Between deadlines, travel and wedding plans, I haven’t had the chance to blog about this first batch of summer movies, and more importantly, What We Can Learn. So before I get any further behind, let’s pick three of the most notable films to date.
(Mild spoiler warnings throughout.)
Heroes are more important than villains
Iron Man spent 85% of its storytelling energy on Tony Stark. It had the requisite set pieces, all of which were well-staged, but for an action movie it didn’t really break new ground. Where it succeeded was in creating a funny, flawed hero who propelled the story by his own ambitions. He wasn’t just responding to outside threats.
Did the villain get short-changed? Yes — to the degree that his motivations didn’t really make sense. Did it matter? Not much. In order to better establish the villain, we would have needed to spend more time away from Stark, which would have been counter-productive.
The lesson: There’s no equal-time rule for antagonists.
Leo ex machina
Price Caspian featured a terrific and surprising defeat at the movie’s mid-point, which gave me hope that the movie would transcend its kid-lit roots. But when another lengthy battle sequence1 also ended on the south side of success, my worst fears were confirmed: the fricken lion suddenly showed up to save them. And teach them humility. Or something.
Yes, I know: it’s a Christian parable. But that doesn’t make it any less maddening. If it weren’t based on a famous book, no screenwriter would ever get away with that ending.
The lesson: Let your heroes succeed or fail on their own merits.2
Why is he doing that?
I don’t want to pile on the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hate-parade. But beyond the tonal issues, I was often at a loss to say why Indy was doing what he was doing. Is he trying to take the crystal skull to the cave, or keep it out of the cave? Does he think Mac is a traitor, an ally, or not really care one way or the other? (Sadly, I think the last option is probably correct.)
It’s this kind of granular motivation I’ve written about before. It’s not psychoanalysis. It’s making sure the audience understands what’s happening in any given moment, so they can anticipate what might happen next. Without this ability to anticipate, the audience is just flung around helplessly, wondering why the great Indiana Jones is just standing there watching special effects.
The lesson: Every scene, every moment, ask the question: What is my hero doing, and why? If it’s not obvious, stop and rethink it.