In Which The Writer Makes Back To Hollywood Alive
Back to LA, back through LAX, and back through everything that makes me unhappy. But it’s Tom, he’s willing to pay a ten-day contract rate up front, and that’s always a good thing. He also warned me that I might “have to entertain,” so my hotel of choice isn’t going to be a Holiday Inn Express. Instead, I got an Executive Suite at the Omni Los Angeles near Little Tokyo and made sure that everything that wasn’t absolutely required was in the bedroom.
Probably the only good thing is that there’s a few good places to eat and to the best of my knowledge the people I don’t want to deal with aren’t in town right now. And, because I flew in on a Sunday evening, I was able to get a night’s sleep before driving the car-a nice rental Porsche 911-to the studios. Tom’s down on the first floor before I can even put my phone away, and he’s smiling. “Hey, how are you doing?”
“Pretty good,” I replied, shaking his hand. “You’re wanting a miracle on a shoestring budget, aren’t you?”
“More like a good second opinion,” Tom agreed as I got my temporary badge, and we headed up to his office. “Ready?”
“Always,” I smiled, and he led me into his office. In the office was a man that I knew, and he stood up and shook my hand.
“I think,” he said with a chuckle, “we should stay with first names for now. We’re not meeting behind anyone’s back…but let’s keep this an informal consultation for now.”
“Sure, Jack,” I shrugged, and we all sat down, with Tom sitting behind his desk. “So, what’s the consultation?”
“Have you seen any of the Phase Four MCU shows on Disney Plus?” Jack asked, pulling out his notepad.
“Yes…and I assume you want me to be as honest as hell about my opinion on them,” I replied after the tingling sensation in my stomach and fingers calmed down a bit.
“Very,” Tom sighed, and waited.
“Okay, the best of them was Loki, Moon Knight, and Werewolf by Night. And the only one I’d give an unreserved recommendation is Werewolf by Night. Both Loki and Moon Knight had issues-you don’t make Tom Hiddelson a secondary character in his own show and you should have played up the madness and supernatural in Moon Knight more. The Warren Ellis run was probably the best modern version of the comic book, and that should have been the biggest inspiration,” I paused for a moment in thought, and didn’t try to pop my neck in frustration. “And, hell, if you busted everyone that partied like a rockstar like Warren Ellis did, half of Hollywood would be unemployed.”
“And the rest?” Jack raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was a thematic mess. It was a horrible ‘passing of the torch’ series and it made the people of Wakanda look like complete assholes. Best way to do things would have been for them to beat Bucky honestly-a tight win, but a win. They didn’t need to cheat, because they were that good. And the whole ‘white America is full of assholes’ thing has never been a good thing, especially when most comic book fans are white or not that kind of political.
“Next, Hawkeye. I mean, you have another ‘passing of the torch’ series, and it was just messy as hell. Sloppy writing and concept, and you needed to bring the Kingpin in earlier. Ms. Marvel, the comic book series was weak and having the current iteration of Carol Danvers as her hero? Ugh…,” I sighed in frustration. “And the less said about She Hulk, the better. They ruined the Netflix Daredevil-probably the best adaptation of any street-level Marvel comic book character on the small screen ever-to make a fifth rate Deadpool clone. Worse, they did it badly. Yes, I know that the comic book in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was that meta, but meta humor is hard to do well. And the series was not done well. WandaVision wasn’t as bad, but you had so many chances to play with the meta ideas there and nobody did. It was just sad, and you made Wanda into a villain…just for fun?”
Jack tapped his fingers on the armrest of his chair, and then he smiled. “Okay, what I’m hearing is that we’ve had some weak stories in the last few years. We have to have a definite ‘rebuilding’ phase coming up, and we need to do good stories to pull that off. Sounds about right?”
“Yes…,” I replied carefully.
“Good!” Jack laughed and nodded. “We’re in the middle of filming a sequel to Black Panther and we’ll be introducing a new character for a Disney Plus show in the movie.”
“Oh?” I had this sudden sinking feeling in my gut that I wasn’t going to like this.
“Yep,” Jack smiled. “Ever hear of Riri Williams?”
