Mister Cinecal

Mister Cinecal

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Scale, Action Movies and You

A scene from a movie where a thing explodes

The other day I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I liked it fine. Marvel movies are like pizza you know, even when they're not great they're still pretty good. The main issues I had with it came towards the end, are pretty pervasive in superhero movies in general and are part of an interesting discussion on what I feel works best for action movies and what happens when they go too big in scale. Well, I say discussion, only I'm going to be actually saying things and if you reply, I won't hear you. It's natural for action movies to want things bigger and louder but this doesn't always work in their favour. Now be forewarned, the next few paragraphs are going to get into the dreaded spoiler territory for Captain America, so if you haven't seen it yet leave here now and go find some other corner of the internet to waste time in. Take that quiz and see which Saved By The Bell character you are.

You're Screech by the way.

So in this movie the baddies have a special algorithm that assesses all available information about everyone everywhere to decide whether or not they could be a threat in the future. In the climax of the movie this algorithm is programmed into three fuck off aircraft thingies that are about the size of the country I live in and unless Captain America can stop them, the baddies are going to use this information to assassinate 20 million people. 20. Million. People. What ends up happening is that these massive airships shoot each other out of the sky and crash into the Shield building below, a mass of explosion and wrecked metal that again, is larger than the country I live in and probably the one next to mine as well and which leads to the 9/11 money shot which has become irritatingly pervasive in Hollywood blockbusters. Smoke is coming out of the building guys, DOES THIS REMIND YOU OF ANYTHING!? This ending was basically preposterous and drew me right out of the film. They've raised the stakes so high that I can't even see them anymore.
Oh, I get it!

The climax is the most important part of the story and you have to have the stakes just right so that the audience buys into it. You set up something that the audience doesn't want to see happen, then threaten that it will. If the mountie doesn't get the girl off the train tracks then she'll be hit by a train, if the guy doesn't run in the rain to the airport in time then he and Meg Ryan will die alone, if Sandra Bullock doesn't help Blind Side by being white then he'll stay poor and dumb forever because he isn't white enough to help himself. The problem is that you can go too big, making the situation in your third act worse and worse to the point that the audience just becomes worn out and/or no longer able to relate to what's happening. Generally speaking, it has to feel real to us or we don't care. As the murderous communist dictator Roger Ebert once said; one death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic. Captain America 2 threatens to out-murder World War One. That's silly. And it's also not really necessary. The personal conflict between Cap and the Winter Soldier should be more than enough to hang an ending on, but that's not big enough, so you have to add a few more million potential casualties. There is no sense of danger in them potentially carrying out a holocaust in the third act of a children's film*. I can buy them killing the Winter Soldier. Keeping comic book conventions in mind, I could even buy them killing off Captain America. But I do not believe there is any danger of 20 million people being blown away by the fuck off aircraft thingies in a Disney movie, so I don't care.

Superhero movies are particularly prone to this problem, as they look to make everything more "epic". You only have to look at the disaster porn of Man of Steel to see this in action. The destruction of an entire city and the probable death of many thousands is completely brushed over and yet in the final moments we're supposed to care about Superman saving 3 random bystanders from Zod laser vision. I mean, in-universe, the worst thing ever has just happened, what's another couple numbers on top of that? To be fair, this attitude partly comes from comics themselves, which have had a large and unfortunate erection for 'important' stories and high mortality rates ever since Watchmen. The best superhero comics around right now are small-scale, often episodic and focus on good characters, like Hawkeye, while the big 'event' comics lead to audience fatigue. So combine the superhero genre with the tendency of blockbuster sequels to escalate and this is what you get. Thor has to stop Christopher EcclestElf or he'll destroy the entire universe. I mean come on. Contrast the majority of big comic-book adaptations with the severely underrated Dredd, which was praised for telling a simple day-in-the-life story confined to one building. Judge Dredd didn't need a dramatic origin story culminating in him saving Mega City One from complete destruction. He just wanted to take down some drug dealers. Instead of trying to top the massive alien invasion of The Avengers, the Thor and Captain America sequels should have compartmentalised (Nick Fury was right!) and told smaller stories about their characters. The Winter Soldier, to be fair, mostly did try doing this, focusing on espionage and Steve Rogers doubting who he can trust (again I liked it well enough) but then it insisted on an ending where everything exploded. It's like all big budget action movies are produced by Crazy Harry from the Muppets.

This guy is putting Michael Bay's kids through college.
Die Hard is a story about one man trapped in a building trying to take down 12 thieves, and getting his feet all cut up in the process. A Good Day To Die Hard is about the same guy trapped in Russia trying to take down a nuclear terrorist and his endless supply of henchmen, not getting hurt at all in the process because he is an invulnerable ubermensch. One is small in scope and is the best action movie of all time, one is big and is the source of Bruce Willis's self-loathing. What you need for good storytelling is a character that people will be interested in following, the special effects and choreography and everything else is just gravy. With too many action movies these days, even if they have a good character, hell, even if they have good gravy, they just keep pouring and pouring and pouring until the gravy is all over the table and in your shoes and the mashed potato just dissolves and everybody's Sunday dinner is ruined.

It's easy to criticise action movie fans as being drawn to bright colours and loud noises, but really a larger part of the appeal lies in escapism and self-insert fantasy. It's pleasant to put yourself in the shoes of the Raid guy, kicking the shit out of a bunch of people in one apartment building. If you had to kick the shit out of the building itself, which is also a giant robot, or else everyone in Jakarta will die, that sounds too much like hard work. The other most prominent self-insert kind of genre is probably romance and they don't do things with as much excess on that side of the spectrum. The career girl who keeps dropping papers everywhere gets her Paul Rudd, in YA fiction the teen will have 3-4 dudes and maybe a vampire all hopelessly and badly-writtenly in love with her, but that's as far as it goes. Try and increase the scale any higher than that and you get Ultimate Gang-Bangers 9. That's what Transformers movies are like to me, big, gross, vaguely racist and designed to sell toys. These big-budget action movies are locked in an arms race, more deaths, more guns, more destruction, when none of it necessarily leads to better quality in comparison to a simple story well told.

* The destruction of a planet in Star Wars gets a pass from me because a) It was about establishing the threat of the Death Star in the second act to ensure stakes in the third act and b) because I'm a nerd and a loser and you shouldn't listen to me.

1 comment:

  1. In the back of one of Philip K Dicks novels he left a comment which was basically to say: sure it's scary when the Martians invade, but life's greatest fears are things like your wife leaving you and losing your family. Of course if the Martians decide to invade at the same time you're going to have a really bad day.