Monday, July 04, 2011
Who Supports the Supporting Characters in the Majors?
Posted by Courtney Small
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.