Monday, July 04, 2011

Who Supports the Supporting Characters in the Majors?


What do Anakin Skywalker, Mater from Cars, Elektra, Catherine Tramell, Catwoman, The Scorpion King, Jay and Silent Bob, Wolverine and Captain Jack Sparrow, all have in common? These are all supporting characters that made the leap to feature player only to be criticized by critics and, in some cases, receive less than desirable box office returns.

Similar to television networks of the 70’s and 80’s, Hollywood is always looking for the next big franchise to exploit. The “it” thing right now seems to be rebooting old series, however Hollywood has routinely tried to make scene stealing supporting characters into spin off franchises. The problem is that studios often forget that one of the reasons we enjoy these characters in the first place is because they are given to us in small doses. For example, Han Solo is a great supporting character because there is an air of mystery to him. Despite appearances in three of the Star Wars films, we know that there are many more layers to Solo than what we see on screen. Half of his charm is that his past is open to interpretation and speculation


The minute you give a supporting character their own film, writers and directors must struggle with how to make the character well rounded and this can often hinder the character. Anakin “Darth Vader” Skywalker is a perfect example of this. Darth Vader is easily the most menacing henchman to ever grace the big screen. He is a cold hearted solider who will stop at nothing to fulfill the wishes of The Emperor. It is only when he is faced with the prospects of destroying his own son that we see Darth Vader have a change of heart. In many ways his arc is complete after Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately the Star Wars prequels have ruined the image of Darth Vader. By telling the tale of how Darth Vader came to be, Lucas actually takes away from the mystery of Darth Vader instead of building upon it. Darth Vader is reduced to nothing more than a lovesick teen who is easily swayed by the opinions of others…which is far from menacing.

Besides changing the character for the worse, another reason why some of the supporting characters fail on their own is due to the lack of other characters to focus on. I like to think of this as “The Seinfeld Effect.” Seinfeld was a funny show because Jerry, regardless of whether he was bland or not, was there for the supporting character to bounce off of. In Basic Instinct Catherine Tramell was the standout but it was Michael Douglas’ detective Nick Curran that kept our interest. When we think of The Mummy Returns we often reflect on Rick and Evelyn and not The Scorpion King. Even extremely popular characters such as Wolverine and Captain Jack Sparrow needed love triangles in their respective films, Wolverine/Jean/Scott and Jack/Elizabeth/Will, to keep their stories moving.


Now I am not saying that supporting characters should never get a feature film to themselves. The Pusher Trilogy is proof that you can make captivating films by developing supporting characters. Director Nicolas Winding Refn skillfully took two supporting characters from the original Pusher film and built unique stories around them that easily stand on their own. You do not need to watch the complete trilogy to understand or enjoy the individual films. Each film feels organic as Refn focuses more on the stories revolving around a particular moment in the characters life instead of their whole background. More studios should adopt the franchise building techniques displayed in these films. Unfortunately, the lure of big franchise dollars is likely why studios avoid this method. The studios want big dollars using familiarity, which is why we will get two or three Wolverine centric films and at least another three Jack Sparrow centric films.

In a perfect world, studios would wait until there is a actual story to tell before hastily unleashing spin-offs such as Elektra and Catwoman on to the world. Sadly, all we can do is idly watch as supporting characters are thrown into unwanted leading roles and then rebooted until someone actually gets it right.

15 comments:

  1. Damn I was going to write a "filmic measures" column on "THe Captin Jack Effect" and it was essentially going to be this argument about how sequels will put their most popular part into the forefront and give too much. Eddie from the Barbershop movies was the same way and how it takes away what made them special in the first place. Guess you beat me to it. Good job regardless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Mike - You should still write the piece. Your "filmic measures" columns always puts an interesting and unique perspective on things.

    ReplyDelete
  3. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I immediately thought of Jack Sparrow and Mater. Two recent films that have not fared well by moving a supporting character into the lead.

    Cars 2 wasn't all bad. On Stranger Tides did not recover :-p

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Andy - Funny enough it was Basic Instinct 2, which had been on my mind recently, that actually spawned this post.

    I am waiting for the DVD of both Cars 2 and On Strangers Tide to come out before I get around to watching them. While I enjoyed the Pirate's series, the reviews for number 4 really kept me away from the film. As for Cars, I did not like the first Cars at all! So I am not rushing to see the sequel in theatres regardless of how much I love Pixar.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Who ever heard of the pathos of a supporting character? Hollywood is a menace. They bleed any likability from perfectly good background characters until...something, something...

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Simon - The need to make a quick buck is what is will continually be Hollywood’s downfall. Just because we like something once, does not mean we will like it even more in larger doses.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm glad you mentioned The Pusher trilogy. That's the best example I can think of with supporting characters successfully becoming leads.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Bonjour Tristesse - I actually wrote a piece on The Pusher Trilogy that should be up in the next day or so. Really enjoyed the series.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great write-up. Wolverine is dying to break out of the supporting character zone. He just needs a decent movie this time.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @Ty – I have always found that Wolverine is at his best when he has the rest of the X-Men around him. Even in the comic format, I never found the solo Wolverine comics as interesting as when he was working with X-men, X-Factor or the New Avengers. I do agree that the character needs a far better script than what he was given in Wolverine film.

    ReplyDelete
  11. There are supporting players and then there are bit players, and those bit players are the ones ESPECIALLY who shouldn't be given a film surrounding them only. Nothing's wrong with being a good supporter.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Andrew – Hollywood cannot seem to distinguish who are the bit players from the supporting ones. Remember, they wanted to give Tom Cruise his own spin off from his bit part work in Tropic Thunder.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Don't the film versions of Catwoman, Elektra, and Wolverine all get a pass due to their comic origins? If you were an exec that had just seen X-Men make more than a billion over three films, you'd be first in line to make Wolverine, too. I can't blame them one iota.

    What I might find more interesting is spinoffs that are better than their originators. Then again, I can't think of any off the top of my head right now...

    ReplyDelete
  14. Dylan – Wolverine aside, Catwoman and Elektra all came from comic adaptions that were not massive hits. Batman Returns did well upon its release but the spinoff should have come closer to that film. They basically lazily rebooted the character for the Berry film. Daredevil bombed large at the theatres which makes it even more surprising that they made an Elektra film.

    Would Get Him to the Greek be considered a spinoff that worked? I hear people enjoyed that film. I honestly cannot think of any others...

    ReplyDelete
  15. Yeah, I think Get Him to the Greek is a decent example. Not as popular as the original (so to speak), but well-received and performed generally well, from what I recall.

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.