My first post on Kishōtenketsu has received a fair bit of attention -- it is the second most visited page on this blog, and obviously has hit a nerve with writers and readers alike.
I find myself thinking about its implications quite a bit, not just for my own tetralogy but more so in regards to my taste in film and television. Whilst the typical 3 act narrative structure can be quite effective, I have not come across one recently that has done anything other than bore me.
Take the latest Iron Man movie. You may cry foul of the analysis I am about to make, and either point out that it is mere blockbuster trash not meant to be taken so seriously, or that its faults are so obvious and go far beyond its narrative structure that inspecting them serves no purpose other than to flog a dead horse..... but hear me out.
Not only do I think films like this are the perfect examples for a discussion on narrative in general, but Iron Man 3 is a film that would have been infinitely better had the writers thought to go beyond the boundaries of accepted hollywood storytelling.
Spolier alert! I am about to completely ruin Iron Man 3 for you -- so if you want to go and see the film first, and who knows, even find it enjoyable, stop reading now.
Still with me?
Okay. Here goes. I have a feeling we are in for another long post. Believe me it will be worth it.
Why Iron Man 3 is a terrible film & how Kishōtenketsu could have saved it.
The thesis of my post on Kishōtenketsu was that enlightenment, not conquest, is the engine that should drive a narrative. This is just a fancier way to say that conflict is not central to the story structure of Kishōtenketsu -- the opposite of a typical hollywood film.
Iron Man 3 is no exception. The more conflict the merrier. That is the point after all, according to the bible of screenwriting, Story, by Robert McKee.
Please understand that I am not criticising conflict in narrative per se, rather the way it has become, thanks to writers like McKee, the ONLY driving force of western narratives.
The idea goes like this. We like stories because they distract us from the boredom of modern life. And stories engage us by cutting out the boring bits and condensing plot into a smoothly structured string of cause and effects. Add in a few action sequences around the big conflict points, and bam! -- you have the next blockbuster.
As I mentioned in the first post, this structure seems so obvious -- the formula so irrefutable, that not only does it go unquestioned in film and television, but we even start applying its rules back to our own life. Hand up if your skin crawls every time someone refers to their 'journey' on facebook, or seems to sum up their existence as if it were a film and they the central character.
These people seem to look for conflict because they believe the hollywood lie that growth only comes from overcoming obstacles. Again, there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere, but to think that you are working through your life in three acts is insane. And believing that your life is somehow building towards a climax where all your problems will be over and you get to live happily ever after is probably the cause for much of our modern anxiety.
But I digress.
Back to Iron Man 3. There is a simplicity and cleanness to a story formed around conflict, even more so when clever screenwriters follow all the rules and interweave inner conflict with exterior threat. The first Iron Man, for instance, it a pretty perfect version of a tight three act narrative where the themes of father abandonment, self empowerment (literally) and the safety of the world all grow over the course of the film and come to a head in one climactic battle. The bad guy dies, of course, and we all eat our popcorn.
Now consider Iron Man 3. On the surface the story has all the elements that we are told we want: Stark is trying to get over the events of Avengers and is making numerous upgraded suits as a way of coping with PTSD. He fears for the lives of his loved ones, and worries that he cannot keep them safe from unseen and unknowable forces. Then along comes the bad guy, The Mandarin -- the ultimate modern terrorist -- the epitome of unseen and unpredictable destruction. Now two of the central conflicts are intwined, so far so good.
But wait, lets add more conflict while we are on a roll. In comes a seemingly mild threat -- an old colleague of Stark's who is greedy for both his girl and his money to develop some fancy handwavium. More hollywood 101 -- what is more terrifying to the rich than the idea of losing everything? Could this new threat, Killian, be somehow linked to the Mandarin? that would be the icing on this conflict cake right?
Of course he is, and at around the end of 'act 2' the big revel is that the Mandarin is in fact an actor, working for Killian to be the face of evil while the real bad guy pulls the strings from the shadows. This revelation, in and of itself, was the best thing about Iron Man 3, and i'll come back to how terribly they ruined it in a moment.
