Monday, August 04, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Metamorpho

(or "Nobody Gets What They Want Except The Audience")

I've talked from time to time in this column about something I call the "false status quo". The rough idea of a false status quo is that it's a set-up for a series in which the central concept involves something that the protagonist is trying to resolve, something that would result in a dramatic change to the series' set-up if they ever did manage to fix whatever was wrong. (The classic example is 'The Fugitive', a series that revolved entirely around the hero's hunt for the one-armed man who killed his wife. Every week, he almost finds him, and every week, he fails, because the second he finds him, the series ends.)

In general, I've talked about false stati quo as something to avoid. This is simply because putting a false status quo into your story makes an implicit promise to your audience that it will be resolved, and that's not always something that you can follow through on. (All too many series have floundered after finally resolving their false status quo, and a few--'X-Files', I'm looking at you--faltered when the audience got sick of never getting their resolution.)

But comedy has a slightly different set of rules, and 'Metamorpho' provides a great example of that. All the great comedies revolve around a false status quo, because the secret ingredient of all the greatest comedies is frustration. Not failure, because that's depressing, but that tiny gap of frustration between failure and success. Basil Fawlty never manages to make his hotel into a vista of taste and sophistication, Fozzie Bear can never quite polish his stand-up routines, Dobie Gillis never gets the girl, and David and Maddie never sleep together (remember what I said about series floundering after resolving their false status quo?)

And Metamorpho is truly one of the great comedy storytelling engines, a screwball superhero epic full of comedy frustration. Rex Mason, aka Metamorpho wants to be human again so he can get the girl, Sapphire Stagg, but Sapphire's old man, Simon Stagg, keeps putting him off with one promise or another. Simon, meanwhile, wants Metamorpho out of the way--dead, or at least the heck away from his daughter--but the crazy supervillains he keeps bumping into require an on-staff superhero to fight, and Metamorpho works cheap. Sapphire just loves Metamorpho, and doesn't care what he looks like, but she can't get him to accept that. And Java, Simon Stagg's manservant and an actual reanimated anthropoid, thinks that if Metamorpho dies, Sapphire will have no choice but to fall madly in love with him. Needless to say, he's doomed to frustration on both counts.

It's been said that the classic comedy formula is two people who don't like each other stuck in a room together. Here, we have two people who don't like each other caught in a partnership.
Rex and Simon hate each other's guts, but they both need each other just enough to force them into adventure after adventure (and the adventures are classic Silver Age craziness from Bob Haney, a trippy mix of pop-culture and pop-culture parody that effortlessly encourages you to laugh both with it and at it.) Even the addition of a frankly unnecessary "Element Girl", a female Metamorpho, just enhances the atmosphere as she adds a bizarre fifth side to a Freudian love quadrangle.

Ultimately, the series ended (as series are wont to do, even classic ones.) Metamorpho has continued on as a second banana to various teams in the DC Universe, but he's never managed to once again reach those same heights of popularity--and I think part of that has to do with the fact that Simon and Sapphire Stagg haven't returned when he has. Bringing back Metamorpho without his supporting cast misses many of the wonderful elements that his storytelling engine provides...and those are elements that the Element Man desperately needs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would make one amendment to your generalization about comedy and failure.

Comedy series (not a limited comedy film or novel but an ongoing series with no end in sight) work best if the protagonist never succeeds at his or her quest AND either A) it is clearly the protagonist's fault, so the audience never expects the protagonist to succeed, ever OR B) the audience considers the protagonist better off where he or she is and thinks success would be the worst thing that could happen.

For example, one of the reasons the audience never becomes fed up with Basil Fawlty's or Edwina Monsoon's endless failure is that both Basil and Edwina constantly try for things far beyond their abilities -- and which they really ought to recognize as beyond them. Their failures are their own fault.

Charlie Brown is similar in that no one expects a child like him to succeed at his age -- but almost every fan of Peanuts honestly believes that Charlie Brown will grow up into a successful adult because we remember failing in our childhood and outgrowing it as well.

On the other hand, one reason why the audience never becomes frustrated with the failure of the castaways on Gilligan's Island to escape is that it becomes clear over the time of the series that they are all better off living together. Gilligan, The Skipper, The Professor, and Mary Ann have an extended family on the Island instead of the loneliness they are implied to have had beforehand; Ginger and the Howells are far better people on the Island rather than the self-absorbed manipulators they had been beforehand. The audience sees that they are better off on the Island, even if they can not see it.

When a character continually fails, and it's not the character's fault, it's not something that the character can be expected to outgrow (as in slice of life comedies such as Peanuts), and it's not clearly for the best for the character, then audiences eventually become tired of the universe's picking on the character.