In Which The Writer Discovers That Things Have Gotten Worse
“I’ve heard of the character,” I replied, speaking slowly. “But…she’s not very popular. All of her comic book runs have been below-average at best, and very forgettable. And the few times I’ve seen anyone talk about her online, it’s not positive.”
“That’s something that has to go,” Jack nodded and started to play with his worry toy, a pen that he flipped between his fingers. “We think she has a lot of potential, a smart black girl that hit the ground running with StarkTech and built her own suit. Lots of potential marketing possibilities, we get to boost our DEI scores, lots of things we can do with that.”
I knew a lot more about Riri and Ironheart than I was going to admit, and I was able to keep my poker face going. She was not going to be a popular choice for anyone, and I hated to use the word “problematic” to describe anything or anyone, but… “So, what do you need me to do?” I asked, curious.
“We just keep getting retreads of the Iron Man script in an eight-episode format,” Jack switched the pen from his right hand to his left hand. “We want to bring you in, do a series bible, and see if an outside perspective can help us to get the script off the ground.”
“I can do that,” and that sinking feeling in my belly was getting worse. This was just spelling out “disaster” in some format… “I’ll need to have an idea of how to tie the story continuity into Phase Five of the MCU, but that’s just looking at notes right now.”
“Don’t worry too much about that,” Tom interrupted, “We’ll do the fine-tuning needed to tie her story in when we get that far, just stay as close to the continuity as you can.”
I considered that for a moment. “I can do that. And, you want a full pitch, right?”
“Absolutely,” Jack smiled, this time with some teeth. He stood up and offered me his hand, “The results will be awesome. I’ve heard great things about your work.”
“Thank you,” I replied as sincerely as I could, shaking his hand. “I’ll get to work as quickly as I can and have a story bible and a pitch ready for you ASAP.”
“Excellent!” Tom nodded, shook Jack’s hand and Jack left the room, waving as he headed out the door. Tom and I sat down, and I was lost in thought for a moment when Tom coughed softly. “Yes, it’s that bad.”
“It can’t be that bad,” I tried not to whine, but Tom handed me a bound story bible and I flipped through it. “It is that bad. Worse, even.”
“There’s a bit of room for you to work in,” Tom admitted. “Not as much as I’d like, but the #MeToo and DEI cultists are in full force around here. You’re going to have to make Riri as girlboss as you can.”
“Nobody likes girlboss characters. Not even the people that say they like girlboss characters like girlboss characters,” I groaned in frustration. “I could do a subversion of the girlboss.”
“Only if you can slip it past Jack,” Tom nodded. “I’ve gotten the entire run of Ironheart comic trade paperbacks for you, so you’ve got research materials.”
“Fun,” I muttered. “Well, it could be worse. I could still be in downtown Manhattan trying to convince the head of Studio 54 that trying to do a Carrie revival is going to crash and burn faster than David Caruso’s TV career after CSI Miami.”
“How did that go?” Tom asked curiously.
“Tax write-off, I hope,” I grunted as I took the bag of books from Tom.
In Which The Writer Reads Far Too Many Comic Books
I got back to the hotel and laid out the trade paperbacks. A little bit of research into Riri’s continuity, a few additional trade paperbacks ordered through Comixology to fill in team runs, and I sat down with my notepad and started to take notes.
The first and terrifying things about Riri Williams? If every third page wasn’t making it clear that she was a hero, you had a wonderful supervillain origin story here. Stole (or “salvaged”) and reverse-engineered an Iron Man suit. Had this feeling of entitlement and that she felt like the world owed her. Kept getting herself into big messes, and having authorial fiat bail her out. And, maybe even autistic, the bad kind of autistic. The kind that is going to leave her vulnerable because she is just so enthusiastic and doesn’t see the hook that far too many people would put in when they would pay attention to her.
There are too many people like that in the world. I worked for too many people like that. Seeing a girl that just wanted someone to pay attention to her exploited like that rubbed me extremely raw.
I kept writing notes, and sat there, thinking. Somehow, my biggest note came back to Riri mostly salvaged and reverse-engineered, she didn’t invent anything at all. Right next to that was we need a gear porn scene, organic to the story. Several, if we can get away with it. This wasn’t going to be good, not at all.
I’d typed up a timeline of the MCU and printed it out at the downstairs office center, laying it down on the floor to get a good idea of when things were in terms of time. Something about time just kept on hitting me, but I couldn’t figure out what or how.
