With the end of 2013 approaching, I’ve decided to spend this week talking about the year in review. My first thought was to create a list of my top ten list favorite movies, but then I realized that I have only only seen thirteen 2013 movies, so my list would not be at all relevant or helpful. Instead, I’m just going to do what I do best and talk about what I like. Or, in this case, something I do not like.
This was kind of a weird year in moviegoing for me. Remember how excited I was to see The Way, Way Back? Still haven’t seen it. This time last year, I was rereading The Great Gatsby in anticipation of the new movie. Still haven’t seen it, either.
I’m trying to think of a nice way to say this, but I don’t really have one, so I’m just going to say it: this was the year I stopped being so stubborn and started letting Joel pick more of the movies that we went to. Yeesh, that makes me sound awful. But I had very strong opinions about movies and would really only see the quirky indie comedies and serious Oscar-bait dramas.
So I was surprised to find myself seeing pretty much every blockbuster action/superhero movie that came out this year, and damned if I didn’t enjoy myself.
That being said … there is one thing rampant in action and superhero movies that makes me crazy: the stakes are too low.
Last week, I talked through the plot arc of a good superhero movie and why I think Iron Man is the perfect example. What makes it the perfect example is that the stakes have been set appropriately high.
I’m going to say this, even though it really could go without saying – no one’s walking into a superhero movies expecting to see real life circumstances on the big screen. The stakes in movies are different than the stakes in real life, that’s a given.
But we have to believe those stakes. If the hero has to save the world from certain doom, we have to believe that the world really could succumb to certain doom. This was not always the case in this year’s movies.
Let’s talk about a specific example: Pacific Rim. If you didn’t see it, the premise is that space alien monsters have found a way to invade earth through a portal in the Pacific Ocean (I don’t think I’m explaining it right, but the plot isn’t really the point of this movie.) Mankind, of course, doesn’t want Earth being invaded by monster space aliens, so they build giant metal robots to fight off the aliens. Pretty soon, the aliens are stronger and faster and coming two or three at a time.
I know I just said the plot isn’t the point, but there is some semblance of a plot in Pacific Rim. The problem is, the plot doesn’t matter. There’s supposed to be a conflict – it looks for a while like the aliens are going to win. But there’s never any reasonable doubt that they won’t. The movie steps on its own feet by making it a little too obvious that the good guys are going to win in the end, but expecting us to care. Problem is, I didn’t care, because I already knew the outcome.
I realize that I’m bringing high expectations to an action movie, and in fact, when I tried to have this conversation with my friends, they all shot me down, saying that having plot or making the audience care wasn’t the point of this movie. Who needs plot when you have explosions and aliens and robots and giant swords! But if I don’t care about the characters or why they’re trying to save the world from certain doom, why bother watching?
There has to be reasonable cause to doubt that everything will turn out okay in the end – if there isn’t, then the stakes aren’t high enough. If the stakes aren’t high enough, I don’t care about the characters or the world they live in.
There are two classic, hard-to-screw-up ways to raise the stakes:
First, kill off one of the good guys. This can be extremely effective when used right. Like I said in last week’s post, it has to come at the right moment, usually towards the end of the second act. If the character dies during the final battle, then the audience doesn’t feel the full weight of their death and might not even notice it because of the action.
Kick Ass 2 had the best stakes-raising death scene in a movie I saw this year, and not because it was gruesome and bloody, but because it set the stakes for the final battle. There was revenge to be had.
Second, have the hero hang up their cape/suit/hammer. If a superhero gets more than one movie, then we’ve seen them throw in the towel and vow to stop trying to save the world. They feel under appreciated or inadequate or maybe they’re trapped in the villain’s lair where it looks like they’ll have to sit and watch the baddies take over the world.
For whatever reason, there’s a moment of doubt for us in the audience. We know the hero is going to save the day, but we can’t see how he’s going to get from where he is (physically or mentally) to where he needs to be.
It’s that moment of doubt that raises the stakes, and the stakes being high enough validates a movie’s existence. We need to believe that the hero and the world he lives in are actually fallible.
This is why I think Superman is inherently a less interesting superhero than Batman – no one on Earth can rival his powers – he has X-ray vision and super strength and can fly! It’s just not interesting to see Superman take on Earthly rivals.
The people who made Man of Steel recognized this, and did what they could to raise the stakes by appealing to our emotions. They went for a couple of different angles, like death in the family and testing Superman’s morality, and pitted him against a Kryptonian adversary.
I’m not totally sold that the emotional angle is the right one to raise the stakes, but at least they tried.
And that’s my issue – it seems to me like movies aren’t trying anymore. They’re lazy. Characters “die” and then magically reappear at the moment when it’s convenient to an inconsequential plot.
I think this is a case where superhero movies need to be more in line with real life. There have to be real life stakes or the movie doesn’t matter.