I watch a lot of things. I can’t hide that from you. Movies, TV series, comic books, webcomics, the occasional novel, I consume a lot of media, and when something really sticks out as worth talking about, such as the fact that everything Agents of SHIELD promised but failed to deliver is happening on Arrow, I mention it here. Weird intro. Finding my feet.
Here’s the thing. Every now and then, something about a movie or whatnot will strike an off chord with me. There’ll be something about the product that just feels off. And when this happens, I sometimes wonder… was it actually the product that was flawed, or is it because the marketing team sold me something else?
See, the marketers, more often than not, aren’t actually working on the movie. Or TV show. The thing. They’re just trying to sell it. And sometimes that means I’m judging something good or even great for not being the other thing the marketing team decided would sell better. Let’s start with a couple of examples of exactly that before I just jump on bad marketing moves in general.
Inglourious Basterds, for those unfamiliar, was Quentin Tarantino’s first volley into historical revenge fantasy, as a team of vicious American Jewish soldiers stage commando raids against German troops in Nazi-occupied France, leading to a conclusion that’s about as historically accurate as James Bond movies are an accurate depiction of the Cold War.
Or so the trailers and other advertising led us to believe. As far as we knew, this was an action-comedy starring Brad Pitt as the leader of the titular Basterds, who would go on a tear through the Nazis.
The thing is, that’s not actually what the movie’s about. Inglourious Basterds is about Shoshanna Dreyfuss, only survivor of a Jewish family slaughtered by the Nazis while hiding at a French farmhouse, and Hans Landa, the Nazi investigator who tracked her family down. It’s about Shoshanna’s quest for revenge and Hans’ growing dissatisfaction with his employers, and his title of “Jew Hunter.” It’s a suspense film, in which people desperately try to keep their secrets hidden from the Germans, despite the fact that their secret is known and the Germans just need that last piece of proof. And through all this is a comic relief subplot about the Basterds.
Perhaps part of the reason we thought the Basterds might be the main characters is that they were the title characters. But then, Tarantino didn’t even want to call it “Inglourious Basterds.” He was going to call it “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” which both would have warned us that this wasn’t going to be history as we knew it, and wouldn’t have made us think Brad Pitt was going to be the main character. Because he really wasn’t.
So when we sat down to watch what we were told was an action-comedy, and got a tense suspense thriller, it was a little jarring. The movie’s still excellent, but you need to be aware what you’re going to get.
Star Trek: Into Darkness
I’m a big fan of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Both of the J.J. Abrams Trek movies, but Into Darkness in particular. It may not be perfect, but it’s my favourite action movie of the year, and the only one with a protagonist that fights to not kill the bad guy. Well, other than Lone Ranger, but in that case it’s played as a character flaw, not something noble. Into Darkness is the only movie to do it well. There is one flaw with Into Darkness, however, that’s difficult to defend.
The “surprise twist” is the least surprising thing they could have done. And I will be revealing it in the next paragraph, so if you somehow don’t know or are in denial that you’ve known all along, skip ahead. Like, to the next section.
As soon as the script was done, the J.J. Abrams marketing team got to work trying to hide who the villain was in the most obvious way possible. They didn’t just avoid saying who the villain was (like Iron Man 3), they shouted out as loud as possible that the villain’s identity was being kept a secret. Tried to build as much suspense as they could over who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing, even though it was blatantly clear from the word go that he was Khan. Of course he was Khan, he was always going to be Khan, there is nothing surprising about that. And I am doing you a favour by telling you.
But that hardly ruins the movie. It’s not like they’re telling you who Kaiser Soze really is. When Kirk and company finally catch up with “John Harrison,” as he’s been called up until then, he immediately identifies himself as Khan. And at that point there’s still over half the movie left. The movie itself never hinges on the identity of the villain being a secret, only the marketing campaigns. We wouldn’t even consider it a plot twist if nobody had told us to expect one, and we’d have been fine with it.
Next week, on…
Now, let’s look at how network and cable television tend to screw up their promos for future episodes. Because in these cases, I am sure that nobody involved in the production of the shows was responsible for these promos. Here’s three case studies representing three massive sins.
The worst “next week on” promo I’ve ever seen was a first season episode of Queer as Folk. Every single moment that they chose for the promo was taken from the last two minutes of the episode. And they were big moments. Big moments that I did not want to spend most of the episode knowing were coming. As Peter David once put it, these were not spoilers, they were ruiners. They straight up ruined that episode.
Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip has it’s detractors. I am not one of them. Sure, I have qualms with the fact that they devoted five of their last six episodes to a plotline that could have been done in, like, half of that, and why was a show about sketch comedy spending so long talking about the war in Afghanistan, but I love it to death. The promos, on the other hand, were clearly put together by people who weren’t actually watching the show. They’d pick random moments from the next episode and play them up as fifty times more dramatic than they were. They’d show two characters kissing and say “One kiss… changes EVERYTHING.” When you watched the episode, the kiss was a quick joke that had no impact on any plot, past or future.
And then there’s the “post-Thor” episode of Agents of SHIELD. They advertised an episode that would tie into Thor: the Dark World, and when it came? Thirty seconds of the main cast cleaning up after the movie’s climactic battle (which makes no sense. How did Coulson’s hand-picked team of elite globetrotting problem solvers get stuck on clean-up duty?) before they jumped into an unrelated plot about an unrelated Asgardian artifact with no connection at all to any Thor movie. And in this case… I really feel the corporate bosses are to blame. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that they’d made an episode with Asgardian stuff, and then were told to add a scene involving cleaning up Greenwich so that they could sell it as connected to the movie.
Three examples that I think comprise the major sins of network-edited promos. One case of utterly spoiling the next episode, once case of selling a show that wasn’t actually filmed (Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager were awful for this), and one blatant bait-and-switch in a transparent, if successful, attempt to stop their rating from slipping every week. And each of these can profoundly impact your enjoyment of the show, be it ruining that week’s stories, or making you expect a show you’re just not going to get.
It’s not really germane but now’s as good a time as any to mention that the “next time” promos for Mad Men are so breathtakingly vague that they’re teetering into self-parody. This video says it best.
I work in marketing every now and again myself, so I get the struggle involved in getting people excited without spelling out the whole story for them. But Iron Man 3 managed it, man. They managed it. They put out multiple trailers that basically said “What’s it about? It’s about two and a half hours, come watch it,” and by the gods we did.
I guess the moral is “Don’t try to sell us what you think we want to buy, sell us what you’re actually doing,” but trying to make corporations be less stupid is kind of an impossible quest. Still… there’s always hope.
Whew. Made it through the whole thing without mentioning how the trailer for Free Willy managed to sum up the movie so completely it’s amazing anyone actually paid to see it. Aw, son of a–
So I tried to think of something interesting to talk about, and all I could come up with was a spoilerific discussion of certain choices made in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special. But that would have been a lengthy diatribe about Doctor Who’s magical rules of time travel in order to address a criticism not from any of my current or potential readers, but from an internet entertainer whose work I enjoy when she isn’t disliking Stephen Moffat. In short, I’m not certain how interesting it was actually going to be. So, lacking any other pressing topics, here’s a look back at one of my scripts that’s actually almost timely.
There was another 50th anniversary last week: the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. So let’s look back at the script I wrote about just that: the conspiracy comedy Knoll.
