Sunday, October 17, 2010

Green Arrow: Escape from Supermax

 Man, to prove how ignorant I am about comic books, I have no idea what the difference is between Green Arrow, Green Hornet, and Green Lantern.  There was a time when I believed they were all the same character.  And I'm still not sure that they aren't.  All I can tell you is that, of the three, this is apparently the only one not in active development, which is surprising, as almost everyone who's read the script has told me it's great.  As for the rest of the week, we have a Ben Stiller flick, a duel that dates back to Nazi days, and possibly the craziest freaking script I've read all year.  I'm not going to say it's crazy good, but there are scenes in this script that you have never read before nor will you ever read again.  I can guarantee you that.  I'll save that one for Friday.  Right now, here's Roger with Green Lantern.  I mean Green Hornet.  I mean Green Arrow!  I think. Who's on first?

Genre: Crime/Superhero/Heist
Premise: When the vigilante known as Green Arrow is framed for murder, he’s imprisoned in the Supermax Penitentiary for Metahumans, where he must team-up with the super criminals he once captured if he wants to escape and clear his name.
About: Justin Marks is the scribe responsible for drafts of Voltron, Grayskull: The Masters of the Universe, Hack/Slash and was the writer working on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Warner Bros. and director McG. He’s also written for videogames, contributing some levels to the Electronic Arts sequel to Army of Two, The 40th Day. He originally wrote Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max as a spec, an original idea he developed under the guidance of David S. Goyer and his wife, producer Jessika Goyer.
Writer: Justin Marks
Details: Draft dated March 5, 2008

I’ve never read one Green Arrow comic in my life. 

My only exposure to the Green Arrow is limited to the appearance of the character in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the CW’s Smallville. I’m more of a Marvel guy than a DC guy, and I am in no way familiar with the B and C-list villains of the DC Universe (although some are criminal analogues of super-powered characters in the Marvel U) who inhabit the prison of Green Arrow: Escape From Supermax.
But, what I discovered, is that I didn’t have to be a fan to be sucked into its story. 

It’s a superhero tale that eschews the origin story template for an ironic logline: Masked vigilante is arrested and thrown into a prison designed to contain super-powered criminals and he must team up with the bad guys he put here to escape. You have to admit, we’ve never seen a superhero movie quite like that before.

At all. 

If you’re a fanboy or girl, it’s hard not to be intrigued by the scribe, Justin Marks, who has penned the script adaptations for some major 80s cartoons and toy-lines. From Voltron to Grayskull: The Masters of the Universe, he’s the guy that got a lot of Internet buzz for being attached to such geek-friendly projects but was crucified by angry talk-backers when Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li was released (which contains an inscrutable performance by Chris Klein). But, in Hollywood, the reality of a writer’s job is different than the naivette that can characterize online screenwriting forums. You take an assignment, you turn in a draft, and then everything else is outta your hands. The movie in the can may not honor the vision that was on the page, and suddenly, on the film websites, you become that guy. 

For anyone who has ever negatively criticized Marks for his craft, you haven’t read this take on the Green Arrow.

Because he absolutely nails it with this script. 

I haven’t read the Green Arrow either, Rog. Who is he? 

We’re introduced to Oliver Queen by his lawyer and childhood best friend, Will Hackett, at a high society dinner in honor of all the social work he’s done. He’s a trust fund kid that was known for falling off a yacht in the Caribbean ocean and disappearing for three years until he returned to society a changed man. A billionaire industrialist, he’s compared to a modern day Robin Hood for Queen Industries’ efforts in battling organized crime and corporate fraud.

This speech is intercut with the introduction and murder of Col. Taleb Beni Khali, the five star officer in charge of the controversial Checkmate Initiative, a government operation concerned with safeguarding the public from masked vigilantes, “Those who don the mask and cape should not be permitted to call themselves enforcers of the law.” A high-tech cowled archer is attacking Checkmate HQ, and successfully makes it through Khali’s bodyguards to assassinate him. 

Queen, about to give his big philanderer speech, is listening to police band radio when he decides to ditch the high society function and go fight some crime. Armed with his toys (zip lines, badass bow, trick arrows and wrist-mounted crossbows) and wearing his classy Robin Hood-esque ass-kicking suit, he stealthily investigates Checkmate HQ and discovers the body of the Colonel.

