On Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

ALANA
So, what’s the deal.  You guys sit and discuss the movie?

BILL
Well, before we died, we were all students here, studying film.  So yeah we pass the time by analysing the movies we watch.  There’s not much else for us to do.

ALANA
So what did you think of this movie?

MALACHY
We’d seen the beginning a bunch of times but this was the first time we’ve actually made it to the end.

EVA
What we normally do is try to identify the central conflict.  It’s oftentimes more complicated than it sounds.

ALANA
The central conflict?

MARY
You know.  Movies, like all stories, are about conflict.

BILL
On one side, you have your protagonist.  On the other, your antagonist.

MALACHY
Your protagonist wants something…

MARY
Your antagonist wants something…

BILL
The two things are mutually exclusive and so the story begins.  The story ends when the conflict ends.

EVA
But that’s just the central narrative conflict.  There’s scene-level conflict, act-level conflict, internal conflict, secondary conflict, which runs alongside the central conflict.

ALANA
I’m going to lose my grasp of what conflict even means in one… two…

MARY
We watch a movie, and then we try and… get to grips with that… core tension, if you like.

BILL
Yeah, call it conflict, tension, strife—it’s the thing that’s unresolved at the beginning.  That is what gets resolved over the course of the story.

ALANA
Okay, so… in Dr. Horrible, what’s your… central… narrative… conflict?

BILL
Well, we’d begin by assuming that Dr. Horrible is the protagonist, because his name’s in the title.

EVA
Kind of a giveaway.

MARY
But it’s not necessarily always the case…

MALACHY
And the next step is to put our collective ghostly finger on what it is he wants.  Once we identify that, we start looking for the person blocking him from having what he wants.

ALANA
Okay… well, he wants to get into the Evil League of Evil.

MARY
Okay, so what’s stopping him?  What’s in his way?

ALANA
He’s on their radar.  He gets a letter from the leader, Bad Horse…

EVA
(to Bill)
The Thoroughbred of Sin…

BILL
(to Eva)
Who rules with an iron hoof…

ALANA
But the letter sets him challenges.  “A heinous crime, a show of force, a murder would be nice of course…”

MALACHY
(to himself)
Oh good, the disturbingly accurate memory for dialogue runs in the family…

ALANA
So… the antagonist is the League.  It’s in the standards of the Evil League.  Right?  I mean, they’re blocking him from having what he wants.  Right?

BILL
You’ve identified what Dr. Horrible wants.  What is it that the League wants?

ALANA
They want… to maintain their standards.  They can’t let just anyone in.  They want… to keep their evil creds… impeccable.

BILL
Right!  He’s not evil enough.  At the start of the story, what the protagonist wants is not compatible with what the antagonist wants.

ALANA
And by the end it is.  He gets in.  He commits his heinous crime and he’s accepted into the League.  So is that it?  Your central narrative conflict?

MALACHY
Not necessarily.  What else does he want?

ALANA
He has a crush on Penny, he wants to be with her.

BILL
Okay, good, so what’s blocking him?

ALANA
Well at first, he just doesn’t really know her.  And he freezes up when he sees her.  So he’s kinda blocking himself.  Then by the end of Act One she’s swooning after Captain Hammer.  That’s blocking him.  Right?

MARY
Sure.  The antagonist for the affections of Penny is pretty obvious, it’s Captain Hammer.

ALANA
Dr. Horrible identifies Captain Hammer as his arch-nemesis right at the start, so could you say he’s the… primary… antagonist?

MALACHY
In Dr. Horrible’s goal to be a supervillain, and to do supervillainous things, Captain Hammer is identified as being the one who regularly thwarts him.

MARY
And at the end of Act Two, after Hammer taunts Dr. Horrible in the laundromat over having sex with Penny, Dr. Horrible closes the act by deciding to tie up all the things he wants by killing him.

EVA
Right, ‘cause at this point, he can’t be with Penny because she’s with Hammer.  He can’t get into the Evil League of Evil because he hasn’t killed anyone.

BILL
And he can’t even consider himself a good supervillain because Hammer thwarts him every time he tries to do anything.

ALANA
So… it all comes together for him.  He sings the kickass song about killing Captain Hammer, and we move into the final act.  Yeah?

BILL
So, Lani, given that all of this has been set up, where would you say the central narrative conflict lies?

ALANA
I don’t know.

MALACHY
What happens next?

ALANA
Horrible confronts Hammer, he gets injured, Penny dies, Horrible gets accepted into the Evil League.

MARY
I’d say that the goal to get into the League is part of the motivation for the main conflict, but it’s not the main conflict itself.

ALANA
Okay…?

EVA
You know, it’s funny for us because your aunt was red hot at this.  Really we learned this from her.

ALANA
Yeah?

MARY
And I’d say that his goal to be with Penny is also part of what motivates him, but isn’t the main conflict itself.

ALANA
So what is it?

MARY
(to Eva)
Evie?

EVA
Okay, so the central conflict is within Dr. Horrible.

BILL
As always, damned internal conflict.  You know, for the record, I don’t think the central conflict is always internal, like you guys do.

MALACHY
Hello?  Dark Knight?  I argued the central conflict was two opposing, abstract ideals?

EVA
(to Alana, ignoring the boys)
He has two goals that are in conflict with each other, and that’s the central conflict.

ALANA
That makes sense… I mean, when he’s pulling the heist to get the Wonderflonium, which he’s doing to impress the League, Penny speaks to him for the first time and he says, “She talked to me.  Why’d she have to talk to me now?”

EVA
Right… Exactly.

ALANA
And he pauses and wonders if he should reconsider the heist…

EVA
Yes.  But he decides to go ahead with it.  “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

MARY
Which is what inadvertently throws his crush into the arms of his nemesis.

EVA
(to Alana)
So the primary conflict is inside him.  It’s not Dr. Horrible versus the standards of the League…

MARY
And it’s not Dr. Horrible versus Captain Hammer…

EVA
It’s Dr. Horrible versus his own alter ego, Billy.

ALANA
And Dr. Horrible wins, Billy loses.  Dr. Horrible gets what he wanted, Billy doesn’t.

EVA & MARY
Exactly.

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Alana

In the Augmented Universe, when you die, sometimes you stay.  You ghost.  And there are these five ghosts in particular, these five people who died in the New York Film Academy dorms, and now they’re stuck there.  One of those is called Alana.

‘I want to move on, Mal,’ Alana pleaded.  ‘You’ve been here the longest and you know the most about what we are.  I want your help,’

‘Move on, as in, die?  Effectively?’ Malachy replied.

‘I already died.  Now I’m stuck.  I never wanted this.’  She said.  ‘I love you and the guys, and y’all keep me sane.  But I know you’ve seen ghosts move on before and I just… I want to know anything that can help me.  Like you’ve done before…’

‘I taught you the hot-haunt trick, sure, and yes I’ve known ghosts move on.  But if I knew how they did it I’d be doing it myself.  I have no business to finish so I don’t know why I’m still here either.’  Malachy replied.

‘Okay,’ she started, ‘look, please keep this under wraps for now.  Don’t tell the others.  When they get here, for the thing, just keep this to yourself, ‘kay?’

‘Lani, of course.  I’ll do what I can to help you, you know that.’

Alana and Malachy were in a living student’s dorm room.  They were waiting for their fellow ghosts to appear from wherever they’d got to.  They were planning a hot-haunt, which is what the deceased call the process of communicating with the living.  Mary, Bill and Eva, the three remaining ghosts, appeared in the room after passing through the walls.

‘Mal you’re gonna love us!’ Eva started.

‘We found this dude who’s started going through West Wing on Netflix,’ Mary continued.  ‘He’s like midway through season one.  Exciting…’

‘That’s where we’ve been ‘til now,’ Bill joined in.  ‘He’s stopped right now but he seems to be enjoying the hell out of it.  Hopefully he’ll power through it.’

