Monday, 2 August 2010

Hollywood Babble On & On #568: If You Gotta Go Super...

Welcome to the show folks...

The other day I wrote about my concerns about NBC's upcoming superhero drama The Cape, and I mentioned that I might write something about how to do a superhero TV show, or any sort of superhero story, right. Well, I'm going to try it now.

So imagine that you're a TV producer and you have a deal for a guaranteed prime time slot. The trick is that your show has to be about superheroes.

Don't panic, you have two options.

1. You can buy a pre-existing character and adapt the characters and story to your show.

2. You can make up your own superhero character and build a show around that.

So what do you do after that.

Well, if you pick option #1, you need to follow the:


1. DON'T PISS OFF THE GEEKS. Remember, these are the core fans of your source material. But, and this is a huge but, they are also horrendous nitpickers who will carve your show the proverbial new one if they think you're jerking them around. You don't have to be 100% faithful, because that's really an impossibility. But that's not a license to run roughshod over their beloved characters. You need a fresh angle, and a way to incorporate the existing mythology in the most satisfactory way. The best way is to...

2. UNDERSTAND THE CORE THEMES. The comic book character that show real legs in the long term are ones that have major themes at their core. With Batman its the line between justice and revenge, as well as loss. Superman is all about an immigrant trying to help his new home in the best way he knows how. Wonder Woman is about looking good in a fancy bustier & short shorts feminine power in a male dominated world. Understand the themes of your character, and you should be relatively safe.

3. DON'T FORGET THE VILLAINS. One of the things that bugged the crap out of me when
Spider-Man was adapted for TV in the late 1970s was that they forgot all the villains. (They also made J. Jonah Jameson into a kindly uncle-figure instead of the raving, cowardly, and blatantly biased media mogul he was in the comics.) I understood that Doctor Octopus was probably impossible to do on a 70s TV budget, but the show pretty much went from street thugs, to hippies, and the occasional mad scientist. The TV version of The Incredible Hulk got away with it, but I don't think the fans will let anyone get away with it now. Remember this lesson because it will pop up again: Heroes are judged by the villains they face.

4. DON'T DUMB DOWN. Most executives think superhero, they think kids. Most kids don't read comics anymore. Which is a shame. I taught myself to read on Denny O'Neill & Neal Adams Batman stories before I even went to school because I wanted to know what my older brothers were into. But I digress. The main comic book fans now are adults who crave adventure and action wrapped up in a decent story.

Okay, let's say that your attempt at buying a superhero has failed because the people who own the characters actually read the contract you gave them. Don't worry because you can create your own if you follow the...


1. HAVE A VERSATILE PREMISE. This means that your character has to have powers, abilities, or gadgets that can handle a variety of problems. Making them telepathic and only able to handle cases involving other telepaths is extremely limiting. Making them the sole protector of Lake Michigan and all who sail and swim on it, is even more limiting. They have to be able to battle evil anywhere it pops up, whether it's on the highest rooftop or the deepest, slimiest sewer. Once you have that you must have...

2. THE RULES. You can't just make your hero god-like with powers popping up at convenient times. As Spider-Man's Uncle Ben would say while serving a heaping bowl of rice, with great power comes great responsibility, and when you're writing a superhero they must have limitations. If your character doesn't have limitations, there will be no drama when they face the bad guys, because some new power will just plop out of your keyboard and save the day for them. Once you have your rules established, you must stick to them like the constitution.

3. HAVE DECENT VILLAINS. As I said before, heroes are judged by the villains they face, and shows where the superhero just beats up seriously outmatched gangsters doesn't really deliver the thrills. You need villains that each have a unique personality and style as well as be a viable threat to your hero. They must each have a back-story that makes them and their fantastical nature exist within the show's realm of possibility. They can't see themselves as villains, but see themselves as the heroes of their own story, that this idiot in a costume keeps ruining. You also need a lot of them.

Because you can't end your pilot episode with the hero saying: "I've a feeling we'll be seeing him again, each and every week," like Chief Wiggum in a
Simpsons sketch. They can pop up again from time to time, but don't flog it.

4. DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD. Every hero has that villain that is just too bad-ass to deal with in one simple episode. A villain for whom other villains obey, a supreme villain. Plan out for a seven year run. While each episode can be a stand alone story, you can also drop hints to a larger final evil to be faced in a big season finale cliffhanger. Then plan a bigger villain for the next season, and so on, until you reach the seventh season, which I think is a solid run for an SF/Fantasy series before you start flogging the dead horse, and have a real whopper of a grand finale. It requires planning, and if the series doesn't last that long, you can always license the characters and those plans to an indie comic publisher for your own core fans if you have them.

5. KNOW WHEN TO END IT. As I said in the last rule, seven seasons for a superhero/SF/Fantasy based show is a solid run. It's not a hard and fast rule, it's just my personal preference for creating a properly epic saga that doesn't get bogged down in its own mythology and continuity. You could go on longer if you have a solid enough premise, and the ability to rewrite history and change aging actors like
Doctor Who. But you should still go in with a plan for how it will all end and when you should end it.

So, do you think these rules are helpful in any way?

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