Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: Presuming the Premise vs. Accepting Genre Gimmes

Whoops, here’s one last post based on a comment on last week’s posts. Longtime commenter Harvey Jerkwater did something rather embarrassing: He read my book, and pointed out that I seem to totally contradict last week’s post. To wit:
  • A related part of your book (just arrived; order from Amazon today, kids!) sparked two half-finished ideas...
  • Per your analysis, Pacific Rim suffered from "presuming the premise." The filmmakers never explained the logic of the weird premise enough for the audience to stop asking "why don't they just [nuke the monsters or other logical step] instead of building Giant Fighting Robots?"
  • But as this very blog piece points out, genre allows a certain level of presumption. Why does Elsa have ice powers? Because it's a fairy tale!
  • This suggests two things:
  • Maybe the creators of Pacific Rim thought that "giant piloted robots versus giant monsters" is an existing genre, and they were taking advantage of the genre's built-in features to "skip to the good stuff." This probably isn't what happened, but it fits the evidence. It may be a genre already -- a lot of Japanese animation seems to be a genre of "piloted giant robots fight" -- but if so, it's not popular enough for its cheats and assumptions to be accepted by the larger public.
  • An analysis of the difference between embracing genre tropes/assumptions and "presuming the premise" might be interesting. They aren't quite the same thing, but they're related.
Indeed, Harvey, let’s dig into this. In that part of the book, I do indeed point out that Pacific Rim just asks us to go with the flow when they attack a monster with a giant robot instead of nuking it, but we won’t go along with that. As counter examples, I cite Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day as movies that presumed their premise in their first drafts, then got wisely rewritten to begin in the normal world and gradually get us to the outlandish situation.

So which is it? Why are Pacific Rim, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day not allowed to presume their premises but Frozen and good superhero movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man are (and, in fact need to)? A few reasons.
  • Harvey is right that monsters vs. robots isn’t enough of an established genre in America, so we’re not primed enough to accept that kind of absurdity. If we’d seen it a million times, we might be inured to it. Likewise, the genres of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day were not well-established enough to begin in medias res.
  • Frozen is asking us to simply accept something magical, but they’re not asking us to ignore a more sensible story direction, like fighting a monster you could nuke.
  • Superhero movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man are not that different from Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day in that they do start in the real world. The “genre gimme” of putting on a costume only happens after the hero has been moved there somewhat logically. (This is one reason why almost all superhero franchises start with origin movies. 1989’s Batman is the one big exception, and it does get away with it by relying on genre gimmes, so it can be done.) 
So you can accept genre gimmes and get away with presuming certain aspects of your premise if it’s a very well-established genre (fairy tale, super-hero) and it doesn’t ignore a clearly superior option.

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