In The Wake of MAN OF STEEL: A Timely Proposal

The lights dim… the screen flickers to life…

EXT. CALAIS COAST OF FRANCE – DAY

The cliffs of Dover are faintly visible on the horizon. A GERMAN GENERAL addresses a group of WEHRMACHT STAFF OFFICERS. As he begins speaking, a pristine Nazi flag snaps in the breeze behind him and the ominous shapes of dozens of HE-111 BOMBERS growl past overhead, toward the English side of the Channel.

GERMAN GENERAL
Gentlemen, England is on its knees. Her convoys are swept away. The Americans are too preoccupied by the destruction of their carrier fleet at Midway to send the British anything but prayers.

FLASH – DARKENED COMPARTMENT WITHIN A SINKING SHIP

Men screaming in the smoke-laced compartment as water rises rapidly to their chins.

GERMAN GENERAL
The Royal Air Force… no longer exists.

FLASH – LONDON CITYSCAPE –DAY

Big Ben is a shattered ruin, prominent in the foreground, as smoke rises in a hundred columns over a blackened and tortured city. German aircraft are flying away in leisurely formations.

GERMAN GENERAL
Moscow is a graveyard. The Fuhrer has released the bulk of the armies of the East to our command and given us our orders. By the end of this summer, 1942, we will be standing on the British Isles and we will be looking across the Atlantic… to our next target.

FLASH – WARNER BROS. LOGO

FLASH – DC COMICS LOGO

EXT. PLEASANT TROPICAL ISLAND COAST, OFFSHORE — NIGHT

A team of shadowy men are paddling a rubber boat toward the beach. The silhouette of a GERMAN U-BOAT rocks gently on the waves behind them.

YOUNG MAN WITH GERMAN ACCENT (Voiceover)
Herr Leutnant, what is this place? How can it not be on our charts?

EXT. PLEASANT TROPICAL ISLAND BEACH – NIGHT

A team of GERMAN SOLDIERS is briskly setting up a perimeter, while a GRIZZLED NAZI LIEUTENANT consults a map and compass. His ADJUTANT, the young man of the voiceover, stands nervously beside him. The scene is lit by the Lieutenant’s smoldering cigarette. Another shadowy shape can be seen at the Adjutant’s feet.

GRIZZLED NAZI LIEUTENANT
(Languidly) Who cares? We’re here to put it on the charts. And to find out how we can make use of it. I think we ought to start with a more… persuasive conversation with our American guest, don’t you?

The Lieutenant laughs and kicks the shape at the Adjutant’s feet. The MAN ON THE SAND (Paul Walker), who now comes into focus, is wearing a torn olive drab U.S. Army uniform and his hands are cuffed behind his back. He is unshaven, hollow-eyed, wary but not entirely defeated. The name patch on his uniform shirt reads TREVOR.

ADJUTANT
Herr Leutnant! Someone’s coming out of the jungle!

The German soldiers raise their weapons, and the Lieutenant peers into the darkness. We follow his gaze and see that a LONE FIGURE IN A HOODED CLOAK is standing just outside the darkened treeline, a few yards inland from the beach, watching the men.

LIEUTENANT
It’s a woman. (Shouting to his men) Bring her down here!

CLOAKED WOMAN
Strangers, you must leave. To trespass here is death.

LIEUTENANT
Really? And who are you to threaten us?

CLOAKED WOMAN
I’m not threatening you. (She pushes back her hood, revealing that she is DIANA (Jaimie Alexander)) I’m trying to protect you.

LIEUTENANT
From what?

DIANA
From me.

LIEUTENANT
Oh, good. A crazy woman. (He gestures, and his men begin to jog up the beach toward her) Don’t bother being gentle with her, just–

CUT TO

Steve Trevor scrambling backward on the sand, eyes wide, jaw hanging open. The sound of submachine-gun fire and screaming fills the night. The beach and the water behind him are lit by the pale staccato flashes of gunfire. Loud wet thumps, intercut with the high-pitched noise of razor-sharp metal slicing through the air, tell the story of the unfortunate German soldiers. Flying weapons and debris hit the sand all around Steve.

CUT TO

Diana, looking down toward Steve from a few feet away. She slides an ornate sword of pale metal back into its sheath.

STEVE TREVOR
Jesus! Lady, I’m, ah, I’m not exactly here by choice!

DIANA
You were their prisoner?

STEVE TREVOR
Yeah, I, uh, look… can you maybe see if there’s a key to these cuffs on one of the men you just–

Diana pulls Steve to his feet, spins him around, takes the handcuffs carefully in her hands, and snaps them apart as though they were made of paper.

STEVE TREVOR
Ahh! Well… (shakes the busted cuffs onto the sand) I guess that works, too.

EXT. THEMYSCIRA CITY –DAY

A beautiful eye-in-the-sky tracking shot of the Amazon city in the heart of a verdant jungle, a beautiful place that is please, god, not once again directly stolen from DINOTOPIA like every other fucking movie since THE PHANTOM MENACE.

DIANA (Voiceover)
We will bring your news of the outside world to my mother. I give you my countenance to enter Themyscira.

STEVE TREVOR (Voiceover)
Themis-er-what?

INT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –DAY

HIPPOLYTA (Claudia Black) stands flanked by handmaidens and advisors, including ARTEMIS (Rosario Dawson), MALA (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and PHILIPPUS (Angela Bassett). These women, as gorgeous and intimidating as their surroundings, are backlit by slanting shafts of golden sunlight.

DIANA (Voiceover)
This man speaks of empires… empires of steel machines dividing the world between them! How can we live on in perfect peace while millions of innocent people die?

CUT TO

Diana walking stridently beside Hippolyta, who looks less than charmed with her daughter.

