Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Spider Man Homecoming
Part 2 – Creating Unforgettable Characters & The Game of Screenplay Structure
In last week’s podcast we talked about writing a great antagonist by letting go of our need to see them as the bad-guy, who “antagonizes” the main character, and instead stepping into our antagonists as real human beings.
Because every character in your script believes that they are the hero of the story (just like every human being sees themselves as the hero of their story), to write a great character of any kind– a character that actually lives and breathes–we need to see world through their eyes. And this begins by connecting to what our characters want.
And what’s exciting is that when we start to think about our scripts in this way, we not only find unforgettable characters, we also start to organically discover the exact structure we need to tell our stories.
In Spider-Man, Homecoming, what makes the character of the Vulture, Adrian Toomes (played by Michael Keaton) so compelling is that everything he does grows directly out of his simple human desire to provide for his family.
And you can see, if you look at the structure of Spider-Man: Homecoming, that this isn’t just the formula for creating a great bad guy, it is actually a way of creating an entire cast of unforgettable characters, and shaping the journeys they all go on in the script.
Because every single one of these characters is really just a person with a really strong want and a really strong obstacle that forces them to reveal their really strong “how”—the way that they pursue the things that they want differently from everybody else.
And when we understand a character’s want in this way, it allows us not only to enjoy the drama, but also to feel like we are in on a joke. It allows us to laugh at these characters even as we feel for them– not because the characters are begging for a laugh, but because they are being themselves in a funny way.
So let’s talk about Peter Parker.
Just like Adrian Toomes, Peter Parker starts the movie with his own clear priority. His own clear superobjective.
Peter Parker only wants one thing. Having returned from his adventure with the Avengers, the only thing he wants in the universe is to join the Avengers.
He wants to wear that Spider-Man outfit that Tony Stark has given him. He wants to tap into the full power of that Spider-Man outfit that Tony Stark has given him.
He wants to stop being treated like a kid and start being treated like an adult. He wants to stop solving little crimes and start solving the big ones. He wants to stop being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and become what he sees as a real superhero.
In fact he wants it so badly that he consistently makes really strong choices in relation to all the other things that he wants– in relation to the way the other kids at school see him, in relation to his secret identity, in relation to his Aunt May, in relation to The Academic Decathlon Competition and even in relation to The Homecoming after which the movie is named, and his desperate desire to date the coolest, richest, most perfect girl in school, Liz.
Despite his desire to be with Liz, despite his desire to win The Academic Decathlon, despite the desire to be admired by his friends, despite his best friend Ned’s desperate desire for him to reveal his identity so he can stop being treated like a loser— even when Peter Parker wavers in his resolution in the face of the pressures of his daily life as a regular kid– ultimately Peter Parker always chooses to be a superhero.
Even if it means that none of the other kids will ever take him seriously. Even if it means that he is going to have to ditch his friends for The Academic Decathlon, even if it means he is going to have to ditch Liz at The Homecoming Dance, even if it means he is going to lose everything else that he wants—Peter always chooses the thing that he wants most.
And because of that, it makes his inevitable choice at the end of the film– which I am not going to spoil for you here but what you probably are already imagining if you understand structure– it makes his ultimate choice and his ultimate journey so successful.
In Improv this concept is called The Game of the Scene. But here we’re going to think about it as the Game of Structure.
During an Improv, just like on the first blank page of a script, you’ve got two characters and you don’t know much about them. You don’t know who you are playing, and your scene partner doesn’t know who they are playing. Just like when you start out writing, even if you have some ideas, you really don’t know who your characters are, or how your characters are, or what they really want, or what they are really going to do, until they start interacting with each other.
And as you play together, you learn who the other person is, and who you are, by telling each other things about each other and about yourselves.
And ultimately what happens is, you find something that is funny, something that is fun.
And once you find that thing all you have to do is keep doing it. And the audience will laugh their asses off every damn time.
They will connect to your characters, because they understand your characters’ game. They understand what your character wants, and how they’re trying to get it, and what keeps going wrong. And that is why it’s called The Game of the Scene.
You keep outdoing it and outdoing it and outdoing it– and suddenly from that game, a structure emerges.
If you’ve ever watched a sitcom, you’ve seen this technique used over and over again. But the same technique– often without the humor–is used in character driven dramas, in psychological thrillers, and yes, even in big silly action movies.
And you can see that it’s this simple Game of the Scene technique that provides the entire structure of Peter Parker’s journey.
