Defender vs Stranger Things 2 Part 3: Parsing Plots

If you think filler in your lunch meat is bad, wait until you see it in your story!

The last two weeks we’ve covered here how The Defenders failed as a television series in visuals and in developing interesting characters or doing anything with those characters – even though it had a head start in using some characters who had already been interesting in other series. We also covered how Stranger Things 2 did both things much better. There were three things in that list, though, and The Defenders has one more way to be a complete disappointment.

SPOILERS follow for The Defenders through its first season and Stranger Things through it’s second.

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If you’ll recall, the first priority of story telling is that the story must make sense. The thing about that statement is it is far more complicated than that single, simple sentence. Different stories have different rules for what makes sense. Nowhere is this more true than in fantasy and science fiction settings. Some people have argued that because those settings make allowances for things that don’t exist in the real world that anything could happen, but it’s actually even more important for those settings to establish and follow rules for their plots to make sense. For example, in a Star Trek story it makes complete sense for characters to teleport from a spaceship to another planet in the blink of an eye. That sort of thing would make far less sense in Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons.

The reason it’s important to follow these rules goes back to the stakes of the story,  a.k.a. the reason anyone cares about it; no stakes means no audience interest means no money for the creators. If anything can happen at any time then there can be no stakes. This is why I railed so hard against the penultimate episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Their refusal to obey the rules of the universe as they had been established removed all stakes from what should have been incredibly tense final moments in that episode.

This is actually even more complicated for a comic book story. Comic book stories exist in a universe that includes both fantasy and science fiction where Thor is an example of fantasy – he has magic powers because he’s magic – and Spiderman is an example of science fiction – he has powers given to him by advanced scientific studies which theoretically have some basis in science. Fortunately The Defenders manages to avoid the level of disaster that was that GoT episode. It does have an example of a similar issue on a much lower level in the inexplicable moment in the middle of the final episode of the season where the good guys surprise attack the bad guys in the mine. They use a previously unseen power of Iron Fist’s to knock down everyone but the worst part is that they stand around posing until the bad guys can stand up and charge them again. The only thing worse than introducing a new, inexplicable power at the end of a story is then rendering the entire thing completely pointless. The reason this faux pas is less egregious than the ones we discussed in Game of Thrones is because it has a much smaller impact on the story. If you remove that moment from the story very, very little changes about what happens next whereas everything that happens in the GoT episode relies on breaking the rules it does.

The real problem with The Defenders is – believe it or not – how generic the story is. Shocking after the revelation that the characters were generic and uninspired, right? The first chapter starts out well enough – each of the characters is living their lives when something weird happens and draws them to start investigating. But uh…the earthquake is never explained for the rest of the season. Alexandra acts as if this was the first step in some dastardly plan but it’s never made clear why that earthquake even happened. I’ve tried applying it to anything that happens to the rest of the series and while it might apply to any of them  (does it have to do with reviving Elektra, with breaking through the final layer to the entrance of the area that contains the Substance?) it’s actually just a secondary effect from whatever they’re trying to cause. What I mean is that they didn’t cause an earthquake to strike fear into people, it just resulted from some other plan. There was no real reason for Alexandra to strut around acting like she wanted to terrorize New York because everything that happens later dictates that they really didn’t care if New York even noticed, but less if the people were terrorized. Then, of course, from that point on it is a very straight forward story of villains who want to capture someone but spend very, very little time actively working toward their goal – remember the description of the Fingers from last week? For that matter the heroes actually spend the majority of the season arguing with each other over various and sundry issues instead of pursuing the villains, as well. Including several repeated arguments just to buy time until the next fight sequence.

If you think I take issue with characters having arguments in general, you’d be wrong. There are plenty of arguments to be had in Stranger Things season 2 as well. The difference is that the arguments come from characters and they lead somewhere. The arguments in Defenders don’t really seem to belong to the characters that have them and they certainly don’t lead anywhere.

