Sunday, January 05, 2014

What's the Matter with Hollywood in 2013, Part 1: High Stakes Can Get Boring

I've already done some of these for Pacific Rim, but now let’s mop a lot more of the mess...
In any story about a heroic struggle, you need to establish early on whether you’re asking, “Will the hero succeed?” or “How will the hero succeed?” If you’re writing one story that’s part of an ongoing comic book or TV show, you need to make sure that most of the time you’re asking the latter, not the former. The nature of the format dictates that heroes will (and should) almost always succeed, so if you keep asking “Will they?”, then the audience will get fed up.

That said, if your comic book or TV show is producing at least twelve stories per year, you can do one or two per year that imply that your heroes really are in mortal danger this time, because you’ve earned the right to do those stories.

Of course, you can go to that well more often if you genuinely kill off a character every now and then, but this is ultimately a trap: you’ll will have to keep escalating and escalating. In the end, if you can’t get your audience to get just as excited by a “How will they?” story as they are by a “Will they?” story, then you have no business writing about an ongoing hero.

One problem is that “Will they succeed?” only has two possible answers: yes or no. “How will they succeed?” has lots of possible answers, so it’s an inherently more interesting question. Unfortunately, we now we have this idea, especially when continuing stories are adapted into movies, that every story needs ultra-high stakes, so they have to be about the momentous but unimaginative question of “Will they?”, rather than the quotidian but far more interesting question of “How will they?”

Recent spectacle movies like Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, Green Lantern, The Dark Knight Rises, Oblivion, Man of Steel, and Pacific Rim are all about “Will they?”, rather than “How will they?”. In each case, the hero just defeats the villain with brute force, and maybe a nuclear bomb or two. These are “lone superpower” movies. The heroes have the power, but the final question is “Will they be willing to do what needs to be done?” (We’ll explore this disturbing “man up” trend throughout this week)
And even in those few movies where the hero used some “cleverness” to defeat the villains, the “clever” thing they do actually requires no brain cells whatsoever. In Star Trek Into Darkness, the bad guy, who has been genetically engineered to be the greatest military genius of all time, says to the heroes, “My friends are sleeping inside your super-powerful bombs! I am firing on your weak little ship with my big evil ship, and I demand that you teleport those bombs onto my ship, knowing full well that I will keep firing on your ship and killing you after you do so!” So the heroes dutifully beam the bombs onto his ship, but they’ve done something very clever: they have set those bombs to go off! What a mind-blowing idea! Who could ever have guessed that they might do that??

Of course, after that scene, the movie has another forty minutes left (This has become another hard-and-fast Hollywood rule: whenever the movie feels like it’s over, there’s always another forty minutes left) and suffice it to say nothing “clever” is going to happen after that. We’ll talk about that on Tuesday, but first...


Anonymous said...


QED said...

They completely telegraphed how they were going to save Kirk as well which totally invalidated his "sacrifice". Nearly everything about Into Darkness was terrible imo. Every reference to Wrath of Khan was just reminding you that you were watching a very poor imitation of a much better film.

Matt Bird said...

I especially loved it when they decided to just to call up Leonard Nimoy in the middle of everything:

"How do we defeat this Khan guy?"
"Well, haven't you seen 'Wrath of Khan?"
"No, is it good?"
"Are you kidding me, it's awesome!"
"Well, we're in the middle of the remake right now, and it sucks, so could you just save us some trouble and tell us how the original ended!"
"Sure, no problem [whisper, whisper]"
"Wow, that does sound awesome, forget this remake silliness, let's just do that instead."
"I told you it was awesome. When this is all over, you guys GOTTA come over and watch the original! And then maybe 3 and 4 and 6, but that's it."
"Looking forward to it! You're the best!"

Geekademia said...

Mr. Bird,

Thank you for yet again hitting the nail on the head in regards to something that's been bothering me for quite some time but could not quite articulate. It's like everyone's in such a rush to make their formerly fun genre stories feel more grown up, and as such they end up killing what made the genres interesting in the first place.

j.s. said...

Aren't you kind of also describing the inherent tension between more serialized forms of storytelling and the increasingly blockbusterized conventions of A-list Hollywood tentpole moviemaking? The desire to tell an on-going story (or at least a series of stories that may yield sequels) is directly at odds with the hype and marketing commandment of must-see event movies: that this is the single biggest, most incredible and dramatic event that ever happened to these characters.

When Lucas and Spielberg first turned the stuff of B-movie serials and comic books into A-picture events, they managed to keep the audience focused on the right question. So why is this different now? In your next post you talk about HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS, which, though not to my taste, also strike me as more or less the right way to translate the serialized experience to movies.