Tag Archives: storytelling

How “Megamind” Subverts Expectations The Right Way (And Why Recent Attempts Keep Failing)

Every now and then, a narrative trend comes along that I neither care for nor understand. I get why many trends catch on. I’ve even been caught up in a few. I remember when stories about asteroid impacts became popular, as well as romance stories that relied on best friends falling in love. Some lasted longer than others. Some burn out. I think “Friends” alone killed the whole friends-falling-in-love-gimmick.

However, certain trends seem to catch on for all the wrong reasons. I’m not just referring to the gimmicky tropes of every sitcom attempting to rip off “Seinfeld,” either. These are narratives that attempt to troll the audience in hopes of a bigger reaction, as though that can somehow take the place of a compelling story.

Lately, the trend that I’ve found particularly frustrating is the idea of subverting expectations. It’s become a major buzzword in recent years, but not for good reasons. It became a big deal after the fan reaction to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and only intensified with the final season of “Game of Thrones.”

Now, I don’t want to get into extensive discussions about those emotionally charged subjects. I’ll let the fan bases continue to debate that in whatever way they see fit. Instead, I want to take a moment to look at this trend, note how it can be done well, and highlight why recent attempts are misguided and counterproductive.

While subverting expectations sounds cunning on paper, it’s one of those concepts that’s difficult to make work. The concept is simple. You take an audience’s expectations about a story, build up some narrative tension, and then go in an unexpected direction that changes and enhances the impact of that story.

It sounds simple, but it’s not. When it works, it’s amazing. When it fails, it’s downright toxic to itself. I would argue that neither Star Wars: The Last Jedi nor the final season of Game of Thrones” succeeded in that effort. However, one movie did succeed in this effort and it did so back in 2010, long before this trend even began.

That movie is “Megamind,” a film I’ve praised before for how it parodies the superhero genre. There’s a lot more I can say about this underrated gem, but this is one element that I feel is more relevant now than it was when the movie first came out. To date, I’ve yet to see a movie subvert expectations as well as this one.

The way Megamind” goes about this is not at all subtle, but it’s still powerful. It’s in the premise of the movie. It asks what happens when the evil genius supervillain actually defeats the handsome, square-jawed superhero? What do they do afterwards? Why did they pursue this goal in the first place?

The first 15 minutes of the movie do an excellent job of setting up the basic, generic premise of every superhero narrative since Superman. Metro Man is the hero. That’s how he carries himself. That’s how others see him. That’s how he’s perceived. Conversely, Megamind is the villain. That’s how everyone sees him. The prison warden himself says it before the opening title screen. He’ll always be a villain.

Everything is in place for a traditional hero-versus-villain struggle. Old concepts like justice, hero worship, and public perception come into play. Then, in the first real battle we see between Megamind and Metro Man, the unthinkable happens. Megamind, despite his grandiose boasting and casual bumbling, defeats Metro Man.

It’s not framed as some M. Knight Shamalyan twist. It’s not an attempt to shock the audience. It’s not some minor plot point, either. In fact, the rest of the movie is built around this sudden subversion of standard superhero stories. Every event, choice, and character moment stems directly from this subversion. It’s not just a minor element of the plot. It is the plot.

What makes it work is how this subversion helps tell a very different kind of superhero story. It’s not just about flipping the script for the sake of novelty. It makes a case that superhero narratives are capable of doing much more than simply having the hero save the day from the villain.

Throughout the movie, Megamind finds himself playing a part in every tried and true trope we’ve come to expect in a superhero movie. He starts off being a villain because that’s what he assumes he’s meant to be. He starts questioning that assumption because by defeating Metro Man, he finds himself without a greater purpose. In pursuing that purpose, he find out that those assumptions had serious flaws.

Such assumptions weren’t inherently right or wrong. It was a matter of digging a little deeper into the concept of heroes and villains, finding out along the way that the role he thought was right for him wasn’t the one he ultimately wanted. By the end, he still dresses like a villain. He’s still not nearly as handsome or powerful as Metro Man. However, he still chooses to become Metro City’s greatest hero.

This subversion of expectation works because it’s used to build a story rather than just tweak a few details. Moments like the revelation about Rey’s parents being nobodies or Arya Stark killing the Night King had only minor shock value, but they didn’t really factor into the larger plot.

If someone other than Arya had killed the Night King, then it wouldn’t have changed much in terms of how the last few episodes of “Game of Thrones” panned out.

If Rey’s parents turned out to be someone important in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it wouldn’t have substantially altered how the events that followed played out. Rey still wouldn’t have joined Kylo.

Ultimately, those subversions just felt like trolling. These details that people thought were important just turned out to be tricks or ploys meant to get a reaction. It comes off as both dishonest and insincere. They might not have been intended as such, but given the fan reactions, I can understand that sentiment to some extent.

