Are summer blockbuster plots becoming more convoluted?

Are the stories of blockbusters getting more muddled? And are we just pretending we understand them, when we don't?

Note: this article contains a spoiler-y description of one scene in Skyfall.

While at a junket for Iron Man 3 in April, a journalist for a well known UK newspaper leaned over to me, and in an almost conspiratorial tone, asked whether I understood what the villain in Marvel’s latest blockbuster was actually up to. “He wanted to control terror or something. Didn’t he?”

I won’t mention my reply in detail here, since it might result in a dreaded spoiler, but I explained my theory as best as I could. “Yes, that’s sort of what I assumed it was,” said the journalist, nodding. “But it was all a bit of a muddle, wasn’t it?”

And he was right. The motivations of Iron Man 3′s villain were a bit of a muddle.

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As we’ve already said in earlier pieces, Iron Man 3 was an enormous amount of fun: a funny, irreverent and exciting action film that contains just about everything you could want in a Marvel movie. But like so many recent blockbusters (and Iron Man 3‘s undoubtedly a blockbuster, with its ticket sales set to cross a billion dollars any moment now), its plot hurtled by in a welter of explosions, twists and wisecracks.

Sure, you could probably sit down afterwards and work out on a piece of paper what the heroes and villains wanted and why they did what they did, but while sitting in the darkness of the multiplex, it’s difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on.

It’s not only Iron Man 3 that does this, either. Both 2009‘s Star Trek and this year’s sequel Star Trek Into Darkness move along at a breakneck pace, delivering chunks of exposition in the middle of hectic action scenes, and piling alternate timelines and twists on top of still more twists.

In recent blockbusters, heroes and villains alike must have secret plans and arcane, detailed backstories. It’s no longer enough for them to be simple terrorists or thieves, like Die Hard’s Hans Gruber or Lethal Weapon’s Mr Joshua.

Blockbusters now commonly approach a three hour duration, and feature huge casts – The Dark Knight Rises was an enormous film in every respect. Even Fast Five had the cast of a World War II ensemble escape movie, even though it was essentially a film about people driving around in expensive cars and stealing things.

Last year’s Skyfall was another example of a sprawling, faintly confusing blockbuster. It was an exciting cat-and-mouse game between hero and villain, taking in all sorts of traps, coincidences and outrageous turns of fortune. But Skyfall had at least one plot point that, if you stopped to think about it, didn’t make much sense at all.

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In a nutshell, a villain deliberately allowed himself to be captured in order to infect MI6 with a computer virus that infected the entire building and unlocked all the security systems. Making good his escape, Silva made expert use of London’s underground tunnel network to give Bond the slip, meet up with a group of his henchmen, and stage an assassination attempt on Judi Dench’s M. But how did Silva know Q would be daft enough to plug Silva’s laptop into MI6‘s network with an Ethernet cable, thus setting his plan in motion? What would his back-up plan been had Q not done this? How did Silva know that Bond would chase him into the underground, and would appear in a subterranean chamber at just the right moment, so that Silva could bring a train crashing down on top of him (or almost)?

More and more films appear to be relying on this frenzied style of plotting, where a rush of events forces the viewer to simply give up trying to make sense of what’s going on and take it all at face value. I almost wonder whether, for some critics, it’s simply too embarrassing to admit that a story’s too difficult to follow.

As we’ve already seen, many films get away with this, though to what extent depends on whose review you choose to read, since such verdicts often hinge on how receptive critics are to the logic of their plots. Iron Man 3, Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness received largely positive reviews, though some have picked fault with their storylines – of Into Darkness, the New York Post, for example, wrote, “The only darkness here […] is the murky plot, which is as silly as it is arbitrary.”

Occasionally, however, a film comes out that doesn’t quite get away with masking logic with thrills – such as Prometheus. Although by no means a terrible movie, it was frequently criticised for its inconsistent character responses and scattergun approach to storytelling. Red Letter Media’s four-minute analysis of the film’s logic was all the more stinging because its questions were so on-the-money. “Was the black goo different than the sparkly green goo? Why did Weyland want David to infect Holloway with the black goo? If the black goo alters people’s DNA, why did a little fish come out of Holloway’s eye?” And so on.

Prometheus’ writers may have hoped that audiences would do what they did through so many other Hollywood films, and simply take in the spectacular visuals and not ask too many questions. But in this instance, it may have been that Prometheus’ hapless scientists and duplicitous robots provided a logical leap too far.

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It’s the unwritten rule of every summer blockbuster to top the action, spectacle and stakes of its predecessors, which may account for the increasingly convoluted nature of Hollywood plots. Like the traps in the Saw franchise, the villains in superhero movies, action flicks and other mainstream films have to become ever more devious and mysterious in order to impress.

It could even be argued that this increasingly complex approach to storytelling is nothing new. The granddaddy of blockbuster filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock, made a great number of classic thrillers throughout his career on both sides of the Atlantic, and by the latter stages of his career, he was faced with the daunting task of topping his own ingenious work. His 1959 film North By Northwest was the prototypical summer hit: it featured highwire stunts, enigmatic villains, and a hero on the run. It was full of twists, turns, obscure identities and coincidences, and although it’s a classic we return to time and again, we’re still a bit confused by its events.

For some, the leaps seen in everything from The Dark Knight Rises to Star Trek Into Darkness are simply too annoying to ignore. But for the majority, it seems, the combination of thrilling spectacle and engaging characterisation is enough – if a movie truly thrills us, then maybe the mad plans of its villain, and a confusing, convoluted plot simply don’t matter.

As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character said in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, “It’s only when you wake up that you realise that something’s strange…”