HIPPOLYTA
The world of men broke with us. Now it must wear the chains of its own failure. We cannot interfere!

DIANA
Cannnot or will not?

FLASH – ATLANTIC OCEAN – DAY

The mighty battleship TIRPITZ fills the screen, German naval ensign flying prominently, her guns blasting smoke and fire toward the audience. Behind her we can see a long gray line of German battlecruisers and destroyers, fading into the distance, thundering away with their guns.

HIPPOLYTA (Voiceover)
You know nothing of the outside world!

DIANA (Voiceover)
And what happens when there’s nothing left in the outside world for me to learn about?

FLASH – AN AUSTERE BEACH UNDER OVERCAST SKIES — DAY

German soldiers march in lines past craters and ditches filled with the bodies of British and American soldiers. Allied flags lie tattered on the sand, next to the smoking wrecks of Allied tanks and equipment.

CUT TO

EXT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –TWILIGHT

Diana and Mala standing on a balcony over a lantern-lit courtyard, looking down at Steve Trevor, who paces below, looking frustrated.

MALA
Why are you obsessed with this man?

DIANA
It’s not him. It’s what he represents.

MALA
And what do you think he represents?

DIANA
A second chance for us. To break this exile and be what the world needs us to be.

FLASH

GERMAN PANZERS race through a war-torn wood. Smoke boils into the red-tinted sky behind them.

STEVE TREVOR (Voiceover)
I can’t lie to you, Diana. We’re not winning this war. We’re running out of time and we’re running out of hope.

DIANA (Voiceover)
My people won’t aid you. Gaea help me, my people are wrong.

CUT TO

INT. THEMYSCIRA QUEEN’S COURT –DAY

Diana arguing with Philippus, whose arms are crossed. Several handmaidens stand watching at a respectful distance, looking shocked.

DIANA
I’ve come for the weapons that are my birthright.

PHILIPPUS
I guard them for a queen’s heir. Not a girl who wants to go adventuring on a fool’s errand!

DIANA
Then I’ll see you in the arena.

PHILIPPUS
For the love I bear you and your mother, I will break you like a little girl before her very eyes.

FLASH- Diana and Philippus, in suitably bad-ass ceremonial armor, walloping the ever-loving bejeezus out of each other. The earth trembles beneath their feet.

DIANA
I’ll accept your apology for that. (Flexes arms and cracks knuckles.) When you wake up after the fight.

FLASH – Diana’s hands lifting a gleaming golden lariat from an ancient wooden display case.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: IN AN ANCIENT PARADISE

FLASH – Diana’s arms, as she buckles on a pair of sleek golden bracers.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: A WORLD WITHOUT HOPE

EXT. CALAIS COAST OF FRANCE – DAY

GERMAN GENERAL
The operation is SEA LION! The beginning of the end for all the Reich’s surviving enemies. Frankly… they have nothing left with which to oppose us.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: FINDS A CHAMPION TO STAND IN ITS DARKEST HOUR

INT. THEMYSCIRAN FORGE CHAMBERS

Molten metal and sparking fires light the scene as stern, sculpted female blacksmiths pour and hammer with a clear sense of purpose.

DIANA (Voiceover)
I can’t wear the sigil of my house while my mother refuses to bless this mission. I’ve requested new armor, in the colors of your cause, for inspiration’s sake. Do you have any suggestions?

FLASH – Brief glimpse of ribbed armor in the traditional red, blue, and gold.

STEVE TREVOR
You know, ah, my people have a legend about a woman named Godiva…

DIANA
Oh? What’s this legend?

STEVE TREVOR
On second thought, forget I said anything.

EXT. – BEACHES OF SOUTHERN ENGLAND – DAY

The German General, hunkered just off the beach in a mud-spattered overcoat, is yelling into a field telephone while all hell breaks lose in the background. Hundreds of German troops are moving off the beach, shells are bursting overhead, and the sea is dark with landing craft and naval vessels.

GERMAN GENERAL
What the hell do you mean you’ve lost contact with ALL of our forward Panzer elements?

SMASH CUT – EXT. – EDGE OF A FOREST IN SOUTHERN ENGLAND – DAY

British and American troops crouched side by side behind makeshift barricades watch in awe as a vast dark shape rolls toward them out of the smoke and red fire of brutal combat. Tracer bullets streak past in the background. We soon see that the shape is a GERMAN PANZER IV TANK… rolling to a grinding halt. Standing atop its chassis is Diana. She has torn the tank’s turret out of its housing and, as we watch, she steadily lifts it up over her head while smoke and flame boil out around her legs. She is wearing her dark cloak, but as it flutters and flies we can catch a solid glimpse of Wonder Woman’s armor, bracers, and circlet beneath it. Diana shrugs the tank turret off to one side, where it lands with a thunderous crash. Diana looks at the men briefly, posing in the smoke and flame like the UNIVERSE’S OWN MAXIMUM BAD-ASS. Then she grins ferally and leaps twenty feet into the air, looking for her next target.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: WONDER WOMAN

Beat… music crescendoes and ends.

INT. – COLD AND IMMACULATE OFFICES SOMEWHERE IN THE THIRD REICH

A NERVOUS NAZI OFFICER stands before BARONESS PAULA VON GUNTHER (Tilda Swinton), who is wearing smoked glasses and an incredibly chic gray and black ensemble that perfectly mimics the scheme of Nazi uniforms, while having not one single uniform feature. Her hair is ice-white and she wears gray leather gloves that can only be described as the pale color of crushed dreams. She is dwelling on some ominous piece of scientific apparatus cradled in one hand like Yorick’s skull.

NERVOUS OFFICER
We don’t understand, Baroness von Gunther. This woman… she’s not human!

