Sunday, December 4, 2016
Use of Character Reveal in Story
So I took a week off for the holiday and also because I was suffering writer’s block. It’s tough to think of a good topic every week; at least for me. Anyway I can’t address today’s subject without spoiling major plot points from the Harry Potter franchise and the Now You See Me franchise. So if you haven’t seen those stop reading. I’m going to launch right into it.
Character reveal is a tricky plot device. When done well it delivers an insightful, often emotional ‘aha’ moment. But if done poorly it will frustrate and disappoint the audience. I’m sure an exception can be found, but in general a character’s true nature or secret nature needs to be built into the story from the beginning. That way the viewer or reader can go back over and see how it fits together.
A good example of character reveal done well, exceptionally well, is Severus Snape from the Harry Potter franchise. He’s cold, superior, and seems to nurse a hatred for Harry. In fact, he probably doesn’t like Harry very much. He certainly despised Harry’s father. But Rowling flips his entire character with one simple revelation: Snape loved Harry’s mother. He’s worked with Dumbledore the entire time, going back to book one. Rowling built that into her over-plot so that a reader could go back and see the bread crumbs. When his full story is known nothing in it fails to jive. It makes sense and it’s emotionally moving.
So here’s an example of character reveal done poorly. Actually, it’s not really billed as a ‘reveal’. It just happens. Let’s take a look at Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire hero. Now, even in the film version of Interview with the Vampire, I think describing Lestat as a hero sounds odd. In the book he’s pretty despicable. Actually, Tom Cruise gave a terrific performance as Lestat in the film, and he lent the character his charisma and charm. I would say the 1994 film is informed by Anne Rice’s evolving perception of her character. But he’s still not a hero. Lestat is selfish, greedy, possessive, and that leads him to assist Louis in making a child vampire, Claudia. It’s an indefensible crime.
Without digging into the plot of The Vampire Lestat, the book will give you whiplash. Anne Rice has completely changed her mind about the character. Louis’s version and Lestat’s version of events are so different, that someone has to be lying. Lestat’s motivations change completely and Louis is just a sad, depressed vampire. By the way, Lestat is Rice’s character. She’s at liberty to change her mind. It’s just uncomfortable because you never get a sense of having an unreliable narrator in Louis or Lestat. But Rice continues with Lestat for a couple more books, so make of that what you will.
This brings me to my subject at hand of Now you See Me 2 (10 June 2016), directed by Jon M. Chu. This film franchise follows the adventures of four master magicians; illusionists, cardsharps, mentalists, and escape artists.
Actually the first film has a character reveal done right. When it’s revealed that Agent Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), who has obsessively chased them and attempted to stop them, is the one who brought them together and works for the super-secret organization The Eye, it made a surprising amount of sense. How better to ensure their success than by watching them obsessively with government resources? He fed them information and made sure the FBI never actually caught them. The entire plan to take down business mogul Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine) and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freemen) was his design. Tressler denied his mom an insurance claim after his father’s untimely death, while performing a risky escape stunt. Thaddeus is the professional skeptic and debunker who lives off of magicians he exposes. He goaded Rhodes’ father into attempting a stunt beyond his ability. So at the end of the movie Tressler loses a ton of money and Rhodes pins it on Thaddeus who goes to jail. And Rhodes’ ultimate revenge is in not telling him how the trick worked. It’s satisfying, because Thaddeus is a greedy, arrogant, heartless villain. He’s so sure that he’s going to win, and he loses instead.
This brings me to Now You See Me 2. I’m going to be honest and say that the first film did not cry out for a sequel. Everything is resolved and any return to the story was likely to be a letdown. In the sequel’s defense it is sharply written. It is exciting and entertaining. And I did enjoy Daniel Radcliffe’s turn as Tressler’s unstable, spoiled, paranoid, illegitimate son. I thought that was a delightful character for him to play.
No, my main problem is with Thaddeus Bradley. From the first film, to the dramatic opening of the second with a flashback to Leon Shrike’s (Rhodes’ dad) death, to the end of the second film, there is no hint of another quality to Thaddeus’s character. We see him look at a child version of Rhodes and say and do nothing. Now, he’s bitter and seeking revenge. I can’t remember if it’s said outright in the first movie, but one of the implications of his mean-spirited pursuit of other magicians was that Thaddeus lacked the talent to be a successful magician himself. Okay, okay. In the sequel his interactions with Rhodes are more enigmatic and less malicious. You can read some of his actions two ways. It’s still weak sauce.
Then at the last minute of the film (spoiler alert!) it turns out that Thaddeus was working with Leon Shrike the whole time. They were a team. He would generate buzz and interest by goading Shrike, and Shrike would prove him wrong with feats of magical mystery. Now, I’m not saying this is an unbelievable story. Or that it’s not interesting. It makes a lot of sense.
What doesn’t make sense is to reveal it at the last second. They try to cover it up with a conversation where Thaddeus lists the reasons he never told Rhodes the truth. Sorry, it doesn’t make any sense. He doesn’t tell him that he loves his father and they were friends and business partners. It was a horrible accident and he felt bad about it. Thaddeus never tells him for thirty years. Okay, but it’s awkward. Fine. But then he doesn’t tell him when Rhodes chucks him in prison—for twelve months. And then he still doesn’t tell him when they’re alone for hours on a plan, flying to Macau, China. He acts cryptic and mysterious about Leon Shrike, but he never pulls the trigger. Until the very end so we can have our ‘aha’ moment.
There were sequences of magic and illusion in the film that were a bigger stretch than the original film, but I suspended my disbelief because I wanted to have a good time. But I couldn’t get around Thaddeus. It was far too clear that the script writer had one idea of his character in the first film and completely changed it for the second. Because they wanted to match the big reveal of the first film. But Luke can have only one father.
And I thought it was unfortunate, particularly because it short-circuits other motivations Thaddeus might have had. What if he didn’t want them to go down via Tressler and his son or via the FBI? What if he had his own revenge in mind? How about the reveal that he’s a master magician, who’s just an evil douche, who didn’t want anyone to know how good he really was? And that’s the big reveal at the end of the second film. It sets up the third film.
Oh, well. They didn’t take a route like that, and I’ll be surprised if they cough up another one of these movies. It’s a shame.