‘That is exciting.  Has he reached Bartlet’s imaginary Secret Plan To Fight Inflation?’  Malachy looked very pleased.

‘I… um… don’t think so?’ Bill replied.

‘God I hope not,’ Malachy said, still beaming.  Alana wondered how anyone could be this excited for a plot about a secret plan to fight inflation.

Mary redirected the conversation but with the same enthusiastic mood, ‘So, are we set?  I can’t wait to do this.’

‘Pretty much.  These two,’ Malachy said, nodding at the two blissfully unaware students occupying the room, ‘they’re waiting for some woman who they say can communicate with the dead.  They don’t know much about her, apart from that she’s some kind of medium and she’s moving into the dorms.’

‘The medium’s studying film, here?’ Bill asked.

‘Apparently so, yeah.’

Eva said, ‘So how does it work?  Will she see us?  Hear us?’

Malachy replied, ‘Look, she might just be full o’ shit.  I learned the hot-haunt trick years ago, and it works on anyone if it’s done right.  But it’s scary as all hell.’

‘And, personally,’ Bill joined in, ‘I’d rather we didn’t alert too many of these people to the fact that we’re here, watching their TV’s over their shoulders all the while.’

‘Exactly,’ Malachy agreed.  ‘So.  We communicate with this woman, this medium.  Hopefully she’s the real deal.  And to answer your question, Eva, no she won’t just see us and hear us.  She’s not Whoopi Goldberg and we’re not Swayze.’

‘Sam Wheat’s ghost looks the same as he did before he died,’ Alana contributed.  ‘I always think we’re more like the ghosts from the Harry Potter movies.’  She gestured towards their absent feet.

‘We are kinda pale,’ Mary agreed.

‘She’d have to do this whole ritual thing to commune with us,’ Malachy said, retaking control, ‘but she won’t know we’re here.  We’ll hot-haunt her and hopefully she’ll not freak the total hell out, and if all goes to plan she’ll deliver our message to Romeo and Juliet, here.’  He nodded again at the students in the dorm.

‘Great.  I love it.’  Mary said.  ‘God I hope this works.’

‘It’ll work,’ Malachy said, positively.  ‘Look at us, dead, stuck here.  We need this.  To thwart this on top of that?  The universe isn’t that spiteful.’

As Malachy finished talking there was a knock at the door.  The ghosts had the air of people holding their breaths, although obviously they had no lungs and therefore no breaths to hold.  They were held in suspense, waiting for the young man in the room to get up slowly, casually, to open the door.

‘Hi, I’m the new girl.’  The young woman at the door looked somewhat familiar to four of the ghosts, and utterly familiar to the other.  Malachy, Mary, Bill and Eva didn’t notice the look on Alana’s face as the young woman was invited into the room by the students, while the living trio exchanged pleasantries.

‘She’s…’ Alana started.  ‘She’s…’

‘She’s what?’ Bill asked, turning to Alana, noticing her suddenly extra-ashen face.  ‘Lani, you look like you’ve seen a… well, not a ghost, but—‘

‘She’s… oh God I really want to sit down and I can’t.  It’s my sister, Heather.  My big sister.’

There was silence while the living trio continued their little chat.

‘This is your sister?’ Eva asked, startled.

‘She hated me.’  Alana began.  ‘Well, she… she didn’t hate me.  But she acted like she hated me.  She used to hate me watching TV all the time… Why the hell is she here?  She’s a student here?!’

‘Okay, look,’ Bill started, taking gentle charge.  ‘She’s the medium, right?  And she knows you died here.  Do you think she knows you’re still here?’

‘I… I don’t know…’ Alana started.

There was a lull in the conversation, as the ghosts waited for Alana to compose herself.  The mood in the other-worldly air was full of sensitivity.  The silence between the ghosts elevated the other conversation happening in the room, which had reached its introductory portion.

‘I’m Harry,’ the male student said to the medium, ‘and this is Becca.’

‘It’s nice to meet you both,’ the medium replied, smiling.  ‘My name’s Alana, Alana Nguyen.  My friends call me Lani.’

The mood in the other-worldly air moved from a sensitive to a stunned silence, which Alana broke, saying, ‘What. The. Escalating. FUCK?!’

***

Alana had hovered straight out of the dorm room after the astonishing revelations that had occurred, and into one of the vacant rooms the ghosts used.  She was deeply distressed.  The New York Film Academy had been her world, before she’d died.  As a ghost there for some time, she was unprepared for the appearance of her oppressive sister, and was freaking all kinds of out that not only was her sister suddenly there, but she had also seemingly stolen her identity.

‘None of this makes sense,’ Alana began, to the ghosts, who had followed her softly.  ‘She hates film.  She never goes to the movies.  The stuff she watched on TV?  Documentaries and news shows.’

‘Lani,’ Malachy started, ‘can I ask you… How did you die here?’

‘What’s that got to do with anything, Mal?’ Alana barked.

‘Lani, we love you.  I love you.  Dearly.  But… we’ve all noticed that you aren’t always entirely on top of things.  When it comes to deconstructing movies, sure, you’re a superhero.  But sometimes you seem to experience a…’ Mal looked for the words, ‘temporal dysphoria—‘

‘You get confused about when things happen,’ Eva offered helpfully.

‘I still don’t understand why any of this is relevant,’ Alana snapped.

Malachy replied, ‘Sometimes, when a person dies in a… distressful way… That person’s ghost can struggle to get a good grasp of reality.  I’ve seen it before, Lani.’

‘No!’ Alana replied, ‘I’m not crazy!  That woman is called Heather Ruth Nguyen.’  Alana’s face started to break.  ‘My name is Alana Suzanna NguyenHer friends don’t call her Lani!  My friends call me Lani!’

‘Lani, sweetheart,’ Mary said, moving towards her, ‘we’ll figure it out.  I don’t understand what’s going on any better than anyone else, but we’ll figure it out.’

‘Okay.  The year is 2015.  Do you know what year you died, Lani?’ Mal asked.  ‘How long have you been here?’

‘I… I don’t know.  I don’t remember.’

‘Sweetie, what do you remember?’ Mary said.

Alana looked up from the floor she’d had her eyes pinned to, at Mary, and to Eva, and back at Mary.  ‘I used to watch TV.  I used to read.  I used to go to the movies by myself.  Heather was all martyrdom and responsibility.  She used to hate the fact that I wasn’t.  In her spare time she’d clean a clean house.  In mine I’d escape.  Into stories.  I came here to be free.  Free to be me.  But I…’  She looked back to the floor.  ‘I’m sorry guys, I don’t remember the dates and the times.  I don’t.  But that doesn’t mean I’m crazy.  It doesn’t.’

Malachy replied, ‘Lani… do you remember how you died?’

But Alana looked away and left the room, stopping only to say, ‘Please, don’t follow me.’

After she’d gone, Mary looked at Malachy, saying, ‘Don’t you think you were being a little pushy, Mal?’

‘Look, Mare, we all wanna help Lani,’ Malachy began, passionately, ‘but we have to accept the fact that she’s not completely with it.  Do you guys really think her sister has come here and stolen her identity?’

‘Well what do you think’s happening?’ Bill asked.

‘I haven’t got a damn clue, but my suspicion is it’s more to do with Lani’s post-death mental state than some woman stealing her dead sister’s identity and enrolling at a film school.  You wanna know what I think?  I think she died violently and that her consciousness fractured.  I think that the ghost we know and love is not the person who died here.  Not entirely.’

‘Well, whoever she is, she’s our friend, Mal,’ Mary replied.  ‘And she’s clearly distressed.  So tread careful or I’ll…’

The ghosts looked at Mary, waiting for her to conclude her threat.

