How To Write A Superhero
Movie In 5 Steps

With Jurgen Wolff

Want to know how to write a superheroes movie?

Critic Roger Ebert revealed the five steps in a paragraph of his review of The Avengers.*

Below you will see his simple 5 step formula in red, with my observations added.

Ebert's # 1. There must be a threat.

Raindance Film Festival Usually there’s what I call a macro threat and a micro threat. The macro threat is big, really big. The earth could tilt on its axis. The ice age could return in an instant. All the vacuum cleaners in existence could turn on their owners. That last one hasn’t been done yet. If you sell it it, cut me in and make it cash, not a percentage of the back end. You and I know that no matter how many superhero dolls they sell we’ll never see a penny of the back end.
 
Sorry, I got distracted.
 
The macro threat can take many forms but the upshot is that it would mean the end of mankind. Some days that seems like a pretty good idea to me, but maybe I’m just grumpy.
 
The micro threat is something the audience can relate to. If the world ends, Jenny won’t be able to go to the junior high school prom, or Timmy’s parents, who were just starting to speak again after a bitter divorce, definitely won’t get back together.
 
We have to see some examples of what could happen to the whole world. Usually this entails the destruction of capital cities like London, Paris and Rome. In the US it tends to be New York or Los Angeles, the only cities screenwriters can imagine living in, although once in a while Seattle takes a hit. Screenwriters could live in Seattle if it didn’t rain so much.
 
In older movies, a lot of this destruction was seen on a TV screen where it wasn’t so apparent that New York was actually made of Legos. If the movie was really low budget, you’d just see a radar screen. “General, it looks like…” “Yes, Private, I’m sorry, I know your grandmother lived in Seattle….but…there is no more Seattle.” Nowadays, though, we want to see cities falling into craters or being hurled into space or being consumed by vacuum cleaners, ideally in 3D.

Ebert's # 2. The heroes must be enlisted.

Film Courses In LondonYou can’t just call the superheroes and expect them to come. They’re in a sulk somewhere and you have to coax them to save the world.
 
Maybe they went into seclusion because the press painted an ugly picture of what they’re really like, just to sell papers. (I wouldn’t rely on this one much longer because soon the kids who are expected to make up the bulk of the audience will not know what “newspapers” are unless they’ve heard grandma and grandpa mention them.)
 
Maybe the superheroes did go over to the dark side for a while but only because some kind of Kryptonitey substance or force field or something made them do it.
 
Or maybe something happened to make them cynical and not sure mankind is worth saving. They could just be grumpy like me.
 
Sometimes they’ll be really reclusive and you have to send somebody to one of the poles or to another planet because the superheroes are not answering their phone. I’d suggest you have a cute child do the talking. Superheroes are suckers for kids with big mooney eyes. Give the kid some kind of not too unattractive handicap, it couldn’t hurt. A plea from a kid in a wheelchair will shake even a moody superhero out of his or her lethargy.

Ebert's #3. The villain must be dramatized.

It’s kind of hard to boo climate change. But make it Dr Emil Klimatechange or Dr Basil Climatechange and stick an eye patch on him, and you’re in business. Villain roles are the only thing keeping German and British actors working. How come the super-villains are never French or Italian?  Because halfway through the movie they’d give up and pretend they were on the good side all along.
 
I use that cultural stereotype only to motivate young readers to look up 20th Century history on Wikipedia. I intend no offense to my French and Italian friends. If I had any.
 
Of course we don’t have time for actual three-dimensional characters other than in the most literal sense, involving special glasses, but we do want a hint of what made the villain turn bad. Maybe they were made fun of when they were kids for having to wear an eye patch, or they got a taste of power and now they’re addicted. Admit it, you wouldn’t mind controlling the entire universe. You’d never be late for anything again, because the meeting starts when you show up.
 
I’ve always felt that if I were ever in a position to destroy humankind I’d blame it on the fact that my parents ate my pet rabbits. Don’t use that one, I’m saving it in case I figure out how to tilt the world on its axis and need to justify it afterward. I’d start by destroying a city in the name of my tragic bunnies. Not Seattle. I’m going for Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I once spent an unbearably humid summer. Yes, I would be edgy and unpredictable, as so many villains are.

Ebert's #4. Some personality defects are probed.

It’s not only the villains who have issues, so do the superheroes, although much smaller ones. In the process of saving humankind, they have to face up to their own little vulnerabilities so they have the semblance of a character arc.
 
Perhaps they have trust issues, caused by an ill-fated love affair with some kind of alien or by being aliens themselves. It’s not easy being green. But the love shining in the eyes of that differently-abled little child can heal almost everything.
 
Maybe their superpowers have made them a touch arrogant and overly competitive and they have to learn to be humble and to work together. Or they have to learn to go to sleep without leaving a light on. That last one hasn’t been used yet, I’m trying to give you some fresh ideas as we go along.
 
Whatever their foibles, they will overcome them and be better superheroes when what remains of the earth is saved. Which brings us to…

Ebert's #5. And then the last hour or so consists of special effects in which large mechanical objects engage in combat that results in deafening crashes and explosions and great balls of fire.

Exactly.
 
When the smoke clears, some proportion of the earth has been saved, and Jenny gets to go to a makeshift version of the prom held in the smoking ruins of what once was, and will again be, a great junior high school.
 
The battle to save the earth has brought Timmy’s parents together again and despite suffering the pain of a large decorative smudge on her cheek his Mom takes the hand of his father who suffered a flesh wound to his shoulder and we just know they’re going to make it work.
 
And like the Lone Ranger and countless selfless heroes before them, the superheroes go off into the sunset and wait for the sequel.
 
(Jurgen Wolff’s screenwriting blog is at www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com, where you can sign up for his free monthly Brainstorm creativity e-bulletin. His most recent books are Your Creative Writing Masterclass and Your Writing Coach, both published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other booksellers.)
 
* Ebert’s review is here

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About Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen WolffJurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including “Benson” and “Family Ties.” He wrote the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, “Mannequin” and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, “Lukas,” which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called “Krista.” He also wrote nine episodes of the series,” Relic Hunter.” He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, “On Top of the Volcano,” starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, “Killing Mother,” was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
 
As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include “Beyond Brainstorming,” “Create Your Future,” and “The Creative Breakthrough Workshop.” He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.
 
His books include “Your Writing Coach” and “Your Creative Writing Masterclass” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), “Creativity Now” (Pearson),“Do Something Different” (Virgin Business Books), “Successful Scriptwriting” (Writers Digest Press), “Top Secrets: Screenwriting” (Lone Eagle Press), and “Successful Sitcom Writing” (St. Martin’s Press). He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of “Brainstorm,” the creativity ebulletin.
 
His writing blogs are at www.TimeToWrite.blogs.com and www.SuccessfulScreenwriting.com. He runs the Writing Breakthrough Strategy Program, an online group coaching program. He is based in London but spends part of each year in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at jurgenwolff@gmail.com.

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How To Write A Superheroes Movie In 5 Steps