When the Entire World is Always at Stake

By  · Published on August 6th, 2015

Everyone seemed pleasantly surprised when the largest thing at stake in Ant-Man was Scott Lang’s family. Granted, had he failed to beat up Obadiah Stane Lite, the VP for Acquisitions for HYDRA would have gotten a powerful new weapon in the fight against decency, but it’s not like losing the battle would have meant the imminent destruction of the entire world. You know, like what usually happens.

The rise of earth-killing stakes in blockbuster films can easily be seen in correlation to the popularity of superhero movies ‐ humanoid gods demand a larger playing field for their ballgame, after all ‐ but it feels like this summer may have been a trigger point for fans growing weary of the same, high, impersonal stakes in a long decade of peril.

Star Wars franchise and Book of Eli screenwriter Gary Whitta recently attacked this pattern in blockbuster thinking by quoting, who else, Joseph Stalin, who claimed that “a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” It’s not that we can’t connect to a story about the impending end of the earth (whether by insectoid aliens, Bond-hating mad men, or Shakespeare-quoting demi-Gods with a stolen jewel and a borrowed army), but that we don’t process stakes the same way when we’re confronted with overwhelming numbers. What’s more, if a movie’s job is to get us to care what happens to the characters, putting the planet at risk is a cheat code that doesn’t even work that well.

Whitta’s money quote:

“This is a lesson Hollywood still largely needs to learn. The fallacious idea that the bigger the action is, the more we’ll invest needs to go away. It’s sad to say, but Die Hard would not get made today in its current form. ‘Too small,’ the executives would say. ‘What if the terrorists had nuclear bombs planted all over Los Angeles?’ they’d helpfully suggest, as if that somehow is more potent than the simple story of John McClane, an everyman we like and care about, trying to survive against impossible odds while coming to realize that he needs to make things right with his estranged wife. Ditto Jurassic Park. ‘So these dinosaurs are just on one little island that’s mostly deserted? How can we make this BIGGER?’ Well, we just saw the answer with Jurassic World, a film that’s inferior to the original despite its far greater scale.”

Evoking Die Hard works wonder because we have actually seen the (d)evolution of its protagonist from heroic cowboy saving his wife and a dozen coworkers to indestructible superhero saving the world.

Unfortunately, the lesson Whitta points out is also one Hollywood isn’t likely to learn anytime soon. Looking at the highest grossing movies of last year, you’ve got a slew of stories that place major cities or the world itself in harm’s way. The Hunger Games, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hobbit, Transformers: Age of Extinction, et al.

There are also films like Inside Out and The LEGO Movie that put a vibrant, imaginary/internal world at stake, benefiting from the flashy exciting that can bring, while allowing the real story (a young girl struggling with a new town, a young boy getting in trouble with his restrictive father) to earn personal stakes.

Then there are movies where the world isn’t directly in danger, but a slippery slope is heavily implied. If Scott Lang had failed, HYDRA could have created an army of tiny soldiers, and where would we be then? If the Chitauri conquer NYC and kill The Avengers, it’s pretty much global enslavement by Tuesday, right?

Meanwhile, movies like Ant-Man and Mad Max: Fury Road feel almost revolutionary because of the small stakes masquerading in a franchise action fest.

Consider a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, which is a bizarre artifact where the world is threatened by really, really, really lethal aliens, but Christopher McQuarrie and The Butterworth’s script makes us care more about Cage succeeding simply so that the poor bastard can get a win. Yes, we want the earth to keep spinning, but the story is fantastically narrow in its focus on him failing (as opposed to the earth being destroyed). You don’t want him to beat the aliens so the world will get saved, you want him to beat the aliens because, hasn’t the poor sucker been through enough already?

By making the stakes as high as they’ll go, movies have permission to be as broad as they want with all other aspects. They can cram runtimes with action sequences at will because truncated character development doesn’t matter as much. Liking the characters becomes a matter of snappy dialogue and charisma tucked in five-minute chunks between the next battle sequence. Age of Ultron was a vicious exploiter of that formula with an egregious amount of prolonged fight scenes, but it also benefited from a dozen earlier movies that set up all the heroes we liked. None of them truly change, so let the half-hour destruction commence.

Plus, Joss Whedon and company were still smart enough to give us avatars for the end of the world. They probably listened to Stalin, too.

In Avengers, it’s the waitress and busload of people Captain America saves (as well as the personal sacrifice of Tony Stark); in Age of Ultron, he uses Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as residents/stand-ins for Sokovia (a town about to become a homemade asteroid) as well as an unnamed mother and child who get a lot of camera time to remind us that all the little CGI dots running around in the wide shots are really flesh and blood people just like us. People we should care about. Not statistics.

Massive stakes also go hand in hand with the sheer density of plots in most modern blockbusters. Studios have gotten really good at delivering movies that astonish as long as the theater lights are down and we don’t think too much about the mechanics later on in the parking lot. Even Ant-Man with its relatively low stakes followed the pattern of leaving a laundry list of significant, plot-rending questions in its wake.

Recently, both Pacific Rim screenwriter Travis Beacham and Rogue Nation screenwriter Drew Pearce explained the structural problem inherent in achieving everything studio blockbusters want to achieve (with Guardian writer Phil Hoad shrewdly extrapolating from their comments).

The main culprit is interconnectivity (or at least the dedication to making interconnectivity obvious), but there’s also a frantic desperation to tap dance as fast as possible to keep people from yawning or walking out. Razzle dazzle ’em, and all that. Which is slightly absurd because, as Beacham points out, people rarely walk out of movies. It boils down to the comparative ease of keeping an audience engaged with loud noises and bombastic imagery instead of hoping that they’ll connect to the human being on screen.

Beacham also turned to Jurassic World to make the point:

“It’s a very literal complexity, it’s not an emotional complexity. It’s very point A to point B, we have to get the talisman to stop Dr. Whatever from raising an army. Very pragmatic stuff that doesn’t leave a lot of room for character.

“In [Jurassic Park], there’s only a handful of major sequences: the T-rex attack in the rain, the velociraptors in the kitchen. But because there are so few, you can really spend some time with them, and let them unfold. The latest one is this wall-to-wall sequence of events, and there’s not a lot of suspense.”

Keeping us occupied with spectacle and using the ultimate consequence are inextricable from one another. If you’re fighting to save the world, there are going to be some big battles, and if you need a lot of big battles, you need to have the world hang in the balance.

The problem is that high stakes don’t equal high emotional attachment, which is why we can walk out of Age of Ultron saying, “Okay. Let’s go get pizza,” and why we can walk out of The Look of Silence with our hearts still barely beating on the theater floor. If a movie can make us feel for a character, we will care profoundly about him reconnecting with his father before dying, or her winning the spelling bee, or them realizing they’re in love. No looming annihilation required.

Studios, for the time being, are not interested in any of that for their biggest projects. They’re interested in Dr. Whatever and his army, so expect to yawn at the entire planet being in danger several times a year for the foreseeable future.

Update: Larry Wright from Refocused Media reminded me of this 2013 Vulture piece where Damon Lindelof laments the same situation, saying:

Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world, and when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world ‐ you are very limited in terms of how you execute that. And in many ways, you can become a slave to it and, again, I make no excuses, I’m just saying you kind of have to start there.

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