Right as a SWAT TEAM discovers him, hovering over the body. 

There’s a cool action sequence where we see the Green Arrow in action. It’s a chase that leads to the rooftops, where he’s ultimately captured by the Police Chief. 

Why this is a great ten pages: First off, everything we need to know about the character is established. Not only that, but the main conflict and mystery is set up. We’re introduced to Marcus Cross, the manipulative CEO whose motive for framing Queen is part of the very hostile takeover of his company. And, it’s done so in a very clever way. We see the Green Arrow in action, but initially, it’s not him. We’re introduced to his abilities and modus operandi by a very capable imposter. It’s just not your average introduction of a hero.

So the Green Arrow has been outed as Oliver Queen and he’s been set-up by Marcus Cross? 

I’m not giving away anything here, as we know Cross is the main antagonist from page one. Or, is he? 

Certainly, he wants to takeover Queen Industries, but it turns out he has friends in very high places and part of the fun in the script is discovering who he’s working with. 

Of course, the trial of Queen is a fiasco. While the city’s district attorneys have been anxious to capture the vigilante for a while now, and while the law enforcement may not take a shining to the idea of some masked archer stealing their thunder (sore that the Green Arrow does a better job than them), the citizens of Star City love the guy. He protects the people that live in the slums. He is their symbol of justice. This presents a problem for the Judge in charge of the case, as he’s in league with Cross and he can’t exactly sentence the guy to death. And, they can’t hold a renowned escape artist in a normal prison. 

So, where do they send him?

Cross, indeed, has some friends in very high places, and he convinces the Judge to surrender Queen to the Checkmate Initiative so he can suffer a fate worse than death. 

Which is the Supermax Penitentiary for Metahumans. 

That just sounds kind of fucked up, doesn’t it? Queen, while certainly resourceful and clever, isn’t exactly a super human. He may have super marksmanship, but when you get down to it, he’s a human being that has to rely on his natural talents and gifts. The situation is that this normal guy is being incarcerated in a place that houses people who can manipulate the elements and the environs around them with their minds, who can teleport or are super strong or can shoot bolts of electricity out of their hands. 

And many of them?

They’re imprisoned because of the Green Arrow. 

Things ain’t looking too bright for Ollie Queen, and the rest of the script is about Queen trying to survive super-criminal prison life while trying to figure out a way to escape so he can clear his name and take down Cross. There are a couple questions in our minds. Will the angry villains holed up in here eat Queen for breakfast? And, will Queen even still want to escape after the warden and guards break his will and shatter his sanity and destroy his hope? 

How is Supermax different from other prisons?

In an interview with MTV, Marks has said, “I majored in architecture in college, and design is actually how I started in...designing that prison, it had to be the kind of thing that was a character in and of itself. We’re in a world where instead of just trying to contain a guy who’s really big, you’re trying to contain a guy, in the case of Icicle, who can freeze things. What kind of a cell would a guy like that need in order to have his powers neutralized? So to escape from Super Max they have to go through the most elaborate heist we’ve ever seen, involving superpowers. Because the prison itself kind of has superpowers!”

And, I have to say, the guy isn’t exaggerating. 

I don’t know if it’s the most elaborate hest I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly clever and fun and full of obstacles and twists and double-crosses. For those of you that complain the heists in Nolan’s The Dark Knight are all payoff and no set-up, you might not be disappointed in the approach Marks takes in this escape adventure. 

The formula for writing a good heist: Define the lay of the land and the players and the problem, then show these characters as they gather all the intel and devices and tools they need so they can go about solving the problem; and when it comes time for the actual heist, have many things go wrong so you can show the characters thinking on the fly. Solutions shouldn’t be pat, but should be set up earlier in the story so they don’t feel like they’re coming out of left field. 

The key here is showing versus telling. During the set-up, we need to see the problem. We need to get the general gist of the plan, have a broad feel for it. But, when it comes time for the heist to unravel, it still needs to be full of surprises. It’s a tricky balancing act.