‘Okay I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll be pissed.’

‘Understood,’ Malachy said.

‘You could spoil all the movies he hasn’t seen yet.’ Eva offered.

Malachy gave Eva a snarky look that said, ‘Very funny.’

‘Okay, well I don’t wanna seem insensitive either,’ Bill said, ‘but are we still going ahead with the thing?  Delivering the message?  I mean, it’ll be a bit weird haunting the woman pretending to be our dead friend.’

‘One thing at a time,’ Mary said.  ‘Lani has to take priority.’

‘Sure, but what can we do?’ Eva asked.  ‘It’s just us here.’

‘If Lani is cool with it,’ Malachy began, ‘I say we go ahead with the hot-haunt.  Only instead of delivering the message we were planning, we… we tell Living Lani what we know.  What else can we do?’

The ghosts looked at each other, in reluctant agreement.

Malachy went on, ‘You know.  There is something.  Did you guys notice that Living Lani looked young, like eighteen or so?  Unless she’s very well preserved, I don’t see how she can be our Lani’s older sister.’

‘What’s your point, Mal?’ Mary replied, with a pinch of suspicion.

‘Well,’ Malachy went on, ‘I’ve always sensed that as spirits we’re not as bound to the linearity of time as the living are.  Once, I found myself… haunting this place long before it was builtI was in the past.  What if our Lani is this Lani.  She said she couldn’t remember when she died, what year it was.  What if her ghost is haunting the building she’s going to die in, not the building she did die in?’

‘You’re saying,’ Eva said, trying to make sense of it all, ‘that this woman, who our Lani thinks is her sister, is actually herBefore she died?  That she just can’t remember?’

‘Maybe?’ Malachy replied.  ‘Why not?  It makes as much sense as anything else.’

‘So…’ Mary said, ‘if that’s the case, and we can pull off the hot-haunt… Lani’s future ghost could haunt her past self before she dies… If she can figure out what it is that kills her, she could save herself…?’

‘Theoretically,’ Malachy replied, ‘yeah.’

***

‘How does the hot-haunt work?’ Bill asked.  The ghosts were haunting various rooms, looking for the dead Alana.

‘It takes time, it can’t be rushed.’  Malachy replied.  ‘You know how living bodies are made of flesh, and bone, and are nourished by food and water?  Well our bodies are made of living energy, which isn’t bound by the laws that govern the physical universe, and therefore can’t be sensed, traditionally.  Our immaterial bodies are nourished by periods of stillness.  When we feel like we disappear for a while?  That’s our nourishment.’

‘We go to sleep, basically,’ Eva concluded.

‘If you like,’ Malachy replied.  ‘But essentially, I need to do that.  Only, awake.  Think of it as a form of meditation, performed to give me the strength I need to communicate with a living person.’

The ghosts whooshed into another room, still looking for their friend.

‘How long does it take?’ asked Mary.

‘A few hours?’ Malachy said, with a note of doubt, implying variation.  ‘It requires me to be still, and in the same place as the person I’ll be haunting, so if Living Lani leaves the place, the process is disrupted and we’ll need to start up again.’

‘That’s annoying,’ Bill said.  ‘But it is what it is, I guess.’

‘And can you stop calling her Living Lani and call her Heather?’ Mary protested.

‘Fine, whatever.  We need Heather—’ Malachy used ever so sarcastic emphasis, ‘—to stay in one place while I do the meditation thing.’

The ghosts whooshed into still another room, and this time they found their friend, the dead Alana, meditating.  Inside the room, a dorm room, was the living Alana, taking objects—books, papers, candles—out of boxes and finding homes for them.

‘Lani,’ Malachy said.  She focused on her meditation, ignoring him.  ‘Lani, what are you doing?’  Still nothing.

‘Lani, sweetie, please talk to us,’ Mary said, joining in.  Still nothing.

‘Lani, listen to me, please,’ Malachy began again.  ‘I think that this woman is you.  Not your sister.  You.  Look how young she is, Lani.’

‘She’s not me,’ Alana said, trying to avoid breaking focus.  The living young woman carried on arranging her possessions in the room, unaware of the spectral drama playing out around her.

‘Lani,’ Malachy pleaded, ‘you get more confused about when things happen, and when things are happening, than any ghost I’ve ever known.’

Alana sighed loudly.  She broke her focus and shouted, ‘So what?!  So fucking what, Mal?  Listen to me!’  She pointed angrily at the woman.  ‘That’s not me!  I’m me!  She’s…’

‘Look,’ Malachy replied, ‘I believe that, when you died, your consciousness went back, back to before you ever moved here.  You met us, you made dead friends, but something is going on here, I’m sure of it—‘

‘I’ll tell you what’s going on, Mal,’ she rallied, her voice raised.  ‘Shall I?  My sister hates me.  She used to be on me, on my back, all the time.  She’s become a medium so that she can come here, to the place where I died, so she can taunt me, taunt me that she’s taken the life I wanted.  The life I wanted, before…’

‘Before you died.’  Malachy said, softly.

‘No,’ she replied.  ‘Before…’

‘Before what, Lani?’ Eva joined in.  The group was reverent to Alana’s pain, as it rose, as it started to come out of her in rising waves.

‘Oh God!’ Alana cried.  Her visual form was throbbing, and she was covering her chest with her hands.  ‘I remember,’ she whispered.  ‘Oh, God, don’t let me remember…’

Her form became still, and calm, and she looked at her friends.

‘Before, I… died.  Months before.  Something happened to me.  Here.  Something… bad.’

‘It’s totally, totally okay, Lani,’ Mary said, with urgency and compassion in equal measure.  ‘You do not have to talk about this now.’

The living young woman, the unknowing instigator of all of this, set three candles out in front of her, in a crude arc.

‘It changed me,’ Alana carried on, a note of rediscovery in her voice.  ‘I had forgotten, Mal.  You were right about that.  But it’s not what you think.’

‘And what do I think it is?’ Malachy’s voice was still soft, treading carefully at last.

‘You think I was killed here, don’t you?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied.  ‘I don’t pretend to know.’  He started to pick up his passion again, ‘But I do believe that this woman, Lani, is you.  Look at her!  She’s a young you.’

‘I wasn’t a medium, Mal.  And I never met that couple, the guys she met today.’

The living young woman dimmed the lights in the dorm.

‘Maybe you just don’t remember, Lani, don’t you see?’ Malachy persisted.  ‘If we can figure out what it is that happens to you, we can save you.  We can warn you.  You don’t have to die, Lani.’

Immaterial tears coated Alana’s immaterial eyes.

‘I love you, Malachy Mulholland.  I love you for trying.  I love you for wanting to save me.  But no one can save me.’  She looked intently into Malachy’s eyes.  ‘The universe is just too spiteful.’

The living young woman sat down, cross legged, in front of the arc of candles, placing some paper in front of her.

‘Please, Lani, let me try,’ Malachy pleaded with Alana.  ‘You asked me today to help you die, to move on, to go to your rest.  Let me go one better.  Please, Lani, let me save you…’

The living young woman lit the candles, picked up the paper in front of her, and read from it:

Dearest Lani…

***

Ghosts are literally made of living energy, which is undetectable to humans by normal means.  It can’t be seen, or heard, or touched, smelt or tasted.  There is a form of supernatural light, which the living can summon.  This light can be detected by the human eye, with one or two provisos.  The purpose of the light is to illuminate the dead; ghosts in the presence of the light can be seen by those with eyes to see, and heard by those with ears to hear.  And the young woman, sitting cross legged and reading from the piece of paper in front of her had both eyes to see and ears to hear.  The light had been summoned.  The light was growing.

Dearest Lani,’ the young woman began, reading.

Father Driscoll recommended I write to you.  I don’t know where to start.

