Conventional wisdom about writing is conventionally wrong.
Ever look at an overstuffed movie poster and wonder, “Is that tiny figure over on the left a man, a woman or a smudge that didn’t get properly PhotoShopped out of existence?”
THE EXPENDABLES 2 is the latest movie to stuff 40 pounds of characters into a 5-pound bag.
Here’s the movie poster.
I counted 11 action heroes on that poster, which is 10 more action heroes than you typically need for an action film, even if eight of these guys just got broken out of the Beverly Hills Nursing Home.
Bet you anything the team of screenwriters — if I put a 9 mm to their head and started counting down — couldn’t tell you all 11 character names, and the average movie-goer wouldn’t notice if you chopped five of them from the film entirely.
This is a common problem, not just for Hollywood but for novels, especially anything involving fantasy and sci-fi, because no self-respecting Jedi or Hobbit goes off on an adventure without at least 23 other people tromping around with them, squabbling with each other when they’re not getting captured by Darth Vader and such.
IT IS A MESS.
Now, this problem also happens in comic book movies, partly because of the Comic Book Movie Laws.
Movie No. 1: The origin story of the hero along with the hero’s nemesis, the best villain. So: one hero, one villain.
Movie No. 2: The hero gets two sidekicks as he battles TWO villains.
Movie No. 3: The hero juggles an entourage that won’t fit in a Greyhound bus while he battles THREE villains.
Movie No. 4: Doesn’t happen, unless your name is Joel Schumacher and you’re making the mistake known as BATMAN FOREVER. Otherwise, the series dies and reboots.
I just watched THOR again, using the powers of Netflix over the Series of Tubes and such, and it is a fun little popcorn movie.
However, the cast of characters will make your head hurt: Thor, Hannibal Lecter, Loki, Princess Leia‘s mom, the Guardian, the Frost Giants, that arrow-shooting guy from THE AVENGERS and BOURNE LEGACY, Agent Coulson, the Frost Giant King, Yoda, the shark from JAWS and other people I’m probably forgetting.
This agent is not only sarcastic, but wrong, because he’s completely forgetting Thor’s fourth sidekick, the fat bearded guy who — and this is shocking — likes to eat a lot.
In this movie, Princess Leia’s mom is Thor’s love interest, which is like a sidekick, but different, in that Thor makes goo-goo eyes at her. With his other sidekicks, he simply claps them on the shoulder in a manly way, or maybe hugs them — though he hugs her, too. IT IS CONFUSING.
Anyway, the point is, she has two of her own sidekicks: an old Norwegian scientist guy or whatever and some kind of sarcastic girl scientist who is apparently there for contrast, to make Princess Leia’s mom look even more smart and beautiful.
You heard me right: The sidekick has sidekicks of her own.
This is all too common and all too wrong.
Every movie and book could be improved by killing off every possible character.
In fact, thinking of “Who could we erase from the page?” is the wrong question. Start by saying, “Who is the ONE essential character?” and work up to the number two, the number three, pi (3.14-whatever) and some imaginary numbers.
Then break the Four Barrier and stop to reflect upon WHAT YOU HAVE WROUGHT, which is a far, far better story than what you started with.
THOR can’t exist without Thor (1) and if we need a second character, it’s obviously Loki (2). Odin (3) and the Frost King (4) would round out a top four. That story could work. Everybody else could go take a nice long vacation on a desert planet with two suns.
Going the other direction, just for fun: Say goodbye, Xena / Robin Hood / Jackie Chan / Fat Guy sidekicks (minus 4). Not essential to the story at all. See ya to Princess Leia’s mom and her two sidekicks (minus 3). Goodbye to Agent Coulson and the arrow man (minus 2). No more Guardian and Odin’s wife (minus 2). That’s 11 characters out the door, and those actors need not be unemployed: we will send them to star in THE EXPENDABLES 3: STALLONE NEEDS ANOTHER FACELIFT.
IRON MAN 2 had it much worse than THOR, with the villain played by Mickey Rourke getting buried by layers upon layers of sidekicks. I mean, look at this movie poster. All sidekicks, all the time. Villains are so boooring.
Peoples of Hollywood and writers of books, please kill off sidekicks.
Do it with a sharp pen, a 12-gauge shotgun or a red lightsaber — I don’t care.
Just do it before they make IRON MAN 3.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.