The most egregious example of pointless bickering in The Defenders is probably the one the villains have shortly after Sowande is captured. All of the remaining Fingers agree that Alexandra has failed as their leader and decide to depose her but then…everything continues exactly as it had, before. None of them put any new plans into action, no one attempts to imprison or kill Alexandra, and she simply continues her plan. On the other hand, in Stranger Things 2, the four boys plus Max have an argument after Dustin introduces them all to D’artagnan. Dustin wants to keep the pet and accuses the other boys of just being jealous – something it makes sense for a kid his age to want and feel. The other three boys worry that this creature is actually an enemy – something that fits the information they have. The argument leads to division within the party and the boys all start making separate plans based on the information and feelings revealed during the course of it. Dustin plots to start hiding the existence of his pet, the divide appears to give Lucas more impetus to break party rules and ignore Dustin’s feelings for Max. It causes Mike to be even more sure that Max is ruining things which makes him lash out at Max even more than he had before. The plot branches from here with each of these characters following new threads based on this interaction. The argument drives the plot, increasing the stakes, and giving the audience a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when those threads reach conclusions – especially including the later resolution of the tensions between party members so that they can once again join forces against The Upside Down.

The conflicts between The Fingers does make sense – of course all of them are self centered enough to believe that they have the best plan. But the conflict isn’t allowed to drive the plot; the plot completely ignores the conflict. The conflict loses any purpose for existing and the plot, without anything to drive it, loses any sense of direction or stakes it might have gained from the conflict. It all just ends up being filler and a waste. One of the worst things for any story is pointless filler. Every moment in a story should be doing something even if it isn’t advancing the plot. Flesh out the characters, the environment, or the rules of the universe. The argument between the Fingers does none of these things while the one between the boys fleshes out their characters, advances the plot, and gives us the information that Will has a special skill to identify the interdimensional monsters by the sounds they make.

So hopefully after you’ve read these three pieces you’ve got a better idea what kinds of things make for good story telling and what makes for bad. This isn’t, by the way, an attempt to tell you that you shouldn’t enjoy The Defenders. I personally enjoy plenty of bad stories. I watch Once Upon a Time and Ghosted. Heck, I even enjoyed Suicide Squad a little bit. A show doesn’t have to be good to be enjoyed and just because a show is well written, acted, directed, and everything else doesn’t mean you have to enjoy it. It’s just kind of nice to know the difference, sometimes.

 

The Defenders vs Stranger Things Part 2: Characterizing Characters

Both shows have actors, that’s for sure.

Last week I introduced you to the idea that movies and television shows have three primary aspects with which to tell their stories. I broke those down a bit and then gave you some examples of successes and failures in one of those realms, the visuals, based on two recent Netflix shows, The Defenders and Stranger Things 2. This week I wanted to get into the different ways the two shows handle characters.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for Stranger Things through season 2, The Defenders through season 1, and The Avengers.

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The most important thing for a character is that they should have some sort of arc. That arc can be the traditional “zero to hero” arc, it can be “hero to villain”, it can be almost anything in between. One of the easiest ways to define a character arc is that they start the story in one state and through the progress of the story end in another. Sometimes it can be even more complex than that, though. You will see episodes in many sitcoms where a character’s arc actually has them starting and ending in the same place but they changed in the middle and then for some reason – usually a realization that they were fine the way they were or unwilling to put in the sustained effort to keep the change – they revert, usually for comedic effect or a moral.

A character without an arc is a plot device. This is why you’ll see feminists rail against the damsel in distress trope. She sits in her tower unable and unwilling to do anything other than wait for her hero to arrive. Her physical state changes – imprisoned and then free – but her character state remains static. From a storytelling standpoint she could as easily have been a bag of treasure. Likewise a character who is mind-controlled the entire time is actually a plot device. Hawkeye in The Avengers is not a character because for the majority of the movie he is functionally an automaton that does not think or act for himself and operates only as a tool of the villain – he doesn’t even get to consciously decide how to enact the orders he receives. Finally there are characters who start in one state and end in another but without any intervening decision making, actions, or process to get from point A to point B. These characters aren’t plot devices but they don’t have an arc, either, so they’re not much better off.

If you go back to the bullet points I had under Character in last week’s article those are actually a breakdown of things you usually need for a character arc. If you do those things you probably have some solid character arcs. If you don’t do those things you’re far less likely to have good or meaningful character arcs. With all that in mind I’d like to present you with a pair of bulleted lists describing the character arcs in The Defenders and Stranger Things 2. Then we can break down a little bit what it all means.