BARONESS VON GUNTHER
There’s nothing you need to worry about understanding, Herr General. Science has given you tanks and aircraft and submarines. Surely my science will give you the means to defeat a single woman.

FADE TO BLACK – FLOATING TEXT: THIS SUMMER

…and the lights rise again, on a room full of movie studio suits

WRITER: So, that concludes my, ah, presentation. Superhero films have cleaned up in recent years, there’s still lots of jazz from the Batman and Superman films, it’s got a lot of that retro and alternate-historical fashion to give it a grounded feel, and it’s got some steampunky super-science, and I think the cast could just kill… plus it leaves lots of room to bring in Circe in the sequel, maybe with Morena Baccarin for the role…

SUIT: Look, thanks for your time, but it’ll never work. Women just aren’t interested in comic book movies.

WRITER: Actually, the MPAA’s own theatrical market statistics show that movie attendance is essentially a dead heat between men and women and has been for years now, and comic book movies audiences are only a shade less balanced…

SUIT: Well, sure, whatever, but everyone knows guys don’t want to see female leads in, you know, stuff like this.

WRITER: Right, because that little Hunger Games flick was a renowned mega-flop, in the tradition of other notorious bombs like Aliens, Terminator 2, Silence of the Lambs, the Twilight saga...

SUIT: That Salt movie with Angelina Jolie didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

WRITER: Uh, it nearly tripled its production costs in global box office and a sequel has been greenlit.

SUIT: Yeah, but Catwoman

WRITER: Catwoman was a box office turd. So was Green Lantern, but nobody ever suggests it failed because it was an onscreen sausage-fest.

SUIT: But Brave

WRITER: Also tripled its production costs globally, and that was a mediocre flick for Pixar.

SUIT: Yeah, look. This is a nice try, but we just gotta pass, kid.

WRITER: Look, seriously, female participation in comic book culture and its associated media spinoffs, which is where the real money is, has never been higher. These women are passionate, pre-aware, and ready to line up and throw money at a project like this. There would be lines to the horizon if you would just quit fucking around and muttering about how the female audience is weak and the male audience is self-absorbed, and build something for that audience to cling to like a treasure. This is the preeminent female comic book hero in HUMAN HISTORY, and you can’t find the guts to even TRY?

SUIT: Look, maybe we can find the money for a budget next year, if you can retool it as a Johnny Depp vehicle. But to be perfectly honest with you, we’re tight at the moment. We’ve already lined up $100 million to do Zach Galifianakis’ Aquaman.

WRITER: There aren’t enough desks in the world for what I want to do with my head right now.

*****

(Apologies to screenplay formatting, which I have brutally trampled on while writing this. -SL)

Lamacklemore

I’m so sorry. I couldn’t resist. All the fan-arty stuff going on on Tumblr. It just popped into my head a night or two ago. All apologies to Shen Ying-jieh, Anna Jung, Benjamin Carre, and Macklemore. Also, I’m in the middle of the galley proofs right now and I’m goofier than a kitten on nitrous oxide. Send help. Send caffeine.

 

Mighty Mouse is a cartoon. Superman’s a real guy.

CAUTION: This review does not merely contain spoilers. It is constructed from solid Spoilerium. 

*****

So, Man of Steel. Saw it on Friday with my favorite actual Kryptonian, Elizabeth Bear, who wrote up her thoughts here. We’re of a very like mind concerning the film; the parts we enjoyed were spectacular and the parts that underwhelmed us were sad and didn’t need to be.

YOU WILL GIVE THE PEOPLE AN IDEAL TO STRIVE TOWARDS (The Not-Bad Parts)

1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the first half or so of the prologue on Krypton. It was lively, visually inventive, and fun. It went on for too long, but there’s not much in this movie that doesn’t, and eventually all the logic leaked out of the premise, but that too will be a common refrain in this review.

2. The music! Hans Zimmer certainly does pound those drums, soundtrack after soundtrack, like he’s trying to summon something dark and terrible from the depths of sunken R’lyeh, and yet I have a weakness for his stuff. Some of what he’s arranged for Man of Steel sounds almost like him trying to essay a Mass Effect soundtrack. It’s stirring music to write to, and I bought a copy of the soundtrack shortly after I got home from the movie.

3. The Kryptonian criminals! Michael Shannon doesn’t have much to do except play a bug-eyed screamer, yet he does it with real nuance and screen presence. This Zod is faintly tragic, quite distinct from Terence Stamp’s megalomaniacal smoothie, and generally fun to watch in action, a real antagonist’s antagonist. I quite enjoyed Antje Traue as Faora-Ul,  Superman’s primary physical opponent for much of the film, who also works a series of cliches but works them so well. Last but not least, compliments to the designers of the Kryptonian battle armor in all of its baroquely bad-ass aesthetic joy. Take a goddamn hint, book cover artists… neck to toe coverage! Almost as though Faora were, you know, some kind of competent warrior, valued by her comrades, who expected and needed the same kind of functional armor they did. Huh!

It’s also an interesting if not exactly subtle casting choice to have the genetically-engineered, caste-bound Kryptonian renegades (and would-be genocides) played by white actors, and have the chief authority of their human opposition be a black man (Harry Lennix, incidentally, the guy who stole the show as Aaron the Moor in Julie Taymor’s Titus of fond memory).

4. The “dream” conversation between Zod and Kal-El. Another scene with all the thematic subtlety of a sledgehammer, but dammit, if you’re going to be obvious and chew the scenery, then let’s see some teeth marks. This bit did not disappoint me.