First, what about all the other conflict points? Sure enough, Stark gets over his PTSD with the help of a boy who acts as a surrogate son (in place of the mechanised armour suits that have no soul gettit) All Stark needed to hear it seems, is that he is Iron Man -- go and make something. And this is where the film starts to eat itself. See they introduced a great inner conflict: the inability of even the very powerful to protect all those they care for. This is central to Superman and a host of other hero films, and is one of the more resonating human problems we can all relate to. If you have children, or even a pet you love, you know how Stark must feel.
Yet a complex problem like this cannot be 'beaten' in any sense of the word. There is no villan to face, no single external threat to vanquish. The problem lies within, and short of turning everyone you love invulnerable there is really no way for the hero to guarantee their safety.
And here is where they missed their biggest chance to listen to the rules of Kishōtenketsu.
The pupet master, Killian, has developed a virus that can turn people into invulnerable super-soldiers. There is a problem of course, the virus is not perfect, and the infected tent to explode when overexcited. Now forget about the convoluted political agenda that Killian desires, and think about the pieces at play in this story. Actually, forget about the rest of the film and the ludicrous plot holes that turn the last 40 minutes into a jaw dropping mess. Instead, lets look at what should have happened based on the structure of Kishōtenketsu.
Remember that the 4 acts of Kishōtenketsu are introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. More on the nuts and bolts of this structure here.
Now the first two acts of the film can remain relatively unchanged (except the bit where Stark uses his brilliance in engineering to make nothing more interesting than a taser. sigh. That was just lazy) But what about act three, 'Ten' the twist?
A twist in Kishōtenketsu does not mean merely a M. Night Shyamalan revelation, but something unexpected, something seemingly unrelated to the central story or at odds with it. The unmasking of the Mandarin was a perfect start for this, but it needed to go deeper than 'hey the bad guy is really behind you' plot device it was turned into.
Stark's inner conflict, remember, is his inability to protect those he loves. So it makes sense that his girl, Pepper, gets captured right around now when Stark is busy hunting who he thought was the big bad. But lets go even further. What if this strange virus that Killian has created was in fact revealed to have come from within Stark -- some kind of techno nano phage thing caused by his cyborg implants that he has been continuously upgrading. What if, in the same way he has been upgrading his suits, he has also been upgrading his AI, Jarvis. What if, just like the Mandarin was created by Killian, Killian was employed by Jarvis, to continue to develop what it had identified as the ultimate super suit?
I know i'm going fast here, but think about it. The central theme in all the iron man films is self empowerment. Robert DJ is so perfect because his super ego is a great external indicator of such will, and the suit is a perfect metaphor of our industrialised age. But the obvious problem such a runaway 'id' can become when coupled with unlimited resources should have been the focus for the film.
Stark's next vilian should have been himself. Not some fantasy mind-monster like in Forbidden Planet, but the very suits he has made and the computer AI he programed to control them. In Act three of our re-write, Stark is overwhelmed by Killian, and injected with the supervirus. This heals his heart, and as Jarvis knows, intermingles with Stark's cyborg implants to evolve into the perfect virus. Killian, now useless to the AI's plans, is quickly done away with, much the same as he did away with the Mandarin. But what does Jarvis want?
Remember, Stark has been trying to upgrade his suits to ever more impressive fighting machines so that he can deal with the next alien invasion of Earth. But what Stark really wants is to have super powers like his friends in the Avengers. And Jarvis who has been helping him from the start to not just control the suits, but help in their construction, has worked out a way to grant his wish -- and then some. Why stop at Stark? If Iron Man exists to protect humans, and as it has been shown in the Avengers, humanity is no longer safe in the universe, then Jarvis' obvious conclusion would be to turn all of humanity into invulnerable superpeople. But he can't just tell Stark this, or risk being switched off. Nor can he create the virus without infecting Stark. So he orchestrates a global threat to both entrap Stark and infect him, and then give him the reason to spread this infection to the rest of humanity.
