Writing Superhero Movies: One-On-One With Dan Calvisi


I recently sat down with my good friend and mentor, Dan Calvisi, to talk about the current explosion of superhero movies inspired by comic book properties.  Dan has a very interesting background that makes him an expert in dissecting this phenomenon.  As a Hollywood story analyst, screenwriter, screenplay consultant, and fellow comic book aficionado, Dan enjoys breaking down character and story elements to see what has worked and what hasn’t.  In fact, to enlighten us with his knowledge and trade, Dan has created a webinar called Writing the Superhero Movie.  I’m willing to bet that a good number of Bam Smack Pow fans are aspiring filmmakers who hope to one day become the next Joss Whedon or Christopher Nolan.  Dan believes that there’s hidden talent everywhere.  That’s why he’s here today with me to talk about superhero movies, so as to inspire some of you to pursue your dreams in creating the next mega-franchise.

We recorded our discussion as a podcast.  It always gets crazy when you put two comic book fanatics together for a talk.  You have no idea where you’ll end up.  We did our best to calm our superhero-induced ADD and kept the discussion centered around movies.  I’ve embedded the video if you guys really wanted to hear our phenomenal voices that are at James Earl Jones’s level of gravitas (Please remember to turn up the volume on both your computer and YouTube.).  If you only want to catch the distilled highlights (Your loss of a life-changing audio experience.), I’ve provided them after the video embed.  As the Joker would say, “And here, we…go.”

Introduction: Rebooting and Reinterpreting

We will be analyzing superhero movies with respect to their screenplays and story structure.  Due to the successes of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems that Warner Brothers is creating its own DC cinematic universe by playing a lot of catch-up.  All of this is seen by the myriad of characters being introduced in the new Batman vs. Superman movie that’s coming out.  We know that they’ve cast Batman, Wonder Woman,  Cyborg, and Lex Luthor.

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Along with rebooting superhero characters, there is also this idea of “youth-ification.”  For example, the upcoming Gotham on Fox has all the characters in their twenties or as children.  This move has seen success in the past with Smallville.  Even with a character as iconic as Superman, the audience is receptive of new background revelations that were never explored.  A similar reaction may be repeated when they introduce Gotham.  Because Batman’s past has been reinterpreted many times in the comics, people are open to seeing how this version of Batman will be molded in his formative years.  Comic book characters need to be rebooted and given new interpretations because they have to stay relevant to our times.  Their stories act as a commentary to our current events.  As an example, the Dark Knight Trilogy is a commentary on post-9/11 attitudes.  Dan did a break down of all three (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Dark Knight Rises) in his other podcasts.

Assemble!: Putting a Story Together

When they created the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they created a unity between all their Marvel-related franchises.  Each film established a new world and a new origin for the central hero.  As each character’s film ended, they didn’t do a push into that character’s sequel.  They did a push into another franchise.  Even though a bigger universe is evident, the writers still had to abide by classic screenplay structure.  This structure establishes the major beats and framework of a story which makes screenplays very different from the methods used in creating comic book stories.  Structure is form and not formula.  The “form” spoken here is a shape to movies that audiences around the world have come to accept and like.

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A screenplay contains four acts — Act One, Act Two-A, Act-Two-B, and Act Three.  In reality, there are three acts, but we separate Act Two into A and B.  This allows for a midpoint in the center of the story.  With four acts, we get four story engines.  A story engine is a separate line of action for one major section of the overall story.  Using The Avengers as an example:

  • Act One: Loki steals the Tesseract.
  • Act Two-A: Assemble the various Avengers to catch Loki and get him to the Helicarrier.
  • Act Two-B: Save the Helicarrier when Loki’s agents attack it.
  • Act Three: The battle of New York.

In these superhero movies, you always want to have an escalating threat with bigger and bigger action setpieces.  Usually, there are three large setpieces and two smaller ones.

What are You!?: Character Arcs and Becoming Something New

Character arcs are also extremely important.  An arc for your protagonist is essential.  Your hero should go through a strong change from beginning to end.  Ideally, you should also have a few supporting characters go through arcs.  Examples of these arcs would be in the most recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Captain America (Chris Evans) has his arc which culminates in him deciding not to kill Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).  And Black Widow has her arc which culminates in her uploading all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets to the Internet and, in turn, also exposing her own dark past.

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Other strong examples of character arcs would be Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne.

Tony Stark’s arcs, throughout the films, have been to learn to not be selfish, work on a team, or be more supportive and loving to the people in his life.  Iron Man 2 allowed us see the embodiment of Tony’s arc.  As the Arc Reactor in his chest was breaking down and killing him, we were shown the decay of his character.  To save himself, he needed to step up and become a new man — becoming a better partner to Pepper.

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Bruce Wayne has always been interesting.  In The Dark Knight, Bruce makes the decision to reveal himself.  This occurs right at the midpoint of the story.  In the end, Bruce also decides that he’s going to take the fall and become a hated vigilante.  This sacrifice was made so that he could maintain the myth that Harvey Dent was the true savior of Gotham City.

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You Complete Me: Complementing a Great Hero with a Great Villain

Character arcs are driven by an external force pushing against them.  This antagonistic force enacts change in the protagonist.  A strong villain creates strong change.  There are three different types of villains — Terrorist, Shadow, and Brother.

Terrorist villains are agents of chaos.  The Joker (Heath Ledger) is a perfect example of this type of villain.  A mystery man who steps out of the shadows, starts killing, and throws the hero’s world into disarray.  Being this type of villain, The Joker’s characterization added to the post-9/11 commentary of The Dark Knight.