The Defenders

  • Matt Murdock
    • Starts out refusing to be Daredevil, ends up embracing his role as Daredevil. This is actually one the stronger arcs in the show – everything about why he didn’t want to keep donning the suit and why he eventually discovered he had to makes sense.
    • The problem is that it’s unclear what exactly prompted him to decide that this was not going to be a one-time event and what embracing the suit means for him going forward – will he only fight super enemies like The Hand or will he go back to beating up standard muggers, too? He also fake dies at the end so we won’t know how much of this sticks with him until we see how much he remembers next season of Daredevil or Defenders, whichever comes first.
  • Luke Cage
    • Wants to help Harlem at the start, wants to help Harlem at the end. Luke Cage is identical in temperament and intent without change from beginning to end. That’s a character point, not an arc.
  • Jessica Jones
    • Similar to Daredevil she starts off not wanting to do her job and ends up wanting to do it.
    • The biggest problem with her arc is it actually takes place primarily over the first two episodes. After the angry teen and modulated voice combine to convince her to take on the architect’s case she pretty much was back into the job. This leaves her with nowhere to go for the rest of the season.
  • Danny Rand
    • Starts the show wanting to avenge his family and monastery’s deaths at the hands of…The Hand. Ends it with his goal accomplished?
    • So his plot moves, but his character doesn’t change in any definable way. Unless you count his argument with Luke which seems to have at least made him aware that he has privilege that he could be better using for the benefit of others. But since the Hand stuff forces him to basically fight for his life the rest of the season we don’t see enough of that in action to know. None of the finishing stuff even shows us what his next plan is to help us understand where his state of mind is, now.
  • Colleen Wing
    • Feels weak and unable to truly help Danny at the beginning. Decides to just do her best in the end.
    • She’s not on screen enough for this arc to have much of an impact, but this might actually be the strongest arc as all the dots connect from beginning to end.
  • Other various and sundry sidekicks
    • None of them are on screen long enough to develop a character arc. They’re obviously just there for the “shared universe” factor, but even trapped in a police station break room together they still only interact within their show cliques. This was an exceptionally wasted opportunity both in terms of character development and story development.
  • Alexandra
    • Starts the show as the leader of The Hand and is shown as a strong leader who is dying and needs to make a last ditch gamble to save her life. Ends the show dead at the hands of her gamble.
    • It’s incredibly difficult to have a character arc for a character who dies part way through. There is still room for one if there could have been a moment of realization about how her choices led her to this position but she dies not for anything she did or didn’t do but just to give the plot a twist and allow Elektra to take over. This is a prime example of the plot driving the characters instead of the other way around.
  • The Other Fingers
    • They all share a tendency to argue incessantly with Alexandra while never actually doing anything to oppose her, to show the audience what their agendas might be, or to advance any of their own personal agendas. The closest we get to this is Murakame threatening to take her on but it’s short-circuited by Elektra’s return.
    • They all die by the end without ever accomplishing anything, without trying to accomplish anything, and without being interesting in any way.
  • Elektra Natchios
    • This is an example of that dreaded mind-control plot device. She spends the majority of the season being a tool instead of a person.
    • Heck, no one ever explains what The Black Sky is or why she’s the one to be it or anything else about the whole deal. It literally played the exact same as if they resurrected her for her fighting prowess – something she had as Elektra – and lied to her about her history until her memories returned.
    • Since this is a series instead of a movie awakening in the back half does allow her to change from a device into a character for a brief bit. There’s a bit of change from how we last saw her into a creature that wants only to live or to die killing. Arguably the strongest of the villain arcs. Arguably the only villain arc.