What’s it about?
It’s the assassination of JFK, told from the perspective of the second gunmen from the grassy knoll.
Saul and Roscoe have been hired for a job. An assassination that will change the course of history. They have to kill President John F. Kennedy, while letting Lee Harvey Oswald take the fall. The play follows them over the course of a week, from getting the job, to setting up on the titular knoll, to the aftermath two days later.
So why’d that happen?
I mentioned earlier that in University I was super into conspiracy theories, yes? This led me to buy The Big Book of Conspiracies, an illustrated guide to the 20th century’s most popular conspiracy theories. It’s a fun read, if dangerously easy to buy into if you’re of a sort that’s eager to find evidence of sinister plots and hidden aliens. It’s got MKUltra, attempts to kill Castro, claims that the moon landing was faked, claims that the moon landing found evidence of alien visitation, stuff about Mars (including hypotheses that the orbit of Mars’ moon, Phobos, indicates it’s either hollow or artificial), dark secrets of Catholicism, a theory that ends in the sinister phrase “Earth is a farm, we are someone’s property,” and, of course, an entire chapter devoted just to the assassination of JFK.
At one point, I was big enough into this book that I considered trying to adapt it to the stage. Have various men in black guide you through the choicest conspiracies in the book. More of a performance piece than play, I guess. I got most of the way through a scene before I lost faith in the project, both its stageability and the odds of it attracting lawsuits from the publisher. Getting actual adaptation rights from Paradox Press, a division of DC Comics, a division of Time/Warner, seemed far too much of a struggle. So I put that aside and worked on other things.
A while later, in playwriting class, I toyed with an idea called “Conspiracy Cafe,” in which the second gunman from the Kennedy conspiracy hides out in a diner for a spell. I remember almost nothing about it. Don’t think it went over well. Don’t imagine it could have, because from there the concept morphed into Knoll.
How’d it turn out?
Pretty okay. Okay enough that it’s been performed four times: at the 2003 Pumphouse One-act Festival, at the 2003 Vancouver Fringe festival, back in Calgary for the 40th anniversary of the assassination (which was a day I really began to wonder why we were so bad at marketing, as the local paper did a full page on the anniversary and we weren’t mentioned once), and then the son of someone I’d been in a writing class with bought the rights to perform it in the 2006 Calgary Fringe. Despite its flaws, this is one of only two scripts that someone else has bought from me thus far.
Which is not to say there aren’t flaws, because there are. This is the show where I became concerned that I was getting complacent, becoming too proud of my banter and wordplay and not really pushing myself to improve. A writer’s circle I joined a few months before this script was staged for the first time proved those fears were accurate, and that the script needed more depth, the characters needed to be something other than a vessel for repeated use of the word “ooze.” I thought that was funny. It was not particularly funny.
Also the playwright running the circle was adamantly opposed to Canadians writing plays about America, but that’s his thing. Did cost us when he turned out to be adjudicating the one-act festival it premiered in.
Would you stage it again?
Probably, yeah. I mean, we did just hit the 50th anniversary, it even feels like the time. But it might still need some polish. I did my best (at the time) to add more depth and feeling, but I could probably go further. There’s still an over-reliance on what I hoped would be amusing comic banter. There are still opportunities to expand on who these guys are; that is, who the script needs them to be, not who the Big Book of Conspiracies says they are.
Yeah, Roscoe and Saul are taken right out of… I hesitate to use the phrase “real world…” let’s say published theories about the “real killers.” According to some authors, Dallas PD officer Roscoe White (whose chin was a close match to Oswald’s chin in the infamous backyard photo) left a journal confessing to being the real assassin, naming a co-conspirator named “Saul.” Further, they write of a man photographed leaving a Russian embassy in Mexico and labeled “Lee Harvey Oswald” despite looking nothing like the real Oswald. LA County Chief of Detectives Hugh McDonald, who said the photos were sent to the FBI the day before the assassination, claimed to have found the man in the photos in London, where he identified himself as “Saul” and also confessed to the killing.
Almost got sucked back down the rabbit hole there… anyway. These days I’d be more inclined to try to build these two as characters rather than believe I was telling an untold true story or somesuch. But still, it’s a fun piece.
Repeated theme alert
Still overusing the word “creepy.” Well, I only use it twice before breaking out the thesaurus (“shady” gets a few uses), but it’s a word I could have stood to let go by this point.
As mentioned, this was the breaking point for my style up to this point. I began trying to wean myself off the “banter” style I was so clearly fond of.
When next I visit this topic, we’ll look at how I tried to push myself into deeper emotional territory, why I considered the result my best script ever, and why I was so, so wrong to think that.
I’m a fan of DC Comics until the end of days. No getting around that. My first formative comics-reading experience, or at least the earliest one I remember, was Crisis on Infinite Earths, featuring every character in DC’s stable. I didn’t follow the Avengers or the X-Men, I read Justice League. I liked Batman, Superman, and even Blue Beetle and Booster Gold far more than Spider-man or Captain America.
Today I’m less exclusive. I read my fair share of Marvel books, just way, way less than DC. I’d still rather read an okay comic about Superman than a great comic about Wolverine.
Which is why it breaks my heart that when it comes to movies and other adaptations, Warner Bros. is getting their ass kicked so hard by Marvel Studios.
Let me explain. It’s not the success of Marvel Studios that bothers me. Well, not most days. There is a certain internet geek pundit who I shan’t name or link to who is so obsessed with slagging everything DC does, inventing flaws if necessary, while championing every single thing that Marvel Studios does, ignoring flaws as often as he has to, that I felt this weird need to resent Marvel properties to balance him out. But that is not healthy, and it’s why I’m giving up his videos and articles. Because I can’t stop him from being rigidly and unflinchingly biased (if you honestly think Agents of SHIELD is a better show than Arrow, you’re just wrong), but I can stop myself from sinking into the same swamp.
So, no, it’s not that I resent Marvel movies doing well. Super excited to see both Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. What kills me is that Warner Bros. is not keeping up. And when they do try and exploit DC’s properties, you just have to ask… are you even trying?
At the movies
I liked Man of Steel and I’m not sorry. As such, I refuse to be pessimistic about the upcoming sequel featuring Ben Affleck as Batman, especially since it means the next Batman movie won’t be an origin story. And if they do, in fact, try to follow that up with a Flash movie leading into Justice League, I am all for it. Hell, there’s still time to get Darkseid into a movie before Thanos finally makes a proper appearance in Avengers 3.
That sounded like slagging Marvel but it’s just that Thanos is a knockoff of Darkseid (no, really, look it up), and I’d rather people not claim it’s the opposite just because Thanos made it into a movie first. That’s all.
For decades now, Warner Bros. has been coasting on Batman. Since 1989, there have been eight theatrically-released movies about Batman, ranging from incredible (The Dark Knight) to great (Batman Begins, Mask of the Phantasm) to pretty okay (Batman, The Dark Knight Rises) to crimes against cinema (Batman and Robin). In the same 24 year time frame, there have only been two good-but-not-great Superman movies, one movie for Green Lantern that could charitably be called a misfire, and Shaquille O’Neal as Steel. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on that one.
No I do not count Catwoman. That movie has as much to do with the comic character Catwoman as the Karate Kid movies had to do with the Legion of Superheroes. Same name, no other connection or similarity.
