#3. Make Them American, Even if They're Not
As Seen In:Kingdom of Heaven, Braveheart, 300, The Ten Commandments, Robin Hood
Sometimes, being anachronistically modern just isn't enough. How do you make sure your audience is rooting for Historical Tribe A over Historical Tribe B, when frankly they have no reason to care either way? The answer is easy: just change one side into America! It doesn't matter if the movie takes place in 3,000 B.C., you always make the good guys sound like they're quoting the Declaration of Independence.
Even When it Doesn't Make Sense ...
The Spartan war-masturbation film 300 doesn't just add in monsters and leave out the unpopular stuff about Spartan pederasty. No, the Spartans also declare themselves to be "rescuing the world from mysticism and tyranny." Never mind that Sparta's population was made up mostly of serfs, and that in reality the famous "boy vs. giant wolf" scene at the beginning of the film would have involved a young warrior killing not a animal but, uh, those same serfs. There's even a crack about the rival Athenians being "boy-lovers" just so you know that the United States of Sparta frowns on such behavior.
"We fight for heterosexuality, apple pie and the future right to shoot guns at clouds whenever we get too excited!"
Likewise, in Braveheart, Mel Gibson tells the local aristocracy: "You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom!" 2010's Robin Hood featured a Robin fighting for an imaginary version of Magna Carta that guaranteed democracy and equal rights.
Which is why the English are allowed to rob the Queen and shoot at the Welsh.
In 2004's King Arthur, set in fifth-century Britain, Clive Owen leads native Woads in their fight against invading Saxon hordes. But for Clive, this isn't just about warring tribes, it's about an idea: freedom. "All men are free, equal, and each man has a right to choose his own destiny!" he says. Throughout the film, he tells serfs, Roman conscripts and anyone who will listen that they are all free and equal by virtue of birth.
"Apart from me, because I'm the Goddamned King."
Goddammit, this guy didn't just invent the round table. He wrote the U.S. Constitution!
#2. Excuse Violent Behavior With a Tragic Death of a Loved One
As Seen In:Lethal Weapon, Terminator 2, Kick-Ass, End of Days, Death Wish, Mad Max, The Patriot, Gladiator, Collateral Damage, Law Abiding Citizen, The Punisher, The Brave One
Humans tend to see the world through something called the actor/observer bias: The more we know a person, the less we blame their actions on their personality and the more we blame outside circumstances. So for the stranger, it's, "He just shot the TV, what a psycho!" But for a friend, it's, "He just shot the TV. It must have been Cake Boss."
"He was trying to replicate that adorable cake they had last episode but couldn't quite get the icing right, poor thing."
This is important when it comes to movies, because it means that a film can show two people doing the exact same thing, and still have one of them come off as the good guy and the other as the villain. The difference is that the audience is given reasons for the good guy's actions. And there's one trope Hollywood uses again and again as a get-out-of-psychopathy-free card: dead loved ones. How dare you criticize anything he does? Your loved ones are still alive, you insensitive bastard!
Now get out there and start tolerating them!
Even When it Doesn't Make Sense ...
In Lethal Weapon, a suicidal man stands on the ledge of a tall building, ready to jump. Suddenly, a mulleted cop approaches, his eyes as wild as his half-Australian accent. It's Mel Gibson! This cop isn't exactly following procedure, though: He handcuffs the would-be jumper to himself, and then pulls them both off the building together, luckily landing on an air cushion.
"Wheee, wasn't that great? Now let's go for a beer and I'll tell you about my suicidal depression!"
It's OK that this police officer just exposed this man to potential death or a lifetime in a wheelchair, though. After all, Mel Gibson's character just lost his wife. Never mind that most people manage to grieve without going crazy or, say, constructing an elaborate bat-themed costume and waging a one-man war against crime.
"Screw you, gun barrel, I'm the goddamned Batman."
It's the same for the whole revenge movie genre; like the Death Wish series, in which an attack on his family causes Charles Bronson to singlehandedly solve New York's crime problem using only mass murder. And Mel Gibson, in addition to being crazy for the Lethal Weapon series, used a dead wife and child as an excuse to commit grotesque war crimes against the British in two separate films. Man, we should have seen the whole Mel Gibson thing coming years ago, shouldn't have we?
#1. If He's the Villain, Give Him a Classy Hobby
As Seen In:Hannibal, Leon, Die Hard, X-Men, Karate Kid 3, Cape Fear, The Untouchables, A Clockwork Orange, any James Bond film ever
Yes, you need to build audience sympathy for the villain, too. That is, if you're looking to make a movie with any kind of character depth. It's the difference between a really good villain the audience loves to watch, and a sneering cartoon character. You need the audience to not just fear the villain, but respect him.
Not just anyone can get one of those hair things.
But for some reason, this is usually done by giving them some kind of quaint, aristocratic hobby that shows they have sophisticated tastes. So he'll probably be watching opera, like the bad guys in The Untouchables or Quantum of Solace. Or he'll just mention his taste for the finer things in life, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard. It differentiates movie villains from most of the bad guys we'll probably run into in real life, whose finer tastes will mostly extend to which sort of iPhone will get them the most meth money.
Even When it Doesn't Make Sense ...
On one hand, the "evil genius" is clearly a villain archetype that goes way back (before even Sherlock Holmes dueled with the evil Professor Moriarity). We know why a high IQ and education makes Hannibal Lecter scary -- he's smart, and therefore formidable.
He also has a considerably better hat than you.
But then they cram this trait into the most nonsensical places. In Tim Burton's Batman, we get a scene where Jack Nicholson's Joker is on a rampage through a museum, destroying priceless works of art. One of his henchmen goes to slash a painting and the Joker stops him with, "No, I like that one." So even there, with that character, in that scene, they stop everything to show he appreciates what is being destroyed more so than his henchmen. But why would he? Before he was the Joker he was just a mob enforcer.
A fabulous mob enforcer.
Likewise, in The Professional (or Leon if you prefer to watch deleted scenes that were voted out by test audiences), the villain played by Gary Oldman murders women and children with a shotgun, and spends most of the film trying to kill a 12-year-old girl. Oh, and he has a classical music obsession. He listens to Beethoven on headphones while conducting drug business, and even monologues about music with his victims. What a classy, sophisticated guy! You know, for a corrupt DEA agent.
Of course it's not that there's no such thing as a DEA agent who listens to classical music in the real world, it's just weird that it's considered a sign of sociopathy in the world of film. The good guy is always a down-to-earth everyman. A John McClane type, or some other down-on-his-luck cop -- even Bruce Wayne, a billionaire, is shown to shun his fancy things in favor of his dank cave. He only flashes his wealth as part of his cover.
Being Batman is hard.
So is the idea that the people who enjoy stuffy, intelligent, ivory tower entertainment like operas and classical music are the enemy? Because that means they're not like us, the Joe Sixpack movie-goer? And that to be a hero, you need to enjoy down-to-earth entertainment, like ...
Well, like movies. Ah, OK. We get it now.
Read more by C. Coville here.
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For more behind-the-scenes looks at Hollywood, check out 5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain Why So Many Movies Suck and The 10 Most Awesome Movies Hollywood Ever Killed.
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