Blockbuster movies and the continued trouble with stakes

When was the last time you went into the final act of a big blockbuster and didn't have any idea how things would turn out?

This article contains spoilers for:

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (major)

Super 8 (middling)

Back To The Future (mild)

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Next week’s National Lottery numbers * (mild)

Toy Story 3 (mild)

Skyfall (mildish)

The Fugitive (middling)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (middling)

* Just seeing if anyone reads this bit

It’s an oft-quoted example, granted, but in the midst of Back To The Future’s time travel, and the rush to get the DeLorean up to 88mph and to put the world right, the motivation of the lead character was a simple one: to make sure his parents stayed together.

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No matter what Doc Brown said, it wasn’t about the end of the world or a paradox bringing everything crashing down. Nor was there, in this instance, no big alien coming out of the sky. It was something simple, relatable, and that the vast majority of us could root for.

Go through lots of other strong blockbuster movies, and a similar theme emerges. The Goonies wanted to save Mikey’s house, and thus stick together. The aim of the Jurassic Park cast was to escape a theme park, and not die. Terminator 2? To protect John Connor, one boy, albeit one with ramifications for the future of mankind. Go through lots of blockbusters of the 80s in particular, and the goals were seemingly contained, yet conversely seemed to matter more.

But how the world has changed.

Right now, I’ve been mulling a blockbuster that had me following the characters and story, but then virtually threw it all away with a final act dedicated to addressing a CG character that was the least interesting feature of the movie. That description could, sadly, apply to many a film, but in this instance, it’s JJ Abrams’ Super 8 that’s at the forefront of my mind.

Well, that and, inevitably, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

But what was disappointing about Super 8 is that it didn’t have to go down the CG finale route. It wasn’t a massive sequel, it didn’t have a studio’s summer party riding on it. Yet convention dictated that come the final act of the film, that’s when you have to pour special effects in. That’s what people, it seems, want to see. The peak of the story, in films over a certain budget level, appears to be far, far less interesting than the journey there. That there’s some unwritten rule that you pour your biggest stunts and special effects in for the last 20 minutes, ideally in the midst of a punch-up.

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But why? And didn’t this stop working in the 1990s?

Zeroing in – briefly – on Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the main criticism I see from even those who cared a lot for the film is that the battle with Doomsday – that comes even after Batman and Superman have had their rumble in the car park – is by distance the weakest thing in it. Well, I say Doomsday, but in truth, the computer creation in front of my eyes was interchangeable as far as I could see with any number of CG creatures that have popped up to attempt to raise the stakes in blockbuster films over the years.

And, in truth: who cares? I’ve written before about my dislike of the big fight that seems compulsory for the final act of a major comic book movie now (even the wildly entertaining Deadpool, whilst lampooning the trend, falls into the same trap). Even if, though, it were a case of CG character smashing CG character – as it often is – it’s not as if things couldn’t work, if we weren’t so certain of the outcome. But as movies have got bigger, so outcomes have been blindingly obvious within minutes of a film starting.

This started a while back, of course. I think it was Barry Norman, in his review of The Fugitive, who argued that that film would have been genuinely tense had the two lead roles been reversed, and Tommy Lee Jones played the man on the run, with Harrison Ford hunting him. Only then would there be reasonable doubt as to the guilt or otherwise of the lead character. Of course, things didn’t turn out that way, and Harrison Ford was the man accused of murder. But did anyone ever think that his character did it?

And the heart of what he says stands very much to this day.

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Going back to Batman V Superman, for instance, it does try and throw in a surprise, by apparently killing off Superman in the film. Yet nobody – from embryos to corpses – is really buying that for a second. Even if we didn’t know that Henry Cavill had more movies in his contract, and that he was set to start filming the first of two Justice League features next month, not a single person in a cinema, anywhere, surely bought that Superman was really dead. The film didn’t need its last two seconds as the soil on his coffin started to rise. That could have just been lopped off the 151 minute running time instead.

Because Superman is as much a business necessity as a character in the modern DC movie universe, and that we’re expected to feel sad enough to weep through two funerals for him is, charitably, the film pushing its luck. That we’re expected to believe that he’s gone? Well, I don’t buy that Zack Snyder is daft, and indeed, he’s posited that Superman is basically sidelined so Batman can set the Justice League up instead.

Marvel hasn’t helped here, in making us buy into blockbuster movie stakes. Even when it’s apparently killed characters off – Nick Fury in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Agent Coulson in The Avengers – they’ve been back collecting their cheques in due course. Inevitably, rumours – and I have no knowledge whether they’re true or not – persist that Captain America: Civil War will be sending someone to the grave. But even then, most of us will approach that if it happens with some degree of scepticism.

This is, after all, the era of the movie universe, of the endless sequels, of reboots and remakes. It’s also, lest we forget, an era of the savviest cinema audience, that’s as well versed in the conventions of franchises as many of the people totting up the cash on their spreadsheets. Rug pulls are hard when you’ve got the release dates for the next three movies already announced, and as a consequence, putting together some stakes that people care about is harder.

But that doesn’t mean it still has to be like this.

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One of the things that struck me when watching last summer’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation was that it had the confidence to position its best action sequences away from the end. Heck, one of its best is done with inside ten minutes. Furthermore, there are franchise movies that do prove you can go into the last 20 minutes of a movie still utterly vested in things. Skyfall, for instance, may have played Home Alone in a remote house near the end, but there were human beings in the midst that I was still rooting for.

Even better: look at Toy Story 3. Granted, I was fairly sure that the key characters would pull through – this was a Disney/Pixar film, after all – but the part I was utterly vested in was what would happen to them? Andy was going away: would they have a future of their own? I cared up until the frame of the last reel. And what about Dredd? Could two Judges both escape the dangers of a block out of control? There was no planet to save, just a case of trying to get out of a building alive and in tact.

William Goldman, in his peerless book Adventures In The Screen Trade, highlighted back in 1983 what he saw as the growth of the comic book movie. Not literally so, but rather the fact that the outcome of a film was often predetermined by who the star was, and what the star would and wouldn’t do. He cited a key scene in the classic The Deer Hunter, and the confrontation near the end between two characters. “If you looked at the billing of the picture on the way in”, he wrote, “did you ever doubt who was going to win?”.

This is not a new problem, then. And Goldman (correctly) foresaw that “comic book pictures are only breeding more comic book pictures, something that has never happened to this extent before”. Over 30 years later, his words can’t help but resonate.

One caveat, though: he does sell comic books themselves short. In the pages of comics are far more dramatic and interesting story twists and narratives than we often get to see on the big screen. But his shorthand holds water: the comic book notion of the top billed hero winning – or dying a dramatic death at worst – is established. What’s more, its hold over blockbuster cinema is epidemic, so much so that the old notion of Hitchcock hiring a star to kill them a third into the movie – and thus destabilising expectations for the rest of the film – are long gone.

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Over the coming months, we’re thus going to find out if Apocalypse will defeat the X-Men, if the Suicide Squad can pull off a mission beyond mere mortals, whether the world will be saved in Independence Day: Resurgence, and if Jason Bourne can once again emerge victorious. There’s not one answer to those questions that’s, in my mind, even slightly in doubt. I’d love to be proved wrong – because right now, the bulk of blockbuster cinema is only able to tell two thirds of a decent story…

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