You thought all those prophecies about Jon Snow and the Night King meant something? Well, that turned out to be a big waste of time.

You thought Rey’s parents would impact the course of the movie? Well, that was just a complete waste of time, at least until “Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker” changed that.

At times, it felt like the story was tempting people to get engaged and then slapped them in the face the second the plot went in a different direction. As a result, it didn’t feel at all surprising or engaging. It just felt insulting.

Contrast that with “Megamind.” At no point does the plot attempt to demean the audience or anyone who enjoys the traditional superhero narrative. The subversion is in the synopsis. That same subversion is used to build a larger story that fleshes out characters who started out in generic roles, but ultimately embraced a different role.

This shift never feels forced or contrived. It’s not done just to get a cheap thrill or to stand out. At its core, Megamind” uses the concept of subverting expectations to tell a better story than it could’ve told if it stuck to the traditional superhero narrative. That’s why it works.

Unfortunately, that’s also why other recent attempts keep failing. Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a comic book, or a video game, the concept has been used in a misguided effort to do something different. Subverting expectations has become synonymous, to some extent, with doing something new and bold. The importance of telling a compelling, coherent story is never more than secondary.

I get the importance of trying new things, especially when that genre has been played out in so many forms. However, doing so does not mean taking audience expectations and defying them in a way that feels blatant. At best, it just makes the story confusing. It’s just different for the sake of being different. At worst, it insults the audience and makes them feel denigrated for enjoying that narrative in the first place.

It can be done and done well. “Megamind” is proof of that. It doesn’t just subvert expectations for the superhero genre. It dares to build a story around it and even have a little fun with it along the way. It doesn’t at all take away from the genre it parodies. It just uses it as a foundation to tell a unique story.

No matter how many expectations you subvert, there’s no substitute for a quality story. Megamind” gives us that and the undeniable charm of Will Ferrell. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.

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The Galbrush Paradox And The Challenge Of Female Characters

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Anyone who’s written anything longer than a haiku will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is coming up with great characters. Stan Lee may make it look easy, but it’s most definitely not. Without great characters, your story might as well be a sandwich without bread. It just can’t function.

I can certainly attest to the challenge of creating great characters. In the eight novels I’ve written, I’ve tried to put as much energy and nuance as possible. Whether it’s Ben Prescott in “Skin Deep” or Mary Ann Scott in “Passion Relapse,” I make a concerted effort to help them stand out for all the right reasons.

In doing so, I have noticed something that’s both distinct and frustrating. It’s something I think every writer, including the Stan Lees and J.K. Rowlings of the world, have noticed at some point. When it comes to creating great characters, there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to male characters. With female characters, though, there are too many unwritten rules to keep track of.

It’s only gotten more frustrating in recent years because the demand for strong female characters has never been greater. The success of movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as well as novels like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” have raised the bar. Make no mistake. There are a lot of incentives to create these characters.

I’ve talked about why characters like Wonder Woman matter now more than ever. However, there’s one caveat that I didn’t mention and for good reason. I think it’s an issue that the William Marstons and Stephanie Meyers of the world understood, albeit indirectly. When it comes to creating female characters, the margin for error is painfully small.

By that, I mean there are a lot of things you can do with a male character that you just can’t do with a female character. Even male minority characters have a lot more flexibility, in terms of what you can put them through. Every character that Samuel L. Jackson has ever played is proof of that.

With female characters, it’s a lot trickier. If you don’t believe me, think back to that disturbing thought experiment I pitched a while back that reversed the genders of certain famous scenes, thereby creating a much more disturbing result. With that in mind, try to craft a story about a flawed, vulnerable character that has the potential to be interesting.

Maybe the character is a former cop who suffered a terrible injury at the hands of a deranged criminal.

Maybe the character is someone who made a huge mistake with a former lover and is haunted by it.

Maybe the character is someone who found themselves in a vulnerable state, had a few too many drinks, and had a messy one-night stand with a total stranger.

These are all fairly standard setups for typical characters. Think about those characters for a second. Chances are the character that comes to mind is a man. That’s not too surprising. That doesn’t make you a terrible sexist who deserves to lick the mud off the shoes of every radical feminist form now until the end of time. By and large, most of the iconic characters in popular culture are male.

Now, try to imagine that same character as a female. Chances are your reaction will be different. Even if it isn’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be more reluctant to develop this character because you know the kind of responses you’ll get from certain people.

Remember that cop who suffered a terrible injury? Well, if that cop is a female, then you’re a horrible misogynistic monster because you subjected that woman to violence and we can’t tolerate that.

Remember that character who made a huge mistake with a former lover? Well, if that character is a female, you’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you utterly failed the Bechdal Test by defining her through a relationship with a man.