And here is the kicker. Once Stark works this all out by the end of act three, he is not so sure its a bad idea. He is of course mad at his AI for having fooled him in such a nasty way, but has to admit it is a decent, and logical plan. No one needs protecting from super heroes if everyone is one. And this is the real twist of this new and improved Kishōtenketsu Iron Man 3. Stark himself is now the bad guy.
But wait, we are not done yet.
Act four, Ketsu. The resolution in this structure is more than just a bad guy to destroy or a world to save. It is about synthesis -- the characters taking what they have learned from act three, and re-integrating into their lives. But if Jarvis and Stark are now the bad guys -- who is there to save the day.
This is where War Machine and Pepper return to save Tony from himself. They fight their way into the heart of Stark Mansion where Jarvis' computer servers are. But Jarvis is too well programed and has his own command of the power suits, beating War Machine and trapping Pepper. Iron Man must choose. As Pepper eloquently explains in an a tear jerking scene set against the backdrop of burning robots, if protecting humanity means turning us all into cyborgs, then there won't be anything left worth protecting.
Tony remembers the young boy who first told him that he is Iron Man -- he remembers that what makes us human is our fraility -- that while super-powerful, the other heroes in the Avengers can never truly appreciate this. This is his burden to bare, his enlightenment. Now he knows that Jarvis is wrong, and he throws off his suit, using his new invulnerability powers to fight past the automated armour he has made into the server room... and just when you think Stark's plan is to die trying to destroy the AI, you realise what he is doing. He is trying to fix the computer -- re-program Jarvis with new directives, think of them as Asimov's laws. Jarvis fights, resisting the change, and that is when Stark realises what he has to do to break through the firewalls. He expells the supervirus from within -- essentially re-programing himself into a trojan that he sends out to infect Jarvis with a new program, leaving Tony once more a mere human.
And that, my friends, is how you do it Kishōtenketsu style. To be sure, there is still buckets of conflict and action and robots. But it is driven by revelation and enlightenment, and not a meaningless line of bad guys who need killing.
And in the Marvel tradition, you can still have a post credit scene where Tony meets up with Bruce Banner, only this won't suck.
Consider this bit of dialogue that takes place between two men walking in the desert. We zoom down to see that it is Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, followed closely by a cocktail bar on wheels.
'What happened?' Bruce asks. 'You seem different?' Banner notices Stark's missing chest light. 'You fixed yourself?' he asks, raising an eyebrow at Tony. 'I though you liked flashing lights.'
'It was time for an upgrade,' Stark says wryly. 'I'm one hundred percent Stark now.'
Bruce nods, thinking he understands what Stark is getting at. 'We have to be strong to do our job.'
'Speak for yourself big boy,' Stark shoots back, waving at the bar where his faithful robot arm pours him an old fashioned. 'I'm just a mechanic.'
'here sir,' the voice of Jarvis says benevolently, handing Tony the drink. Stark looks to see if Banner wants one too.
'I think i've got a bottle of midori in there somewhere.' He grins, and Bruce shakes his head.
'Doesn't agree with my constitution.' he says. They both look out at the desert sand, then up into the blazing sky. 'They'll be back you know,' Banner observes.
'I know.' Tony agrees.
'We need to be ready. We need you to be ready.'
'Now,' Tony says in mock dismay. 'Cant we just arm wrestle?'
With a roar, Banner transforms into the Hulk, swiping a fist towards Tony, who catches the huge green fist in a hand already encased in a gleaming new gauntlet. With a blast from the palm repulser, the Hulk is sent skidding back across the sand.
'You know what my father always said?' Iron Man asks, as more of his armour slaps in place. 'If it ain't broke. Don't fix it.'
With another roar the Hulk leaps towards him and Iron Man runs forward to meet him.
Cut to black.
Okay, thanks for sticking around for this rant. Hope you found some value in this analysis/re-write of Iron Man 3. I had planned on merely criticising it, and then pointing out all the positives of a film that gets it right, like the brilliant 'Place Beyond the Pines' but this turned out to be much more fun.