Stranger Things 2

  • Mike Wheeler
    • Starts the show moping about for Eleven. In the middle he puts that aside to help his friend. By the end he’s resumed his place as leader of the party. Finds Eleven and becomes less of a jerk to Max, as well.
  • Dustin Henderson
    • Starts the season willing to break any rules to get his own way. Remembers that being part of a party means working together and apologizes to the friends he betrayed.
  • Lucas Sinclair
    • He doesn’t seem to change much or learn anything particularly as a character. Even so he doesn’t remain static. He continually fights for and reaffirms what he believes in. It’s not an arc but it’s not a point, either.
  • Will Byers
    • Mind controlled plot device strikes again after spending the entire first season as a damsel in distress plot device. Maybe season 3 will allow Will to actually be a part of things for once.
  • Eleven/El/Jane
    • Starts out the series being frustrated and feeling out of place. Goes on a journey to discover herself, realizes that she actually belongs in Hawkins, Indiana with her “family” and friends there, after all.
  • Steve Harrington
    • Starts off cowering in the face of authority and clinging to Nancy. Learns to be on his own and to stand up for himself.
  • Bob Newby
    • Like Alexandra he dies mostly for the shock value of it. But he wasn’t static before then. He started out in love with Joyce and progressively worked harder and harder to get closer to and protect her boys until he finally died having saved them.
  • Sam Owens
    • Starts as a character who is focused primarily on keeping the Upside Down under control and hiding and dismissing anything about it. Grows into a man who is willing to work with everyone and sacrifice himself to see that they escape. Since he doesn’t actually die he ends up working in secret against the government he’s been protecting to give Eleven a chance to live a semi-normal life.
  • The Shadow Monster
    • This serves primarily as a plot device; it acts through its intermediaries and may be more of a character, later. Since there were so many other characters alternately working together and conflicting it is reasonable to excuse the plot device, here.
  • D’artagnan
    • Grows from a monster who indiscriminately eats pet cats to an animal who allows Dustin and his friends to escape for the price of a couple candy bars – I’m not kidding, that was a conscious decision on the part of an animal-thing that is receiving telepathic orders from a shadowy monster to do other than what it ends up doing.
  • I could go on

Do you see what I am getting at, yet? Even the dog-equivalent science fiction animal had a character arc in Stranger Things that was equal to or better than anything we saw in The Defenders. The Marvel heroes exist as a bunch of people who have things happen to them and react like crime-fighting machines. They don’t really make any decisions for themselves, they certainly don’t appear to struggle with their choices in any meaningful way, and they don’t really conclude any character arcs in anything resembling a satisfactory. They just mindlessly plow forward along with the plot.

Without satisfying character arcs it’s hard to have interesting characters, though not, admittedly, impossible – more on that in a moment. If you’re not going to have interesting character arcs for your star or main ensemble then you probably need to really hit on the other two tines of the Television Trident. But we’ve already established that The Defenders failed at its attempt to be interesting visually. I also have stated that without interesting characters it’s much more difficult to make an interesting story. Interesting characters drive the stakes of a show.

Speaking of interesting characters, with some smaller or less important characters you can give them tiny arcs or no arcs at all as long as you give them believable, grounded motivations. Remember when Sowande died? Or how about Stick? How much emotion did either of those deaths provide for you? Now how about when Barb died in season 1 of Stranger Things? People wrote pages and pages about it. Others made music videos lamenting her death. There was a trending hashtag demanding justice for her that literally caused the writers to include/strengthen plot points about her in the second season. She is a far less important character than the two Defenders character I mentioned, but she’s given motivations and actions so she is interesting to the audience. The same thing is true of Bob Newby and the results are similar as well.

Barb isn’t just a cardboard cutout to be propped up near Nancy for Nancy to talk at. She is written and acted in such a way as to experience and show feelings and desires – she wants to protect Nancy; she wants to follow the rules but not in a stereotypical way; when alone, injured and confused she still tries to explore, to find help, and to flee. Ditto Bob. What is it that Sowande wants? What will he do to accomplish that? He’s a generic villain without enough personality or screen time to bring about any kind of relationship with the audience. Nothing makes him unique, interesting, or even note-worthy. That ends up being a problem that plagues all of The Defenders.

After all, not only do none of the titular heroes have arcs, but they don’t even seem to have any kind of personal motivations or stakes. They all just want to save the world. That’s too generic and murky a desire to define a character; there has to be more if you want that character to be interesting. Quality characters maybe even want bad things; in Stranger Things 2 Mike resists allowing Max into their party for the majority of the season because he wants to maintain the status quo and/or not replace Eleven. Kali wants merciless revenge against each and every person who ever harmed her. Sheriff Hopper wants to keep Eleven locked away for her own good. Dustin lies to his friends in order to preserve his pet. These desires make these character relatable to people because they’re very human. They also create interesting, reasonable, relatable conflicts which help the characters achieve their arcs and drive the plot forward. Without them you have generic “I want to rule the world” versus generic, “I want to save the world” which cannot carry a story.