5. Amy Adams as Lois Lane! This turned out to be a pretty inspired choice, I think. A sensible and fairly realistic portrayal of a woman in her late 30s (though come on… Lois Lane is a veteran field journalist, not someone who’d totter around on heels the height of the Space Needle when a crisis is unfolding around her). Adams’ intrinsic adorableness and vulnerability are a fantastic counterpoint to her character’s insatiable curiosity, determination, and courage. I also think it’s easy to overlook her superb work projecting humanity while surrounded by actors whose body language is that of total, unconscious dominance and arrogance. You can chalk some of their effectiveness up to her skill at providing a visual and emotional foil for them.

5a. Lois’ escape from the Kryptonian spaceship, aided by Jor-El’s computer personality. Great stuff. They didn’t even damselize her until the very end, which is what passes for restraint in this sort of thing.

6. Russell Crowe was quite good as Jor-El; less portentous and cheesy than Marlon Brando in the role. Wise, dignified, and restrained. Fairly quiet for a Crowe character, actually. Henry Cavill didn’t get to work a very great emotive range as Kal/Clark/Superman, but he was physically superb for the role and adequately dynamic. Still a little too broody and disconnected for my taste, but nowhere near as emo as the Brandon Routh version from 2006’s Superman Shambles Aimlessly.

7. The general shape of the plot. Frankly, I was delighted to see a Superman reboot that didn’t involve Supes beating up movie muggers or facing down minigun-armed bank robbers or the same old useless boring shit that doesn’t actually scare anyone or make any interesting points about our world. I was pleased to see the science-fictional bent of the trailers and despite all the ways they screwed it up in the final product, I’m still impressed that they tried to run with this angle (Superman is an unnerving alien, and he is forced to protect us against even more unnerving aliens, in a story that is as much about First Contact as it is about comic books).

THEY WILL STUMBLE, THEY WILL FALL (The Not-Good Parts)

1. It’s really amazing how little re-writing it would have taken to clean up the nonsensical Krypton backstory and make it internally consistent. So, the Kryptonians have colonized the stars over the course of 100,000+ years but can’t escape planetary doom as their “natural resources are exhausted.” What? How? What resources are we talking about here, that they couldn’t fetch at will from millions of star systems? They have an extremely robust and portable technology (note the scoutship that spends 20,000 years on ice without a hitch) and spaceships just sitting around like unwanted Christmas ornaments, but they can’t use this stuff to evacuate population or gather more resources? Furthermore, if they can’t muster the energy to move their own silly asses out of the way of the oncoming Planetary BBQ and Magma-Fest, why are they bothering to pack criminals up and ship them off to the Phantom Zone? This seems akin to capturing pickpockets on the Titanic and exiling them in their own lifeboat while the ship is already sinking.

Although there is a (slight) narrative thread about how the Kryptonians have bred themselves into  unhealthy rigidity, this is never taken far enough to suggest that they, as a culture, are so bereft of vitality that they would placidly welcome the end. Since they seem to know it’s coming but neither fight against it nor philosophically embrace it, all the inherent tragedy of the death of Krypton leaks away into anticlimax. How can the audience be expected to care about these stuffy buttwads if they don’t care about themselves?

2. Speaking of inconsistency, Kryptonian biology is dribbled around the court of the movie like a basketball. Kryptonians fresh from space, sealed away from Earth’s “nourishing atmosphere” are shown to be effortless physical equals of Superman, who’s been basking in our yellow-sun radiation and nourishing atmosphere for three decades. Exposure to a natural Kryptonian atmosphere drops Supes in his tracks and robs him of his powers, yet this guy can fly in the vacuum of space without trouble. I don’t expect this stuff to have anything more than a long-distance relationship with the Laws of Thermodynamics, I just expect it to have some internal rules, which can then be applied to generate tension or up the stakes… sigh. Tension, stakes. Pearls, swine. I sometimes wonder why I bother expressing surprise at the narrative incompetence of mega-blockbusters. When “eh, who gives a shit” will rake in a billion dollars globally, why worry about aiming for even “reasonably competent?”

3. This film is two hours and twenty minutes long, and nine hours of that is fight scenes. They are, in the main, full of visual energy and some of the best crumbling/exploding/kerblammoing things I have ever seen, but loaves and fishes do they drag the fuck on forever. The first time a Kryptonian flies through three brick walls is exciting; the eighty-sixth time is dreary overkill. The fight scenes look good, but there’s so little ultimate creativity to them… Superman, having established to the audience’s satisfaction that punching his opponents into buildings won’t even slow them down, punches them into more buildings. And then more buildings. And then some more buildings, when he’s not getting punched into buildings himself.

4. The powers of Kryptonians are most interesting to see when they can be placed within an earthly frame of reference. Superman getting tinkled on by 30mm cannon fire, Faora-Ul shrugging off a Hellfire missile, someone being set on fire… these hazards are at least a wee bit diverting because we can mentally measure the effect of them against our own mortal bodies. Watching Superman fight something like a CGI robotic tentacle or a blue beam of mysterious gravitic force is so much less interesting, because we know in the end Superman will be exactly as strong as he needs to be to defeat the tentacle or the blue beam. The “struggle” will last precisely as long as the director and the army of computer animators want it to last, and again, no tension means that the audience’s sense of involvement takes a nap.

5. The binary stupidity of the choices Pa Kent presents to young Clark is flatly insulting. Hey, idiots, the third option you’re not discussing along with “Save people from horrible deaths” and “just quietly let them die” is “maybe try not to let yourself be SEEN using your powers, numbskull!” Like, uh, maybe after pushing the bus out of the river you could have avoided sitting there gawping at the witnesses, Clark. And maybe instead of letting the redheaded kid see you doing your submarine act, you could have just grabbed him and heaved him ashore before positioning yourself to look like you’d fallen out of the bus. I’m not saying Clark should have known better at that age; he’d done no hero-ing to that point, and some shock on his part would be forgivable. My objection is to Pa Kent’s feeble, inhumane Monday-morning quarterbacking of the situation, simply because the people responsible for the story are trying to set up a completely artificial dichotomy to rule Clark’s character arc.