Now consider what Marvel managed to do in half that time. Since just 2008, Marvel Studios alone has cranked out three Iron Man movies, two for Thor, one for Captain America (with another in the wings), one for the Hulk, and their crown jewel, the Avengers. And these range in quality from amaze-balls (Avengers) to merely mediocre (Iron Man 2, Thor), with most achieving a rank of “actually pretty damn good.” Throw in the characters they sold to other studios before forming their own, and in only 13 years we’ve had four movies for Spider-man and the X-Men, two for Ghost Rider, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine, and the Punisher, one for Daredevil, a spin-off for Elektra and another for Hulk. Now, these range in quality a bit more drastically, from great (Spiderman 2, X-2) to pretty bad (most of them) to downright excruciating (Ang Lee’s Hulk), so quantity doesn’t assure quality.
But in terms of numbers, Warner Bros. can’t really compete: Marvel Studios exists to crank out Marvel properties, whereas DC Entertainment is but a part of the larger Warner Bros. empire, which has other things going on and can’t commit to the same mass-production. But here’s my real problem.
By 2014, there will have been eight movies for Batman, six for Superman, three for Blade, and two movies starring freaking Ghost Rider, but zero movies starring Wonder Woman. The greatest female super-hero of all time, the third member of DC’s Big Three, and Rocket Raccoon is going to be in a movie before she is. Nobody at Warner Bros. should be proud of this, and whoever fired Joss Whedon when he was trying to write a movie for her should be banned from movie-making forever.
Maybe Warner Bros. can’t commit to more than one movie per year. But come on. Diana of Themyscria should be at the top of the list.
Now… the small screen.
On the teevee
I’m going to focus on DC’s shows here, because that’s my main point. Suffice to say I’m intrigued to see the four shows Marvel sold to Netflix and I sure hope Agents of SHIELD gets better.
Now, here is an area where DC is at least competitive. Sure, Birds of Prey tanked pretty hard, but Smallville lasted ten seasons and as many as six of them were pretty watchable*.
And now we have Arrow, which started out surprisingly good and is growing into the first truly great superhero show in a generation. In their second season, Arrow has made Oliver Queen an amazing and conflicted protagonist, given him a great supporting cast (even Thea Queen, season one’s weak link, has improved dramatically), and is doing unparalleled work at building the comic-based universe around its central characters.
Unparalleled. Looking at you, Agents of SHIELD. (Sorry, sorry, back to my point)
So between the cult hit of Arrow and the hype and moderate success surrounding Agents of SHIELD, it’s only natural that more shows based around superheroes start turning up. Given that comic books are a medium based around serial storytelling, TV has always been a better fit; 22 episodes a year allows for much better long-term storytelling than one movie every two to four years. So let’s see what DC has in the pipeline, shall we?
Thus far, the Arrow-verse has held the line on super powers. Nobody has them. That’s set to change when Barry Allen makes his debut for the mid-season finale, leading to a planned Flash spin-off series next year. And I’m excited. Because while the showrunners did fail at producing a good Green Lantern movie, Arrow’s been knocking it out of the park this year, so I trust them to replicate that success with the Flash. Hey, I was a huge fan of the first Flash TV series, which actually holds up better than I thought it would.
My only qualm is that they’re making this Flash series at the same time that they’re prepping a Flash movie, and if they’re not connected? If Warner Bros. officially splits their movie universe apart from the TV universe while Marvel is maintaining one continuity across all of their endeavors? That’s worse than a missed opportunity. That’s grade-A dumb.
So here’s hoping that they do the smart thing and use Flash to link up Man of Steel and the Arrow-verse. I just wish that hope weren’t so fleeting.
And now we hit grade-A stupid full-on.
Gotham is a rumoured pilot for the Fox network about Jim Gordon’s early police career in a pre-Batman Gotham City.
Does everyone see why this is a terrible idea? Do I need to go on? Well, the fact that this might be a real thing means someone doesn’t see the massive flaws, so I’ll elaborate.
First off. Splitting your properties across multiple networks is just throwing up barriers to building a shared universe, something that, once again, Marvel has proven works like gangbusters. It will be easy to do Arrow/Flash crossovers, since they’ll both be on the CW, but Fox isn’t known for playing well with others.
Second. It took Smallville several years to start having other proto-versions of DC’s heroes turn up, but it was always a big success. They got a massive ratings spike from having Aquaman show up, of all people. Adding Green Arrow to the cast salvaged the back half of the series. They added Flash (well, sort of), Cyborg, Hawkman, Stargirl, Doctor Fate, the Legion of Superheroes, even Booster Gold and Blue Beetle.
Notice a name missing from that list? Because the fans sure did.
Smallville was basically forbidden to use Bruce Wayne/Batman at any point. Rumour has it they brought in Green Arrow, ultimately making him a regular, because there was a role they wanted young Bruce Wayne to play in shaping Clark’s path but weren’t allowed to use him. Warner Bros. made the baffling decision to isolate Batman from everything else they were doing. Okay, sure, the larger DC universe wouldn’t have fit in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but I don’t see why that means Bruce Wayne couldn’t be on Smallville. And now Arrow is name-dropping Ra’s Al Ghul and rumours are flying that Nightwing will turn up, but again no mention of Batman.
And that is bad enough. Banning Batman from Smallville and Arrow is already a dumb move, but banning him from a series starring one of his supporting cast? A series set in Gotham but with no Batman? Who thinks there’s an audience for that? You want to replicate Agents of SHIELD? Fine. I get that. But there’s already a perfect template for that, and it was called Gotham Central. Gotham Central had a rich and fascinating cast of police detectives trying to solve crimes in a city where the drug dealer you’re planning to bust might turn out to be Mr. Freeze. Most importantly, a series where Batman was never a regular player, but did turn up from time to time. That is the Gotham-based cop show I would watch. The adventures of Jim Gordon before Batman began? No. No thank you. I watched Clark Kent refuse to become Superman for ten goddamn years, I’m not doing it again.
Meanwhile, NBC is looking to develop a show based around John Constantine, the magician/con man who has grown from a linchpin of DC’s mature-readers Vertigo line to a key figure in the magical portion of DC’s main product line. As a solo operator or the defacto leader of the Justice League Dark, he takes on demons, monsters, and other magicians to maintain the balance and protect the world, but is generally a bastard about it and tends to get the people closest to him killed. He was already turned into a not-terrible movie starring Keanu Reeves, but is ripe for re-adaption. And possibly this time they’ll let him stay British.
I have two problems with this. First, again, being on a different network means that any Constantine show will again risk being a stand-alone, when all I want is for DC to embrace the shared universe as rabidly as Marvel has. Second, why haven’t they cast Mark Sheppard as Constantine yet? Sure, he’s not young anymore, but he’s a British actor who specializes in playing bastards you can’t help but love in geek-friendly shows. He’s a perfect fit, dagnabbit.
Hourman was one of DC’s earliest characters, a chemist named Rex Tyler who developed a pill called Miraclo that gave him super-strength, speed and invulnerability for one hour. Sort of like a super-soldier serum you have to keep taking. There have been other attempts to make characters named Hourman, but the one that stood the test of time is, basically, the first superhero drug addict.
Seriously, the most interesting thing they’ve done with Hourman in the last twenty years is have Dr. Mid-nite, his JSA teammate who is also a physician, constantly berate him about how he’s clearly addicted to Miraclo and how unhealthy that is.
