How to keep romantic subplots from killing a movie

How many action and sci-fi movies have you seen ruined by a silly romantic subplot? Nina has the rules to follow to make them work...

In times past when I watched action or science fiction films and a lame, unnecessary cutaway to a not-so-subtle display of romantic tension between two characters threw off the speedy, thrilling tempo, it would only rank as a slight annoyance. Now, I’m writing articles about them and using words like “kill” to describe how nocuous these side stories can be in specific film genres.

When a romance contained in a larger plot, especially one that is fast paced and action centric, is not handled properly, the audience will not invest in it and the movie can suffer because of it. Why, during the chaos of mutant life and the ever looming threat of Magneto, should we be bothered about Jean Grey’s yawn-inducing lust for Logan? Who cares?

An easy solution would be to dispose of these scenes of longing and love, but there are a great number of instances where it adds a layer of suspense and, if effective, can hold the attention of both male and female viewers (Han and Leia, anyone?). So if moviemakers want to do it right, and if The Notebook isn’t the only movie that makes you gag on Valentine’s Day chocolates, never fear. Here are a few ways to salvage the romantic subplot.

Make the female lead interesting and part of the story

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As a general rule, all of the main characters in a film or any other body of fiction should be well rounded and multidimensional. Goes without saying, right? Well, when a love story is thrown into the hustle and bustle of an action movie, sometimes sacrifices are made. And by sacrifices, I mean an attractive woman appears when it is obvious that the entire movie could survive without her.

Besides the fact that Megan Fox’s character in Transformers has a random affinity for mechanics, her role on the main arc of the plot was limited and unnecessary. If a moviegoer were asked to describe Mikaela, most likely the first thing to come to mind is the phrase, “love interest”.

The aforementioned Jean Grey of X-Men is a textbook example of a female character who falls flat in a setting with so much potential. Strictly speaking of the films, she failed to match up to Logan’s intensity and personality, so any romantic tension between them was unsatisfactory. What Mikaela lacks in relevance, Grey lacks in appeal.

Princess Leia, however, embodies a fully developed heroine and an essential element to the Star Wars saga. If she was taken out of the equation, the films would be altered dramatically in relation to both the plot and the level of enjoyment.

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Does the leading lady always have to be handy with a gun or a sword? No. But a personality and a reason for existing in a movie can’t be too much to ask for.   

Be mindful of the dialogue

Any film with any semblance of romance has the predilection to get carried away with the flowery or just plain goofy sentiments of devotion. If that is paired with the cheesiness of action movie one-liners, the results are often disastrous.

Pretty much any exchange between Padmé and Anakin would qualify here. And so would this gem of a declaration from Neo in The Matrix Reloaded: “I’m not letting go. I can’t. I love you too damn much.” Just think about Keanu Reeves saying that. It is the sci-fi equivalent of, “You complete me.”

Sure, these quotes are hilarious, but when we are already so close to not caring about their predictable love stories, one bad line will have many audience members rolling their eyes and squirming in their seats. 

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The more discreet, the better

The intensity of love (or blossoming love, which is on many occasions more interesting) two characters have for one another obviously needs to be expressed to the audience. But dragging our focus to every stolen glance or every little quarrel they have makes their story less intriguing and more distracting. Subtlety is key to keeping a romantic subplot entertaining.

In The Lord Of The Rings, there were quite a few scenes of Arwen wasting away in bed, waiting for Aragorn to come home and pondering over their eventual fate. While much of this is important and cinematically beautiful, it could have been summed up in fewer bits. I found myself getting impatient during those parts and wondering what Frodo and Sam were doing. Maybe I was the only one not swept up in the epic drama of it all, but as the story progressed, I couldn’t avoid how their romance began to feel a bit forced within the sequence of events.

And, of course, there are the hackneyed romance storylines like the divorced couple who pick inappropriate times to bicker about why they “didn’t work” (Independence Day), the untrusting free spirit and the stranger trying to gain his/her acceptance (Avatar), or the pair who essentially want the same thing but continue to argue for our amusement (Star Trek).

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All of these might be overdone, but what slams the nail in the coffin is the repetition and the need to keep reminding the audience during the movie that their love, no matter how strained and troubled, will endure. And interrupt any and all interesting moments in the film.

Dial it down a bit, keep it subtle, and maybe we won’t get sick of these characters and their relationship issues before the closing credits. Although I could never be mad at Spock and Kirk. They’re just too adorable. 

Tone down the bimbo factor

Excuse me for returning to a certain well, but it replenishes with material so delightfully apropos to this piece. We all understand why Megan Fox is prancing around in low cut shirts in the Transformers franchise, much like we are accepting of dozens of other bombshells squeezing into the same skimpy uniform. And even though a sizeable portion of the movie-going population doesn’t see this aspect of many blockbusters as a big yawn, I’m going to confess that the unnecessarily revealing outfits on unrealistically attractive women brandishing guns can often read as more awkward than sexy. And never romantic.

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She becomes more of a catch than a participant in an amorous relationship. This is also true in the reverse, if a ripped, impossibly good looking man is the prey in this formula. It is, without a doubt, more difficult to develop an air or attitude that exudes sexiness and beauty, and for that reason, among many obvious others, I don’t see this trend going away any time soon. 

A connection between two people has the potential to be just as exciting as any other part of a film, but those can be rare occasions. Just like true love, fictional love only works when all parties involved are willing to commit. If that’s not the case for a particular action movie, then just drop the romantic subplot altogether and add a few more explosions.

At the end of the day, I just hope I provided a fun drinking game to play while wading through the sappy segments of beloved (and not so beloved) action films in lieu of sitting through a bevy of romantic comedies on this and many other Valentine’s Days. 

For more from Nina, check out her blog at Perks of Quirk or follow her on Twitter.