As I write this, it’s been five years since we lost you.  I think about you every day.

I need to tell you that I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry, Lani.  I think about the last time we spoke all the time.  How you reached out to me.  How I was too busy with my own stuff to listen.  I thought you were just being dramatic, like I always did.  I am so sorry.

The light began to illuminate the ghosts in the room.  The young woman reading from the letter looked up and saw their faint image.  All five of them were still, and silent, all eyes fixed on her.  She looked back down at her epistle and carried on.

Since you’ve been gone, a lot’s changed… for me.  Do you remember my boyfriend Jules?  Well, I guess it must have been a couple months after you… left us.   I found out I was expecting a child.  Who knew, huh?  Me, a mom.  Turns out I’m quite good at it, because she’s beautiful.  Angelic.  She’s so much like you, it’s uncanny.  I can never get her to shift her ass, all she wants to do is watch TV, and have me read her stories.

Once I found out I was having a little girl… I knew what I wanted to call her.  Jules understood before I even suggested it.  I’ll never forget the first time I held her, Lani.  She looked so much like you.

The woman reading the letter pulled her sweater down over her hand and used it to dry her eyes.  She looked up, at the ghosts becoming more and more visible to her, and carried on.

I named my daughter Alana Suzanna Nguyen.  After my little sister, who I miss every day.

The woman reading the letter struggled to get the words out, moved by their weight.  She composed herself, tears running down her cheeks, and carried on.

Lani, the times I’ve gone by your room and wished you were there, glued to your TV, so that I could get onto you about helping me out around the house.  But I can’t.  After mom died, I wanted so bad to give you what I’d lost.  A childhood.  But I always resented you for it, and that was wrong.

I don’t know what happened to you out there.  I don’t know why you felt like you had to take your own life.  But, every day, I blame myself.  I was never there for you.  I was too busy wishing that I’d got to have what you had.  What I thought you had.  I left you all alone and I’ll never forgive myself for that.

As it turns out, neither will God.  About a year after my Lani was born, I got sick.  I’ve been fighting it for three years, and I made it past the turn of the century—there was no Y2K—but my time’s up.  Jules is a good man.  He’s going to hold onto this letter, and I guess he’ll pass it on to my precious girl when the time’s right.  I want her to know who you were.  And how much you meant to me.

My wish?  My dying wish?  I wish I could get this to you, somehow.  I wish I could see you again.  I wish I could tell you how sorry I am, Lani.  You were such a good girl.

Goodbye, Lani.  I love you.  Heather.

The ghosts were now fully visible, but where there had been five, now only four remained.  For as soon as the letter was finished, Alana was gone.

Mary said, quietly, ‘Goodbye, Lani.  I guess the universe… isn’t so spiteful after all.’

‘Goodbye, Lani,’ said Malachy.

‘Bye, Lani,’ Bill and Eva said.

The young woman, Alana Suzanna Nguyen, could now see and hear the ghosts as well as they could see and hear each other.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘this is blowing my mind.’  She dried her eyes again.  ‘My name’s Alana.  My friends call me Lani.’

‘Yeah,’ Malachy said, smiling, ‘we got that.’

‘I knew she’d be here,’ Living Lani said.  ‘I’ve had that letter for two years.  My dad gave it me when I was sixteen.’

‘So,’ Malachy replied, ‘our Lani died… what?  Twenty years ago?’

‘I was born in 1997.  She died the year before.  She came out here to study.  My mom sort of… raised her.  My mom died when I was little, too, but I remember she always cried when she talked about her.’

‘What did you do to make us visible?’ Bill asked.  ‘I’m guessing that was you?’

‘Yeah,’ Living Lani replied, ‘that was me.  I hope you don’t mind.  Ever since my dad gave me the letter, I’ve been planning this.’

‘You know… we actually knew that a medium was coming here,’ Bill said.

‘Jesus, I’d completely forgotten!’ Eva added.

‘We had this plan,’ Malachy said, taking over in his way.  ‘We wanted to get a message to you.  It seems…’  Malachy looked for the words with a somewhat embarrassed look on his face.  ‘…kinda dumb.  After everything that’s happened.’

‘What was the message?’ Living Lani asked.

‘We…’ Mary started, ‘…wanted you to ask the couple across the hall to get through a certain movie without… um…’

‘Without what?’ Lani asked sweetly.

Bill took over, ‘They are the only people in these halls who watch this certain movie, and… to stave off ghostly boredom, we watch a lot of movies, see, and… they tend to get distracted once the movie starts…’

‘They start having sex and we have to leave,’ Eva said, bluntly.

Lani laughed.  ‘That was your message?  “Please get through a movie without having sex”?  What did you think I was going to say?  “These ghosts want you to not have so much sex so they can haunt you while you watch a movie”?

‘I told you it was kinda dumb,’ Malachy said.

‘What’s the movie?’ Lani asked.  The ghosts looked at each other, like school children caught writing obscenities on the walls.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,’ Malachy replied.

Lani laughed out loud.  ‘You know, I love that movie,’ she said, smiling.  ‘You’re all welcome to watch it with me?  We can chat about it afterwards?’

The ghosts smiled at each other.

‘Deal,’ Bill said.

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On The Dark Knight

Five ghosts hover about, discussing movies. (This conversation takes place in the Augmented Universe.)

MALACHY
I love this film, it’s one of all my all time favourites.  I wanted to copy Lani’s method and if you guys don’t mind have you try to identify the core conflict.  Again, I know what I think it is.

ALANA
Well I did not love this movie, Mal.  I kinda get why it’s a big deal.  Ledger’s obviously outstanding.  But I don’t connect to any of the characters while I’m watching this.  And if there is a core conflict to this movie, I don’t know what it is.

BILL
Well, Batman’s well motivated.  He wants to take down the mob.  He seems to have a short term goal: to inspire the people in his city to be better, to expect better.  And he wants to leave his mission to the police, and to Harvey Dent.

EVA
He wants to be with Rachel Dawes.

ALANA
And this carries from the first movie, right?  She tells him that when Gotham no longer needs Batman maybe she and Bruce can be together.

MARY
So he wants to make that happen.  He wants to rush to the point that Gotham no longer needs Batman.

MALACHY
I think it’s inaccurate to say that he only wants to inspire people so that he can retire.  If he was only motivated by his desire to be with Rachel he’d just not be Batman in the first place.

BILL
So he’s trying to unify his wants?  To inspire the people of Gotham, to pass on his mission, to be with Rachel.  And by passing his mission onto Harvey Dent he’s also putting his rival for Rachel in harm’s way.

MALACHY
A little David and Bathsheba action… But he’s not unheroic.  He sacrifices his own happiness for the good of the city.

EVA
Yeah, like, that’s a specific choice he’s had to make at the end of Batman Begins, and which carries over into this film.

MARY
So what are the conflicts at play here?  You have Bruce, internally conflicted, wanting to do good as Batman but also wanting to retire and be with Rachel.

ALANA
That’s not the movie’s central conflict.  Rachel dies at like, what, the midway point?  Just after?  It can work as motivation, not central conflict.

BILL
You have Batman, Dent and Gordon trying to take on the mob.  As a trio, they’re in conflict with the mob.

ALANA
That’s better… They have the scene on the rooftop at the start, when they’re planning; and they have the scene right at the end when Dent is holding the gun to Gordon’s kid’s head.  It’s not perfect but there’s some narrative symmetry to it.

EVA
But we’re not saying that that’s what the movie’s actually about?  That the Joker is just a device used by the mob, on their side of the conflict?

MARY
No…

BILL
No because the picture ends with Batman and Joker going at it, with the Joker trying to get the people on the two boats to blow each other up…  There’s a big focus on that.

MARY
So what about Dent?  I mean, is he the antagonist to Batman’s protagonist?