Not that any of this would be in the proposed TV series. No, they’re borrowing a much lesser-known power from a much lesser-known version of the character, the ability to see one hour into the future. Skipping over the costumed adventurer whose powers come from a troubling source, skipping over the time-travelling android from the far future trying to learn to be human, and focusing on the most obscure Hourman-related ability they could find.
Is it even a superhero show at this point? Because it feels like an utterly generic “protagonist must stop a tragedy before it happens” show. Early Edition with a tighter deadline. I’m not convinced they’d even give him a costume.
So. While Marvel is building their universe through more Avengers movies and their ultra-ambitious Defenders project on Netflix, DC looks to be splitting up their universe more and more with redundant Flashes, unnecessary prequels, and farming their characters out to different studios, the exact strategy that is limiting Marvel to their B and C-list characters, because they sold their A-list to Sony and Fox.
And through all of this, nothing for Wonder Woman. If you’re desperate enough to turn to Hourman of all people, you should be desperate enough to finally make a Wonder Woman project that’s any good.
I want to see a DC cinematic universe. I do not want to continue to see DC characters existing in independent bubbles, with no crossing over allowed. Unless, of course, this is all building to the Netflix miniseries Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which Smallville, the Nolan-verse, Arrow-verse, and various other movie and TV universes collide… man, I’d watch the shit out of that. Shame that isn’t happening. Great. Somehow I’ve managed to depress myself even more.
But this is why you hurt me, Warner Bros. It’s not because Marvel is beating you. It’s because it doesn’t even seem like you’re stepping up to the plate. Please, do better.
*Not a recommendation. I stand by my policy of never officially recommending Smallville. Watch it if you want, but that’s your decision. I cannot guarantee your safety, nor will I be responsible for your fate.
First off, I am both surprised and gratified by all the comments my last blog post is getting from current and former postal workers. Thanks for finding the blog, thanks for reading, and thanks for the supportive comments. I can only hope that some of my other posts, less directly related to your own struggles, can also entertain you. On that note…
Gonna try to blog a lot more this week to make up for a lengthy absence. And to continue hammering it in as a habit. And clearly, I’ve stumbled onto the one thing my audience craves.
I kid. Now, I’ve pretty much exhausted my supply of post office stories (save for the odd case of the dude on 12th Ave), and I don’t have any past regrets I need to send an open letter to just now (not to say I’m out of regrets, just that I don’t feel a need to discuss any of them) so it’s time to return to my ongoing re-examination of my old scripts.
The year was 2000, Lethargic Lad had just wrapped, and things continued to get silly in the spy parody Supervillain!
What’s it about?
Former henchman-turned-supervillain Hank Scorpio has a vision: that the global domination game can be won if you’re just willing to avoid all the classic mistakes villains love to make and be smart about things. With his temp/Grand Vizier Jake McCoy, chief enforcer Katya Greatsex, and the prophet Tellius, he sets out to prove the bad guy can win. Opposing him is arrogant superspy Jack Bunt, whose list of defeated villains is almost as long as his list of female assistants killed in action, and his new assistant Jessica Sydoskyk, who he refers to as “Sidekick.”
Hank must foil the spies and rule the world, without giving in and telling Bunt all the details of the plan. But… it’s such a good plan, it seems a shame not to talk about it…
So why did that happen?
Two sources of influence here: first of all, an email forward titled “Things I will do when I am a supervillain,” a list poking fun at classic villain screw-ups like assuming your death-trap will kill the hero or buying into statements like “He’s just one man, what can he do?” Second, the Simpsons episode You Only Move Twice, in which Homer goes to work for charming, friendly, boss-of-the-year supervillain Hank Scorpio. Yeah, not even going to try to deny the connection there. What point would there be? I named my theatre company after him, I’m not going to be able to claim the character name is a coincidence.
So after reading the villain list, I became enamoured with the notion of a villain actually trying to avoid the cliche screw-ups, and decided to give that story a whirl. I also threw in a trope Terry Pratchett often took shots at, the trope of the sinister Grand Vizier who will inevitably turn on his master. Hiring a random temp, Jake, as Grand Vizier was Scorpio’s attempt to circumvent that.
How’d it turn out?
Fairly funny, I’d say. Funny enough that it made a return appearance to the stage a full eight years later, with only minimal polish.
Some of the jokes are a little forced. Some of the banter remained too wordy. But a lot of the humour holds up okay. The many trials of Sidekick, from dealing with Bunt’s blunt-object approach to espionage to the unwanted advances of Katya, still entertain me. Hank and Jake make a decent comedy duo when the banter’s clicking. Bunt’s cavalier disregard for Sidekick’s safety still makes me chuckle. It’s rough in places, sure, but there’s still an appeal under it all.
We also tried a gimmick when this play first went up: alternate endings. We gave the audience the chance to say how they thought the play should end, and if we used theirs the next night they got in free. The idea was that they’d bring friends to see their suggested ending. Also, tickets were two-for-one with a used ticket stub, to further incentivize repeat viewings.
Alternate endings included Katya and Sidekick kicking out the menfolk and taking over, the Independence Day ending (Hank rallies everyone to fight a sudden alien invasion), the Charlie’s Angels ending (Jessica, Katya and Tellius are the Angels), the henchmen-blow-up-the-base ending, and the popular “return of the surly cocktail waiter” ending. Plus what I stubbornly referred to as the real ending.
Would you stage it again?
Maybe. In the right circumstances. I’d probably want to continue to polish it, clear up some of the rough spots, improve the pacing, but it holds up okay. It’s far from my best comedy, but the jokes work more often than they don’t.
It’s a B- spy parody. Not great, not terrible, which makes it hard to say anything in-depth about. It was a chance for me to tell silly jokes about spy movies for an hour and a half, ending with a decent monologue from Hank and a lot of fun exasperation on the parts of Jake and Jessica. It’s good enough that I’d rework this script instead of starting over from the basic premise, not so good that I’m quick to give it to people as a sample of my work.
Repeated theme alert
This entire play is a pop culture reference. Bond movies, Shakespeare, the lead character is a Simpsons reference… it would be harder to find a page without pop culture references on it.
I surely did like the word “creepy.” I used the words “creepy” and “creeps” so much in this script they begin to lose meaning.
The Outsider: I always found it beneficial to, when dealing with odd premises like this one, have a character who is outside of the situation. An ordinary person who can act as audience surrogate. Steve in Apocalypse Soonish, Greg in Illuminati in Love, and now Jake. Works pretty well.
Okay. Buckle up. This isn’t going to be fast, easy, or fun. Wait–why would you read it if it weren’t fun… think, man, think… I know! More cute animals!
I arrived at the Sunridge depot just in time for my 10:00 start, as part of Wave 2. I found the desk of Lori, the staffing supervisor, where all the relief carriers waited for their assignments. Available routes were handed out based on seniority, so I got the second-last pick. My choices were 1458 and 1472. Maybe the story would have gone differently if I’d said 1458. Probably not. At least so I’m choosing to believe.
I had help: the woman who once walked this route… let’s call her “Claire…”* was sorting the bulk of the mail for me. So all I had to do was bundle up the mail that comes pre-sorted by computers (the sequenced mail, as it is known), sort through my parcels (any package too large to be sorted in with the rest of the mail or carried in the satchel, thus requiring separate delivery), get my van, load up and hit the road, right?
