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The Stakes Are Too Damn High!

(This week and next we are discussing blockbuster films and violence, partly inspired by our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign for Burp Girl. Read the whole series here.)

For anyone who’s tried to be a screenwriter--and read the books or listened to the podcasts that go along with that--you know your screenplay has to have one thing: stakes. What’s at stake? If nothing is at stake, the story won’t be dramatic. (I could digress that this “rule”, like any rule, is broken all the time and I don’t actually believe every story must have stakes, but that’s a much longer argument for later.)

Unfortunately, trying to make their movies stand out, Hollywood has made the stakes too damn high.

I’m not the only person who’s pointed this out. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox (quickly becoming our favorite writer about the entertainment industry) made this argument about Jurassic World: it works because the fate of the world isn’t at stake.

“...in a film like Jurassic World, the world won't end; instead, people's lives will. Instead of asteroid versus everybody, this is dinosaur versus human, or even dinosaur versus dinosaur."

VanDerWerff makes a great point. I mean, even Ant-Man--whose power is literally a shrinking suit--kept referencing that the world would end if the technology leaked. Uh, no it wouldn’t have.

I actually have a slightly different complaint/take, born of the same impulse to raise the stakes too damn high: by taking the world to the brink of chaos, the heroes in many blockbusters actually lose. The only victory is pyrrhic at best. To establish stakes, cities get destroyed by rampaging monsters, villains, aliens or robots. Millions are killed. But they’re defeated at the end by the heroes. The world didn’t end, but millions still died.

In other words, I know longer feel good leaving many big budget films, because I believe the heroes have lost.

Some examples:

- The last chapter in the approximately seventeen-hour-long Hobbit series demonstrated this phenomenon perfectly. Smaug destroys Laketown, killing most everyone in the town, and a few hundred humans survive. Then the orcs attack and specifically attack the humans. How many people, if any, survived? Even if the good guys “win” at the end, at what cost? Most everyone is dead. Most of the dwarves are dead. A bunch of immortal elves died. Everyone’s dead, except for Frodo and Gandalf. Yay? (And the fate of the world wasn’t at stake.)

- Or take The Dark Knight Rises. Rises from what? Technically, Batman “wins” after he saves Gotham from a nuclear explosion. Then again, the citizens of Gotham were held hostage in a quasi-terrorist police state, with the executions of thousands by show trials led by Scarecrow for six months. Technically Batman “saved” Gotham, but I’d argue, end result, Gotham (and Batman) lost. Winning would have stopped Bane in the first place.

- Or, more infamously, Man of Steel. Even when it was first released, critics and fanboys widely panned the film for having Superman and Zod basically destroy all of Metropolis. Sure, Zod didn’t take over the Earth, but millions died.

- Captain America: Winter Soldier. We loved this movie. But did Captain America really win, or did HYDRA? End result: HYDRA destroyed SHIELD. Mission accomplished? Sure, other meta-humans weren’t killed. Still sucks.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure this trope is out there. I tried to research it, and aside from articles comparing the first two Avengers films to Man of Steel, others haven’t made this specific point.

I think I know why this happens. It’s not just about raising stakes, though that’s a huge reason why. More importantly, big budget blockbusters are too predictable. Everyone knows a happy ending is coming. How do you make the audience feel suspense then? Destroy so much that it appears like they won’t win.

But if you lean too far in the “Will the heroes win?” direction, at some point, my answer will just be no. It’s a logic concern. Midway through watching the last Hobbit film, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “There’s no way they can realistically come back from this.” I was right. Twelve dwarves joining a massive battle won’t make a difference.

More important, though, is the moral question: how do other filmgoers not notice or, worse, not care about this? If millions of anonymous people die on screen, doesn’t it matter? You shouldn’t leave the theater feeling good about what you’ve just seen.