Don’t even get me really started about the tornado death scene… good god, the presumption and witlessness of the writing. Clark, you didn’t let Pa Kent die to show that you trusted him, you let him die because YOU FAILED AT SUPER-SPEED. That tornado would be a threat somewhere south of kitten breath to Clark, and we’re expected to believe that he couldn’t simply approach it at a plausible human speed and run back in a few seconds? We’re expected to believe that Superman wouldn’t make the decision to save his dad from this childishly uncomplicated situation? Wrong answer, dillweeds. Wrong answer.

6. Because, because, because… Superman is not about his powers. Superman’s powers are the opposite of interesting. He’s a tiny god. In his modern and canonical incarnation, he’s effectively invincible except when plot devices temporarily rob him of invincibility, and of course we know he’s going to become invincible again in a short while, so even that has limited dramatic shelf life. He’s stronger than fire, stronger than missiles, stronger than brick walls, stronger than giant tentacles and blue energy beams, stronger than other Kryptonians. Superman’s powers boil down to a gigantic, omnipresent I WIN button. Therefore, the only really interesting thing about Superman is the decisions he makes, or is forced to make. Superman isn’t Superman because he’s bulletproof; he’s Superman because he’d try to take a bullet for someone else even if he didn’t have any powers. Even if he knew he didn’t have them. Superman genuinely cares, and Man of Steel errs most painfully by half-assing this.

This film’s action sequences are pervaded by a strange inhumanity. U.S. military personnel blithely unload airstrike after airstrike into the center of an populated American town, without so much as a peep of protest, without so much as a raised eyebrow for the welfare of the hundreds of people hiding there, and while I am no cheerleader for much of the shit we’ve pulled on a global scale, neither can I swallow the idea that blasting craters in an American town would be just another day at the office for these folks. Remember, this is the first engagement we’re shown between human and Kryptonian forces, and no all-pervading sense of urgency has been provided to explain why it’s essential to alpha-strike the place so immediately. I have to wonder what sort of creator could be so detached, so jaded, as to treat the unleashing of explosive death in an American small town as being essentially meaningless and self-justifying? I don’t think it should be meaningless anywhere, be it Afghanistan or Arkansas, and I call it just plain lazy writing/directing.

Superman himself compounds this by inexplicably failing to try and move the fight elsewhere, to lure or trick or taunt or carry (or plead, because you’re damn right Superman would plead if that’s what it took to save lives) the Kryptonian renegades out of a populated zone, when open areas are available just a few hundred yards away in multiple directions. Again, wrong answer. An indifferent Superman is no Superman at all. The movie treats as sub-footnotes all the people Superman would be most desperate to protect, even in the heat and confusion of battle. It’s nice that he catches a guy who falls out of a helicopter, but that would never be enough… not for Superman.

7. There was a bit in the 2005 Doctor Who episode “The Parting of the Ways” (bear with me here) where it became plain for all eternity that Russell T. Davies had a weak grasp of the concept of narrative escalation. The Dalek battle fleet bombarded the planet Earth so devastatingly that the outlines of the continents visibly changed while the people in orbit watched. That’s just not bloody survivable by anyone anywhere, a situation in which the continents run like glass and the coastlines shift hundreds of miles in a few seconds! So it made the Doctor’s subsequent “conundrum” about whether or not to use his jiggery-pokery suicide device to wipe out the Daleks “along with every living thing on Earth” look rather silly. Uh, Nine, not to put it too harshly, but what life on Earth? The ship just sailed, man. Daleks took care of it for you. Who’s left for the audience to care about besides you?

Anyhow.

That’s what I flashed back to during the final sixteen hours of Man of Steel, when block after block after block of downtown Metropolis is pulverized into dust by General Zod’s Gravitic Plot Contrivance and skyscraper after skyscraper tumbles and… then more flattening and more tumbling, and more flattening and more tumbling, and the disaster porn goes on so long and becomes so awful and widespread and inconceivable (this isn’t 9/11-scale carnage, surely it’s into Hiroshima or Nagasaki territory) that my ability to give a toss finally snapped like inexpertly-pulled taffy. Oh, Superman flies halfway around the world just in time to save Lois from falling out of a plane, of course, but fat lot of good that does everyone else who died aboard it and the tens of thousands of Metropolitans obviously pancaked in the wreckage of their buildings. We’re supposed to not feel numbed by this? We’re supposed to do something other than giggle when one of the Daily Planet staffers cries out, “He saved us!” while stumbling into an ash-gray wasteland where half a city used to be? Who had any chance to inform you that the whole world was at stake, ma’am? What’s there for you to see except the vast corpse-filled hole in front of you?

Too much smashing. Not enough saving. Too little attention paid to the actual people living in this world for me to spark my Give-a-Shitter back to life.

8. The Academy Award for Giving Laurence Fishburne Nothing to Work With goes to… this movie!

9. Seriously, what kind of complete mental defective uses a grenade launcher to launch fragmentation grenades inside the cargo bay of a C-17 against a target eight feet away? And how did they live to do it over and over again? And while we’re at it, what sort of monkeynuts with half a melted popsicle for a brain would send ground troops to pit small arms against targets that had just laughed off rockets and 30mm cannon fire?

10. The version of the film we saw was missing an important scene! I’m not sure if it was an editing mishap or a defective copy of the film, but a rough transcript of the deleted part runs like this:

ZOD: Okay, let’s fire up the World Engine and turn Earth into Krypton II: Once More With Feeling. 