But, what can you tell us about Super Max?

Ollie is transported to the prison and is implanted with a computer chip called a Parallax Device. He’s renamed to prisoner 9242 and the warden is Amanda Waller (who I’m told is the leader of the Suicide Squad), and she shows him that should he misbehave, she can render his body useless and send him into a world of pain by with the push of a button. The Parallax Device also acts as a tracking beacon, as the entire prison is monitored with video and audio and cutting edge surveillance technology. It’s insane voyeurism.

Sure, each cell is equipped specifically to deal with a criminal’s powers. For example, Cameron Mahkent, also known as Icicle, is kept in a glass cell that is kept at high heat to neutralize his powers. The prisoners are categorized by their level of threat. Green suits are mortals and Queen learns there aren’t many of him in here. Blue suits are geniuses who are doped up on a counter-balance that keeps them dumb and drooling (Lex Luthor cameo). Orange suits are the metahumans, the guys with the powers. 

To really complicate matters, the prison layout is reconfigured and rearranged every night, “a giant hydraulic calculus of dancing lights, where each light is another prison cell, dangling from hundreds of giant mechanical claws, moving the cells in concentric circles, spinning them into new locations...”

How the hell can you even begin to try and escape out of something like that?

Queen is thrown into solitary confinement for six weeks due to some misbehavior (perhaps holding his own against superpowered freaks in the cafeteria), and it’s in here that he begins to lose hope. 

But, it’s also in here that he makes a friend. 

There’s another prisoner named Hartley Rathaway, the Pied Piper, who can control all creatures that can be manipulated by high sonic frequencies. He’s interested in escaping, and he forms a friendship with Queen by communicating through him with ants. He helps restore the man’s hope and purpose, “The Green Arrow is dead, but he can be reborn. He is the only man who can show the world that cages like this should never exist.”

And, from there, we’re on. 

They begin recruiting a team and formulating their plan, and it’s always interesting because most of the team members hate Queen. What I really like about the script is that we get quick flashes of their history with Queen, and we also get enough characterization to make us care about them. Many of them have an emotional reason for escaping this prison, and like any good men-on-a-mission journey, not all of them make it. And, it effects you when these guys bite the dust. 

I also liked how the imposter that framed Queen is sent into the prison (thanks to corruption and double-dealers) to assassinate him. It’s a visceral and bloody prison fight with two guys who have a long history together. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prison fight that incorporates a bow constructed from items you can find in such an environment. And, man, the third act has a great snow chase that is both grueling and emotional.

It’s also interesting because much of the conflict is generated from Queen having to work together with criminals, and when he actually begins to see that some are not horrible people, just men and women that have made mistakes and want redemption, it’s hard not to root for everyone involved. 

In the end, Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max is a unique mash-up of the superhero tale and heist film. Sure, we get the origin story, but it’s not the focus here. This is a creative take on a beloved DC comicbook hero that isn’t exactly the most well-known, and the solution is to set this character inside a prison break movie populated with a who’s who of secondary villains and characters. Not only is it full of twists and surprises, but it has a lot of heart. It really is a pulp masterpiece of sorts, and it’s a story that can be portrayed through multiple media outlets: It’d be a kick-ass movie, graphic novel and videogame. Seriously, this needs to be on the fast track to production! 

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: The obstacles the protagonist has to overcome in this script are insane. Not only is our protag a hero that’s imprisoned with guys who hate him, they have super powers and he doesn’t. He has friends that turn out to not really be friends. You never know who is going to betray him next. And, you never know what villain is going to turn out to be a friend. Lots of contradictions and subversions of expectation. It’s like a game, trying to figure out who he can trust and who he can’t trust. Not only is breaking out of this super prison an impossible task, when the plan is executed, seemingly everything goes wrong. In this script, nothing is ever too easy. Instead, everything seems too hard. As such, you never know how Queen is going to win. The solutions don’t seem pat, but logical, and everything is set up accordingly. David Mamet says that our, job, as dramatists, is simply to keep the audience wondering, “What happens next.” You want to keep a reader wondering what happens next? Make them care about a character, then present that character with a problem that seems impossible to overcome.