ALANA
He’s an antagonist, at different times and in different ways, but I couldn’t say he’s the antagonist.

BILL
Yeah, I mean, early on, he’s a clear rival for Rachel.  After Rachel dies, he’s a clear antagonist for Batman because he’s holding a gun to that kid’s head and Batman’s trying to save the kid.

ALANA
But again, it’s not like this is the story of Batman versus Two Face.  Is it?  If it is it’s being told in a really weird way.

EVA
Okay, so let’s look at the obvious.  It’s Batman versus the Joker.

ALANA
But it’s not though, is it.  That conflict isn’t even on Batman’s radar when the movie starts.  He says as much to Gordon.  And the Joker’s plan at first is to kill Batman; then he doesn’t wanna kill Batman; then he wants to do something else; then something else…

MARY
The Joker is the problem here, isn’t he.  He doesn’t behave like your typical antagonist.  But he stands in the way of anyone else claiming the antag role.

ALANA
You’re right, he doesn’t behave like a normal antagonist.  When he’s locked into conflict with Batman, he just changes his mind and slips out of that conflict and creates a new plan.  He lets Batman off the hook.

BILL
How’d you mean?

ALANA
He threatens to kill, again, and again, until Batman takes his mask off.  Then he changes his mind.  He gets himself arrested.  Then he has Rachel killed.  Then he threatens to blow up a hospital.  Then he pits the people on the two boats against each other.  But he doesn’t commit to any conflict lock for long enough for us to say that he is this movie’s central antagonist.  And there’s so much going on that he isn’t a part of, with Bruce.  Until he kills Rachel anyway.  But the way I see it, this movie is a gestalt of conflicts.  It’s a load of stories all happening at once but there isn’t one core story playing out.  Granted, the stories somewhat revolve around Batman and the Joker, but something’s off.

EVA
Mal?

MALACHY
Okay.  Lani, you always say story is about conflict.  Stories start when conflict starts, and they end when it ends.

ALANA
Yeah?

MALACHY
Well I agree.  And when we talk about the protagonist, we’re usually talking about a character in a story, right?  The word protagonist literally means the rival of greatest importance.  The word antagonist means the rival who opposes.  And the conflict is the thing that makes them rivals.  Right?

ALANA
Yeah…?

MALACHY
And there are different types of protagonist.  There’s the singular protagonist, right?  The sole character we’re connected to.  Frodo, Buffy, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter.

MARY
Okay…?

MALACHY
And there’s the composite protagonist.  The team, the group.  The X-Men, the Avengers.  When more than one character is united on one side of an overarching strife.  And they work together.  Guardians closes out its external conflict this way, right Lani?

ALANA
It’s Gamora’s quest, at first, but yeah they defeat Ronan together.  And stories play with this idea all the time.  Characters unite to share a protagonist’s role.  Happens in Serenity, a lot like in Guardians.  And in Buffy sometimes.

 MALACHY
Okay, well what if, in a given story, the core conflict is abstract?  What if the protagonist isn’t a singular character or a group of characters, but an ideal, an immaterial concept, or tenet?  Then that story’s antagonist, the rival who opposes, is a competing ideal.  What if, in that story, the human characters are carrying out actions that serve those two warring concepts?

BILL
You’re talking about a story that examines what happens, for example, and forgive me for saying this, when love and hate collide?

ALANA
Look I’m not buying this.  How can ideals be active, how can they have goals, how can they be locked into conflict unless the human characters are motivated and make it so?

MALACHY
They can be set against each other through human agents who buy into the ideal.

ALANA
That’s not a protagonist versus antagonist dynamic Mal, that’s—

MALACHY
—why not?  What are the rules?  I agree it might not be typical, but I think I can convince you that it’s what’s going on in this film.  Remember, a protagonist can be multiple people, you said so yourself.  Isn’t that a case where multiple characters have bought into something greater than themselves, and give their agency for that belief?

ALANA
No, but—

MALACHY
—but if the two ideals set against each other have one character each, bought in, isn’t that still the case that the ideal is the thing that occupies the conflict, not the individual?

ALANA
What are your two ideals?

MALACHY
Well, drawing only from the actual dialogue in this movie: Good, capital G, versus Chaos, competing for the soul of Gotham.

ALANA
You’re saying that the abstract Good is the protagonist of this movie, and that the abstract Chaos is the antagonist?  It’s bold, and, you know, I’ll give you this: the Joker does say, “I’m an agent of Chaos.”

MALACHY
And Batman says to Joker, “This city just showed you that it’s full of people ready to believe in Good.”

ALANA
If—and that’s a big if—I’m gonna concede this to you, you’re gonna have to walk me through it.

MALACHY
Okay, well look at the first scene: Joker robs a mob bank.  Joker’s representing Chaos and the mob bank’s representing the status quo in Gotham, because in Gotham in this world the mob dominates the social and political infrastructure.  Joker’s goal is to, as he’d say, upset the established order.
And so is Batman’s.  That’s his goal too.  And the second scene in the movie is Batman, interrupting a drug deal orchestrated by… the mob.
Joker wants to make Gotham more chaotic; Batman wants to make it better.

 ALANA
Granted.  That doesn’t mean the central protagonist and the central antagonist are abstract.  You’re describing the human characters’ motivation.

MALACHY
But suppose you personify Good, and Chaos, and have these characters observing the status quo in Gotham, which is neither good nor chaotic—it’s corrupt, but ordered.  Personify Good and Chaos and imagine them as gods, as sentient, thinking, formless beings.  And can I propose that these personified concepts are at all times motivated to change humanity, into their own likeness.  That is the grand conflict working toward resolution throughout the film.

ALANA
The inciting incident?

MALACHY
Okay, so the status quo, what is it?  The city’s corrupt; Batman’s appeared and’s trying to make the city better, less corrupt.  He’ll do that in like the first half hour of the film if the Joker doesn’t appear.  The inciting incident is the appearance of the Joker.  Chaos making its first move.

ALANA
Okay, okay.  So the first scene, the bank robbery, it locks us into Good versus Chaos.  Batman v Joker is your primary human tension.  How does it play out for you?

MALACHY
There’s not a clear winner but, overall, Chaos wins.  Joker turns Dent into a killer, Batman into a hated fugitive, Gordon into a liar.  The soul of Gotham is preserved, but it’s got a lot of tape keeping it together.  It’s not good.  Batman has to retire, so the agent of Good is removed.  And the status quo, the mob rule, is torn to pieces.  The status quo at the end of the movie?  We have no Batman and no Dent.  Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

ALANA
A kind of… thematic protagonist-antagonist conflict.  A mutual compromise.  From the first scene to the last, I see it.  Doesn’t mean I like it.

MALACHY
Well, I love it.

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On Spider-Man 2

Five ghosts hover about, discussing movies. (This conversation takes place in the Augmented Universe.)

Bill and Malachy are alone, waiting for Mary, Eva and Alana.

BILL
Mal, before the others get here I wanted to talk to you.

MALACHY
Okay?

BILL
Well, lately, I’ve been weird with Eva and she’s started to pick up on it.

MALACHY
Mary and I thought you were into each other.  Well, Mary thought–

BILL
–that’s just it.  I love her, Mal.

MALACHY
You love her?

BILL
I do.

MALACHY
And what does that mean?  About the nature of us, I mean.  Ghosts who love.

BILL
That’s not my concern right now.

MALACHY
(enthusiastically)
But it’s interesting right?  Our existence is fascinating, and the fact that, emotionally, we’re almost identical to before we–

BILL
–dude I need to talk about this.  About how I feel.  Can we not–

Mary, Eva and Alana appear.

ALANA
Spider-Man 2!

MARY & EVA
Spider-Man 2.

MALACHY
(to Bill)
Spider-Man 2.