I glared at my timeline, I glared at my notes, and I made a few attempts to type something on my laptop, but nothing really came out. Nothing that really appealed to me.
So, rather than stare at my laptop and complain at it, I packed things up and went out driving. Random driving is better than random public transit riding, especially in LA. Somehow, I pulled into Little Tokyo, parked the car, and walked around to get my head going. It was walking through the mall and past the Entertainment Hobby Shop Jungle that I saw something that caught my eye.
They had a window display of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers toys, or more specifically the original tokusatsu series it was based on, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. I stopped to look at it, remembering when I was a kid and our TV could barely get the local FOX station on our rabbit ears (it wasn’t until high school that we moved somewhere that we actually could get cable), and watching the show through static and barely making out one word in three. And, as I was looking at the toys and the action figures and the toyetic line potentials of everything…inspiration hit.
I pulled a notebook out of my satchel and started to scribble down notes. Then, I pulled out my phone and put in an order to a Mexican place that did awesome burritos.
I was probably going to be stuck in the hotel room for a few days to get this all down.
In Which The Writer Has A Full Toy Line Ready To Go
The writing took me most of the week, and I had to run to a FedEx/Kinkos to print out the completed story bible. A few phone calls to check with friends that were agents for the actors and actresses that I thought would be right for the roles (and getting in touch with friends-always a good thing), and that Monday I was ready to go, story bible copies in my satchel, and an appointment set with Jack and Tom.
“Good morning!” I smiled as I came in the door of Tom’s office, carrying coffee for everyone there. “I bring gifts.”
Tom and Jack took their coffee and Tom started to sip on his while Jack considered the cup in his hand. “You’ve got a bible and a pitch ready?” Jack asked.
“I’ve even got a PowerPoint presentation, if needed,” I smiled, and that took most of the weekend.
“Give me the pitch, and a verbal description,” Jack continued, then he sipped his coffee.
I waited for him to lower the coffee cup before I said, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Marvel Cinematic Universe version.”
That got his attention. “Go on, go on…,” he replied, waving his coffee cup around.
“Riri Williams is a sophomore high school student in a Midtown Baltimore high school, charter school set up by Pepper Potts as a memorial to Tony Stark,” I started, laying out a copy of the series bible on Tom’s desk for each of them. “She’s young, she’s smart, and she’s still learning. We have a teaching montage for the first episode, and she has an unofficial ‘uncle’-Bob Gonzalez-who is teaching her electronics and how to be aware of her surroundings.”
“Good start, but where does she get her suit and how does Power Rangers show up?” Jack asked, tapping a fingertip on his copy of the series bible.
“The big conflict of the first season is that there’s a company-Midnight’s Fire-that is involved in buying up properties and getting involved in local gentrification. And they’re a little..pushy. Riri thinks that she can do something about it. But she’s also trying to figure out why there’s a dead zone of cell signals near her house. Shouldn’t be one as far as she can tell, so she builds a detector to map out the dead zone,” I continued, and tried not to pace. Fiona tells me that I’m a pacer when I’m trying to be convincing, and I kept hearing that Jack hated people that paced around. “And that’s when she finds it, she finds one of Tony Stark’s labs, and she finds an Ultron. Namely, she finds Ultron version 1776, which was one of the later versions of Ultron, waiting there. And this is a ‘good,’” and I held up my fingers for air quotes, “version of Ultron.”
“There is one?” Jack asked me sarcastically.
“He claims so, at the very least. And that’s where we start. He can’t build robots, but he can build suits of armor, and with Riri’s help he can help her figure out what’s going on with Midnight’s Fire and save her neighborhood,” I scribbled on my notepad, to deal with my tension. “And it goes bad because they’ve got some supervillains working for them. That’s when one of Riri’s friends finds out what she’s been up to, and ‘76 realizes that they need a team, and that’s when we have our second big training montage.
