‘X-Men’ and ‘Thor’ Screenwriter Zack Stentz on the Future of Superhero Stories, What Makes Myths Work, and His Writing Partner’s Craziest Sitcom Idea

If you care about small, critically acclaimed science fiction shows, or about smart summer superhero blockbusters, you should care about Zack Stentz. He’s written and produced Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles among other television shows, and this summer alone, he and his writing partner Ashley Edward Miller wrote the screenplays for Thor and X-Men: First Class. After we ended up talking about First Class as a metaphor for gay rights, Zack was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions about both of those movies, the future of the superhero genre, and the difference between writing for small, fanatically devoted audiences and big, mass-market ones. Our conversation appears below.

Both X-Men: First Class and Thor have villains who at times — if not for the whole movie — are more compelling than the movies’ heroes. Was that intentional?

In Thor, from the very beginning we had the goal of putting the Thor-Loki-Odin relationship at the heart of the film, and in discussions with Ken Branagh and Marvel, decided that it would be compelling to send the two brothers on parallel but opposite journeys. And we were really drawn to the version of Loki who isn’t a cackling evildoer from the beginning, but a complex, tortured character who — like Magneto in the X-Men mythology — is completely convinced that he’s the good guy.

In X-Men: First Class, I’d like to think we stretched the definition of “villain” even further. While you have Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club throughout the story as the bad guys, through most of the movie, Erik/Magneto is the co-hero with Charles. You catch him at a moment of his life where he has the possibility of going either way — toward Charles’ vision of mutants as a valued part of human society, or Shaw’s plans for mutants lording over the human race. But because of external events as well as Erik’s inability to move past the trauma that’s been inflicted on him, you see him move ever more toward embracing that darkness.

Do you think audiences want more moral complexity in their superhero movies and their action movies in generally?

I’m not sure what audiences want, but I know that my writing partner Ash [Ashley Edward Miller] and I are drawn toward ambiguity and moral complexity when we write those movies. It’s just more interesting and dramatically compelling. If you’re going to have the mano a mano faceoff at the end of your big action movie, isn’t there more juice in seeing two people fighting who love each other rather than two people who hate each other? Or the obligatory “hero fights a bigger, even more powerful version of himself” beat? And isn’t it more interesting if the ostensible bad guy has a point of view that can’t be easily dismissed?

Relatedly, there’s been some discussion of the fall-off in superhero box office, particularly as audiences resist 3D conversions. Are people simply wearing on characters in costumes?

I think the danger of saturating the market with costumed crimefighters is definitely there, but I don’t think there are enough data points to draw the conclusion that we’re at that place yet. Thor did very well at the box office, especially for a character with such an oddball mythology behind him. X-Men: First Class isn’t racking up the huge numbers of its predecessors, but the studio is happy with it because they feel like it’s rebuilding the brand and audience goodwill after the last two installments drew more…shall we say mixed reactions. And we still need to see how Green Lantern and Captain America shake out.

But even if they disappoint, all it will take is for Chris Nolan’s next Batman film to open huge next summer for the headlines to read “Superheroes are back!” The day Nolan makes a great superhero film and nobody shows up is the day I will believe that superhero fatigue has truly set in.

Or is it time for studios to do lower-budget but higher-concept projects to engage audiences further?

I think you’re already seeing that to some extent. Some of the smarter executives have realized that while a lot of comic book characters can be translated to the film medium, not all of them can sustain huge, summer movie budgets. So the Deadpool film, if it gets made, will probably have an R rating and a much lower budget than the last X-Men film. Which I think is great. Huge budgets necessitate a certain PG-13, must appeal to all four quadrants approach to storytelling, which doesn’t serve every character well.

A spate of television projects on their way to screens or under development, including Alphas and Powers certainly seems to suggest a move to thinking about not what it would be like to be a superhero, but what it would be like to live among them.

I’m very much looking forward to both of those shows (I have friends on Alphas and am a huge David Strathairn fan), and I also agree that while we’ve seen a lot of films imagining what it would be like to have superheroes in our world, there’s been remarkably little exploration of how different our world would look with superpowered characters running around in it. And television is an ideal medium for that sort of longform worldbuilding that lets you really explore the implications of a premise like that.

We first got in touch as part of a conversation about whether X-Men: First Class was a metaphor for gay rights issues. When you’re building that kind of large, complex metaphor, how do you avoid slipping over into preachiness?

I think you can’t build your story out of an allegory (at least I can’t), but certainly when you start imagining various worlds and situations, real life analogies start suggesting themselves (be they political, social, or personal), and you can draw emotional power and resonance from them. I think this is especially true where you can find a point of personal connection with your characters and their struggles.