BILL
(frustrated by the interruption but committing to the new focus)
Okay, Spider-Man 2.  Who’s leading today?

ALANA
I am.

MALACHY
What’s your agenda with the film?

ALANA
Same as always, I wanna talk about the core conflict.  The central tension that reveals what this story’s fundamentally about.  Who-versus-who.  I have my thoughts on it, but now we’ve all watched it I want you all to argue what you think it is, if that’s cool.

BILL
Well, I don’t think that this is necessarily what the picture’s fundamentally about but shouldn’t we look at the conflict between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus first?

MALACHY
Yeah, I mean, this is a comic book movie.  They do have a habit of centering around the whole goody-versus-baddy thing.

EVA
(slowly)
Okay, well if this is the core conflict, if Doc Ock’s the film’s primary antagonist, you’d have to say we should lose about, what, the first twenty minutes?  I mean, we get Peter being fired from his pizza delivery job, Peter almost being fired from his photography job, Aunt May facing foreclosure, Peter struggling to keep up with his studies…

MARY
Mmm, it’s all laid on pretty thick.

BILL
We’re seeing that Peter’s letting his double life as Spider-Man affect his normal life.  He can’t juggle all his responsibilities and his superhero life.

EVA
Which is fine, but is it relevant?  To the tension between him and Doc Ock?  It’s not.

MALACHY
It doesn’t resound thematically, not especially, and if you lift it the conflict lock between the goody and baddy’s unaffected.

MARY
Seems easy enough to me.  The film’s about Peter’s struggle with his two lives.  The tension between him and Doc Ock is problematic and juices the greater story, but it’s just motivation, it’s just events occurring when the greater story needs it.

ALANA
So you’re saying that the core conflict for you is Peter versus Peter?  Like last week after we saw Guardians?  Only Parker this time rather than Quill.

MALACHY
That wasn’t last week.

MARY
Yes.  He wants to be a superhero.  He wants to have a normal life.  He tries to have both and his normal life suffers.

MALACHY
Right, and he starts to lose his powers.  What are we saying, that on some level his stress at juggling too much at once causes performance issues?  Because he’s not consciously choosing to lose his powers.  It’s happening to him.  Is this a story about stress related impotency?  Masquerading as a superhero movie?

ALANA
Track what happens from there, from him losing his powers.

BILL
He talks with the ghost of his Uncle Ben–

MARY
–and how cool is it that there are ghosts in this film, by the way?

MALACHY
What other ghosts are there?

MARY
At the end, Peter’s friend Harry talks to his dead dad.  Here Peter talks to his dead uncle.

MALACHY
Okay, I never assumed that these were actually the ghosts of those characters.  Did anyone else?

EVA
I kinda did.  But I think that’s because I am a ghost.

ALANA
Guys, focus.  Bill you were tracking the plot from when Peter loses his powers…

BILL
Right, well he comes clean to Aunt May.  He confesses his part in the death of Uncle Ben.  She forgives him and gives him the rousing speech about heroes.

EVA
Right, about how there’s a hero inside all of us.

MARY
And then Doc Ock kidnaps Mary Jane and Peter is motivated to become Spider-Man again.

MALACHY
How funny is it by the way when J. Jonah Jameson is blaming himself for Spider-Man disappearing?  Having this incredibly human moment, lamenting that no one else can stop Doc Ock, and then Spidey steals the suit and Jameson immediately turns, starts ranting how Spidey’s a thief and a menace.

They all smile

BILL
Anyway, then Spider-Man goes to fight Doc Ock and save Mary Jane, and the people on that train.  He saves the day.  And then…

MALACHY
There’s the conflict with Harry.

BILL
Which is kinda… It feels episodic.  Harry’s pissed at Peter at the start of this picture, for not telling him who Spider-Man is.  At the end here he finds out that Peter is Spider-Man and he has that moment where he finds the Green Goblin stuff… Which is nothing to do with this story at all.

EVA
Right.  It is episodic.  I guess that’s fine.  It’s calling back to the first movie and setting things up for the next one.  Can we watch that, by the way?

MALACHY
I wouldn’t.  It’s not good.

ALANA
(nodding)
Seriously.  If you thought it sucked being dead…

BILL
Okay well after the scene with Harry and his ghost-slash-Harry’s-subconscious father, what happens?  Mary Jane… We haven’t really talked about Mary Jane in this picture a lot.  She’s found out that Peter is Spider-Man too, when he saves her from Doc Ock.  She runs out on her wedding day to be with Peter.  She’s… This picture’s about Peter and Mary Jane.
(Bill looks at Eva, and then at Alana)
Centrally, it’s about the love between Peter and Mary Jane.

ALANA
(leading)
Bingo.  Right, what’s the first thing that happens in this movie?

EVA
Aasif Mandvi fires Peter for not delivering pizza to Emily Deschanel quick enough.

MARY
D’you see Joel McHale turn up later too?  In the bank?

ALANA
(course correcting)
Before that…

(Bill, Eva, Mary and Malachy are silent)

ALANA
The first thing that happens is Peter sees the billboard of Mary Jane’s face and we get an intro narration.  He speaks directly to us and tells us that he loves her, and that he can’t be with her because he’s Spider-Man–“given a job to do.”

MARY
Right.  Right outta the gate, we connect with Peter’s love for Mary Jane.  Before all the other stuff happens, before he gets fired, before Aunt May shares her money troubles with him, before he starts failing in school… He loves her, and he thinks he can’t have her.

BILL
(looking at Eva)
He needs to tell her the truth.  He wants to be with her but he thinks it’s doomed.  So he hides it from her.  But she knows.  She knows something

ALANA
(thoughtful)
Okay, well slow down a little.  Yes, this is the central conflict.  Peter wants Mary Jane.  His guilt compels him to be Spider-Man, his guilt for Uncle Ben’s death.  His conclusion’s that he can’t do both.  The movie’s protagonist is Peter and, yeah, once again, its antagonist is Peter too.
Early on, after the first scene with Aunt May, Peter sees Mary Jane in the alley and they have a moment.  She asks him, “Did you wanna say something?”  And he nearly does.  But gives up on it and asks her somethin’ goofy about where she’s living.
And he has that moment on the pay phone, after he misses her play, and after his money runs out, and the message he’s leaving her isn’t recording any more, he says, “I’m Spider-Man.  I wish I could tell you how I feel about you.”

MALACHY
So what’s the inciting incident here?  What scene locks this conflict in place?

ALANA
Well, the conflict is locked before this movie starts.  So the inciting incident as I see it is in the first movie, when Mary Jane kisses Peter at Uncle Ben’s grave, and he says they can’t be more than friends and walks away.

MARY
He does?  I never saw the first one.

ALANA
Yeah, he wants to be with her but he thinks he can’t be.  For the reasons he explains in the beginning here.

BILL
So.  The inciting incident does happen before the movie starts.  Is that a little sloppy?

EVA
It does feel a little sloppy.  If these movies are behaving episodically, could we get a previously on?

ALANA
The way I figure it, the previously on’s in the credits.  We get images from the first movie showing very loosely what happened, drawn like in comics.

BILL
Right.  I guess we’ll have to take it.

ALANA
But look, that’s the conflict, the central tension.  Peter’s sense of responsibility is blocking him.  His sense of responsibility is fueled by guilt.  But I’ll come back to that later.  Can any o’ you guys remember what causes him to lose his powers?

MALACHY
Well I thought it was all of the things we’ve been talking about.

ALANA
The first time his powers glitch it’s after he misses Mary Jane’s play.  After the scene with the fussy usher.

BILL
Hilarious scene level conflict, by the way.

ALANA
The second time it’s after he sees Mary Jane get engaged to the astronaut.

MARY
Right.  Both times he loses his powers there’s tension with Harry too, right?

