The Mighty MacGuffin

If you’re a writer, you’ll need to use a MacGuffin now and then–and a MacGuffin generator is particularly important now, with upwards of a million writers cranking away every year on NaNoWriMo.

This is not a plot device. We’re talking about an item–and it doesn’t even have to really exist, or be seen–the hero and villain are fighting to obtain. Alfred Hitchcock was famous for using MacGuffins in his films. If the hero is on a quest, he needs to be questing for something. Really, it doesn’t matter what. It’s the journey that matters. Hitchcock has a nice way of getting into the topic.

You can see how movies and novels often revolve around a MacGuffin.

Indiana Jones always needs an item to find and fight over: an ark or a cup and so forth.

Spy movies need a microfilm containing the real names and identities of every undercover agent employed by the CIA, GRU or MI-6, with the good guys and bad guys both willing to do whatever it takes to find and destroy that MacGuffin, which the hero happens to pick up by accident in the luggage carousel at O’Hare.

Sci-fi novels need some kind of techno-babble MacGuffin, like a repulsive helix inverter, which can tweak your DNA or whatever and create an army of alien super soldiers.

Fantasy movies need a magical ring that turns you invisible but does nothing about your big hairy feet or the fact you’re the size of a smurf, or maybe an Enchanted Vorpal Sword of Infinite Sharpness that can lop off the head of the invincible Dragon of Instant Fiery Death that killed your father, uncle, grandfather, second cousin, first wife, baby sister and favorite horse.

Generator Number 1

Here’s a spiffy MacGuffin generator by Jordan McCollum.

Use it. Then visit her blog and show her some love. That’s how this thing works. Pay it forward.

Generator Number 2

Technically, this isn’t a generator. You don’t hit refresh on the browser to come up with another MacGuffin.

It’s more accurate to call this the Mother Lode of MacGuffins, with the entire history of the idea–plus with a massive list of the different flavors of MacGuffins with links that dive into each one. This site is a thing of beauty. 

What is your favorite MacGuffin of all time? And which film, TV show or novel wins the prize for Silliest MacGuffin of All Time? (Note: It’s cheating to go with Star Trek, where every other movie or episode involves dilithium crystal nonsense and the warp core.)

Three ways to fix a very rusty IRON FIST

Remember when Marvel could do no wrong?

Back in the day, they made a movie about an intergalactic gang of misfits that included a cyborg raccoon, a green alien woman and a living tree that only said, “I am Groot.” And they turned that trash into treasure.

IRON FIST is one of the first mistakes Marvel has made, which is crazy considering the number of movies and TV shows they’ve produced.

Now that THE DEFENDERS has all four of these characters teaming up, and Season 2 of IRON FIST has a new showrunner, there is hope that the show will improve.

Having watched every episode of the other three Netflix originals—DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES and LUKE CAGE—it’s pretty easy to see where those shows went very right and Danny Rand, the homeless billionaire, went very wrong.

Fix Number 1: A new intro

The intros for the other three shows are interesting and set the mood, while this intro simply annoys you with bad CGI and makes skipping ahead the default choice.

DAREDEVIL has an intro that reminds me an awfully lot of WESTWORLD, so much so that I wondered if the same people did it.

LUKE CAGE starts off every episode with images of Harlem and history broadcast on his unbreakable skin, and I don’t skip it despite having seen it a zillion times.

JESSICA JONES puts you in a noir mood with her intro, and though it’s not quite as good as the blind ninja’s or Luke’s, it doesn’t completely annoy you.

IRON FIST just has a bad intro. Here, watch this for ten seconds and you’ll get annoyed. Is the main character some kind of shapeshifting oil beast?

Give us an intro that’s interesting and different. WESTWORLD has such a beautiful and genius intro that I’ve rewatched again and again.

Fix Number 2: Make us want to be the Iron Fist

Regardless of your age or gender, part of the joy of reading a novel or watching a movie is living vicariously through the eyes of the great protagonist. You admire them, and wonder what it would be like to be them.

With the other three Netflix shows, it’s clear that Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are interesting and special people. It’d would be fun to walk in their shoes for a day, and it’s a pleasure to be there, watching, even when they go through the worst possible troubles.

All three of those characters are good in very different ways.

  • Daredevil is intelligent and driven.
  • Jessica Jones is sarcastic and tough.
  • Luke Cage is calm, strong and determined.