Remember that character who was vulnerable and had a one-night stand? Well, guess what? You’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you overtly sexualized the female character in a way that propagates the idea that women are sexual objects to be used by men.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Are you getting that twinge of pain in your palms while you grind your teeth? Don’t worry. You’re not having a stroke. That’s normal. It also gives you a taste of just how hard/frustrating it is to create good female characters without making it an agenda.

That agenda didn’t used to be that big a deal. Then, in recent years, with the rise of third-wave feminism and social media scandals that have made people hyper-sensitive to sexism, the challenge got that much harder.

That’s not to say there isn’t some merit behind the sentiment. There are only so many Disney Princesses and horny vixens in “James Bond” movies before the narrative gets old, predictable, and outright insulting. Even I think Super Mario has had to rescue Princess Peach way too many times.

The problem is that when people try to create characters that aren’t princesses or Joss Whedon characters, they run into a wall, of sorts. They quickly find that creating those characters is a minefield, one where a single misstep can get you labeled a racist, misogynist, homophobe at a time when a single misworded tweet can ruin your life.

It’s such a frustrating challenge that someone gave it a name. It’s called the Galbrush Paradox and it emerged during the infamous GamerGate scandal in 2014. I won’t get into the particulars of that shit storm, if only because every discussion about that topic tends to lower people’s IQ by at least a dozen points. I’ll just focus on what the Galbrush Paradox is, as defined by its creators.

Do you know why there’s so many white male characters in video games? Especially leads? Because no one cares about them. A white male can be a lecherous drunk. A woman can’t or it’s sexist. Sexualizing women and what all. A white male can be a mentally disturbed soldier who’s mind is unraveling as he walks through the hell of the modern battlefield. A woman can’t or you’re victimizing women and saying they’re all crazy.

Consider Guybrush Threepwood, start of the Monkey Island series. He’s weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. He is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now let’s say Guybrush was a girl. We’ll call her Galbrush. Galbrush is weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. She is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now, you might notice that I’ve given the exact same description to both of these characters. But here’s where things deviate. While no one cares if Guybrush takes a pounding for being, for lack of a better term, less than ideal pirate, Galbrush will be presumed to be discriminated against because of her gender. In fact, every hardship she will endure, though exactly the same as the hardships Guybrush endured, will be considered misogyny, rather than someone being ill suited to their desired calling.

And that ending. She goes through ALL that trouble to help, let’s call him Eli Marley, escape the evil clutches of the ghost piratess Le Chuck, it turns out he didn’t even need her help and she even screwed up his plan to thwart Le Chuck. Why, it’d be a slap in the face to every woman who’s ever picked up a controller. Not only is the protagonist inept, but apparently women make lousy villains too!

And that’s why Guybrush exists and Galbrush doesn’t. Men can be comically inept halfwits. Women can’t. Men can be flawed, tragic human beings. Women can’t. And why? Because every single female character reflects all women everywhere.

It’s a fairly new concept, but a relevant one. We’ve already seen it play out in a number of ways in recent years. The best example is probably Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

If you’ve done any digging whatsoever into “Star Wars” beyond seeing the movie and listening to arguments about whether Han shot first, then you’ve probably seen some of the criticisms about her. She’s what some call a “Mary Sue.”

A Mary Sue is a byproduct of the Galbrush Paradox in that she’s a character who’s too perfect. While this character can be a man, it most often takes the shape of a female character who’s so skilled, so beautiful, so perfect that it’s hard to make her interesting.

Rey faced this issue, and for good reason. Throughout “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” she was perfect at everything she did. She flew the Millennium Falcon, wielded a light sabre, and used the Force as though she’d been doing it all her life. Everything that happened to her just happened so easily. She was never allowed to struggle, suffer, or slip up too much like Finn or Poe Dameron.

I can even understand why. If she had been tortured like Poe or lied like Finn, there would be mass protests and hashtags. A very vocal contingent of fans and professional whiners with nothing better to do would’ve condemned Rey as an affront to women everywhere. Her flaws would’ve been taken as huge insults against an entire gender. If she were a man, though, nobody would’ve batted an eye.

It’s tragic, in a sense, because it shackles characters and stories. It creates self-imposed limits that don’t need to be there. It’s true that there is real sexism in the world. There’s even plenty in movies, especially slasher movies. However, nitpicking every little detail of a female character to ensure sufficient purity, so to speak, is counterproductive. All it does is discourage people from even trying to create these characters in the first place.

That’s not good for either gender because it is possible to create great female characters. From Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” to Sarah Conner in “Terminator” to Ripley in “Alien,” there are plenty of great female characters that go onto become iconic in their own right. That’s why it’s so important to avoid the pitfalls of the Galbrush Paradox, otherwise we’ll be doomed to a future of Mary Sues.

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