As I mentioned last time, the Tuesday after a long weekend is a notoriously heavy mail day. The mail doesn’t stop moving on weekends, it just piles up at the depots, so I essentially had four days’ worth of mail and parcels waiting for me. Six containers of sequenced mail–that means little to any of you, suffice to say it was at least twice as much as I’d see any other day that week, or ever before during peer training. Forty-four parcels, again nearly twice the number I’d seen on our busiest day in peer training. And that’s before the manual sort mail and the fliers got added to the pile.
I was handed two sets of keys by the supervisors, and told I’d need all of them. Her exact words. “You’ll need all of them.” Remember that, it’s going to be important. Also, one of the keys had been bent and twisted beyond any actual use.
It was 1:45 before I left the depot to start delivering. The route contained three “park and loops,” where you park your vehicle and walk a series of loops that start and end around where you parked, allowing you to reload your satchel now and then. The three loops filled a 30-square block area bordered by 10th Avenue NE, Centre Street (all businesses), 16th Avenue (more businesses), and Edmonton Trail. There were also daily pickups: a street letter box, or SLB in postie-speak, that had to be cleared no sooner than 5:00, and a daily pickup from Albern Coins and Foreign Exchange, which was to be done by 4:20. Often packages of coins being mailed out. In other words, heavy, heavy packages. Both of these pickups were on the far side of Centre Street from the bulk of the route, and thus meant moving my van across a major hub of traffic right during rush hour. Well thought-out, Canada Post. No points for you.
After putting some gas into the van, which is never supposed to have less than half a tank but was left nearly empty, I charged into my route. I hit the houses and apartments on Centre A Street, the supposed starting point, then the businesses on 16th Avenue. “Good start,” I thought, returning to the van to grab the mail for Centre Street. Only… only the sun looked a little low in the sky. Even for November. I quickly checked the time. It was already after 4:00 and I still hadn’t finished my first park-and-loop. I decided to hit Albern Coins right away: these scheduled pickups are an overwhelming portion of Canada Post’s revenue and thus are not to be missed, ever. So I moved my van closer, using a small parking lot across Centre Street, as I didn’t know about the parking lot behind Albern Coins. If I had, I could have avoided the narrow alley to the smaller lot and I wouldn’t have hit that pole and dented the passenger door of my van.
But I did. Great first day so far.
I hit a few businesses, including one mini-mall, sometimes sliding mail under the doors of already closed businesses. Around 5:30, I called the end-of-day supervisor to report that I was very clearly not going to finish my route by 6:00. She said to do my pickups and get back to the depot, as all incoming mail (including the Albern packages) has to be on a truck to the plant to be sorted and sent on its way by 6:15ish, so I got the van, fought my way through traffic to the SLB, grabbed the letters and made my way back to the depot. I met up with Lisa, the end-of-day supervisor and one of the genuinely nice people I’d met during this job and will actually miss (the others being my peer trainer Greg and his supervisor, Steve). She took a look at the vast piles of mail I had left, and recommended I at least try to deliver the parcels. She’d be there until nine, so I should head back out and deliver what I could.
I resolved to try and fly through the parcels then see what residential mail I could deliver before 8:45, when I figured I should head back to be at the depot for 9:00. I managed 33 out of 44 parcels, but that was it. Everything else got put right back in the depot. I clocked out at 9:30, 11 and a half hours after I started, and limped home. I also grabbed some food, since I hadn’t eaten since 9:00 that morning, never having had time for a meal break.
I didn’t sleep well that night. For every hour or two of sleep there was one hour of tossing and turning. When I dreamed, it was of the undelivered mail I feared was waiting for me. I slunk into the depot for 10:00, and was relieved to hear that the surplus mail had been sent out, leaving me with only the surplus parcels and the new day’s mail. And the sorting went much faster: I was on my way a full hour and a half earlier. Cause for optimism, I thought.
As another bonus, on day two one of the customers in my first 16th Avenue mall told me that there was a group mailbox, so I didn’t have to run from store to store so much. Turns out the other malls had group mailboxes as well. And I found the parking lot behind Albern, which was handy, for they had so many more packages going out that day. So, making good time, right? I hit the second park-and-loop with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm somewhat tempered by the fact that everyone I met on the route said it had been weeks if not months since there’d been a regular mail carrier on this route.
But the enthusiasm faded. The sun was hanging low again by the time I reached the van to reload for the second half. I sped around, delivering what parcels I could before 5:30, but it was again time to hit the SLB and get back. I was lucky, in a way: someone from my training class was on her first day, and brought her SLB letters back too late, meaning she had to drive them to the plant herself. But it was now almost 7:00 and I still had a fair amount of mail left. I’d done my fliers for the day, that was something.
On that note. If you want to really feel like an idiot, deliver a flier for Domino’s Pizza to a restaurant. Or to a rival pizza delivery place.
This time Lisa said I should just call it a night, and I was grateful for that, because I was already late for Reservoir Dogs rehearsal. I staggered in, half an hour late, aching all over, starving from not eating all day, half-dead from exhaustion, and did my best to work the day’s scene. During the run, I was mostly okay, but between runs hunger and exhaustion hit me like twin sledge hammers. At least I slept better that night.
The guy who’d delivered my surplus mail hadn’t had any keys, so he brought back everything that had been meant for an apartment building. I, too, had been having trouble with apartments: the two keys I had that looked like door keys didn’t work on any apartment buildings. On any doors I encountered, really. I mentioned this, showed that the bent and twisted key was now breaking, and was met with nothing but skepticism from the supervisors, who seemed confident I should be able to open any door I encountered.
But the other effect of the other guy not delivering to apartments is that his extra mail got lumped in with mine, leading the staffing supervisor to assume that I once again hadn’t delivered past the businesses on Centre. I was tired, sore, frustrated, and in no mood to open day three with a scolding, but there was no way around it. Lori made it clear that today I was to deliver everything, no matter what. She also found someone else to do my pickups, and to deliver about half of my parcels, so she managed to be my new worst enemy and best friend in one conversation.
With no need to be back at the depot to drop off outgoing mail by 6:15, my path was clear: deliver everything. Every letter, every parcel. My sorter helped by suggesting I take a more logical approach to the route than the assigned path and do all of the businesses first, instead of saving half of 16th Avenue for the end of the day. After all, residential mailboxes don’t close at 5:00. I got an even earlier start, out on the road before noon, no need to buy gas.
At my first mall, I had some issues with my keys, then learned that one of the two keyrings I’d initially been given was missing. I called Lisa, drove back to the depot, got a replacement set, much to the chagrin of the daytime supervisor (also to the chagrin of me, who’d hoped to be done with businesses by the time Lisa started at 1:00), and headed back out. The sun began to set around the same place in the route, halfway through my second park-and-loop.
There is something inherently demoralizing about delivering mail in the dark. Watching the daylight fade, feeling how much mail you have on you, knowing how much is still waiting in the van. It also didn’t help that while using my phone as a flashlight to read addresses off envelopes I dropped my phone on the sidewalk, smashing the screen and leaving me phoneless with no time to deal with it until the weekend.
