8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week (Walking Dead, Star Wars, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Harry Potter, Avengers, Game of Thrones)

Name something popular, anything at all, and chances are it’s a series instead of a One Hit Wonder.

This is about why that is, despite a serious quality handicap, and how your favorite series either does it wrong, does it halfway or flat-out nails it.

There are two basic types of series: evergreen and meta-stories.

Evergreen

This includes sitcoms, mysteries, and other shows where things don’t really change … except for the villain or problem, which constantly changes, until the movie series runs out of steam, the novelist gets sick of it or studio execs at NBC look at the dying ratings and pull the plug.

The advantage of an evergreen story is the audience can fire up Netflix and watch any random episode without being lost. You can , buy any of Lee Child’s series at Barnes & Noble and enjoy Reacher beating people up for 325 pages without needing to know anything about the other books.

Star Trek, in all its forms (original, TNG, Voyager) was an evergreen series.

HOWEVER: the best string of movies was a meta-story about Spock, with Spock sacrificing his life to save the Enterprise and crew (Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Corinthian Leather), then Kirk and crew sacrificing to bring Spock’s newborn body back from Planet Crazytown (Star Trek 3: We Stole This Sweet Klingon Warbird) and finally Spock is back with us and directing the movie, which was smart {Star Trek 4: Save the Whales), except it lead to a future movie where Shatner directed, which turned out to be an Achy Breaky Big Mistakey.

 

The disadvantage of an evergreen series is huge: it inevitably grows stale. Also, the lead actor will always be tempted to cash out and bail for the movies. And often, the ratings or sales simply tank, making studio exec or publishers pull the plug, ending the series with a whimper.

Except there’s no real way to end an evergreen series with a bang, because they’re not structured to do that. Sorry. More likely, you get a stupid last episode where they play a lot of clips from people remembering things and maybe the lead actor who bailed for Tinseltown makes a final appearance in the last five minutes to have a beer with his old friends. That’s it.

Meta-stories

These are epic sagas with a clear beginning and end, where things DO change in a big way.

Main characters can (and will) die. Shocking twists and reversals happen. With evergreen series, you’d get all confused if the hero’s faithful sidekick turned into a villain. Can’t happen.

Meta-stories let you have the freedom to do anything.

But you really have to watch, or read, these from beginning to end.

It’s not a coincidence that the biggest hits today involve series intead of one-shot movies or novels, and that the biggest blockbuster monsters are meta-stories instead of evergreens.

HOWEVER: It’s not as simple as, “Want to make it big? Let’s write a meta story, then draw up designs for your mega-yacht and my 4,952-room mansion on Maui.”

Because if you stop for half a second to think about it, the quality advantage of a one-hit wonder is overwhelming.

If you focus all of your time, energy and talent on a single novel or movie, it’s much easier to make that one thing a masterpeice than to try to make an epic trilogy universally awesome, or to stretch your genius over the length of 72 shows on HBO or AMC or Showtime. That’s it. Three choices. Pick one. Or write an epic series of books.

i like big books and i cannot lie

So why are meta-stories cleaning up at the box office and Barnes & Noble, especially when there are, by definition, one-hit wonders of far greater quality?

1) Name recognition is everything

If there’s only one book or movie, you get a couple bites of the apple and that’s it.

For movies, opening night at your local megaplex, then later when it comes out on Netflix and Blu-Ray.

For books, launch date for hardcover, then paperback, then much later when the author dies or does something monumentally stupid. I’m actually not kidding here.

Example: even though I am not a fan of Tom the Cruise, THE EDGE OF TOMORROW is one of the best action movies ever. But it’s not a series. One hit, one bite of the apple, and it’s gone, like tears in the rain.

If you have a meta-story, you have a series, and that means constant news hooks and chances to stay in the public eye.

A meta-story also generates more interest and news hooks because it generates hotter story lines and bigger mysteries. Evergreen series don’t and change change much, so there isn’t much to talk about the following morning. Nothing really shocking happens, and there’s rarely loose ends or cliffhangers to get picked up next week.