I don’t think anyone wants to be Danny Rand / Iron Fist, and that’s really a function of the writing, not the acting.

Fix Number 3: Stop making Danny Rand act like a fool

In episode after episode, Danny makes stupid decisions that hurt other people. And yes, that’s despite the best of intentions.

The first season is more of a tragedy than anything else, with Danny’s hubris leading to terrible things. In just about every critical situation, the great Iron Fist makes choices that any other superhero would avoid.

  • Telling everyone—from homeless men on the street to villains—his secret identity. He may as well wear a sign. Every other superhero with a brain works incredibly hard to protect this vital secret, because failing to do so always, always leads to trouble and death. Danny has no clue.
  • Being a taker instead of a helper. There’s a good reason why most superheroes default to tackling problems by themselves. They don’t want to get civilians involved and hurt, and it’s safer when friends and loved ones don’t know their secret identity. Danny constantly, constantly asks for help, often from strangers or villains. He’s not self-reliant at all, which is one of the primary traits of heroes.
  • Creepy stalker behavior. Early in the series, he breaks into Joy’s house and refuses to go away when Colleen Wing clearly and repeatedly tells him to scoot. And this is a pattern. While other heroes break into places to collect clues and skedaddle, Danny does it like he’s dropping by to visit and is shocked when people treat him like a burglar.
  • No discipline. There’s an episode where Danny says he’s spent a lifetime learning to control his emotions, which made me guffaw, because every episode, he shows zero control over his emotions.
  • Can’t plan for the future. Danny simply bumbles through problems. He never has a plan aside from, “Let’s break into a place and either ask for help or beat people up.” Then he’s confused and angry when that non-plan goes south.
  • Falling into every trap. Danny Rand believes every word that anyone says to him, whether it’s from the mouths of a random stranger or a villain who just tried to kill him ten minutes ago. Even when a villain invites him to an obvious trap, he goes straight into it.

All of this makes Danny seem more like a goofy, tragic side character than a hero. You could see him as a troubled sidekick for a smart hero who figures out ways to control and harness the human wrecking ball.

This problem is made exponentially worse when actual side characters like Colleen, Claire, Harold, Joy and even Ward—Ward!—make clever decisions that seem more heroic and interesting.

At one point, Danny says, “I’m sorry” and Ward replies, “Danny, you’re a cancer.” And I cheered, because it was the truth.

In every tough situation, audiences instinctively think, “What would an average person like me do?” They compare the choice the hero makes to what other heroes or villains would do. The best stories surprise us with choices we haven’t even considered.

Every time Danny faces a tough situation, I groan and compare his choice (always bad) to what Batman, Daredevil, James Bond and a hundred other heroes would do. We all have that repository of stories and characters. Even the villains we know and love, like Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, would make different and more interesting choices than Danny Rand.

Because what Danny chooses is never a surprise. As a character, he’s an overgrown child, which people keep telling him. Which is a shame. The actors are fine, the cinematography works and the tie-ins to the other shoes are nice.

For the audience, there’s no surprise. We know what Danny will do, and we know the outcome will be bad. The only question is, “What side character or villain will save Danny from the mess he creates this time?”

Here’s to hoping Season 2 fixes these three flaws and gives the world an IRON FIST who doesn’t keep bumbling his way through New York City and, instead, starts acting like a hero instead of a cross between Homer Simpson and The Greatest American Hero.

Things to watch on Netflix, Part 1: CARTEL LAND

cartel land movie poster
cartel land movie poster
Fire up the Netflix and watch this. DO IT NOW.

So I’ve been home almost two weeks after some surgery (I’m fine), and what do you do when you’re on painkillers, can’t drive and can’t write?

You read books. And you watch whatever is free on Netflix.

As a public service, this is the first of many reports on what you (a) must watch, (b) should try out and (c) can fire up if you want to make fun of something or are zonked out on meds, in which case everything is pretty funny.

CARTEL LAND is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long, long time, on Netflix or in the giant buildings where they charge you $9 for exploded kernels of corn that cost them 25 cents.

Here’s the trailer. Click on the thing.

Though this is a documentary, I have to compare it to the heavily hyped SICARIO, which starred three amazing actors: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin.

That movie got a lot of attention from critics, and hey, I didn’t hate the thing, it’s just there’s no hankering in me see it again. Zero. Nada.