FAORA-UL: Uh, wait a minute, sir. So, we’ve got this planet with an empowering yellow sun, and although we’ll be sick and uncomfortable for an initial few hours, once we get the hang of breathing the atmosphere, we’ll all basically turn into gods, right? More like gods than we are now, even.

ZOD: Right!

FAORA-UL: Okay. Why don’t we just leave the atmosphere intact and kill all the humans at our leisure once we’ve turned into gods? And then keep the magic super-air, like, forever?

JAX-UR: Yeah, boss, I think she’s on to something here. We’re not saying we can’t knock some buildings down and repaint the place. But I’d sure like to try a hit of that sweet magic super-air.

ZOD: Oh, I really just want to fire up the World Engine! Even SAYING it is fun! Say it with me! WORLD ENGINE! WORLD ENGINE SEXY! WORLD ENGINE NUMBER ONE!

FAORA-UL: Look, I know we’ve been calling you ‘General’ for years now, but I feel compelled to ask… what exactly were you a general OF, back on Krypton? The Surgeon General, maybe?

ZOD: WORLD ENGINE!

FAORA-UL: The Postmaster General?

ZOD: MY PLAN IS FLAWLESS AND VERY PICTURESQUE.

FAORA-UL: Except that Kal-El is, uh, literally the one single dude on the whole planet that poses any threat to us, and here we are just sort of backing off from him while we talk about landing our sole, solitary World Engine somewhere he can fly to and punch it.

JAX-UR: He does punch things. You’ll recall you’ve been one of those things.

ZOD: I will now make my supreme pouty face until you launch the World Engine!

FAORA-UL: Seriously, were you the fucking General Counsel at a Kryptonian law firm or what?

 

 

 

Being good can be a shortcut. There is no shortcut to being good.

The give-and-take with the audience at any bookstore or convention appearance I make usually comes around sooner or later to the topic of publication. How to get published, how to stay published, what it’s like working with publishers; all that inside baseball. It’s probably a dreary subject to the folks that just love the stories or the genre, yet it’s like Kryptonite-laced catnip to those who want to write professionally. I know the feeling intimately. I was hungry to be published from about the age of five, and none of my less realistic career fancies (Air Force F-15 pilot long-haul trucker cartoonist!) ever truly displaced that yearning.

Most of the publication-hungry folks I’ve ever met have struck me as honest, receptive, and realistic, but there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills, and in a few cases they don’t even want a damn thing to do with me or my work. They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.

It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there! Yet these people keep on renewing their memberships in the cargo cult and imagining that all they have to do is catch a published author in a particularly off-guard or generous moment, and they’ll receive The Secret. I don’t know exactly what they envision. Some kind of handshake? A special phone scrambler? A certain Masonic arrangement of manuscript pages that slush readers can detect with their activated third eyes?

Cripes. Once I spot them in an audience, I’m pretty sure I can see them actively translating my words to their sub-reality. “I’m not saying networking isn’t useful,” I might say, “but you’ve got to have something worthwhile to sell before you start selling!” In their heads, this transmutes to “ZOMG! THERE REALLY IS A SECRET CLUB!” And don’t even get me started on what happens when I talk about work or discipline; I can see my advice turning into the noise the adults make in a Peanuts cartoon: “MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, MWA MWA.”

Look, read this next bit very carefully: Famous useless idiots get book contracts all the time. Let us assume that we are not famous useless idiots, you and I. Therefore their situation is not germane to ours. Terrible, terrible writers also get book contracts all the time; this is because there’s no accounting for taste and because there is no accounting for taste and because, if you dig, there is no fucking accounting for taste. I can’t teach you how to get hit by a meteorite; I can only tell you about the “actively try to not be a terrible writer” approach, because it’s how me and most of my peers end up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This situation, which is my situation and, not to put too fine a point on it, YOUR situation if you’re unpublished and want to kill that ‘un-,’ is defined by the following equation:

Hard work + self-awareness + perseverance = MAYBE

“Maybe?” you say. “What the hell do you mean, maybe?”

What I mean is welcome to the universe, kid. No guarantees about anything, and the clock is already ticking. Try the potato salad. But that MAYBE is a golden result compared to the way the equation turns out if you subtract hard work, self-awareness, or perseverance. When you do that, MAYBE becomes NEVER. In fact, it becomes NEVER in bold followed by THIS MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS. !!!!!!!!!!!! 

So I suppose it’s only natural that a tiny but aggravating minority of wannabe writers out there prefer to keep putting their chips on:

Fucking around + resentment + begging for mercy = SHORTCUT!

And they keep coming to my readings and convention panels! It’s just too damn bad that shortcut doesn’t exist.

(“But Scott,” you might be saying, “you’re talking about traditional publishing! How is this applicable to the bold new world of self-publishing and e-publishing?” Well, the answer is that not a damn thing changes. I don’t look down on self-publishing. I admire it! And if you’re the sort of non-trad-publisher who works diligently for years to hone your craft, understand your markets, broaden your literary comprehension, and generally avoid being an asshole, then you have as solid a shot as anyone at that bright golden MAYBE. But if you’re the sort of person who wants to self-publish the first and only ten pages you’ve ever written because HA THAT WILL SHOW EVERYONE AND THEN YOU’LL BE A MILLIONAIRE, you’re still looking for the imaginary shortcut and you’re totally going nowhere at the speed of uselessness squared.)

How long does the process of hard work + self-awareness + perseverance take? I don’t know; how long is a string? There is no RIGHT path. There is no IDEAL way. There is no PROPER length of time. There is only your right path, your ideal way, your proper length of time.