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Shadow villains are the opposite of the hero.  Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable is this type of character.  He’s the opposite of David Dunn (Bruce Willis).

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Brother villains have the same origins and are evenly matched to the hero.  Zod (Michael Shannon), from Man of Steel, is an example of a Brother villain.  He’s from the same planet as Kal-El (Henry Cavill) — Krypton.  They both have the same powers.

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Can You Read My Mind?: Establishing a Message and Theme for Your Story

Themes are the reasons as to why you’re telling a story.  It exposes the truths and human emotions of a movie.  Themes that are often explored in films are justice, responsibility, family, and discrimination.  Family and discrimination themes can be prominently seen in the X-Men Film Series.  Mutants are an allegory for racism, discrimination, and xenophobia.  In the solo films dealing with Wolverine, we get the themes of being an outcast from society.

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Another major theme is identity.  After gaining powers or joining a team, how does that change them?  What are the consequences?

Freedom is explored by the character of Captain America.  In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers lived in a black-and-white world where he knew the good guys from the bad guys.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he was thrusted into our grey world with no idea of who to trust.  It’s also interesting to note that Rogers also carries the theme of being an outcast because he’s a man from the past.

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Who Am I?: The Different Categories of Heroes

We also have to remember that heroes, like villains, have categories too.  Heroes fall into the categories of The Chosen One, Accidental, Self-made, or Skilled.

The Chosen One heroes are characters like Superman and Thor.  They are born with their abilities — it’s in their DNA.

Superman

Accidental heroes are characters like Daredevil, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  They attained their abilities in unexpected ways — toxic chemicals, gamma rays, the sun’s rays.

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Self-made heroes are characters like Batman, Iron Man, and Ant-Man.  They purposely created the gadgets and the means to carry out their mission.

Batman

Skilled heroes are characters like Hawkeye and Black Widow.  They don’t have superpowers, but they’re super-skilled at what they do.

Hawkeye

The Fate of Your Planet Rests in Your Hands: Create Your Own Compelling World and Hollywood Will Come

Current comic book properties are being written by A-list screenwriters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break in.  You may not be able to write the next Superman or Avengers movie, but you can create your own superhero world.  Be creative and think of a way to tell a superhero story in a unique way.  Examples of this would be Kick-Ass and Chronicle.  Kick-Ass was a blend of action and satire, and it worked extremely well for audiences.  Chronicle was a dark teen drama shot in a found-footage style.  It also had a unique voice.  A great screenplay can be used as a calling card for Hollywood.

Kick-Ass

We also have examples of films that are actually dramas wrapped up in the gloss of superheroes to make them seem like fresh superhero movies.  Hancock is one that comes to mind.  The story is about Hancock, a drunk, down-on-his-skids loser, who needs to turn his life around.  This is a story that you see in many indie dramas.

Hancock

The Night is Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Are Audiences Tired of Dark Brooding Heroes?

Even though audiences may be growing wary of superheroes who aren’t optimistic like Christopher Reeve’s Superman, it is almost expected that the sequels of most superhero films will be darker than their originals.  This may have been set as a standard by the Empire Strikes Back.  In most trilogies, the second installment is usually more sobering and serious.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 definitely follow this tradition.

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Always Mind Your Surroundings: How to Keep Your Story Focused with Multiple Villains

Movies with multiple villains have always been tricky things to navigate.  There are many examples of movies that have done it badly.  The most notorious of them was 1997′s Batman & Robin.

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How do you do you it correctly then?  It’s all about maintaining narrative focus.  The Dark Knight is a great example of all the pieces fitting and functioning perfectly together.  By looking at the main dramatic elements focused on the protagonist and his goals, you will see that Bruce Wayne’s main external goal is to save Gotham City from destruction.  It’s not just to stop The Joker.  Therefore, all characters and all plotlines are in service with regards to saving or causing Gotham City’s destruction.  Bruce Wayne’s internal goal, though, is to be with Rachel.  So, when Rachel dies, his internal goal becomes the preservation of hope for Gotham’s people.  At the climax, both the external and internal goals integrate when he makes the final decision to take the fall and lie about being the one who killed Harvey Dent.

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Final Thoughts

Superhero movies are here to stay.  Whether you’re dealing with an existing comic book property or creating your own from scratch, you need to keep in mind the structure and characters.  Make sure every beat is hit or as Nick Fury would say, “You need to keep both eyes on the narrative.”

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The fans aren’t just expecting grand special-effects and ridiculous destruction.  They’re looking for compelling heroes and characters who carry themes.  Make sure your characters change and emerge as new beings.

If you want to learn more about how to create a great screenplay, visit Dan Calvisi at Act Four Screenplays.  And don’t forget to sign up for his webinar on Writing the Superhero Movie.

Tags: Batman Batman & Robin Batman Vs. Superman Black Widow Bruce Wayne Bucky Barnes Captain America Captain America: The First Avenger Captain America: The Winter Solider Christopher Nolan DC DC Cinematic Universe General Zod Gotham Hawkeye Iron Man Iron Man 2 Joss Whedon Marvel Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Mr. Glass Podcast Screenwriting Spider-Man Steve Rogers Superheroes Superman The Amazing Spider-Man The Amazing Spider-Man 2 The Avengers The Dark Knight The Hulk The Joker The Winter Soldier Tony Stark

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