Sidenote: There should actually be a score for that, a useful tool for critics and movie-goers alike: how much would you (1) pay to see it again because you loved it or (2) ask to GET paid to spend two hours of your life in a dark room with this movie? Call it the Plus or Minus Money Rating, and I bet it would be more accurate than one, two, three or four stars, which really doesn’t tell me much.

SICARIO made me think of THE EDGE OF TOMORROW, which Emily Blunt also starred in. Her acting was equally good in both movies. However: despite the fact that her co-star was Tom Cruise, I happily saw that masterpiece of fun three times in the theater and probably six times on Blu-Ray, which for some reason has a hatred for the letter “e.” Sort it out, Blu-Ray.

But how much would you have to pay me to watch SICARIO again? $30, minimum. $15 if you provided dinner and drinks.

I’d happily watch CARTEL LAND again. It doesn’t feel like a documentary. The filmmakers shot it like a big, epic blockbuster, and the editing makes you feel like you’re there.

What’s most impressive to me is this: the crew who filmed this documentary clearly risked their lives to do it. They were in the middle of shootouts and midnight raids.

Without giving away the ending, the thing this documentary does so well is violate your expectations. It’s one of the few movies that make you feel smarter for having watched it, and not smart in “I learned sixteen facts about the drug trade” kind of way. There’s wisdom to this movie that doesn’t beat the audience on the head.

Watch it and tell me what you think.

What do you want to know about the deepest recesses of Netflix? Pick your favorite and I’ll write the review.

Insane ’80s show MANIMAL returns to the Glowing Tube

MANIMAL is coming back to TV, rebooted and such.

If you are a child of the ’80s, or even alive and conscious during that decade, you remember some nutty TV shows that — at the time — we thought were cool.

THE A-TEAM is unwatchable today. Go fire it up on Netflix or whatever. The fourth time in a row that (a) Mr. T says “I pity the fool” as (b) bullets spray all over the place and (c) bad guy cars jump in the air and do that half-flip, you’ll do a facepalm, and right in the middle of that facepalm, Col. Hannibal will light up a cigar and say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Other things we watched and thought were cool: AIRWOLF and that show where some American guy thinks he’s a ninja because he has an old wise mentor and is constantly fighting some actual ninja who actually should be the hero, seeing how he was the only real ninja within 100 miles.

Anyway, the point is, they’re rebooting one of the nuttiest relics from the Glowing Tube back in the ’80s: MANIMAL.

This is great news for America, and for bored college kids looking for something watch and dissect, as a group, when they’ve had too much Pabst Blue Ribbon to write that term paper about dialectical materialism as it relates to Madonna’s early videos, the ones before she’d married Sean Penn.

Here’s the classic MANIMAL intro.

Watch the hero as he trasforms, and no, they didn’t get this idea when they hired the special effects guy who turned Michael Jackson into a werewolf.

Special bonus: SPACE SHERIFF triple transformation

Note that I have no idea what this show is, aside from a possible father of POWER RANGERS, but it is awesome.

Movie trailer madness: WILD WILD PLANET

Before the invention of YouTube, you’d only find gems like this at estate sales in Hollywood. And the only way to play such treasures would be if you owned a 8mm projector, eight-track tape or some other obsolete technology brought to you be the number 8.

HOWEVER: We have the technologies today, and just like Christmas in July, they give is insane film clips and trailers of things that Should Not Exist, But Somehow Do.

The trailer to WILD WILD PLANET is awesomely, ambitiously bad. Take a peek.

My favorite bits:

  • the four-armed thugs who look like offspring of a Terminator-Matrix union
  • the women who know kung fu and how to disappear
  • the twisted plan by some man to transmorgify into a half-man, half-woman using transporter tech stolen from the U.S.S. Enterprise or whatever

The ’90s and ’00s (oughts? oh-oh’s?) brought us movie after movie where the heroines are tough women in black leather catsuits with guns. Maybe this all started with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, but it’s taken off ever since.

As this movie proves, tough women (good or bad) in ‘the ’60s and ’70s movies didn’t wear black leather catsuits. No. They wore red flowing polyester. If red flowing polyester wasn’t available, they wore bright orange or green.

If anybody actually WATCHED this movie, as in paid actual monies and rented it or whatever, please shout.

Also: if you are brave or crazy enough to fire it up on Netflix or whatever, please report back on what happened to the crazy man with the mustache.