I tried to keep my spirits up. I thought of the words of Winston Churchill (or at least the version of Winston Churchill from Victory of The Daleks): KBO. Keep buggering on. My remaining door key did not work on a single apartment building, but despite the route taking some zigs and zags my training had told me it wouldn’t, resulting in me hitting a couple of blocks with fliers and then having to come back to give them their actual mail, I walked the whole route. I delivered every parcel. Well, okay, in some cases I just left the slip saying the parcel could be picked up the next day. And by 8:45 or so I was just dropping the slips off without knocking, figuring it was too late to be ringing doorbells with parcels anyway.
Yes, on day three I brought everything I hate about UPS to Canada Post. Not a proud hour.
I returned to the depot, mentioned the key issue, and was on my way home at 10:00. A full 12 hours with no pausing, no food, only one bottle of water to last me the whole day. I limped home, took some muscle relaxants I’d borrowed from Ben the night before, and managed one episode of the Blacklist before crawling into bed.
I barely slept again, so I was not off to a great start, but I did eat the healthiest breakfast/meal I’d eaten all week, so I felt good about that.
With no mail returned, I instead had to deal with scoldings about apartment buildings and claiming I didn’t have enough keys. It was only now, on day four, that Jackie the supervisor bothered to tell me that the two key rings I’d been given, saying “You will need all of these,” were actually duplicates. That the one key ring I’d taken out yesterday and assumed to not be enough in fact held all the keys I needed. At no point did she explain why she’d given me two sets without saying they were identical. At. No. Point.
I also took grief for claiming I couldn’t get into the apartment buildings. She asked, repeatedly and condescendingly, how hard I’d tried. I replied firmly that the key did not fit and telling me that it should have didn’t change that. After this ugly opening to the day, while I was wondering how to contact Ian to get video footage of the key not fucking working to review with Jackie and, if necessary, the union’s shop steward, Claire, while finishing the sort and tie-out of the mail, told me that there was a keyhole in the buzzer panels, and that was how to get into apartments.
Took her about five seconds. Five whole seconds to fix all of my problems with apartment buildings. Yet, simple as this was, at no point did either daytime supervisor or Lori think to look at the key I was claiming didn’t work and say “Oh, that’s the wrong key, there’s a keyhole in the buzzer panel, use that.”
At. No. Point.
Argh. Manatees, please.
So, as I start my fourth day, I’m already in a mood, but I remain determined. Only 15 parcels, up five from yesterday but six of them are right at the start of the route, the least sequenced mail I’ve seen all week. No key shenanigans, no driving back to the depot, no zigging and zagging on 10th Avenue, all easy. Yesterday I finished, today, I thought, today I finish on time. Every letter, every parcel, back by six. Seven at the latest.
I was back at the depot around 9:30. If anything, even later than the night before. On a traditionally slow mail day.
To say I was disheartened would be a dramatic understatement. I was crushed. The thought of having to deliver to this route for a second week was giving me anxiety attacks. All I’d had to eat since 9:30 in the morning was one apple I’d bought while delivering to a 7-11 that I’d munched on when the opportunity arose.
Inside I was screaming at myself to give it another week. Give myself time to improve. Keep at it, KBO, damn your eyes. I might even move to another depot on Monday and get to take a break from Jackie, Lori, and 1472. But, just so I knew… I asked Lisa how, if necessary, I would go about resigning.
She said, in gentle tones, that if I was going to resign, now would be better than mid-next week. I said that I felt I should at least try to get my time down from 12 hours to eight. She said I probably wouldn’t, that 20-year veterans were taking 10 hours to finish a route, and that it would actually get worse before it got better.
I was starving. I was exhausted. My shoulders, back, and legs were sore, nearly to the point of agony. My fingers were covered in tiny yet excruciating wounds. I’d worked 45 hours in four days. And I was being told this was as good as it was ever going to get. So I did the only thing that made sense. I turned in my ID card, satchel, work shirt and unopened headlamp, and left Canada Post behind.
In the harsh light of day I, of course, wondered if I’d done the right thing. It turns out I would have moved to Bowness the next week if I’d stayed on, but I have no guarantees that would have been better. As I said last time, I don’t like failing, and leaving after one week felt a lot like failing. But at rehearsal the next afternoon, our Nice Guy Eddie said the most reassuring thing I’ve heard: “You on Wednesday versus you today?… You made the right decision.”
It was a bad fit. That’s all there is to it. I can deal with 12 hour shifts, but five of them in a row? With no meal breaks? That’s too much. It’s just too much.
This was supposed to be a part-time day job to help pay the bills while some other projects come to fruition, something to support me while leaving evenings free for my passion projects, but instead it was turning into a job that would swallow my entire life, sucking up every available moment from Monday to Friday and leave no time or energy for anything else. I’m playing Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. After that I’m directing a Doctor Who tribute play that ties into this month’s fiftieth anniversary. I’m launching a webseries next spring. I write this blog when I can. And I still write plays. And I am not prepared to give up all of those things so that I can spend my days delivering mail in the dark of night then arriving home just in time to eat something unhealthy but quick (there was no way I was ever going to have time or energy to cook) and crawl into bed in time to do it all again.
And that’s what it was becoming. Twelve hour days with no breaks to eat, buy better shoes, go to doctor’s appointments, book doctor’s appointments, let alone write, rehearse, or do any of the creative things that give my brief existence meaning. My stomach turned every time I drove past Centre and 16th. I wasn’t sleeping. I swore I could feel my health deteriorating. And on top of all of this, I was talked down to like a child and accused of being either lazy or incompetent because I didn’t magically know something they should have been explaining. And everything I heard said it wouldn’t get better.
I don’t feel great about quitting so fast. Not everyone has made it an easy choice to justify. But I’m getting less sore, my fingers are starting to heal, and it’s been three days since I last fell into deep despair because the sun was setting, so it’s a choice I stand by. There’s a job that’s right for me. Just need a little more time to find it.
Thanks for bearing with me on this, if you managed to do so. Next time I’ll get back to talking about old plays, then I’ll yell about pop culture and superheroes some more. That should be fun. Take us home, Calming Manatee.
*Name changed not to protect her identity, but because I honestly never caught it. I suck sometimes.
A huge thank you to all the posties who have commented with thanks, reassurances, and horror stories of their own. If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from all this it’s that you guys work extremely hard to perform an important service and don’t get the credit and respect you deserve. Stay strong out there.
Also, when I mentioned the few nice people I’d miss, I should have mentioned all of my classmates from training. It was good to know you guys. Hope you’re doing better than I did.
Hark now to the tale of my extremely short-lived career as a letter carrier for Canada Post. I’ll try to keep it entertaining, but if I sense it’s getting gloomy or bitter I’ll throw in some pictures of manatees and whatnot. Everybody loves manatees.
The hiring process
It began with me deciding that instead of fighting the legions of unemployed journalists for jobs in my actual field, I should seek out entry-level positions at companies that seemed worth working for. And so I came to apply as a part-time relief letter carrier for Canada Post.
I’m not sure they understand what “Part-time” means, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The hiring process was lengthy, if not complicated. First step? General skills assessment test. Simple enough questions. Section one, same or different: look at two addresses, say if you think they’re the same or different. Section two, basic math: addition, subtraction, multiplication, light division. Section three, sortation: here’s a number/address, which range of numbers or addresses does it belong to? Section four, memorization: here’s four columns of addresses. Take a few minutes to learn them, and then recall which column each of these addresses belongs to.