In movies, the-game-of-the scene can be found pretty easily. All you have to know is what the character wants, and then all you have to do is keep making it harder and harder and harder and harder, harder and harder and harder and harder.
All that Peter Parker wants is to be part of the Avengers.
So all you have to do is make it hard– because Happy won’t take him seriously, because Tony Stark won’t take him seriously, because his friends at school won’t take him seriously, because he has to keep on disappointing the girl that he is madly in love with in order to run off and do superhero stuff…
All you have to do is take that one want and make it harder and harder and harder and suddenly The Game of the Scene will emerge– so long as the character keeps on going for what they want.
In fact, you can see that this same technique is used to build the journeys of all the characters in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
The same simple Game of the Scene. Finding the one thing the character wants more than anything, and then making it harder and harder and harder for them to get it, so that they have to make bigger and bigger choices that reveal more and more of who they really are, and who they really can be.
One of the reasons Iron Man is so wonderful– one of the reasons Tony Stark is so wonderful– in Spider-Man: Homecoming is that Tony Stark, in this movie, decides he wants to be a father. And of course what makes it hard is that Tony Stark is terrible at being a father.
What makes it hard is that all of his lessons go wrong, what makes it wrong is that all of his instincts take him to the wrong place. There is even a wonderful moment where he realizes, “Oh my god, I sound like my father!”
And you can see that even though Tony Stark is a big rich powerful superhero, The Game of the Scene is actually rooted in his mundane world, in a world that we understand– the grueling real life desire to be a dad and not being sure if you are good at it.
And this is what makes the resolution of the story– when Peter makes his choice– so satisfying!
Because we can feel Tony Stark’s journey as well.
Similarly with Peter Parker’s unforgettable best friend and sidekick, Ned– we know exactly what Ned wants.
All Ned wants is to be the guy in the chair, to be the backend support for Spider-Man the superhero.
And sure, he has some really messed up ideas about how Peter should deal with being a superhero. (Ned is absolutely convinced that Peter should tell everybody who he really is so that they will finally think he is cool and so he can finally get the girl. And that conflict creates a ton of fun but also creates a ton of conflict for Peter.)
But the real structure of Ned’s story is just a simple desire to be the guy in the chair.
And that is what makes the moment when he gets to be the guy in the chair so much darn fun!
May—all that May wants is for Peter to talk to her.
And she is going to try every strategy that she’s got because she knows something is going on. She knows he is sneaking out of the house, she knows he is not sharing things with her, she knows something is wrong, she knows that he is ditching the things that are important to him in school.
She is trying patience, she is trying jokes, she is trying confrontation, she is trying everything she knows to find out what’s really going on– which is what makes May’s final moment in the movie so much fun for the audience.
We can feel her journey.
Liz, the love interest, also has a very clear want. And what is so much fun about her want is that, if only Peter knew, it would make his whole life so much easier! Because all Liz wants… is Peter.
Liz has got just a big of a crush on Peter as Peter has on her. The problem for her is that Peter doesn’t know it, and that Peter is going through some stuff that he is never going to share with her and that she is never going to understand.
Rather than playing that conflict for melodrama, the writers make a really beautiful decision to play it with empathy.
Even at Liz’ lowest point, after The Homecoming Dance when Peter has ditched her for one last times and so many other things in her life have fallen apart, Liz doesn’t react to Peter’s problems with anger. She reacts to them with understanding.
She tells Peter that she really hopes that he can figure out whatever is going on with him.
And you can see that, even though his particular problem is the problem of a superhero, once again we have a really beautiful relationship that is rooted in something very real — which is that in high school, and in life, we are all going through a lot of stuff.
And sometimes you fall in love with someone who just can’t meet you where you are. And sometimes like Liz, we have to say goodbye to them with love– even knowing that we may never understand why they can’t meet us in the way we need.
Even Happy, Jon Favreau’s character, has a strong want.
Happy has been assigned by Tony Stark with a task that he wants and a task that he doesn’t.
The task that he wants is to help Stark Enterprises with their big move to their new location.
And the task that he doesn’t want is that he to look after this teenage boy—Peter Parker. And the last thing that Happy wants to do is to be a nanny.
So, we have a wonderful relationship as Peter Parker drives Happy absolutely crazy. In which Happy, who is never happy, is consistently driven out of his mind by the little boy he doesn’t want to take care of, when all Happy really wants to be doing is taking care of the big move.
And that is what makes the scene when Happy thinks he has finally pulled the big move off so much fun.
Even Peter Parker’s mundane nemesis, Flash, the bully character, has a strong, real world want from which his character and his structure grow.