ALANA
Yeah, but the conflict with Mary Jane is primary.  Anyway, Peter sees a doctor, and he sorta confesses that he’s Spider-Man but not really, the doctor tells Peter that he has a choice, and that maybe he’s not meant to be Spider-Man.  The doctor says he’s physically fine and that it’s probably in his head.

EVA
Ok…?

ALANA
Crucially, Peter comes out of the conversation with the doctor realising he has a choice.  Then he sees the vision of Uncle Ben, the–what was it Bill?–ghost-slash-subconscious vision.  Anyway, Uncle Ben’s ghost tells Peter that he’s sad, because he thought Peter’d learned the meaning of responsibility, and Peter says, “I’m in love with Mary Jane.”

MALACHY
Your memory astounds me Lani.

ALANA
And when Peter tells Uncle Ben that he can’t live his dreams any more, Uncle Ben asks him to take his hand and he says no.

MARY
Sounds familiar…

ALANA
Peter is rejecting the responsibility.  Breaking what he sees as a promise made to Uncle Ben.  He was compelled to be Spider-Man because he felt the guilt.  Now, he’s saying that enough’s enough, and he has the goofy scene with the chirpy music, getting his schoolwork done on time, and ignoring the crimes that are happening around him and eating hotdogs.

EVA
And going to see Mary Jane’s play.

BILL
You’re saying that… his internal conflict hasn’t been resolved, as such, it’s just switched.  He’s not doing what he feels he should do, he’s doing what he wants to do.  The opposite of before.

EVA
Right, and then we’re thrust forward into the final act when Doc Ock kidnaps Mary Jane, because of his whole drama, yada-yada-yada.

ALANA
But only after he’s tried to get together with Mary Jane.  He tries to take her back to the end of the first movie when she told him she loved him, and he had something he thought he had to do and now he doesn’t.  She rejects him.

MALACHY
And he starts to feel the guilt again when someone’s getting mugged and he does nothing.

ALANA
Then, he makes his confession to Aunt May, and after she’s forgiven him, like Bill mentioned before, and given him that rousing hero speech, Mary Jane is kidnapped and Spidey’s back.

MALACHY
But first, before that, he tries to help the people trapped in that burning building.  He’s realising that his heroism isn’t just a debt he owes to Uncle Ben.  It’s his.  He owns it.

ALANA
Right.  But, look what happens at the very end of this movie.  After Doc Ock gives up on his dream and drowns himself with his whatsit in the river.  After Harry sees his dead dad.  Mary Jane is about to get married but she bails.  She knows Peter is Spider-Man, she knows he does love her.  And she chooses to be with him.  The tension from that pre-movie inciting incident’s finally resolved.

MALACHY
Peter is kinda passive throughout this movie.  Sure, he wants to atone for his sense of guilt.  He wants to be with Mary Jane.  But he has no active goal, because his ultimate want is to unify the two, and he believes that’s impossible.

BILL
(nodding)
Yes.

ALANA
Which brings me to something I’ve been thinkin’ about lately.  A theory I’m developing.  I think, with some movies, if you examine the first thing that happens and the last thing that happens you can identify the essence of the story.  Everything in between is just the process of getting from that first scene to the last.  It’s not a perfect theory, sure, but it’s interesting.  And this movie starts with Peter telling us about his love for Mary Jane, and it ends with her coming to be with him, and with him spinning off to fight crime with her blessing.  I think, sometimes, if you look for these opening and closing moments, you’ll see the thing the author really wants you to see.

EVA
Well I don’t know about your theory but in this case I agree that Peter and Mary Jane’s love for each other is the central story.  His internal conflict is your core conflict.  He is his own antagonist, and the tension with Doc Ock is just fuel for that overarching story.  As is the tension with Harry, and with him losing his job, and failing in school.  It’s about Peter and Mary Jane.

MALACHY
Agreed.

MARY
Definitely.

BILL
(nods)

ALANA
Cool.  What’s movie’s next?

MALACHY
Can we do Dark Knight?  I want to do Dark Knight.  If I find someone watching it I’ll holler so you can come haunt them with me.

MARY
That’s fine by me Mal.

ALANA
I hate Nolan but I’ve had two in a row so it’s fine.  See you guys.

Malachy, Mary and Alana leave.

BILL
Eva, wait.

EVA
Did you wanna say something?

BILL
(frought)
I did.  Okay.  You make me kinda crazy.

EVA
(sighs)
Yeah.  Is it because… My analyst, before the whole being dead thing, she told me that I use idealism as a mechanism to keep people–men–at an emotional distance.

BILL
That’s not what I meant by cr…
(distracted)
Your analyst told you that?

EVA
Well she implied it.

BILL
I meant crazy good.  Crazy in a good way.  Eva, I love you.

EVA
(brightly)
And what does that mean?

BILL
If you’re going to tangent into ghost metaphysics…

EVA
I’m not.

She hovers closer to him, to kiss him.  Her lips pass harmlessly through his.

EVA & BILL
Oh.

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On Guardians of the Galaxy

Five ghosts hover about, discussing movies. (This conversation takes place in the Augmented Universe.)

BILL
I think the prologue should have been cut.  The whole scene, with Peter Quill as a child, and with his mom in the hospital, it should have been cut from the film.

EVA
And Alana disagrees, right Lani?

ALANA
I do.  The scene stays.

MALACHY
Alright.  If everyone’s ready, Mary?

MARY
I loved the movie.  I loved the scene.  I’m ready.  Go ahead Bill.

BILL
Well, it’s pretty simple really.  A story like this, a good-guy-versus-bad-guy, it starts when its protagonist is locked in conflict with its antagonist.  The story ends when that conflict’s resolved.  Films like this spend too long world-building before that conflict starts.

MARY
So?

BILL
So, the prologue in this picture takes place way, way before the story actually starts.  It’s unnecessary setup.  You lift the scene out and we get a neater opening.  Peter lands on the planet Morag, takes the orb, he’s locked into conflict with Ronan and the central story’s on its feet.  All of the information provided by the prologue, we get again later.

MALACHY
For example?

BILL
Okay, we learn that Peter’s mother died when he talks to Gamora, when they’re waiting for the Collector at Knowhere, right?  We find out about the meaning of the cassette player then too.  Yondu and the Ravagers talk about them having taken Peter from Earth a bunch of times.  I really don’t think you’d have to add a lot to the script.  We don’t need the info-dump for the story to make sense, at any point.  Hence, unnecessary setup.

MARY
But you know, when his dying mother asks him to take her hand, and he doesn’t—that moment pays off in a big way later on and without the prologue you lose that.

BILL
There’s plenty of time to set that up, mid-story.  We don’t need that whole story-stalling prologue to give us the setup to that one beat, no matter how emotionally punchy it is at its resolution.

MARY
I’m just saying that as a mother who died and left a little boy behind, that scene did a lot for me.

BILL
Look Mary, I went and died on my kid too but we’re not saying that the picture was made exclusively for the ghosts of moms and dads who left their children behind, are we?

MARY
Obviously not b—

BILL
—and in fact, because the prologue dumps so much info on you right outta the gate, I think you could argue that it’s detrimental to the picture, because everything good about Peter is informed before we meet him as he is when the story actually starts.  He comes off like a jackass at the start, but our sympathy for him doesn’t arc with his journey, it’s complete already.

EVA
A lot of the conversations I’ve heard have been dudes talking about how they loved the opening because it grounds the movie—this big, cosmic story—it grounds it in something completely human.

BILL
But how many pictures have we sat and watched—you can always ground the tone somewhere inauthentic if you add a pre-story scene.  How many stories start with unnecessary setup?  We always say, start with your inciting incident and have your characters fully formed and ready to go.  This picture doesn’t do that.  The inciting incident is, what?  The moment Peter picks up the Orb on Morag he’s locked in conflict with Ronan.  That should be the first scene.  Then he goes to sell it to the Broker on Xandar, and we have dynamic scenes that move the story on and on and on.