The biggest mistake that Marvel seems to be making lately, and they’re making a few, is forgetting that villains are characters, too. One of the best parts of the first season of Daredevil was Vincent D’onofrio’s Kingpin. Likewise the conflict between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave, a character instead of a force, drove the tension in that show and made it more interesting. By the time we finished Luke Cage the villains have gotten less and less comprehensible. They don’t even appear to be trying to give the actors who play villains anything to work with, right now. They are caricatures of people or mysterious forces with mysterious motives. It’s as hard to care about defeating a force as it is to try and act as one.

The Defenders absolutely falls into the trap of removing the humanity from its villains and has now failed in two of of the criteria laid out last week, including the one that they most banked on for success. Can it rebound at all, next week?

Learning from Stranger Things Part 1

Stranger Things 2 was AMAZING. The polar opposite of recent reviewee The Defenders.

Remember a couple weeks ago when I pretty much threw 2 episodes and a series worth of review together in one rushed piece to conclude my watching of The Defenders? Some of you wanted me to expand on that a bit. Now, I honestly didn’t really care to do that. I found the entire thing to be a disappointment and didn’t want to dwell on it any further. That’s why you got what you got to begin with. But rejoice, because I have a new framework to work from!

You see, since we last spoke I watched the entire second season of Stranger Things. The first season was terrific and the second season was in no way a let down. It does almost everything right. I know I spend a lot of time being critical of the media I talk about so you might think I get my kicks from picking on things – and I do! But it’s so much more fun when a show makes me work for it. And Stranger Things season 2 absolutely makes me work for it.

In that final review of The Defenders I noted that it failed as a TV show in just about every way imaginable. Stranger Things 2, on the other hand, succeeds as a TV show in just about every way imaginable. Some people argue that The Defenders was designed to be binged and I just watched it the wrong way but I promise you I could have broken apart Stranger Things 2 in exactly the same way and still have a quality show. As I noted before I started writing about Netflix’s attempt at a Marvel team-up just because the show is designed to be bingeable does not mean it cannot or should not be able to stand on it’s own from an episode to episode basis. I really wish now that I had skipped The Defenders entirely done an episode by episode breakdown of Stranger Things 2. The problem is there was infinitely more pressure on me to catch up on ST2 than there was TD. My friends were watching ST2 and they wanted to talk about it with me. That simply wasn’t true of far less hyped comic book show.

So what do you need to make a good TV show? I would argue that to make a good TV show you simply need to take all the pieces that make up a TV show and make them good. Makes sense, right? So what are the things that make up a TV show? In broad strokes they are:

  • Characters
    • Characters should feel and want things
    • Characters should act on those feelings and desires.
    • Characters should relatable – not necessarily likable
    • Characters will conflict. Make these conflicts reasonable and interesting. Avoid bad cliches.
    • Characters should drive the plot, not the other way around – if your characters do something unusual for them in order to move the plot then you’ve forsaken the characters in the name of good plot.
  • Story
    • The story should make sense
    • The story should be interesting – it may not be unique, that’s hard to do. Twist it, spin it, bop it if you can. Honestly, though, if you accomplished all the character goals you’re 99% of the way here even with a paint by the numbers plot.
    • Twin to the final point point about characters, the plot should be driven by what the characters want. This important enough to warrant mentioning in both places: characters control plot, not the other way around.
    • Chapters of the story, episodes in TV parlance, should progress the overarching story in a serialized plot. Both episodic and serialized tv shows should have chapters with self-contained plots as well.
  • Visuals
    • Identify the visual focus for your series and make sure you nail it every time. If you’ve got especially bad special effects (i.e. Birdemic) then you’re going to kill your audience’s suspension of disbelief. The visual requirements will be unique to every show, but they’re always there to some degree.
    • Make sure there is enough lighting, even during night or otherwise dark scenes, to convey your visuals. Unless the confusion and terror of the darkness is part of what you’re conveying in that moment – do not overuse this.