I sold my first novel in 2004, to an editor I’d never met, halfway across the world, on the strength of about sixty pages and an outline. That doesn’t happen very often. I don’t have an office wall papered with rejection slips (which many superb, successful, award-winning authors do), because I have never received one for my fiction.* I’m not trying to be egotistical, I’m just stating bare facts: There was no secret handshake. There was no clandestine society ritual. An editor saw something worth cultivating, worth publishing, worth taking a chance on. He took that chance. The rest is my Wikipedia entry.

Wasn’t this a shortcut? Not even having a finished novel? In a way, sure. My editor, may he be blessed and protected from paper-cuts forever, thought the unfinished fragment was so good it was worth securing before someone else could notice it.

However, the part you didn’t see before that “shortcut” was the long span of years I spent writing miserable, pretentious, silly, derivative nonsense before I became capable of writing those sixty crucial pages. I went through a Lovecraft phase. I went through a Poe phase (Gah! My Poe phase. Welcome to Farcetown, population ME). I went through a confused Clive Barker-y phase. I wrote a looming shitstack of Vampire: The Masquerade fanfic and character fic that made later Anne Rice look respectable. I wrote and desktop published a series of roleplaying games. I wrote marketing crap, memos, and business letters. I did freelance editing and PDF self-publishing. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff that had to be presented with a modicum of competence and clarity. In those days, a modicum was about all I could manage. An older friend once took me to a Disney animated film, and as it started he whispered “Dude, you really need to pay attention to this. I’ve already seen it, and I brought you because you need to learn how basic story structure works.”

I was also reading. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books across the years. In the months right before The Lies of Locke Lamora sold, I was knocking back two novels a week, dissecting them, hungry to learn everything I could.

And that’s the secret behind my “shortcut.” I decided to pursue serious writing around the age of 15 and I sold my first novel at 26. Eleven years filled with piles of books and thousands upon thousands of pages, most of which were tripe and bullshit. Eleven years filled with a ludicrous amount of youthful time-wasting… but just enough hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. Just enough by a narrow margin.

Being good is a great way to get noticed. But you can’t simply dance past the work it takes to get good. Would you expect to be invited to play first base for the Red Sox without the need to go through that tedious training, scouting, and development process? Of course not. So why the hell would you ever expect that I (or anyone else in my position) could just sort of hide you in a coat and smuggle you into a publishing career?

Still, some people do. If you read all of that and saw actual words, you’re probably not one of ’em. If you read that and all you saw was MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, please be advised that I’m fucking bringing garlic, holy water, and a shovel to my next convention appearance near you. Truly I am. Because mere words don’t seem to dissuade you and I’m more than willing to try burial at a crossroads.

Now, people don’t just go shortcut-stalking in person. These days, I’m a Free Special Secret Bonus Guest Lecturer and Stevedore at the Viable Paradise writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. VP is an emotionally intense, mentally and creatively demanding experience administered by a bevy of zero-bullshit fully-credentialled pro writers and editors. VP is not a Writing 101 sort of affair, and the staff and instructors spend weeks in unpaid and largely unheralded examination of manuscripts submitted by prospective students, winnowing applicants down to a maximum annual class size of 24.

I can’t tell you anything specific about this process, but I will tell you that the scrutiny is intense and the discussion is quite involved. What the instructors are looking for is evidence of the three qualities I cited above: hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s all it takes to make you the “right sort” for this kind of literary boot camp. A willingness to learn and grow and toil on your own behalf. Viable Paradise is not about fluffy generalities. It’s about learning how to command and harness your creative skills to produce an original, working story on a very tight schedule.

The applications that are marked for rejection most quickly are the ones that are clearly fishing for that mythical shortcut. What boggles my mind is that people imagine they can actually get away with this shit… that they can send text plagiarized straight from published works (hint: professional SF/F editors have read a lot of books), or keep offering up something that was rejected in a previous year, without alteration or improvement, in the hopes that the instructors will suddenly drop their standards or experience total group amnesia.

If Step 1 is “write something,” Step 2 is “write something new while you shop it around,” not “sit on your ass for the next twenty years and keep petulantly holding out the Only Thing You Ever Wrote.”

If you want to be a writer who occasionally sells to professional markets, that’s one thing. But if you want to be a professional writer, you must understand that this is not a one-time gig you’re applying for. You will be expected to do this hard, lonely, brain-bending thing, and then do it again. And again. And again. Imagine yourself as a bright little kid who comes home with a graded paper, which your parents pin up on the refrigerator for everyone to admire. Then they roll out a clean new refrigerator and stand there waiting for you to decorate that one, too. Your life is now an endless line of refrigerators, kid. If you’re lucky, it rolls on all the way past the horizon and into the graveyard.

You can’t fake the ability to meet that challenge. You can only train yourself up to it. So don’t talk to me or anyone in my shoes about shortcuts, because the concept of the shortcut is like the Easter Bunny– something cuddly and reassuring and totally fictional.

*****

*I did receive a firm but gentle e-mail rejection from Steve Jackson many, many years ago, in response to a proposal to write the introduction to a certain GURPS book. A proposal I only belatedly realized could be used as an object lesson in how to NEVER EVER structure a proposal. Still, I was chuffed. Rejected by Steve Jackson himself! I wish I’d printed a copy of that e-mail.

 

 

More Amazing Coolness! Statement on Fanfic and Other Forms of Fan Art.

Milena Aijala, known on Tumblr as qwertyprophecy, recently finished creating an animated credits sequence for an imaginary Gentlemen Bastards television series. If you haven’t seen it, do follow that link. It’s lively, gorgeous, and superbly executed.

(Credit for the animated gif, I believe, goes to Tumblr user veecissitudes.)

Milena also has a series of captioned photographs detailing some of the laborious process (Weeks of work! Light tables! An actual tank of water! Her mom!) of creating this thing of beauty.