We are used to bullies who use physical violence, we are used to bullies who are the big dumb guy, but what is so fun about Flash is that Flash isn’t big and dumb. Flash is smart– he is just not as smart as Peter. And all Flash wants to do is to win the Academic Decathlon!
And yes, Flash may be the privileged child that represents everything that Peter Parker can’t have– with the big car, and all fancy friends and the fancy clothes.
But Flash is really just a kid who wants to win the Decathlon. Who hates Peter Parker because Peter keeps flaking out on the team. And whose “how” in relation to that obstacle is to bully Peter, to make a fool out of Peter.
In this way, even Flash doesn’t turn into the stereotypical bully; he turns into a real character with real desires and real needs. Just another fucked up teenage kid trying the best he can to make sense of a crazy life.
And this works all the way down to the tiniest character, Michelle, played by Zendaya, who seems to have the tiniest little part in the whole movie, and still turns out to be an unforgettable character.
Michelle is a super smart, super loner nerd, who doesn’t have a single friend in the world and seems to like it that way– even though does have this curious habit of showing up at every “lame” party–
“But you’re here…” “Am I?”
To quote one of the best laugh lines in the piece.
Michelle always has some kind of acerbic joke or some kind of sarcastic quip to prove her independent weird loner status.
And this is what makes it so much fun when Michelle becomes head of The Academic Decathlon team. This is what allows us to fall in love with Michelle– yet another character who wants to belong but whose attitude won’t allow her to.
And this is what makes the wonderful little surprise about Michelle so great as well.
When we boil this all down we see that all these little wants start to add up to a big one.
And that big one subsequently leads us to theme: because there is the one thing that ties all these characters together.
All of these characters just want to fit in, with a society that doesn’t accept them.
Whether it is Peter Parker trying to fit in with the Avengers, or Michelle pretending she doesn’t want to fit in with the other kids, whether it is Liz trying to fit in with Peter or Peter trying to fit in with Flash.
Whether it is Tony Stark trying to fit in as a father, or Adrian Toomes trying to fit in as a businessman, every single one of these characters is trying to fit in. And every single one of these characters is going to go on a journey of change and compromise, learning who they actually are in relation to that world that doesn’t seem like it wants to accept them.
And this is one of the greatest lessons that we can learn from Spider-Man: our heroes aren’t actual heroes, because actual heroes are boring. And our antagonists aren’t actual antagonists, because actual antagonists are boring.
Just like we are neither heroes nor antagonists in our own lives. What we really are– we are people with strong wants. And when we put ourselves and our characters into positions where we have to do things that are hard, we give ourselves an opportunity to learn who we are and who our characters are in relation to those wants.
When we choose the thing that we want and we pursue it with everything we’ve got, against the biggest obstacles that we can find– when we take our characters and we allow them to pursue the things that they want against the biggest obstacles that they can find– what happens is we reveal our “how.”
The how that differentiates a Michelle who wants to fit in from a Peter Parker who wants to fit in, from a Ned who wants fit in, from a Flash who wants to fit in or an Adrian who wants to fit in or a Tony Stark who wants to fit in.
When we take our characters and we let them pursue what they want in the face of the things that make it hard, we allow them to go on big journeys that reveal who they really are to themselves, to make big decisions that change their lives and the lives of those that they interact with.
And as we do so, we start to unearth not only their themes but the themes of our own lives.
Even in fiction we start to find the truth about our world.
The things that we really want to write about, and the things that we really need to say even if we are writing something that should just be a big dumb action movie.
I found Peter Parker’s choice at the end of the film to be a bit confusing thematically, and I was wondering if you could talk about that. Watching the film, I thought it was going in a different direction. Peter’s problem seems to be that he always chooses being Spiderman and trying to be an Avenger over being a kid. And in making this choice, he keeps causing unintended damage–the destruction of the shop owner’s store, for example, and the ferry disaster. So, I thought Peter had to learn to stop choosing action and instead just be a kid. The ultimate test of this is at the Homecoming, when Peter again seems to make the wrong choice: to go off and save the day, instead of being just a teenager at a dance. His action again causes a lot of unexpected damage when the plane crashes on the ground. So, by the end, he hasn’t learned his lesson, and Tony doesn’t punish him for this but instead rewards him with an offer. And then, in what struck me as an unearned change of heart, Peter rejects the thing he has wanted. But it’s not clear why, and it’s not clear that Peter has learned anything. And it’s not clear what the theme of the film is supposed to be.