This is why everybody talks about Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead — who died this week and who’ll get bit by a zombie next week?

There’s suspense you don’t get with evergreen series, where the hero and sidekicks will always live to fight another day.

2) A better story than evergreens

The best examples of this are TV shows, movies and novels where the hero and his sidekicks face a Villain of the Week, who’s dispatched in the end, then in the next installment, they face a new Villain of the Week and beat him into the ground, too.

The old James Bond movies were like this. Lee Child is the greatest living thriller writer on the planet, IMHO, and his Reacher series is an evergreen with Villains of the Week who you know are doing down. The trouble is, this kills suspense a bit, because you never really worry about 007 dying or Reacher meeting his match. You know they’ll be back.

 

Sitcoms are also evergreen, with the Villain of the Week simply replaced with the Problem of the Week.

Nothing ever really changes. You could read these books, or watches these shows and movies, in any order.

So while evergreens are comforting, like hanging out with friends you’ve known for years, they are inevitably less thrilling and surprising compared to meta-stories and one-shots.

3) Good meta-stories avoid the old Comic Book Movie Sequel Trap

Comic book movies used to do a variation on Villain of the Week by making it plural.

Movie one, origin story of the hero and best villain. Movie 2? Two villains. Third movie gets three villains and more sidekicks, which turns into a hot mess and you reboot the whole thing.

But having three Villains of the Week isn’t really structurally different than having one. It’s not a meta story. The hero and sidekicks don’t really suffer or change. They’ll be back for more in the next book or movie.

4) More freedom, more surprises, more story goodness

Meta-stories give the writer far more freedom. Anything could happen, because the series isn’t endless.

The hero might die in the end (Breaking Bad, which is actually a tragedy, the hero and villain being the same man. Hubris FTW!)

Or you can go hog-wild like Game of Thrones and kill off anybody, anytime, JUST BECAUSE.

I believe George R.R.R.R. Martin has a dart board in his office for when he’s bored typing away on a Commodore 64 or whatever (yes, I know it’s not a Commodore, stop it, thought I bet he has like 10 of whatever he uses to type upon, plus three IT guys on retainer to keep his ancient tech humming with green screen Wordstar or whatever).

Whenever he yawns, George grabs a dart, closes his eyes and flings it, hard as he can, as a poster on the wall containing the names of all 983 characters in the prologue to his latest epic tome.

If the dart hits you, you’re dead. Sorry about that, Sean Bean, but it’s your duty to die in the movies.

5) Doing this right

If you truly want to plot out a meta-story as an epic series—whether it’s movies, Serious Cable, novels or a ginormous poem about a Greek warrior who just wants to make it back home—everything has to go right.

You have to know the end before you write the beginning.

You have to guard against a cast of thousands gumming up the works, and about making your ace genius director mad because he has to kill amazing scenes in AVENGERS 2: JAMES SPADER IS A WITTY ROBOT to cram in setups for future Marvel movies.

If you’re dealing with actors, they have to be locked into long-term contracts and hope they don’t disappear to rehab, get drunk and crash their Ferrari or leave acting forever to spend their time on hot yoga, meditation and oil painting.

And most of all, you need an amazing villain. Which is what gets lost most of the time.

6) One villain for the whole series

Minions are fine. Everybody loves minions. Sub-bosses? Yeah, that’s okay.

But to truly do a meta-story, you have to avoid the Villain of the Week problem by having one villain for the whole series.

Harry Potter did this exactly right with a singular hero, Harry, versus an ultimate bad guy, Voldemort, with the bad guy actually winning every book/movie and Harry struggling to survive and keep up. he only wins in the very, very end. That’s how it should be.

This is where The Matrix went wrong. Who’s the villain? The robot king/queen, who we never see.

Who’s the hero? Neo, who stupidly sacrifices himself after making a deal with the robots … to cleanse them of Agent Smith, who’s gone from minion to some kind of virus.

So yeah, one of the greatest single movies ever made got ruined by two sequels that let the hero die to play tech support to the bad guys.