When I approached the X-Men, I think growing up shy, ethnic, and non-neurotypical in a rural, working class environment helped me connect with the mutants’ own feelings of outsiderdom. In sitting down to write the relationships between those characters, I was thinking the most about leaving my small town, going off to college and for the first time in my life meeting people who I felt understood me and I could connect with. There’s a certain sort of intensity and mutability to those bonds you form at that age that I like to think carried over a little into the Charles and Erik and Charles and Raven relationships.

And I don’t want to speak for Bryan Singer, but he’s said in interviews that it was partly his own experiences growing up gay and Jewish in the suburbs of the ’70s and ’80s that made him feel drawn to the X-Men. And I think that strong sense of empathy and connection is part of what makes the first two X-Men films so good and put that stamp on the entire series. Bryan’s not an indie auteur slumming it or cynically cashing in by directing superhero movies. He considers those personal films, and I think that shows onscreen.

Truthfully, it actually bothers me a little that some people object to the X-Men films doing things like invoking the Civil Rights Movement, legislative anti-gay crusades, or the Holocaust in storytelling. It carries with it the assumption that the superhero movie is a lesser art form that somehow shouldn’t be allowed to bring in real world resonances, and that’s something I just totally reject. As in any other art form, you can either do it well or badly.

I remember when Ash was writing the big confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, where he (quite brilliantly, in my mind) had Charles beg for the lives of the American and Soviet sailors by saying they were just following orders, only to have Erik forcefully point out that he’d been at the mercy of men who were only following orders. My one contribution there was to tell Ash, “Erik at this point should really say ‘Never again.'” So the invocation of those specific phrases with all their historical baggage were very deliberate, and it’s something I make no apologies for, no matter how much it may upset John Podhoretz. (I know Matthew Yglesias felt differently, even if he managed to rather colossally miss the point of the movie.)

And if you’re not using a single character to drive a point home, how did you think about distributing attitudes and experiences across the characters to build a larger picture?

I think if you’re writing a movie that has big themes in it, you owe it to the audience to have your characters run the gamut in terms of their experiences. So if in the case of the X-Men, you’re talking about the relationship between a minority and the larger population of humanity, you try to have characters who have had positive as well as negative experiences with humans, and have different attitudes toward their own status.

And with Thor, you have the classic superhero theme — what are the responsibilities and challenges that go along with having huge amounts of power — so you want to see different characters react and change in different ways when given power. Thor abuses the power that’s given him, is humbled, and learns that the highest calling of the powerful is to protect the weak and innocent and to show restraint. Loki gets power and hatches an elaborate scheme to prove his worthiness to dad by committing genocide against his own people.

You’ve written episodes both for television shows and now as part of an existing movie series. Other than the differing amounts of time over which you can tell a story, what are the challenges of fitting into those different kinds of continuities?

I think the challenges are largely the same, in that you’re entering a world that was built by other people and then trying to find ways to add to it, shed new light on it, personalize it, and make it your own. Obviously TV gives you the time and space to dig deeper into a world and its characters, while a big summer movie allows you to paint on a much larger canvas.

And with Fringe and on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, you’ve worked on a shows with small, dedicated fanbases. Were there things you learned from both of those projects about how to tell stories that will appeal both to hardcore fans of a concept or character while attracting wider audiences? On television in particular, which requires a more significant commitment, is it possible to do both?

How do I answer that without sounding like the manager from This Is Spinal Tap, protesting that his band hadn’t lost popularity, its appeal had become more selective? I’m not a snob about audience. A small, dedicated fanbase is wonderful, but I’d love to reach a broader audience as well, and none of the shows I worked on were pitched to appeal to hardcore fans alone. We would have been thrilled to have been huge, broad-based hits. But looking at the landscape of television, William Goldman’s famous aphorism about Hollywood “No one knows anything” holds especially true. No one knows what makes a complex, mythology-dense show like Lost a monster hit, but not Threshold, Flash Forward, V, or any of the other attempts to replicate its formula.

The downside of this is that there’s a tendency for networks in particular to rely on tried-and-true show formats that have worked for them in the past — police procedurals, medical dramas, etc. The upside is that when a show that breaks the mold comes along and does connect with a mass audience — a Lost, a House, a Glee — it can be a runaway hit and a critical success for years and years. So there’s also a willingness by some networks to listen to the big concept or offbeat pitch and swing for the fences with it.

My writing partner Ash and I come up with oddball, joke ideas for TV shows all the time — a sitcom about Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens as grumpy roommates! But the truth is, there’s not one but two “fairy tale detective” shows going on the air this fall. On major networks! So who knows what they’ll say yes to and what might end up connecting with an audience.