“Now, we have a team of five teens with attitude, calling themselves Team Ironheart. They take down Midnight’s Fire and the supervillains get arrested, and the neighborhood is saved. Which leads to the two stingers. The first is that Midnight’s Fire is a front for the Ten Rings…and the branch here is run by Demetrius Williams. And, yes, Demetrius is Riri’s father, who she thought died in a drive-by shooting. The second stinger is that Bob and ‘76 know each other, because Bob is Robert Gonzalez from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and he’s a Variant. They’re working together because ‘something is coming’ and they’re getting ready for ‘the dialogs to come.’”
Jack considered the tip of his pen, then looked at me. “Good pitch,” he noted. “How does the team work for the story?”
“You have a whole range of characters to sell toys for, it’s a very toyetic series concept,” I replied, handing him a smaller report that I had put together. “The story works on two levels-one for kids that will want the toys, because there’s a lot of accessories and things they can play with. And, for the adults and parents, you have the classic James Spader snark and collectables for them to pick up and enjoy.”
“And this?” Jack asked, looking at the smaller report.
“Possible toy line ideas, marketing plans, and future concepts,” I smiled. “If you can get the kids and the collectors buying, you’ve got a source of income independent of Disney Plus subscription rates.”
Jack looked at the story bible and he flipped through it a bit. “Got some interesting details here,” he noted after some glancing. “Why the ensemble cast?”
“If any of the characters don’t work well in the first season, we can sort around a bit. We’ve got a good set of representative racial characteristics, three female and two male cast members as a part of the core team, and there’s a lot of space here for customization,” I said.
Jack looked at the bible and report and collected them. “Very good,” he stood up and shook my hand. “There’s a lot of great ideas here, and if we use them, there might be something here for you.”
“Thanks for giving me the chance to make the pitch,” I replied and shook his hand. “I’ll be in town for a few more days if you have any questions and want me to do any revisions.”
Jack made a little small talk and left, and I let out the breath that I didn’t know I was holding. “So,” I asked, turning to look at Tom, “how do you think it went?”
“I think you hit all of the big points, and I really like the team idea,” Tom nodded. “Jack’s going to take the bible to the team, and hopefully it’ll work out.”
“Hopefully,” I echoed. “We’ll be able to see some good results and maybe even get a good show. Should I start working on the first episode script?”
“Not a bad idea,” Tom agreed. “Worse case, you’re ahead of the curve and you’ve got the rest of the week paid, so that’s something.”
“Awesome. Grab lunch today and share some Fiona and the kids’ stories?” I asked, handing Tom his copy of the toy marketing report.
“Sounds like a plan,” Tom chuckled. “And is there really something called ‘toyetic’?”
“Hey, it’s how Star Wars kept making its nut over the last thirty-something years.”
In Which The Writer Finds The Shaft
Tom and I had lunch at this little hole-in-the-wall place that made some of the best pork jambalaya I’d had outside of New Orleans. We were considering a second round when Tom’s phone went off. He glanced at it and muttered a lot of profanity in Yiddish. “Just got a message from Jack, he wants to meet with us again,” he muttered as he put his phone away.
“Far too soon,” I agreed, and we made it back to the office.
Jack was there, waiting. “Didn’t like it, they wanted Riri to be the star of the show, completely,” Jack said without preamble. “Also, she’s not girlboss enough-she needs to kick more ass on her own and kick it as hard as she can.”
“Damn,” I muttered, then said more loudly. “I could revise the concept…,” but Jack waved at me.
“They’re trying to revise the current story bible they have, and they think that there’s nothing they can do with this one,” he shrugged. “So, yea, we’re good at concepts but not what we wanted.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied. “I’ll be in town a few more days if something changes.”
“Just wanted to let you know in person,” Jack shrugged, and as he left, I was just trying not to seethe internally.
“Well, that didn’t work,” I said to Tom as the door closed.
“They’re trying to get somewhere, and they hate it when they can’t use their own map,” Tom agreed. “Few more days on our dime, so that’s something.”
“That it is,” I agreed.
As I left the office, I looked back at the building and just wanted to be angry and make a grand gesture. But I stomped on that feeling hard. Grand gestures are not as much fun when you’re a husband with three kids-and the industry doesn’t like you.
At least the weather is nice, and I was already thinking about a drive along the coast. Maybe some sea air would help.
And, as I walked to my car, the clouds were moving quickly, and I could imagine five sets of contrails, as Team Ironheart flew to help save people.
One day, I thought, they’ll spread their wings and soar.