The real challenge was the harsh time limits. Early sections only gave you five minutes to complete 25 questions, with points awarded based on number of right answers. That’s 12 seconds per question. I over-thought same/different, and multiplying a four digit number by a two digit number can take more than 12 seconds, so I didn’t finish either of those sections. However, I did well enough on the exam that by the end of the day I’d booked an interview for the following week. I nailed that, and was scheduled for phase three: a physical test and a road test. I passed both (the road test was a close call), and received an offer. A week or so later, I’d start training.
Training breaks down like this. First is four days of learning how to sort and deliver mail, split between book learning and sortation practice. Also tutorials on how to use the PDT scanning devices that track delivery of parcels, registered mail, and fliers. Next, three days of peer training: follow a letter carrier through their day, see what it’s basically like. I helped deliver mail in Ranchlands, right around where my parents lived until not so long ago. Me and my trainer split the route, with me delivering to part and then watching him speed through the next. Maybe that’s what made it seem so doable: I was only delivering part of a route and got to empty mailboxes at the start. Didn’t seem so bad. We were usually done by two. Sure, we never paused for lunch, but having lunch at 2:30 instead of 12 isn’t so bad, right?
After three days of peer training come the exams. A written test, on which you need to score 75%, and a sort test. Sort 120 letters in ten minutes with 99% accuracy to pass.
Or so they said.
Turns out they just wanted to see an improvement in your speed over the week and solid accuracy. Accuracy being ultimately more important than speed, as taking 60 minutes to sort instead of 45 will cost you less time than making a bunch of mistakes and having to fix it while delivering. So only one person actually got all 120 letters sorted with 100% accuracy.
Damn skippy it was me. Clean as a whistle, sharp as a thistle, best in all Westminster, yeah!
The final day of training was defensive driving. Which was entirely common sense stuff. Also boring and forever taking.
That complete, we were now officially on the on-call list as relief letter carriers. Well, those who were left.
Our teacher had warned us, up front, that not everyone in the class would turn out to be cut out for this job. And she certainly wasn’t wrong. The first week was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Each day we had at least one less person in the class. One person quit during a lunch break. I expected each lesson to start with an Oompa-Loompa song about our latest drop-out. Two left because they were sick, and if you miss even one day of training you have to start over, as you’ll miss too much. One left because she’d expected this to be more of a causal, part-time thing, a way to supplement her income from running her own business, and it clearly wasn’t going to be. One left because he intended to spend much of the winter in warmer climates and thus would have to re-do the training anyway. I never expected to join them: I’m good at sorting, I actually like sorting, and was hoping a more physical job would help me get into better shape. I thought I could handle it.
Late in week one a union rep came to talk to us about the postal workers union we’d have to join. That’s where the horror stories started. Canada Post management types were quick to mention benefits: pay grades, pension, vacation time, etc. Union officials always added a “for now” to any talk of benefits, as the contract is up for negotiation in a few years and the corporation is gunning for that pension plan. When I joined the union, horror stories continued: tales of supervisors out to “break” relief workers, refusing to file for overtime, late hours and hard work. I didn’t let them scare me. I wanted to believe I could handle this job. I don’t like failing, which is weird, because I have so much practice failing at job applications, weight loss, and talking to cute girls at parties that you’d think I’d greet failure as an old friend by now.
On top of all these warnings, I’d booked two job interviews during the training period. Even before day one of work, I was, on some level, looking for an exit strategy. But I remained hopeful. On Tuesday, November 12th, I would start delivering mail on my own.
The Tuesday after a long weekend. A day known to be a heavy mail day. I could have planned that better.
Look, we’re already over 1000 words on this thing and thinking about last week is still making me a little stress-queasy, so we’ll leave it there for now. Later tonight, or maybe tomorrow, we’ll jump into how it all went so very wrong.
And I’m back. The run of a play I was in and adjustment to a new work schedule have made posting difficult as of late. Real talk, society: 5:30 AM is no time to be awake. It’s unnatural. You know how I know? The sun isn’t up yet. If the sun isn’t up, it is not “early in the morning,” it is still night.
Last night, as a final Halloween celebration, I was at a horror movie marathon, the theme of which was “A Night at the Cabin,” horror films featuring cabins in the woods, ending of course with Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s excellent Cabin in the Woods.Cabin is a hilarious and thrilling deconstruction of horror films, whose ending always makes me a little conflicted, as it basically guarantees there will be no sequel ever (the box office helped assure that as well, but that’s neither here nor there). On the one hand, the premise of all the horror movie tropes being engineered by a mysterious organization in a bunker (personified hilariously by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) is so much fun that it’s a shame there can’t be more of it. On the other hand, I can’t imagine a sequel to this movie actually working on any level. It would surely end up a retread of all the popular jokes and scenes from its predecessors.
You know, like Austin Powers.
Sequels exist because giving audiences more of something they enjoyed is a relatively safe bet for movie executives. The problem is that “People liked that, let’s make another” isn’t the best way to begin a creative endeavor. There are good sequels, to be sure: Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Sequels that build on what came before and manage to find new and great stories to tell with characters we’ve already come to love. Others… others screw up. Here’s some ways they do that.
“Let’s just do that again”
What might be the most common and laziest way to make a sequel: say “Hey, that worked, let’s just do it again.” And why not? Doesn’t that work for James Bond? That’s a franchise built around “And then James Bond foils another villain,” and Skyfall proved that after fifty years there’s still a surprising amount of gas in that tank, if you’re willing to try.
Sadly, not everyone is willing to make that kind of effort.
Witness Austin Powers. The first one was a delightful surprise, a breath of fresh air. The second one recycled all the popular jokes from the first movie and added some newer, less funny jokes. Goldmember did the same. And that’s why instead of being a trilogy of classic comedies with a best-selling special edition box set, they are instead our greatest case study of diminishing returns. See also the Hangover trilogy, which went from “surprise hit” to “surprise bomb” in just two movies.
The Ring 2 is another key example. The Ring was, in my opinion, an amazing horror film, replacing jump-scares with a remarkably consistent aura of dread and ending in a climax scary enough I hid in my coat rather than re-watch it on my second viewing. The Ring 2 was made by people trying to re-create the key beats of the movie based on a rough description, and was terrible.
Witness Batman and Robin, which began its many, many, many crimes against film making by kicking off the plot with Commissioner Gordon saying “There’s a new villain in town, please come stop him” and pretty much nothing else. More egregious? The Men in Black movies. Men in Black could have been a hell of a franchise, but instead of using the first movie to establish the world and then build on it in sequels and whatnot, they instead tried whatever they could to just re-do the basic story beats of the original. And they also bring us to my second sequel mis-step.
Frank the Pug Syndrome
If I accomplish one thing though blogging, let it be making “Frank the Pug Syndrome” a recognized trope. That or Infinite Respawn. You know, when the heroes have to fight a faceless horde of something, like zombies or henchmen or Chitauri, and they’re weak enough for the heroes to be able to stop while looking badass but since they never stop coming the heroes are gradually overwhelmed? Not my point. Right. Where was I.
