Superman is only interesting when he CAN do anything, but won’t. Your screenplay is the same way.
Writing is tough. Writing satisfying endings is tougher. You have to resolve your story’s conflict in a manner that does not violate the constraints you place on yourself. If you write well, you will set up the resolution for your story early on, without giving any of it away. Your story is only compelling when it sits carefully within the parameters you establish at the beginning. Violate your constraints and, at the least, you will have a feckless, unsatisfying story, and at the worst, a minor disaster.
A lazy, contrived Deus Ex Machina (see Bill Rebane’s Monster a Go-Go) resolution will destroy an otherwise spectacular script. Let’s discuss four examples to show what I mean.
THE PETRIFIED FOREST- Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. This film was Bogart’s breakout film, 5 years before High Sierra and the Maltese Falcon. Bogart plays sociopathic criminal Duke Mantee who holds Davis and Howard hostage in a little café outside the Petrified Forest. Davis and Bogart are riveting. Howard could have been, except for the ending the screenwriter asked us to buy off on. Howard is a drifter and sees himself of little value in the world. He decides to help Davis’s dreams of being an artist come true by making her the beneficiary of his life insurance. It’s a truly heroic act walked out in the sloppiest of actions: he just has Bogart shoot him. Granted he is an intellectual and not a man of action, granted Bogart and all his thugs have guns levelled on them, but just asking Bogart to shoot him? If he had already resigned to the fact that he was going to die so that Davis could benefit, why not grab a chair or rush the gangsters or something? Anything! He had no guarantee that Bogart wouldn’t shoot him, and then kill the other hostages and rape Bette Davis for good measure. This ending said, “I’m a weenie, I hope Davis gets the money, I hope she doesn’t die too and I am not going to do anything to help that along, cause I am a weenie.” Meh.
MYSTERY MEN- Now, I am not saying that this movie is on the same playing field as the other three movies in this discussion. I am saying that it could have been an amazing example of superhero cheek (ala Buckaroo Banzai) if not for a terrible ending. It had a $68 million budget in 1999. That’s 68 with 6 zeroes. I could have written FIVE movies that turned out better with that kind of capital at my disposal. Oh well. A group of B-grade hero misfits have to rescue the city after Captain Amazing is captured by his arch nemesis. Things are ramped up volcanically after their rescue efforts cause Captain Amazing’s death. Played straight for ¾ of the film, it sets up a resolution whereby the quasi-heroes have to overcome astounding odds to save themselves and their city. Except that it doesn’t. Once Captain Amazing dies, the entire film falls into the abyss of absurd. The film goes from a slick, intelligent satire on hero tropes (see the scene where they are interviewing new recruits for the team and have to deal with the likes of “the Waffler” and “Ballerina Man”) into a slap-sticky, hammy, over-worked parody of itself, becoming the worst of what it pokes fun at. It violates its own context. It sets up an expectation that is not only not met, but horribly mangled. Imagine someone making you a carmel, double fudge, macadamia nut sundae and then covering it at the end with dog poo sauce. Yeah, that’s it. Meh.
RETURN OF THE JEDI- This is the movie that ruined me on the Star Wars franchise. Permanently. He is supposed to be one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, right up there with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Amon Goeth and HAL 9000. But Darth Vader turns out to be a humongous galactic weenie. We see Vader in the first 2 movies as he crushes the windpipe of Captain Antilles, destroys millions on Alderaan, kills Kenobi, kills pilot after pilot in the Death Star trench, and tries to kill Luke multiple times. He is self-serving, brutal and evil. We buy that. So how does he go from Eeeeeevil Vader to caring, sensitive, benevolent Vader, that throws the Evil Emperor off a cliff? Because of Princess Leia’s plea for help at the end of ROTJ. No. No, no, no. But yeah, that’s what happened. I wrote a better ending 15 minutes after I saw it- I just don’t know George Lucas.
I have to admit that I don’t like fantasy movies in the first place because of their “how will we ever defeat the venomous 8-headed octo-dragon; we’re doomed; oh wait I just found a magic wand in a unicorn’s butt; we’re saved!” contrived endings. So there’s that. But ROTJ’s horrible resolution soils a trilogy that could have been one of the best that Sci-fi has ever seen. Some people still say it is. I say (even though we don’t talk about the odd numbered movies) ST > SW.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY- and now the movie that, far and away, has the worst resolution I have ever seen. Worse that all the movies listed, with Gattaca, Once Upon a Time in the West, and all the fantasy movies added in together. I was going to say that it’s painful. But that would be giving it emotional weight. The right kind. Like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” kind. It doesn’t deserve that. Boxing trainer Clint Eastwood is finally talked into training Hilary Swank to go for the women’s boxing championship. She fights past every single hurdle that life, Eastwood, her family and the competition throw at her. And she won’t quit. Then a tragic accident. And she quits. Then Clint quits with her. And it sucks. I’m not opposed to downbeat endings. Requiem for a Heavyweight has one. But, the only way there could have been that kind of quit in Swank’s character at the end of this movie is: if she didn’t have what we thought she did through the entire rest of the movie. And that’s the problem. This ending does not go with that character. It doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s a bad taste in the mouth. This exceptional, award-winning movie deserves every bit of criticism it got from disability activists, times ten. I love Clint Eastwood. I loved this film… until the end. It was like drinking an amazing cup of coffee and getting to the bottom to find a drowned roach. Yeah it was that offensive.
So what about Superman? For decades, Supes was “Truth, Justice and the American Way”. He was held in place by his own constraints. Superman 1979 expertly showed us that. But producers found that approach maudlin, hackneyed, old. So they changed it up. And it didn’t work. As soon as the treatment became Superman- the global man, Superman- the man who will do anything, Superman- the man without restraint, he ceased to become interesting. Batman is interesting because he might do anything, but he can’t. He has to find a way around “can’t”. And he does. If we get a guy who CAN, and WILL, do anything, that’s an amazing supervillain, but not a hero. For your script to be what you intended, do not violate your own parameters. Or you just may end up in one of my future columns, and I will be discussing how disappointing it was compared to what it should have been.