MALACHY
Bill’s right, Lani.  If we take out the prologue, we lose that kick to the stomach but we do get a tighter opening.  The film starts as it means to go on.  We can get all of that first-scene info later, as we go.

(Mary nods)

EVA
Lani?

ALANA
(slowly)
Okay.  You’re wrong because you let the movie trick you into thinking that the central conflict is Peter Quill versus Ronan the Accuser.  It isn’t.

MALACHY
So what is it?

ALANA
Well, the external story—stopping Ronan from destroying Xandar—that isn’t Peter’s quest.  It’s Gamora’s.  Later, Peter, Rocket, Drax, Groot—they all jump on with her goal and ditch their own.  Peter wants to sell the orb, Rocket and Groot want to sell the orb, Drax wants to avenge his family—they all switch out their individual goals and support Gamora’s.

BILL
But…

ALANA
Track the pivotal story beats of Gamora’s quest from start to finish.
First, Gamora and Ronan are locked in conflict when she finds out that he wants to destroy an entire planet with the orb.  Her goal’s to swipe it first.
Second, Gamora fails to swipe it when she’s arrested by the Nova Corps.  She adapts by agreeing to partner with Peter, Rocket and Groot, at the Kyln.
Third, the midpoint, the stakes are raised and the conflict’s reframed when the Collector—who is her contact, not Peter’s—reveals how powerful the orb is.  Now she wants to get the orb to the Nova Corps, which is where it ends up, but Peter still wants to sell it.  Her goal’s the same, but her motivation’s more urgent.
Fourth, the scene where they end up agreeing to risk it all to guard the galaxy, stood in a circle “like jackasses.”  By now the movie’s singular external protagonist, Gamora, has become a composite external protagonist, consisting of Gamora, who’s the quest-holder, but also Peter, Drax, Groot and Rocket.  Now the quest belongs to them all, not just Gamora.

BILL
I don’t understand.  I mean, you’re right.  You’re clearly right.  But this makes the picture worse for including the prologue, and not only the prologue, but all the stuff about Peter and Yondu too.  Why not give us more time with Gamora, Nebula and Thanos?

EVA
Yeah, Bill’s right, if we spend more time with Gamora and less with Peter we’re closer to the overarching strife.  I don’t see why we simply must spend time with the male character, just because it’s a comic book movie—

ALANA
—because, Gamora versus Ronan may be the central external conflict, but it’s a subplot.  Am I really the only one who saw this?  The primary conflict of this story isn’t Gamora versus Ronan, and it really isn’t Peter versus Ronan or the Guardians versus Ronan.  It’s Peter versus Peter.

BILL
(shaking his head, stunned)
What?

ALANA
He wants to be called Star-Lord.  That’s his goal throughout this movie.  His everything-I-ever.

BILL
Are you kidding?

ALANA
(unapologetic)
No?  Look, that’s his goal.  His motivation’s obvious.  It’s what his mom called him.  He wants to be her little boy again.  That’s why he risks his life for the Walkman.  That’s why he’s upset that no one in the galaxy cares about his “outlaw name.”  Why he’s gutted when John C Reilly laughs at him.

MARY
What’s this got to do with Peter-versus-Peter?

ALANA
He wants to be called Star-Lord but the thing blocking him is his own bad character.  Go with me.  The first scene, he’s been bullied and beaten up for protecting frogs.  The second scene, he’s dancing and kicking space frogs around, using them as pretend microphones.  He’s obviously lost something of his heroic character in the time between the two scenes.  He doesn’t deserve to be called Star-Lord.  He forgets the name of the woman in his ship while he’s on Morag getting the orb.  He forgets that she’s even there!

EVA
And on that can we talk about the treatment of women in this movie?  And about the place of women in this universe generally?

BILL
(sensitively)
Eva, we’ll come back to that, I promise, I’ll make sure.  We need to stay on point, the prologue.  Lani?

ALANA
Look, in Peter’s quest—to be his mommy’s little Star-Lord again—he needs to forgive himself and to heal for refusing to take his mom’s hand in her last moments.  He needs to become that little boy again, the kid who got himself beaten up for standing up to bullies.  And it needs to be authentic.  Which is just what he does.  When he takes his chance to “give a shit.”
But the climax of his internal conflict is when he catches the orb to save the galaxy, standing up to Ronan—the bully—and it’s Gamora who tells him to take her hand.  And he does.  He thinks catching the orb will kill him but he does it anyway.  Then he’s saved because of the connections he’s made.
Finally, what does Gamora come in and say, right at the very end, after Peter’s opened the gift from his mom, the second mix tape?  He says, “What shall we do now?  Something good, something bad or a little bit of both?”  And Gamora says?

BILL
“We’ll follow your lead, Star-Lord.”

ALANA
Right.  He’s worthy and he’s got what he wants, what he’s wanted from the start, his everything-I-ever.  He’s his mommy’s little Star-Lord again.  He’s healed.  The first scene takes that away from him, the final scene returns it to him.
Primarily, this isn’t a story about Ronan.  It’s a story about a little boy who loses his family, who’s adopted by an emotionally abusive family—Yondu and the Ravagers—and then leaves his unhealthy adopted family behind, to start a new, healthy one.
Watch it again.  The first thing Peter does after taking the orb, before he tries selling it to the Broker and gets into his own conflict with Ronan, is he betrays Yondu.  He wants to ignore Yondu’s call, and then he flat out refuses to tell him where he is.  All through the movie Yondu pursues Peter.  The abusive, narcissistic stepfather who wants gratitude for not allowing his men to eat him.
And naturally he is attracted to Gamora.  She is good, like his mother.

MALACHY
She’s an assassin.

ALANA
She’s noble.  She wants to do the right thing.  Peter is attracted to that.  And she has her own emotionally abusive adopted family issues, which she’s also trying to escape.  No wonder they’re drawn to each other.

EVA
Get back to the prologue…

ALANA
The prologue is the inciting incident.  Peter’s goal is to be Star-Lord, mommy’s little boy.  The death of his mom and the abduction by Yondu blocks that goal.  It propels the primary conflict forward.  You can cut it, sure.  You can have an inciting incident that happens before the movie starts, sure.  But, for me, this movie is richer, smoother, and way more satisfying with the prologue in than out.  In fact, it’s not even a prologue.  It’s a cold open.  It’s the first scene of the first chapter of this story.

EVA
She’s right, Bill.  The scene stays in my edit.

MALACHY
I’m keeping the scene too.

MARY
Same here.  Bill, we unanimous?

BILL
We are.

MALACHY
Beautiful.

ALANA
(making a celebratory yet gentle fist)
We’re just like Kevin Bacon.

Addition, Monday, April 13, 2015:

Within two hours of this blog having been posted, James Gunn, the writer and director of Guardians of the Galaxy, had read and commented on it, via Twitter.  He said the following:

“Alana’s ideas are almost identical to mine. The central story of GotG is that of Quill and his mother. The primary antagonist (note: this word is not the same as villain) is Meredith Quill.”

To which I replied:

“So whereas Alana sees an internal antagonist within Peter, the intent was external, his mom? Can she be antagonist & inactive?”

James Gunn commented again:

“Those things are one & the same. Her love, her death, & his reaction to her death are what Peter struggles with throughout the film. She’s active thru her death, the pop music (her communication), her forgiveness in the form of the gang, the gift at the end, etc.”

I thanked him for reading this and for talking to me about it, and that was that. Since he commented, I have edited some of the dialogue between Bill and Eva, but Alana’s views are identical to what he read and likened to his own.

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