No. Just no.

And this is where Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit a bit wrong. Yes, both of those are epic meta-stories, and people love them both. HOWEVER: making having your main villain be a shiny eye that can’t move or do anything scary, well, that’s pretty lame.

Sidenote: There’s also confusion about the real hero in The Lord of the Rings, with different people making serious cases for Frodo, Sam, Aragon or Gandalf.

Also: The Hobbit movies are an even bigger hot mess on the villain front. Yes, the Angry Glowing Eye is supposedly the big bad guy. But he’s never around, really. For most of the second movie, the Dragon Who Talks Like Sherlock Holmes is set up to be the big invincible baddie, except they end that right off by killing the dragon at the beginning of movie 3, which then lets the Angry Dwarf King take a swing at being a villain until he gets his head straight and the giant eagles swoop in to play deux ex machina LIKE THEY ALWAYS DO.

7) The villain has to be clear and active

Just as you need an active hero who risks his own hide and does stuff, a meta-story needs an active villain who does more than boss around minions and can actually do scary stuff all by himself.

Imagine this for a boring series of movies: the hero is a figurehead, sitting in a chair while ordering minions to fight a villain sitting in another chair, writing memos about TPS reports his minions should be filling out correctly after fighting the hero’s minions. The only way this works is if Mike Judge writes and directs it as a 3-minute SNL skit.

The Marvel movies have done this well with Thanos always showing up in the background, pulling the strings. We know he’s the big bad guy, the ultimate villain, and they’ve done a great job tying together all the pieces of their meta-story throughout the movies and having the George R.R.R.R. Martin guts to take risks like killing off SHIELD in the last Captain America movie, though I think they kinda cheated by basically recreating a faux SHIELD at the end of Avengers 2.

The DC movies are trying to do this, too, with Batman vs. Superman kicking off the Justice League series that will be a meta-story.

8) The ending is everything

So why isn’t everything a big honking meta-story that makes authors bazillionaires and gives everyone who works at Marvel their own Ferarri?

Here’s why: you MUST have a beginning and end. The end part is the hardest and the most important. As in, every meta-story needs to end. Has to.

Why is this hard?

Because by this point, a whole bunch of people are making all kinds of money from a hit meta-story, and nobody wants that gravy train to end. Why should it? They’re on top of the world, having fun, living the dream. Keep it going.

This is why we got three bloated Hobbit movies when one was planned.

It’s why Marvel and DC have to keep rebooting their comic book universes, because they drag out meta-stories so long, everything turns into a hot mess.

And it’s the reason people worry about all the new Star Wars movies coming out. It’s an epic saga, sure, but with the singular villain (Emperor Wrinkly Face) dead, and the real hero of the first six movies dead (Darth Vader), what do you do for an encore? And how to you tie-in all these Star Wars side movies they’re planning into a larger meta story that doesn’t deal with the empire and blowing up Death Stars?

Even the juggernaut known as Marvel will run into this problem. The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant Man and seven other heroes with their own movie series will stop teasing us and actually face Thanos, then have six more movies fighting him until they finally kill the dude off and freak out because they don’t know what to do next.

Even before then, Marvel will hit the wall in terms of the original actors, since can’t afford to pay a graying Robert Downey, Jr. $195 million to star in IRON MAN 17: HULK BUSTS TONY OUT OF MAPLE VALLEY NURSING HOME.

Who does the ending right? A great example is Breaking Bad, which didn’t try to ride their meta-story forever. The series ended on their terms, with closure, even though they could have gone another three seasons with everybody working on the show buying their own island in the South Pacific. (Note: This clip with the ending scene of Breaking Bad has bad words and gunfire. Watch how it’s set up and structured. Amazing.)

One hero. One villain. Stick to a beginning and end with shocking finality.

Sounds easy. But it isn’t.

2 thoughts on “8 reasons why blockbusters are meta-stories instead of Villain of the Week (Walking Dead, Star Wars, House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Harry Potter, Avengers, Game of Thrones)

Leave a witty comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s