Starting next week I’m going to try and break these things down even further to explain how to do it well and how to do it poorly using The Defenders and Stranger Things 2 as the primary examples. I might throw some other TV shows or movies in there while I am at it. Hopefully this will help you have a better understanding about what I meant a couple weeks ago and it will definitely give you a deeper look into my methodologies and thought processes for future criticisms. Obviously every TV show is different; they will have different things they are trying to accomplish, different focuses, and perhaps very different results that can be good in one place and bad in another.

SPOILERS follow for The Defenders and Stranger Things.

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For example, The Defenders chose to focus on a visual element: the fights between the super heroes and the super villains. Most action movies will choose a similar focus with only enough story and character to string together a series of interesting fight scenes. The problem with the attempts to do this in The Defenders is that it was essentially an eight-hour long movie. If you want to focus on fight scenes as the primary draw of your story eight hours is a lot of time to fill with fight scenes. This ended up causing trouble in multiple other areas.

Because they didn’t spend much time on story or characters but couldn’t just do fight after fight after fight without pause they ended up with a lot of pointless and boring filler material. Even so they had so many fight scenes that more time, focus, and money was obviously put into certain fight scenes. This left obvious and large disparities between scenes like the battle in the Midland Circle Boardroom – which was actually a pretty solid fight scene – and scenes like the one in the Midland Circle Garage or the Midland Circle Pit which obviously did not get the same amount of love, either in choreography or shooting. When you finally have the heroes directly face off against the villains but you can’t tell what’s happening for the lighting and number of cuts you have a problem. Similarly when your big finale fight scene starts with the heroes using a super power to knock everyone over but then stand around waiting for the enemies to get up and then obviously come at the one by one you’ve screwed up pretty badly.

On the other hand in Stranger Things the last thing they did was special effects. There were very few fight scenes which allowed them to pour attention to detail into ensuring that they were filmed in a way that allowed them to actually be visible to the audience. Contrast Steve’s battle with the Demodogs against the battle between the heroes and villains in the garage. Despite the fact that both fights take place in the dark it is far easier to see what’s happening in Steve’s fight which actually gives him a much greater opportunity to look cool during the fight despite the fact that he’s a teenager with a baseball bat versus a bunch of CGI monsters and the the Defenders are trained fighters versus other trained fighters using occasional super powers. Another good contrast is the Shadow Monster from Stranger Things as compared to the explosion at Midland Circle in Defenders. Despite both things being giant CGI effects one of these looks cool and intimidating while the other looks cheap and pits far too many actors who don’t react quite right to it making it look even worse. And remember, the latter wanted to be defined by what it showed you while the other showed you things in order to progress it’s story and grow its characters. Makes Defenders look even worse, doesn’t it?

One note that I want to leave you with that doesn’t really seem to fit in with any of the above stuff but was too obvious to ignore is that as I have been conceiving the idea for this series of articles I realized something about The Defenders. There is something weird going on with it, and other Marvel properties, recently. When Stranger Things 2 came out they had a huge advertisement blowout. Ads all over the internet, cast going on late night shows, they have a mobile game tie-in, and even a Google voice search tie in. Go to your android phone say, “OK Google. Let me to talk to Dustin from Stranger Things.” and it will take you through bits of the plot from the show while prodding you with trivia questions. The only reason I even realized The Defenders was coming out was because one of the writers I follow from Forbes wrote an article entitled, “If You Don’t Know Netflix’s ‘The Defenders’ Is Out Tomorrow, I Don’t Blame You”. Did you know The Punisher came out, yesterday? Once again, the only reason I know is because I saw a random headline on Yahoo referencing the show. Sure, both Marvel/Netflix collaborations got teaser trailers at one point but so did Stranger Things plus all those other things. It’s possible The Punisher lost a bunch of advertising opportunities because stripping away the details it’s really about an angry white man with way too many guns going to town with them – something we’ve seen far too much of recently, tragically. But at least as far as The Defenders I don’t know if it’s a matter of Netflix running out of money in their budgets for those shows, if they knew they were going to be bad so they just didn’t bother, or something else entirely.

In any case that’s just the beginning of the missteps in regards to Marvel’s properties versus what we have seen from The Duffer Brothers. Next week we’ll dig much, much further.