I’m so deeply pleased and flattered by this, and more or less as dumbstruck as I was by Kathryn Sutcliffe’s insanely beautiful costume sequence based on The Lies of Locke Lamora. It really breaks an author’s heart (well, this author’s heart) in the best possible way to see people with visual skills I can’t dream of possessing hanging such lovely cloth on the bare frames of my words.

It also has me thinking about fan activity, repurposing, re-imagining, and so forth. Cecilia Tan has a superb statement on fanfic that I happen to agree with almost entirely. Steve Brust has adopted that exact statement with Cecilia’s permission. It’s been an energetic couple of months for that portion of the Gentleman Bastard readership I’ve been able to track online, and I hope it’s going to stay energetic, so I think it’s time I also made a few things clear forever.

I like non-commercial fan art, fanfic, cosplay, and everything related. I am flattered by these activities and totally copacetic with them. If it brings you pleasure to create anything based on my work, I want you to know that you have my total support and encouragement. Please just keep the following points in mind:

1. All such activities have to be non-commercial.

2. All such activities have to be clearly labelled as non-commercial. They also have to be clearly labelled as not originating from me or being directly endorsed by me. Don’t pretend to be me, and I won’t pretend to be you. Fair?

3. I am not responsible for any laws you bend or break in the commission of your activities. It is possible to post something that is so egregious, in some fashion, or so blatant a misrepresentation of me or my work that I will be compelled to take action if it’s ever brought to my attention.

4. I’m never going to be able to keep track of all fan works posted online. I’m never even going to try. Never mistake my silence for any form of direct endorsement. In fact, never try to read anything into my silence. Don’t try to telepathically divine my intentions and I won’t telepathically make your head explode like in a David Cronenberg movie. Fair?

4a. Did I just imply that I have telepathic powers? Of course I did not. You say you read it with your own eyes? REMEMBER NOTHING. Now keep reading.

5. Understand that you create works based on my work and show them to other people at your own peril; that others may take inspiration from you, and you may find derived works being crafted from your work in turn. If you’re going to play with stuff originated by other people, don’t turn into an asshole when other people want to play with your stuff. Be generous. Give credit. Expect and demand credit be given in exchange.

I didn’t create The Lies of Locke Lamora in a vacuum; I drew from a vast number of public domain sources, including but not limited to the work of Dickens, Dumas, and Shakespeare. I didn’t lift anything directly, of course, but my work is also influenced by the thousands of novels and hundreds of films and TV programs and video games I’ve enjoyed over the years. We all live and create in the midst of a vast cloud of potential influences. The art and culture of the ages is ours to explore at the flip of a page or the touch of a keyboard.

Some day, my work is going into the public domain even if I have to directly will it so and bypass the increasingly ridiculous term extensions of default copyright protection (even if all I get is the traditional threescore and ten, some great-niece or great-nephew of mine could well be curating Weird Uncle Scott’s literary portfolio well into the 22nd century). In the meantime, I absolutely refuse to be the sort of tight-minded asshole who clenches up at the thought of someone re-imagining something I’ve done.

Nobody can take the Gentlemen Bastards away from me. Nobody will ever have to fear that I will refuse to share them (or anything else I ever write), to the limit of my abilities, with those that love ’em.

 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora Read-Along Commentary

This morning I registered for a Tumblr, under the misapprehension that this would allow me to quickly and easily leave comments on other Tumblrs, specifically the ones holding discussions about the current group read-through of The Lies of Locke Lamora. What I discovered was that either a) I am old now and new things scare me, or maybe b) Tumblr was designed by crazy badgers with access to powerful hallucinogens. I prefer the theory with the badgers.

So, the sensible thing I’m going to do instead is post any comments I have here, in this corner of the internet where the buttons aren’t scary and they bring me my prune juice every day at three o’clock just the way I like it.

Thieves Prosper has reposted several lengthy responses to the question “Standard Fantasy Capitalization: Love it or hate it? Do you think it works here or does it make you roll your eyes?”, as regards the first sentence of TLOLL:

At the height of the long wet summer of the Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani, the Thiefmaker of Camorr paid a sudden and unannounced visit to the Eyeless Priest at the Temple of Perelandro, desperately hoping to sell him the Lamora boy.

I would say, peering at this sentence nearly nine years after I wrote it, that I did overdo it in a couple places. “Thiefmaker” is a proper noun, not merely a position, so it’s fine. Perelandro is a proper noun, but I’m not sure ‘temple’ needed to be capitalized. “Eyeless Priest” did not need to be capitalized at all. I think I must have intended for it to be the title by which all Camorri would generally refer to Father Chains, but as you all know that didn’t happen, and it really should have been “eyeless priest.” It’s a striking enough description that it doesn’t need the Added Emphasis of Standard Fantasy Capitalization.

As for the capitalization of “Seventy-Seventh Year of Sendovani,” that’s just part of the ornate and infuriatingly baroque way the Therin people name and track their years. The system was deliberately designed to be archaic and obtuse, just as the coinage of Camorr doesn’t slide neatly into divisions of ten like standard fantasy RPG loot.

In 2012, to support another group read-along of TLOLL, I did a series of blog posts discussing the development of the book, my visual inspirations, my discarded alternate approaches, and my criticism of my own work. For those currently reading TLOLL that haven’t seen them, you can find them linked below in reverse order:

Read-Along Bonus #4: YOU SUCK, LYNCH

Read-Along Bonus #3: Early Visual Aids

Read-Along Bonus #2: Other Roads Not Taken

Read-Along Bonus #1: It Came From Burger King

If you’re currently reading or re-reading TLOLL and you’d like to ask me something about it, please feel free to leave a comment here, or e-mail me (scott at scottlynch.us), or even just flag a Tumblr post with something like WOO SCOTT LOOK AT ME WOO.