Frank the Pug was a once-scene joke in the first Men in Black movie, and far from the best joke at that, but the makers of MIB2 thought that an alien disguised as a pug dog was intrinsically hilarious enough to make him a full-fledged member of the team in the sequel. He was not. All he did was serve as a piss-poor replacement for Linda Fiorentino (either not asked to return or not interested in doing so) and Patrick Warburton. Seriously, putting Patrick Warburton in your movie as Will Smith’s new partner and then ditching him after ten minutes in favour of a “wacky” talking dog? Bad writers. Zero points for you.
And so I came to coin “Frank the Pug Syndrome” as a term for any sequel who takes a minor character from the previous movie and inadvisably gives them a much bigger role in the sequel. Shrek 2 is another example, with bigger parts for previously one-joke characters like the Gingerbread Man, Pinocchio, and the Big Bad Wolf. I haven’t seen Shrek 2, maybe it worked okay, but I very much doubt anything the Gingerbread Man did was as funny as the Muffin Man bit from the first movie.
Or look at X-Men 3. That movie became immensely over-crowded, because they kept wanting to bring in new characters, but also wanted to give expanded roles to everyone from the first two (except Cyclops, who was killed off to punish James Marsden for following Bryan Singer to Superman Returns). It’s not that Iceman, Kitty Pryde and Colossus didn’t deserve bigger parts, it’s that there just wasn’t room to do that while introducing Beast, Angel, Juggernaut, and Jamie Madrox while giving Storm a more dominant role to appease Halle Berry and continuing to fetishize Wolverine because that’s what the X-Men empire appears to be built on.
Even just trying to bring back every single person of note from the previous movie can be a struggle. Looking at you, American Pie 2 and Ocean’s 12. But then, it is possible, very possible, to go too far in the other direction.
Throwing out too much
Sometimes people come along to make a sequel who seem to have no idea how or why the previous film worked. Now, sometimes a director will want to put his own stamp on a franchise, and good for him: Aliens was a worthy successor to Alien because James Cameron wasn’t trying to just re-do what Ridley Scott did in the first movie, he simply took the world it created and ran in his own direction. The Mission: Impossible movies, however, vary so wildly in tone and style that it’s hard to believe they actually take place in the same world.
A more obscure example: a 1990s Chinese kung-fu movie called the Heroic Trio, in which a vigilante named Wonder Woman (but not that Wonder Woman), a mercenary called Thief-Catcher and a thief called the Invisible Woman (not that Invisible Woman, but played by Michelle Yeoh!) eventually team up to fight evil. Eventually. Invisible Woman is on the wrong side for most of the movie and they don’t become a Heroic Trio until the climax of the movie. I had fun with it, so my friend the Video Vulture suggested watching the sequel. Which takes place decades later, in a post-apocalyptic society, years after the Heroic Trio have split up.
This was the second movie.
At one point one of the Trio says something along the lines of “Remember all those adventures we had as the Heroic Trio?” and I, as viewer, could only proclaim “WELL I SURE FUCKING DON’T!” Not only am I still baffled why they felt post-apocalyptic was a natural next step (there was no hint of the impending collapse of society in the first movie), they spent the entire first movie creating the Heroic Trio and then skipped over their entire existence as a unit. It would be like if Christopher Nolan had gone straight from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises–no, to the second half of The Dark Knight Rises, when Bane already controls the city. The origin comes at the beginning, “years after retirement” comes at the end, but something is supposed to go in the middle.
That was a lot of time spent on an obscure Chinese film. Seem to be running out of room to also diss the Terminator franchise. Okay. Speed mode. The central premises of the first two Terminators were a) unstoppable robot assassins from the future trying to kill people in the present, aided by the heroes’ lack of access to futuristic weapons; and b) the idea that the War of the Machines can be won or even prevented through time travel. Sarah Connor clings to the belief that “There is no fate but what we make for ourselves,” while the entire time travel gambit was a hail-Mary desperation ploy by Skynet to avert its impending defeat at the hands of John Connor. Terminator 2 hammered this notion, and was the best of the franchise. Terminator 3 immediately threw it all out and declared the Judgement Day could not be prevented, only delayed.
Think about that for a moment. They’re not saying that man creating an AI is inevitable, or even that man and sentient machine going to war is inevitable; they’re saying that man creating a military AI named Skynet who nukes the planet and invents Terminators and time travel is inevitable. Is that not a weirdly specific turn of events to be unavoidable? And if Judgement Day can’t be prevented, than why can a successful human resistance be stopped by killing John Connor as a child? Either future events are set in stone or they’re not. If stopping Skynet’s inventor only means that someone else invents the exact same Skynet, then wouldn’t some other visionary warrior rise up in place of John Connor? If the future can’t be stopped, isn’t this entire time travel cold war between man and machine a gigantic waste of time? Like Terminator 3 turned out to be?
Sadly I’m out of time to talk about Terminator: Salvation, except to say that it threw out the franchise’s other premise by setting the movie post-Judgement Day and having regular, modern-day weapons work just fine against the previously bullet-proof Terminators. Bad writers, no cookie.
Sequels ruined horror movies
As a final note on sequels, here’s how I think they’ve mutated the slasher movie horror sub-genre into something I have a harder time enjoying than I used to. See, in order to have a franchise, you normally need a strong recurring character or characters to hang it off. James Bond, Indiana Jones, Michael Corleone, Ripley, etc. Someone we’re happy to root for time and time again. But for slasher flicks, your central, recurring character is your monster: Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees, Chucky, etc. They’re the ones who keep coming back to kill a fresh crop of victims, one of whom is a determined yet tormented heroine (or Tommy Jarvis) who despite losing friends, family, and/or potential lovers, is finally able to dispatch the fiend. Who inevitably comes back because they want to make another one.
The problem is that since the killers are typically the only or at least primary recurring characters, they eventually become the most interesting ones in order to keep the audience’s attention through fresh, new ways to kill teenagers for having premarital sex. The kills are, after all, the only variety the franchise is getting other than finding different locales for the carnage, be it Manhattan or, when they’re really desperate, space. This means that the struggle to stop the monster becomes depressingly futile. Jason had the decency to stalk a fresh new batch of teenagers each time (except for the above mentioned Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason twice but went a little crazy in between), but Freddy Krueger usually kicked off his latest movie by finishing off the survivors from the last one. So their big triumph over Freddy lasted about a year, tops.
And that has become ingrained into contemporary slasher movies to the point where the villain’s inevitable return isn’t just hinted at any more. Now Freddy, Jason, and Victor Crowley‘s defeat at the hands of the Final Girl doesn’t even last until the end of the movie, as they’re back from the dead and killing again right as the credits start to roll. I’d call that an unsatisfying ending, but it isn’t even an ending! A four-minute lull in Jason trying to kill Jared Padalecki doesn’t mean the story is over if he’s just going to leap up and start again afterwards. Also, that’s Sam goddamn Winchester, Vorhees. Just stay down.
But to a certain audience, maybe that works. The audience that is down with rooting for the killer, not the victims. But that mentality leads to House of 1,000 Corpses, which from what I could tell was about glorifying the killers to the point that the victims make no effort to fight back, as they only exist to be creatively dispatched, and I honestly cannot think of a movie I’ve loathed more than that. I haven’t seen all of it, and I don’t intend to.
There are probably other ways to botch a sequel. Maybe you can name some. In fact, I encourage you to do so in the comments. But I’ve taken up enough of your time for now. Thanks for your time, I’ll try not to let day jobs keep me from posting for so long again.