, so now we care enough to find out.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Late at night with Tony and Pepper.
PART #6: TONE 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Consistently mixes action and conspiracy.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Super-hero and terrorism-thriller, mixed well.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Villain is defeated, girl is lost (which is common for this genre), but secret identity is rejected, which is shockingly new.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Light (even in terrorist captivity), zippy, brash.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Not really. The movie kind of ends halfway through, then fires back up again. Finally, it becomes, “Can Stane be stopped?”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 A flashforward establishes the genre and assures us that we can like this jerk we’re about to meet because he’ll soon get his comeuppance.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Co-inventor who dies shows him that he will eventually have to choose, Stane represents what he’s afraid he’ll become.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 We keep cutting back to Ten Rings, getting us wondering when they’ll come back, and distracting us from Stane as the big bad.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Encases his heart in glass, then smashes the glass. He keeps lying when he’s supposed to tell the truth, then finally tells the truth when he’s supposed to lie.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, Stane is stopped.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Individual achievement vs. societal responsibility.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 “A lot of people would call that being a hero.” “And a lot of people would also call that war profiteering.” Of course, the slideshow begins “Who is Tony Stark”, which is answered by the final line, when he announces, “I am Iron Man”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 He escapes even though it means his mentor will be killed, destroys his own business even though his friends depend on it.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 The army isn’t happy about the idea of a super-hero, terrorists have believable motivations and economics. Compare to Nolan’s Batman movies where terrorism is merely motivated by a love of chaos, and billionaires are an abstract ideal.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Believable portrayal of an inventor’s rhythms, thought process. The firefight feels like a real firefight.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so: America’s corrupt adventure in Afghanistan, war profiteering.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Tony doesn’t come up with some clever guarantee that makes sure that his arms won’t go to bad guys. The thorniness remains.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Lots of suffering on Tony’s part, women and friends truly resent his treatment of them even though they find him charming.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Relationship with reporter ties his treatment of the third world to his treatment of women.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The exchange of the heart devices tell the whole story.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Societal responsibility is clearly better, but Individual achievement is still pretty cool.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 He earns the right to be a super-hero and then immediately breaks the first rule.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 In the truly terrible deleted scenes, everything is explained in much more details, and as a result the story feels leaden and meaningless.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Stane isn’t mentioned again after he’s killed.

Final Score: 115 out of 122


Anonymous said...

Wow! I loved following this through, and found it giving me new insights into a movie that I already enjoyed and thought I had properly appreciated. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant analysis. Unfortunately for me, the black background made my eyes hurt so much that I had to give up on reading it about a third of the way in.

Thank you for the thought and action you took in posting this.

Matt Bird said...